REVIEW: Lotsa Comedy Tonight at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company with 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum'

Cincinnati Shakespeare’s rollicking production of this Sondheim classic is excess in abundance

click to enlarge "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" runs through Sept. 29. - Mikki Schaffner Photography
Mikki Schaffner Photography
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" runs through Sept. 29.

Known for classic works, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has finally gotten around to a musical, producing Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, to launch its 25th season.

The show qualifies as a classic twice over: In 1962 it was Sondheim’s first opportunity to create both music and lyrics at age 32. (He previously wrote lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy.) A memorable start for a legendary career, this show ran longer than any other Sondheim original production (964 performances). Now 56 years old, Forum definitely qualifies as a classic hit.

But there’s more. Forum’s nonstop hilarity is rooted in the comedies of Plautus, written for third-century B.C. audiences in ancient Rome. The Neil Simon of his day, he cranked out more than 100 plays. Sondheim’s co-writers, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, assembled a comic masterpiece by carefully stitching together several of Plautus’ comic tales, enhanced by Sondheim’s music.

The slave Pseudolus is Forum’s wily, joking narrator and central character, constantly working his way out of jams, usually of his own making. He hopes to win his freedom by helping his young master hook up with a love-at-first-sight virgin. There’s a major obstacle: She’s a courtesan-to-be, already purchased by an arrogant military commander, Miles Gloriosus.

Cincinnati Shakespeare’s rollicking production, staged by Brian Isaac Phillips, features Matthew Lewis Johnson as Pseudolus. Larger-than-life Zero Mostel originated the role. Nathan Lane won a Tony Award as Pseudolus in a 1996 revival. To play the part, an actor needs physical humor and quick verbal wit. Mugging, clowning and ad libbing are fundamental.

Johnson, a Cincy Shakes company member on and off for 14 seasons, excels at this kind of lunacy, and the company’s new theater space is perfectly configured for him to romp up and down the aisles, sit on laps and carry out numerous shenanigans. The script invites some of this, but a little can go a long way. Occasional restraint might have allowed fewer outbursts to be more humorous, but that’s not Johnson’s style.

Excess is rampant. On a street in front of three cartoonish Roman homes (scenic design by Shannon Roberts) something is constantly happening — punctuated occasionally by a suggestively spurting water fountain. As directed by Phillips, the production has a surplus of comic moments. Sara Clark, Geoffrey Warren Barnes II and Caitlin McWethy fill countless minor roles as slaves, pirates, eunuchs, soldiers and anyone else needed to round out a scene. They’re amusing, but we see them too frequently.

Too much of a good thing also happens in a lengthy scene introducing the courtesans from the House of Marcus Lycus (played with oily smarm by Darnell Pierre Benjamin); each gorgeous sex slave (costumed by Brian Horton) has a personalized dance routine (choreographed by University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s Vince DeGeorge). Although these are entertaining, the scene goes on and on. There is, however, a delirious interval when the Geminae Twins (Leslie Goddard and Kate Stark) tap dance from entrance to exit.

This is not to say that the audience grew weary of Forum’s nonstop hilarity. Jeremy Dubin as the tightly wound chief slave Hysterium is constantly amusing, especially with the comic song “I’m Calm.” He’s anything but. The show’s naïve romantic virgins, Hero (Kelcey Steele) and Philia (Courtney Lucien), sweetly sing several Sondheim love songs, including “Love, I Hear” and “Lovely.”

Hero’s parents, over-the-hill Senex (Jim Hopkins) and his controlling wife Domina (Kelly Mengelkoch; her “That Dirty Old Man” number is a classic) have comic moments that keep the humor flowing. Recent CCM grad Gabe Wrobel is the towering, arrogant soldier, but he needs to be more fearsome. Veteran actor Joneal Joplin (he was Scrooge for many years at the Playhouse) is Erronius, a doddering old fool who has a small but key role in sorting out the confusion that finishes the pandemonium.

From the first notes of Forum’s jaunty overture (Erin McCamley conducts the nine-musician orchestra), we’re reminded that it’s “comedy tonight.” Chaotic, with more laughs per minute than are truly required—that’s what Cincy Shakes is delivering.

 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine), continues through September 29. Tickets/more info: cincyshakes.com.