Stoneham Theatre Delivers Hilarious ‘A Funny Thing…’ (4.5 Stars)

‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ – Book by by Bert Shevelove and Larry Gelbart; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Directed by Weylin Symes and Ilyse Robbins; Scenic Design by Matt Lazure; Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito; Sound Design by John Stone; Lighting Design by Chris Fournier; Presented by Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham, MA through October 4th.

It’s a double-edged Roman sword that cuts both ways when a theater company decides to stage a “can’t miss” musical comedy like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. On the one hand, they hitch their star to a proven and very funny vehicle that has the potential to be a great show. But on the other they have to know it will inevitably be compared to the many successful productions of “Forum” that have come before it. Stoneham Theatre took on the challenge and succeeded admirably. This is a fun, laugh-filled burlesque-style musical you should not miss!

This production opens Stoneham Theater’s 16th season and shows the consistently good judgement of the folks there who always manage to find a worthwhile project and make it their own. Producing Director Weylin Symes saw it was time for some Sondheim, and “Forum feels…a bit neglected,” he said. Co-director and choreographer of “A Funny Thing…” Ilyse Robbins also produced the wonderful Stoneham Theatre version of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” last year. Like this production, it’s a book that went from play to 60’s film success and was a high point of Stoneham Theatre’s previous season. Many of the “A Funny Thing…” cast members were featured in “How To Succeed”.

I found myself making comparisons to one of the funniest movies I have ever seen, the 1966 adaptation of the play that included many of the original Broadway cast members. You may find yourself harking back to the 1996 revival, or the 1972 version, or even (for you old-timers), the original 1962 Broadway run. Talk about tried and true – ALL of these versions have won Tony Awards in their day.

Neil A. Casey has the centerpiece role of Pseudolus, the slave who longs for his freedom and will do whatever unsavory lying and cheating it takes to be free (the original role was performed by the legendary Zero Mostel). His was the performance that made the movie so funny, and so for me this was the part I could not help but draw comparison to. Mr. Casey made the part his own, but I thought I saw nods to the original from time to time. In short, Casey nailed it. His energy forced you to follow him around (and around) the stage and the rest of the cast worked hard to “bring it” with loads of verbal and physical enthusiasm of their own. I would have loved to see more of Mostel’s conniving, cringing hand-wringing but that wouldn’t be true to Casey, and his Pseudolus was deliciously devious in his own right.

Someone who fared well in comparison to the movie was Jordan Ahnquist as Hero, the lovelorn lad and owner of Pseudolus’ servitude. In the movie version Michael Crawford played Hero with such a quiet lack of passion that it was hard to imagine he possessed the fire to be so smitten with even the beautiful Philia, concubine and neighbor. Ahnquist however, cannot afford to downplay the role when surrounded by such high energy cast and direction. He is at once enthusiastic, doltish and lovable as the naive virgin who is experiencing his first crush. It is his misfortune that the object of his desire is a virgin concubine already betrothed to the fiercest and most egotistical warrior in the Roman Empire. Mark Linehan plays the brash warrior Miles Gloriosus, another actor whose interpretation I preferred over the movie version. Linehan exchanges some of the original bluster for more, Monty Pythonesque-humor while retaining the over-the-top ego.

Devin Bean plays the beautiful love interest Philia, and it is nice to see she is a product of the Stoneham Theater Young Company program that is teaching the craft to local youth. Only a senior in high school, Devin is already an experienced actor who handles the role ably in the mayhem that swirls around her onstage.

One of the ways Stoneham Theater makes this production their own is in the casting choices. The part of Marcus Lycus is played by a woman, Liana Asim whereas in the movie it was memorably portrayed by Phil Silvers. The very funny Jenna Lea Scott does double duty as both Erronius and a Roman Guard. She managed to also do what the legendary Buster Keaton did in the movie, squeezing every last laugh out of a bit featuring her running seven times around the hills of Rome (or in this case the theater). She seems to have a natural comic timing that had me looking her way throughout the show.

John James Pirroni playing Hysterium steals a big chunk of the show when he dresses up in drag and plays a corpse and Kathy St. George is fabulous as Domina, doing a terrific job in her musical number. In addition, Nicholas Davis (Protean), Maria Larossa and Ceit M. Zweil (courtesans) and Chip Phillips as Senex all seem to be having a lot of fun and add to the laughter on stage.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is one of the funniest plays you will see. Don’t miss Stoneham Theatre’s take on this classic! For more info, go to: