The title of the opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” says it all in the musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim zestfully let you know that modern laughs are to be found in ancient Rome, and the current production at Silhouette Stages transforms the Slayton House stage into that Roman Forum.
Although we tend to associate Sondheim with a sophisticated and sometimes melancholic take on the human condition, this musical is a reminder that in the early 1960s, he retained a sense of the downright silly qualities found in traditional Broadway shows that only aimed to please. The songs here are creatively accomplished, but that craftsmanship is in the service of bringing to musical life a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbert whose spirit essentially goes back to vaudeville-evocative gags. This means that an audience for this show can expect showbiz entertainment rather than a scholarly lecture about the slavery and prostitution that actually factor into the plot.
The Silhouette Stages’ production directed by Conni Ross fills the stage with architectural renderings of three Roman houses as the setting for the 21 local performers who have donned togas and other ancient fashions for the evening. It’s the kind of extroverted musical in which the actors really go to town, meaning Rome in this case. Broad gestures aimed at the audience are the norm, and, for that matter, the performers often move down the aisles and occasionally interact with audience members. If all roads lead to Rome, all of the Slayton House aisles lead there, too.
The story does not take itself seriously, but it’s important to follow it in order for some of the plot-complicating events to fully register. Occupying the first house is Senex (Don Patterson), whose household management skills are put to the test by his domineering wife, Domina (Ande Kolp); their son, Hero (Tommy Malek), whose romantic life is very much a work in progress; and family servants including Hysterium (Matt Scheer) and Pseudolus (Bob Gudauskas). As parents will learn time and time again in the centuries since, leaving home for any length of time means that the kids and the household, er, staff may get into some mischief while Senex and Domina are away.
The house next door is owned by Marcus Lycus (Jeff Dunne), a crass businessman whose merchandise consists of lovely young women. Let’s just say that belly dancing is among the ways in which they attract customers to the place. It’s strictly PG-rated comedy, in case you’re wondering, and so there is no need to call the vice squad.
If Lycus is the naughty neighbor to one side of Senex’s house, his next door neighbor on the other side, Erronius (Todd Hochkeppel), is as old as some of the jokes in the show. He has gone away to search for his children, who were kidnapped by pirates years earlier. The eventual outcome of that subplot is as goofy as anything you’ll find in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
The additional characters include enough courtesans, soldiers and, yes, eunuchs to give Wilde Lake a wild population boost for the duration of this show. Choreographer Tina DeSimone definitely is kept busy as that Roman mob moves about on this agreeably crowded stage.
Besides the big production numbers, the show also has its share of endearing musical numbers in which individual performers get to shine. These include Gudauskas and Malek joining voices in “Free,” and Patterson and Malek as a vocal duo in “Impossible.” These and other songs call attention to a number of performers whose vocal talent adds some emotional depth to characters that otherwise verge on being caricatures. As pagans go, these ancient Romans turn out to be pretty nice people.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” has its remaining performances March 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 8 p.m. and March 18 and 25 at 3 p.m. at Slayton House Theater, 10400 Cross Fox Lane in Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia. For ticket info, go to silhouettestages.com.