The late, great Stephen Sondheim is best remembered for his boundary-busting musicals brimming with angst and ambivalence. But you would never guess that from the first Broadway show to feature both his music and lyrics, 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Sunny and silly, yet displaying early evidence of Sondheim’s verbal mastery and penchant for unexpected melodic progressions, it is that theatrical rarity — a musical comedy that is genuinely funny. As the show’s opening number promises, “Tragedy tomorrow” — his masterwork, Sweeney Todd, was still 17 years off in the future, though its roots can be traced to this frisky farce.
While Forum lacks the emotional complexity of Sondheim’s later work, that does not mean it is an easy show to pull off. But you would never sense the difficulty and precise timing required by the carefree, loose-limbed production directed with assurance by Jennifer Werner, now on view at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.
As you probably recall — Forum being Sondheim’s longest-running Broadway show and one of his most performed musicals to this day — it revolves around a cunning, crafty Roman slave named Pseudolus and his efforts to gain his freedom by helping his young master Hero woo the naïve, virginal courtesan next door. In a little over two hours, the show packs in multiple mistaken identities, a few alchemical potions, a bit of cross-dressing and lots of pure vaudeville schtick.
It all takes place in front of three houses — the residences of aging, but still randy Senex and the absent Erronius, abroad in search of his long-lost son and daughter, and the emporium of Marcus Lycus, a procurer of comely courtesans. The unit set by Adam Koch is strikingly painted in Crayola colors, and outfitted with slammable doors, a staple of farce.
Rarely does the book of a Sondheim musical rise to the ingenuity level of his score, but jokesmiths Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H, City of Angels) and Burt Shevelove (The Frogs) manage that feat. Their intricately constructed farce machine is based on the ancient plays of Plautus while their barrage of one-liners owes a debt to the Borscht Belt.
Presiding over this comic anarchy is chubby, baby-faced Scott Cote as Pseudolus, a perpetual motion machine who shamelessly ingratiates himself to the Maltz audience from the opening mirth-tone-setting number, “Comedy Tonight.” Chief among his second bananas is Jeremy Morse as nervous, gullible Hysterium, who makes a notably unattractive ingenue in the second act reprise of “Lovely,” a wacky highlight of the show.
Also assets are Andrew Sellon as Senex, Hero’s dad, and Paul Louis as lecherous Lycus. The show’s, and this production’s, best tangent occurs when all four lift their voices in praise of domestic help, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.”
Forum is definitely skewed toward the male roles, but early on there is a tasty parade of eye candy — with bump-and-grind choreography by Ariel Reid — as Lycus peddles his wares. And Mackenzie Meadows makes a sweet-voiced, empty-headed Philia, Hero’s love interest.
Try as you might, it would be hard to find any deep meaning or thematic substance in Forum, but few have minded that absence during the past 60 years. The show is simply pure entertainment, with the laughter it generates being justification enough.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, Dec. 18. $68-$120. Call 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.