A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

I can't really imagine this hoary old Broadway musical being done better than it is by the Denver Center Theatre Company — but part of me can't imagine why anyone would bother doing it at all. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a cartoon of a show set in ancient Rome, inspired by Plautus, and with an overlay of Borscht Belt humor. The show's slaves, eunuchs, courtesans, dumb and/or lascivious old men, requisite battle-ax of a wife and dopey ingenue couple are depicted in the flattened, brightly colored strokes we associate with the early '60s, when writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and musician-songwriter Stephen Sondheim created this musical. Think Mary Quant, the Beatles, Peter Max, Barbarella and The Pink Panther. And while you're at it, think sight gags, double takes, mugging, a man in pink drag, insanely outlandish costumes and a dash of French farce.

Pseudolus is a slave who longs for his freedom. When his master, Hero, falls in love with a beautiful young courtesan he's spied through the window of the neighboring brothel, Pseudolus sees his chance. He will acquire the lovely Philia for Hero in exchange for freedom. But Philia — a virgin — is waiting to be claimed by the gallant captain who's already bought her. And Hero's parents, Senex and Domina (the names are self-explanatory), come back sequentially to gum up the works. Neighbor Erronius, who has been on a quest to find the children who were stolen in infancy by pirates, pops up periodically, too. A group of Proteans are called on to represent soldiers or eunuchs as needed, and each of the whorehouse's young women embodies a specific sexy stereotype of the era: twins; a hissing-purring catwoman; a ponytailed comic-book superwoman; and a statuesque goddess. Though the plot seems episodic at first, it's tightly constructed; every element from the lost children's identifying rings to the sequence in which characters fly in and out of doors clicks tightly into place by the end.

The first-rate cast is obviously having a great time, and there's not a weak link in it. Even the nameless Proteans, played by Tim Hausmann, Ivory McKay, Mickey Toogood and the lithe Terry Lavell, are differentiated, each hilariously funny in his own individual way. David Ivers is a stitch as the head household slave Hysterium, whose signature song is "I'm Calm." Mark Hartman does yeoman work as horny old Senex, and Ron Orbach's Pseudolus radiates good humor, holding everything solidly together. Hero could be a pretty empty role, but Anderson Davis, alternately blissful, gape-mouthed or uttering grizzling childish cries, grabs attention — although Christine Rowan plays Philia exactly as you'd expect. Philip Pleasants's wandering Erronius brings the house down, and Glenn Lawrence is glossily and gloriously in love with himself as Philia's captain, Miles Gloriosus. Kathleen M. Brady is back as Domina; we've been missing her desperately over the last year or so, when she's been consigned to marginal roles when cast at all. Here she reminds us of what we've been missing, inhabiting the standard-issue role of shrew with such vitality and humor that you can't imagine why the male characters would prefer a mushy little ingenue to her. She's also singing out, rich and full-throated — and who knew Brady, queen of comic and dramatic roles, could even sing at all?

Of course, Forum is sexist, its jokes dated and of the "Take my wife, please..." variety. But if the women are the butt of jokes, in director Bruce Sevy's vision, maleness is almost a joke in itself, as soldiers primp and pose and Gloriosus appears in a gleaming and slightly epicene white-and-gold costume. Vicki Smith's set design is an asset, with little red-roofed houses tumbling behind the symmetrical row of building facades in the forefront. Choreographer Gina Cerimele-Mechley's work is bright and tight, especially in the satiric Funeral Sequence. The music isn't Sondheim at his most inspired, but the rollicking songs are clever and do what they're supposed to do.

This production represents a new collaboration between the Denver Center Theatre Company and Denver Center Attractions, which brings touring shows to town. It's clearly an attempt to attract elements of the audience that throng the Buell for the big musicals; in turn, Denver Center actors will appear in this year's White Christmas at the Buell. Eventually, artistic director Kent Thompson hopes to put Denver on the map by developing Broadway-bound musicals here. The Stage is a better venue for musicals than the Buell — more intimate, and with cleaner sound — and puts the focus more on the actors than on empty technical wizardry. But while Forum makes a mildly enjoyable evening — especially enjoyable, I'd imagine, after a good dinner and a glass of wine — I'd love to have seen the ingenuity and talent that went into it applied to something more interesting.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman