A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Nevada City, CA 95959
The widely admired composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has a reputation for finding (and exulting in) the darker and more sophisticated side of musical theater, especially in comparison to some of the relentlessly cheerful shows by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, etc. Sondheim’s really mature shows—Sweeney Todd (1979), Into the Woods (1987), and A Little Night Music (1973), for example—display this tendency in spades.
But really, it’s also perfectly evident in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Written back in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was in the White House, and New York City was a (comparatively) optimistic place. What can you say about a musical set in ancient Roman times in which a clever slave (who’s desperately seeking freedom) is the star, and the family next door is quietly engaged in human trafficking in the form of an array of female flesh to delight even the most exotic of Roman appetites. They’ve got names like Vibrata and Gymnasia, as well as twins named The Geminae (why take one, when you can have both?).
Sondheim manages to present it all as lighthearted entertainment, and Sierra Stages has brought together a mix of talented youth and experienced (some professionally experienced) older performers. There’s a beautiful young sex-slave-in-waiting who is, of course, a virgin (Philia, played by Ellie Wyman) who draws the eye of the wholesome young man Hero (Dylan Hoi-Bianchi), who is determined to find a way to buy out her contract and marry her, even though he’s a teenager living at home with his parents.
There’s also Hero’s randy but aging father Senex (Ken Miele, who spent nine seasons with the TV series Shining Time Station), and Hero’s manipulative, high-powered mom Domina (Trish Adair, a hoot in the part)—another example of Sondheim’s humorously gloomy take on middle-aged married couples, one of his favorite topics. There’s also an arrogant Roman military commander Miles Gloriosus (played with suitable self-admiration by J.R. Lewis); the nervous slave Hysterium (Paul Micsan); and the seller of sex slaves Lycus (affable Jeffrey Mason).
Stitching it all together is the resourceful older slave Psuedolus (Robert Rossman), who brings considerable energy and some lovely delivery of puns and jokes to the task.
Director Sandra Rockman and choreographer Dinah Smith work in a mix of dance steps and acrobatic tricks, making the old Nevada Theatre’s stage feel bigger than it really is, and be sure to read Rockman’s notes about the show’s history in the program book. Sharon Olson’s costumes include the requisite togas, as well as feathers and fur on the girls that are for sale.
The pit band, directed by Ken Getz, got off to a slightly uncertain start at the Sunday matinee, but came together admirably thereafter.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is also a show that hasn’t been overly exposed at the Music Circus in Sacramento. It was done twice in the old tent during the 1960s, and then twice in the new millennium, when the Music Circus belatedly began staging a few more Sondheim musicals—something that was long overdue. Music Circus shows run $42-$74 this summer; this Sierra Stages production is $25-$30, and while it is “smaller” all the way around, it nonetheless represents a solid entertainment value.