A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
When Melissa Taylor, executive director of Reno Little Theater, saw local actor/comedian Ian Sorensen perform for the first time, she became single-minded. With an upcoming production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on her mind, she strode right up to Sorensen and told him he had to be her Pseudolus, the lead in the Sondheim musical.
“I told him, ‘You’re the only one I want to even consider for this,'” recalled Taylor.
After catching a sneak preview before the show opened last week, I congratulate Taylor for this master stroke of casting. Sorensen, a local improv player for years with the Utility Players and the Comedy Collective, is a genius with a cocked brow, a deadpan expression or a well-timed glance to the audience. He has infinite and natural comedic resources and no fear of physical comedy—essential for this most beloved and silliest of roles.
Drawing upon the basic plot of Plautus’s ancient Roman play Pseudolus, Sondheim (thankfully) adds vaudeville and farce to the mix, with plenty of bawdy humor, slamming of doors, men hiding in women’s clothing, mistaken identities, exploitation of the upper class, and great song-and-dance numbers.
Pseudolus is the most cunning of slaves, far cleverer than his masters, Senex (Kirk Gardner) and Domina (Amy Gianos). When Senex and Domina leave on a trip to the country, they leave Pseudolus in charge of their adolescent son, Hero (Jared Lively). Hero confides to Pseudolus that he has fallen in love with the young woman he has seen in the window of the nearby house of ill repute, the House of Lycus—for all intents and purposes, a brothel. Hero confesses he would do anything to be with her. Wily Pseudolus, without missing a beat, strikes a bargain: He’ll get the girl for Hero, and Hero can reward him with freedom.
But there’s a wrinkle in this plan. Philia (Elise van Dyne), the young lady in the window, has already been sold to the virgin-seeking Roman warrior Miles Gloriosus (Jeff Chamberlin). Pseudolus concocts a plan to hide the virgin Philia away from Gloriosus. But things grow more and more complicated as others get involved, from Marcus Lycus (Scott House), the man who brokered the deal to sell Philia; to Hysterium (Erich Goldstein), the skittish slave Senex left in charge of the others in his absence; to Senex himself, who stumbles upon Philia in his house and takes a fancy to her.
What follows is delightfully fun, madcap nonsense, and as layer upon layer of deception is necessarily piled upon him, Pseudolus rolls with the punches, unfazed and utterly cool while delivering his next pack of lies.
In a role played memorably by Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, Sorensen makes the role his own, giving Pseudolus a craftier, less clownish persona that’s enjoyable every minute he’s onstage.
The entire ensemble of nearly 20 performers keeps this two-and-a-half-hour show from ever having a dull moment, thanks to Sondheim’s marvelous writing and well-choreographed scenes in which characters lob dialogue like tennis pros. Though not every volley may squarely hit its target, the score is quite high in their favor.
Like its opening song boasts, this charming comedy features something appealing, something appalling … something for everyone.