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HATCHING HILARITY: Stephen Sondheim’s ‘A Funny Thing…’ incites many grins and cackles

The cast is on fire with comedy and infectious joy in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Sondheim, Shevelove and Gelbert would be proud.

SONDHEIM SLINGERS: (L. to r., standing) Curtis Campbell as Senex, Christopher Ricker as Miles Gloriosus, Tammy Sue Daniels as Gymnasia, Kim Ewonus as Erronius, Arianna Torello as Philia, Paul Teal as Hero. Front row: Brad Mercier as Hysterium, Jim Bowling as Marcus Lycus, and Troy Rudeseal as Pseudolus. Photo by Erik Maasch

Opera House Theatre Company closes their 30th anniversary season with Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” on the Main Stage of Thalian Hall. With the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart—and Zero Mostel as the lead in the original Broadway run and subsequent film—it has been a crowd-pleaser since the curtain opened on the Broadway debut in 1962.

NAILED IT! Jim Bowling as Marcus Lycus and Troy Rudeseal as Pseudolus provide lots of laughs. Photo by Erik Maasch

NAILED IT! Jim Bowling as Marcus Lycus and Troy Rudeseal as Pseudolus provide lots of laughs. Photo by Erik Maasch

Quite frankly, “A Funny Thing…” is one of my all-time favorite shows (a high point of my life to date was seeing Nathan Lane in its Broadway revival). So, when Opera House announced it as part of their season, I squealed with excitement and anticipation. Based on the farces of Plautus, “A Funny Thing…” follows the misadventures of a quiet Roman neighborhood. At the center of the action, we have the house of Senex (Curtis Campbell) a disappointed man married to a hadrian, Domina (Cindy Colucci). Together they have a (mostly) grown son, Hero (Paul Teal), who has fallen in love with a courtesan, Philia (Arianna Torello), housed next door in the house of Marcus Lycus (Jim Bowling).   While his parents are out of town, Hero and his slave, Pseudolus (Troy Rudeseal), hatch a plan to free Philia so Hero can marry her. It’s a pretty standard ploy: Mom and dad are gone; let’s get up to mischief. Of course mom and dad left a babysitter in charge: the chief slave, Hysterium (Brad Mercier).

Pseudolus and Hero go shopping at Lycus’ establishment to see if they can just buy Philia for Hero (because a straight-forward purchase makes much more sense). This is when we meet the Corteasans: Tintanabula (Beth Swindell), Panacea (Caitlin Becka), Vibrata (Cameron Corbett), and Gymnasia (Tammy Sue Daniels). Between five stunning women is every man’s fantasy of fulfillment. Welcome to “The House of Marcus Lycus”—one of the most famous numbers in the show. An array of beautiful women are paraded about for the audience’s enjoyment.

Of course, the purchase will not work because Philia already has been sold to a Roman captain, Miles Gloriosus (Christopher Rickert)—and he is on his way to collect her. In order to win his freedom and get the boy and the girl together, Pseudolus hatches a wild plan … and so the fun begins. Both enabled and hindered by Hysterium and the Proteans (Jason Aycock, Anna Gamel, and Michael Robinson), who play all of the rest of the characters between them—eunuchs, soldiers, neighbors and more—the shenanigans get more and more crazy.  Then, just to add more confusion, a next-door neighbor unexpectedly comes home from his travels (Kim Ewonus).

From the opening lines of “Comedy Tonight,” it is clear that Troy Rudeseal is having a blast playing Pseudolus. Before he even gets to sing, he has to battle the spotlights to even be noticed. The lyrics are funny, fast-paced tounge-twisters and deliver a lot of information. Rudeseal keeps craking himself up with joy at the jokes (think Red Skelton). However, audiences shouldn’t be mistaken by the pretty music; it is Sondheim, after all. Though, it sounds great, it is tough to sing.

Rudeseal does some pretty heavy lifting to move this show along: He narrates, orchestrates and finagles to make it all work. He must be exhausted by the end of the night from the running, dancing, singing, shouting, laughing, and expending copious amounts of energy in only two hours (it’s more than I do in an average week). His good-natured guile is endearing, sweet and entertaining. Does he paly Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane? No, he does not. He makes the role his own and, in the meantime, he finds some different laughs for Psudelous than we might remember from the film.

Teal and Torello as Hero and Philia are just so blonde, perfect and sweet it is almost hard to believe. That they could both be as naive as they are, surrounded by the earthy, indulgent world is refreshing. One just can’t help but root for them. Though they both sing “Lovely,” the hymn to Phillia’s beauty and stupidity, in divine harmony, it is actually the reprise of the song in act two with Psudelous and Hysterium that is my favorite rendition. In that foil lies the beauty of the show: The farce only works if it is played so straight that it seems over the top. Could anyone possibly be as dumb as Hero and Philia? Could anyone be as conniving and ridiculous as Pseduolous and Hysterium? Only if the answer to the first question is ‘yes’ does it work for the second.

Mercier as Hysterium has taken the opposite road from Psedulous: Rather than rebellion, he kisses up to his owners to make life a little smoother. Nose in the air, finger pointed in accusation, Mercier’s sense of self preservation is only matched by his sense of being put upon—by everyone— but Psedulous in particular.

Terry Collins has designed a very detailed, functional set for this endeavor. Anyone familiar with the film will not how it looks like a cartoon version of the street scene. It is wonderfully in the spirit of the show, which essentially is burlesque entertainment. Juli Harvey’s costumes are fun and fanciful. Watching Teal run around in that short tunic could entertain by itself, but it is the Corteasan’s costumes that are the most eye-catching, especially the full peacock ensemble for Vibrata.

There are so many solid reasons to go see this show, but they all boil down to this: It’s great work—from writing, to direction, to performance. It is a fun, funny, wonderful evening that is guaranteed to make audiences laugh and grin.

If you don’t leave humming “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” you missed out and should buy another ticket. The cast is on fire with comedy and infectious joy. Sondheim, Shevelove and Gelbert would be proud.

DETAILS:
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Sept. 11-13; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $29 • www.thalianhall.org

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