A classic example of good intentions marred by a lack of acting resources, Off Broadway Theatre’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is an uneven, but ultimately well-executed and good-hearted, musical farce.
It’s ancient Rome, and scheming slave Pseudolus (Eric Jensen) wants his freedom and will do anything to get it. His master, naive teen-ager Hero (Shawn Zumbrunnen), wants the beautiful woman he’s seen next door at the local brides-for-sale shop and will do anything to get her. He promises Pseudolus his freedom if he can get the woman for her.
Pseudolus, working behind the back of his more conscientious fellow slave Hysterium (Robert Bogue), lies and connives the courtesan, Philia (Michelle Egli), from the owner of the harem, one Marcus Lycus (Bob Bedore). This is a problem only when the girl’s rightful owner, greasy warrior Miles Gloriosus (Paul W. Draper), shows up.
Things get downright complicated from there, with Hero’s parents, lecherous Senex (Zac Zumbrunnen) and icy Domina (Kathleen Richardson) getting involved and the whole thing falling into a funny, farcical mess. There are mistaken identities, well-timed entrances and exits, and, that old staple, men dressed as women.
Jensen contributes much to the show. His Pseudolus is reminiscent of Bugs Bunny: fast-talking (sometimes too fast) and always in control of the bad guys, staying one step ahead of the frantic chaos pursuing him. Jensen is a fine comic actor, managing to milk a scene for its laughs without getting tiresome and without over-acting.
That skill of not over-acting is an important one, especially in a farce, where the tendency is to smack the audience in the face with your wackiness. Unfortunately, it is not a skill shared by the entire cast. Some of the supporting players — particularly one of Lycus’s eunuchs, whose name is not given in the program — practically scream “LOOK HOW FUNNY I AM!” with their mugging and prancing. Others occasionally fall into the same trap.
Richardson, while playing a minor role, is a stand-out as Domina, particularly in her “Dirty Old Man” number. Bogue’s Hysterium is a stressed-out basket case, and a very funny one. He generally improves any scene he’s in.
Shawn Zumbrunnen is appropriately handsome and earnest as the goofy-eyed Hero, and Egli is indeed “Lovely,” as the song says, as Philia.
The theater lacks a sound system; if you go, get seats as close to the front as possible.
The supporting cast is uneven, with some good moments here and there, and some embarrassing ones elsewhere. Sometimes the show seems only slightly above high-school theater level; other times, you see some sharp, professional comedy.
This has been one of my favorite shows ever since I saw a production of it at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) when I was in high school. In fact, I saw that production twice, so impressed was I with it. The Off Broadway Theatre's version was not as good, alas, but does anything ever really live up to your expectations? I mean, really.