Opinion: ‘Forum’ Delivers

You will laugh until you beg for mercy, and then you will laugh some more
Peter Scolari, at left, barely manages to reject the charms of the Geminae Twins, Shiloh Goodin and Phoebe Pearl, as the buyer and seller of courtesans, Laurent Giroux, looks on. Lenny Stucker

    The Bay Street Theatre has saved its best for last, as it completes its excellent three-show main stage 2013 season with a hilarious production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” playing through Sept. 2.
    This production of “Forum,” directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, takes no prisoners. You will laugh until you beg for mercy, and then you will laugh some more.
    Technically a musical comedy, “Forum” is, in truth, a comedy with music. The book-heavy show written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove is a vehicle for comedians, and the company put together by Ms. Dodge delivers perfect timing, with the resulting laughs exploding through the theater.
    The show made its Broadway debut in 1962. We should all look so good at 51. Mr. Gelbart had developed his comedic chops writing for television in the frenetic days of the early 1950s. He was part of the team on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” arguably the most influential weekly comedy in television history.
    He went on to write the pilot for the 1970s hit television series “M*A*S*H,” writing and directing many of its episodes, and later wrote the screenplay for “Tootsie.”
    Mr. Shevelove, though not as well known, had a similar background.
    “Forum” is Borscht Belt comedy at its finest. You can imagine opening night in 1962, with the New York audiences eating it up.
    This slightly modernized, East-End-ized version works almost as well.
    It is set in ancient Rome, where the slave Pseudolus (Peter Scolari) yearns for freedom, while his master’s son, Hero (Nick Verina), yearns for Philia (Lora Lee Gayer), the virgin just brought into the brothel next door. Pseudolus makes a deal with Hero to be set free in exchange for delivering Philia, who has already been sold to a conquering general, Miles Gloriosus (Nathaniel Hackmann).
    The rest is not history, but rather, hysterical comedy.
    At a quick glance, the show might be viewed, in contemporary eyes, as misogynistic. After all, the female characters are either prostitutes, a beautiful but dim-witted virgin, or a nagging wife. But the male characters are such dolts, such absolute idiots, panting after anyone in a blonde wig, that the whole thing collapses into wonderful farce.
    While Mr. Scolari might seem to lack the gravitas one normally expects from the role (it was created on Broadway by Zero Mostel), he more than makes up for it with his wonderful sense of humor, taking great delight as he guides us through the farcical landscape of ancient Rome.
    Ms. Dodge did a superb job of casting the character actors that surround Mr. Scolari, starting with the oddball love interest created by Mr. Vernia and Ms. Gayer. Their duet, “Lovely,” very well staged by Ms. Dodge, is perfectly done, bringing laughter throughout and setting up an even more hilarious reprise in the second act between Pseudolus and Hysterium (Tom Deckman). Mr. Deckman is, indeed, hysterical, milking every laugh, without ever forcing the issue.
    Mr. Vernia has a beautiful tenor voice.
    This show is as well cast, musically, as it is acting-wise.
    The same can be said for the other character actors who grace the stage. Conrad John Schuck is too funny for words as the hen-pecked, leering Senex, with Jackie Hoffman as Domina, Senex’s wife, doing the pecking.
    Ms. Hoffman does so much with so little that she, at a couple of moments, comes close to stealing the show. She knows what she is doing, and she does it damn well.
    Ditto and likewise for Stewart Lane’s Erronius. As with the rest of the cast, he is very patient, knowing where the laughs are, and allowing them to roll out of the audience.
    And I can’t leave out Laurent Giroux’s wonderfully slimy Marcus Lycus, the buyer and seller of courtesans.
    All this sets up the arrival onstage toward the end of the first act of the vainglorious Miles Gloriosus, played by Mr. Hackmann — again, another piece of perfect casting. Mr. Hackmann plays the part like a Charlton Heston who can act.
    The courtesans are sexy, which is the whole idea. Shiloh Goodin, who is also listed as associate choreographer, and Phoebe Pearl are wonderful as the Geminae twins, and lead the entire group of courtesans in an uproarious sendup of Martha Graham in a funeral scene to die for.
     Terry Lavell gives us a long-legged Gymnasia, which is amazing, since, if truth be known, Ms. Lavell is . . . well, you’ll have to buy a ticket to find out.
    Glen Giron, Grant Haralson, and J. Morgan White, as the Proteans, really are the glue that holds the show together, stumbling, tumbling, and changing character at the drop of a dime, and the trio does all this and more, very well.
    The musical direction by Ethel Will, who leads a top-notch five-piece band, is pitch-perfect.
    Though the show is more of a comedy with music, it is, in the end, still a musical, and a very important one, historically.
    Stephen Sondheim, who had earlier written the lyrics for “West Side Story,” chafed when he wrote the lyrics for “Gypsy,” wanting, instead, to compose the music, as well. That job, however, went to Jule Styne.
    “Forum” marked Sondheim’s first time composing the score for the Broadway stage. We hear many influences: the “oompah” Jewish-Germanic backbone to so many American musicals in the show’s opening number, the brassy bump-and-grind sound of Jule Styne during the show-stopping “Everybody’s Got to Have a Maid,” and Leonard Bernstein in the song “Free.” Lyrically, “Free” is an homage to Mr. Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II.
    The lyrics of the opening number are prescient for the career of Sondheim. When he wrote the words “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight,” he could have been talking about his own brilliant future, a musical exploration into some of the darker corners of humanity, often driving the point home in a telling minor key.
    But all that is down the road from “Forum.” Here, his lyrics are a perfect match to the book, frequently being the comic straw that breaks the camel’s back, with laugh after laugh the result.
    Technically, “Forum” meets the high standard that the Bay Street Theatre has maintained in recent productions. Speaking of sets, the design here by Michael Schweikardt, paired with the lighting design by Mike Billings, allows Ms. Dodge and her players to maximize the space. Kathy Fabian never ceases to spring delightful surprises with her props, and the sound design by Tony Melfa is crisp and clean.
    And of course, as already mentioned, the musical direction by Ethel Will is superb. There is nothing better than to hear an overture begin, as it lays out promises of things to come, and then to have the orchestra deliver.
    You can have your tragedy tomorrow, but here is comedy, tonight.
    “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is playing through Sept. 1, with performances Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., and matinees Wednesdays at 2 and Saturdays at 4.