Stephen Sondheim was a mere 32 years old when the first show with his music and lyrics, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, opened on Broadway. A farce based on a convoluted storyline by the ancient Greek jokester Plautus, the audience-friendly musical has none of the psychological complexities that Sondheim would become known for, but plenty of his quirky melodies and puckish rhymes.
Adaptors Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart focus Forum on conniving Roman slave Pseudolus and his efforts to gain his freedom, told with a string of zany vaudeville gags. Many of them you can see coming a mile away, so speed of delivery is crucial. And at MNM Theatre Company’s production at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse, the pace all too often drains the show of its comic snap.
The show’s plot is easy to follow, but difficult to diagram. Pseudolus keeps bobbing and weaving, trying to get his young naïve master Hero together with the virginal courtesan next door, Philia, all in the pursuit of his freedom. Doing so will involve sleep potions, a plague scare on the island of Crete, mistaken identities, a slave in drag, a trio of high-pitched eunuchs and lots of scantily-clad eye candy.
Many of MNM’s usual suspects are present, doing their best to serve up the mirth. Johnbarry Green gets his shot at a leading role playing Pseudolus, scoring with most – though not all – of the laughs built into this quick-on-his-feet larger-than-life character. Other performers on the plus side of the ledger include Terry Hardcastle’s New Yawky-sounding procurer Marcus Lycus, Michael Scott Ross’s frantically nervous Hysterium and, entering late in the first act and snapping us back to attention, is Sean William Davis as narcissistic soldier Miles Gloriosus.
Most of the other cast members fare less well, notably the bland central young lovers Hero (J Savage) and Philia (Meg Frost) and lumbering Troy Stanley as Hero’s father, Senex.
Forum’s script needs no adornment, but credit director Jonathan Van Dyke for slipping in a few added visual gags invoking Les Misérables, Oliver! and other musicals. Alas, such inventiveness soon disappears, replaced by a laugh-killing sluggishness. The production’s low point occurs in the final moments as the clever writing gives way to an uninspired chase sequence which cries out for some zip, but does not get it.
Still, there is that terrific Sondheim score, from the opening bouncy mood setter “Comedy Tonight” to the tongue-twisting “Pretty Little Picture” to the lecherous salute to domestic help, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” to the seemingly straight paean to pulchritude, “Lovely,” a mere set-up for its campy second act reprise. Musical director and keyboardist Paul Reekie navigates his six-member band through the score’s intricacies with admirable skill.
Also a plus is Cindi Taylor’s colorful, playful unit set, a trio of side-by-side houses which the cast keeps slipping in and out of. First-time visitors to Forum will probably enjoy some of the show’s humor, but returning theatergoers – most of the audience? – will surely note how many of the funny things fail to happen on the way to this forum.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, MNM Theatre Company at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Dec. 8. $39-55. Call 561-832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.