Revived by Good Company Players for the sixth time, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is one of the company’s signature shows. The title was the first one produced by GCP, opening at the Hilton Ballroom on June 26, 1973, and I’m guessing that few who were involved in that initial good-natured venture had any idea the company would become a Fresno theatrical institution and still be rolling along 40-plus years later.
If you know the back story, then, there’s a strong sense of nostalgia at work in the current “Forum,” and, taken in that context, the production is a treat. To watch Dan Pessano reenact the role of Pseudolus for go-around No. 6, relishing every sight gag and frantic burst of wordplay, is to experience a comic master at work. And to know that director Fred Bologna played one of the Proteans in the original cast is to bask in a bit of history — and, perhaps, have a deep reservoir of goodwill for the antics onstage, even those that don’t quite work.
If you don’t walk through the doors warmly wrapped up in nostalgia, however, you might not be as impressed. This production could feel a little musty to an outsider. With its 1960s sensibility, “Forum” is starting to feel more like a dated historical comedy than a contemporary piece. And while I’m sure it will tighten up during the run, I was disappointed on opening night that the show wasn’t as crisp or inspired as it could be.
The goofy “Forum,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, bounces along a comic boulevard in a cartoonish ancient Rome. David Pierce’s handsome set — perhaps too handsome for such a broad farce? — and Steven Allen’s lighting design recreates the three houses at the center of the tale, one of which is home to Pseudolus, the conniving slave who spends the show angling for his freedom. He figures his best shot is connecting his dippy master, Hero (a happily goofy Peter Allwine) with the woman he wants to marry, a forbidden courtesan named Philia (Dannah Lemon).
Along the way are all sorts of impediments to love and freedom, naturally, unleashed in a storyline chock full of sight gags, pratfalls, wild chases, cross-dressing, fake dead bodies and a gaggle of scantily clad courtesans. (Costumer Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s creations are a hoot.)
Roger Christensen is a standout as the booming Senex, the self-absorbed head of Psuedolus’ household. Jennifer Goettsch follows up her stellar GCP performance as Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein” with a spot-on portrayal of Domina, battle-axe wife of Senex.
And Gordon Moore milks every silly drop of his role as the befuddled slave Hysterium. When he and Pseudolus sing the reprise of the song “Lovely,” all comic cylinders are firing.
Still, there’s a certain creakiness to the show. The cast is very experienced — which, yes, is one way of saying that it skews older. Is the very talented Greg Ruud, in his 50s, too old to play the beefy Miles Gloriosus, the Roman captain who struts his way into the storyline? I’d say no — mostly. He pulls it off — mostly.
Is Pessano, in his 70s, too old to play Pseudolus, a character who in my mind I’ve always seen more as middle-aged? I won’t go that far because in the end, simply, Pessano is such a master thespian, and he’s reached legendary local status in this role. (It’s like a Carol Channing “Hello Dolly!” kind of thing.) And he gets the laughs. But there were moments in Pessano’s portrayal that made me stop to consider the question, and consider it hard, and that in itself affects the viewing of a show.
At the same time, I wanted more experience in the very important supporting roles of the Proteans (Chris Hanson, Sal Juarez, Timothy Rhodes and Shawn Williams), who actually do a lot of the show’s comic heavy lifting.
Bologna obviously has a great fondness for the material, and his wily staging is often first-rate. But some moments on opening night — for example, the silly song “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” (with its multiple encores) in the first act, and the wild chase scene near the end of the second — felt flat.
Overall, this “Forum” is a nice trip down Memory Lane. There would have been a certain wonderful symmetry in opining that the latest version of the first show GCP ever produced is one of its best. I can’t do that. But it still offers more than a few things to tickle your funny bone.