Two musicals that have already opened demonstrate that companies are not shying away from challenging material. While the Irish Classical Theatre Company opened a first-rate production of the serious but uplifting musical, A Man of No Importance, last week. This week, the Kavinoky Theatre weighs in with the lightweight but demanding Sondheim musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a classic farce set in classical antiquity. An early 1960s musical with early 1960s sensibilities, the show was a delicate brew, even for its original audiences, which didn’t know how to respond until the tone-setting opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” was famously added shortly before the Broadway opening.
The Playboy-era plot is simple and silly: Pseudolus, a slave, will do anything to win his freedom. He sees his opportunity when the master and mistress of the house go away for the weekend, leaving him in charge of their adolescent son, who will do anything for the love of a girl he has seen in the adjacent house…a brothel. Absurd ribaldry and sexist high jinks ensue.
Buffalo does not afford the luxury of out-of-town tryouts and six weeks of previews, so to say that the Kavinoky production will grow into itself with playing is not to slam it. Director Paul Todaro with choreographer Michelle Gigante has staged a production in which, on the opening night, nary a spontaneous moment occurred—not even at the hands of the famously funny Norm Sham who stars as Pseudolus. But a delightful structure is in place, and the production, handsomely designed by David King is endowed with a lavish abundance of comic and musical talent. It’s like a bottle of champagne just waiting to be uncorked, and with this show now in the hands of the performers, it is sure to loosen up, liven up and bloom into the achingly funny diversion it yearns to be.
At the opening, Sham gave a reserved but most agreeable performance, hitting his comic marks perfectly and negotiating the chaotic plot of the Burt Shevelove-Larry Gelbart script with great clarity and precision.
Watching Tom Loughlin as Senex, the long-suffering husband of a shrewish wife and the father of the aforementioned sexually adolescent boy, is like watching Fred Flintstone in a musical. He is delightfully out of place hoofing and singing with abandon as the lusty old goat struggles to sow what may be his very last oat.
Sheila McCarthy, long regarded to be both Buffalo’s best musical theater soprano and one of our best clowns too, nails Domina, the shrew, perfectly. Louis Colaiacovo is wonderful as Hysterium, the hysterical other slave. Joseph Demerly is charming and most engaging as their son, Hero. Rosie Mattia sings beautifully as Philia, the resident virgin at the whorehouse next door.
Tim Newell, a master of snide comedy, easily steals his every scene with a truly brilliant performance as Marcus Lycus, a seller of courtesans.
I was very impressed, as well, by the powerful
performance by Jeffrey Coyle as Miles Gloriosus, the arrogant Roman general.
His singing and comic abandon are equally impressive.
Jim Mohr is very good as the befuddled old man who holds the key to the plot’s improbable resolution. Robert J. Cooke, Marc Sacco and Joseph Wiens give athletic and perfectly ridiculous (in a nice way) performances as the ever eager Proteans. A bevy of girls give a memorable impression as a bevy of diverse courtesans.
With musical direction by Fran Landis, lighting by Brian Cavanagh, sound by Tom Makar and costumes by Jen S. Gurney, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is great fun.