'A Funny Thing' delivers a very happy message

The Baltimore Sun

"Comedy tonight!"

That happy message is sung by the cast as the curtain goes up on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Comedy is more than welcome in unhappy times, and Stephen Sondheim's 1962 musical, set in ancient Rome, offers plenty of it. A production of the show by the Student Arts Collective at Howard Community College can be seen through Dec. 14.

Sondheim first became known for the lyrics he supplied for West Side Story and Gypsy. A Funny Thing was his first Broadway show as composer and lyricist.

The book, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, tells of a young Roman, appropriately named Hero, who falls in love with Philia, a courtesan. She has been sold to a famous soldier who is coming that day to claim her.

As this suggests, the show, written 46 years ago, includes a great deal of humor that some people today might consider politically incorrect. At Howard Community College, however, the opening-night audience greeted the authors' jokes and situations with generous laughter.

Philia loves Hero, too, and Hero's clever slave Pseudolus says he will bring the couple together if Hero will reward him by setting him free. After coping successfully with many agonizing and frustrating turns of plot, capped by a chaotic, chase-filled climax, Pseudolus achieves both goals.

In writing the show, Shevelove and Gelbart studied the comedies of Plautus, a Roman playwright who lived more than 2,000 years ago (and whose play Menaechmi gave Shakespeare the idea for The Comedy of Errors). Thus inspired, they came up with a hilarious mixture of burlesque and farce, laced with clever and suggestive dialogue.

The script makes good use of stock characters from the Roman theater who have been turning up in comedies ever since: the bossy wife, the put-upon husband, the innocent youth, the beautiful but dumb ingenue, the boastful soldier, the servant who is smarter than his or her master.

The characters bear a mixture of real Roman names (Hero, Senex) and invented ones (Erronius, Hysterium). Some names were taken from plays by Plautus: Pseudolus, the crafty slave; Miles Gloriosus, the bragging warrior.

When inventing names for the courtesans, Shevelove and Gelbart let themselves go: Tintinabula, Vibrata, Panacea and Gymnasia.

Pseudolus, never at a loss for a way out of a tricky situation, is a plum role for any comic actor. Darius McKeiver, who obviously loves being on stage, plays it with campy confidence.

As Hysterium, a jittery servant, Christopher Adams raises some good laughs when Pseudolus tricks him into posing as a dead woman.

James Small portrays the swashbuckling, conceited Miles Gloriosus as a dull-witted thug. PJ Mitchell and Melanie Bauer convey innocence as Hero and Philia, respectively.

Some veteran stagers, well-known to local theatergoers, lend their experience to the youthful cast: Valerie Lash (Domina, Hero's mother), Bruce Leipold (her husband, Senex), Steven Ward (Marcus Lycus, keeper of a high-class brothel) and Bill Stanley (Erronius, a next-door neighbor who returns from a 20-year quest to give the story its unexpected resolution).

As is customary in a farce, all the performers overact - sometimes more than necessary.

The cast members are not singers, and some of them have trouble with Sondheim's angular melodies and tricky rhythms. They are not helped by an under-rehearsed orchestra. With the aid of Sondheim's brilliant lyrics, however, they put the songs over.

An impressive set created by Steven Ward and David Cunningham shows the houses of Lycus, Senex and Erronius, decorated with such pleasing details as bead curtains in the doorway of the brothel and gauzy cobwebs on the house of the long-absent Erronius.

Denise Umland's effective and attractive costumes are playful riffs on Roman attire.

Director Susan G. Kramer gives her actors abundant comic business and keeps the show running at a satisfyingly brisk pace.

The students in the cast are plainly having a great time playing Roman citizens, courtesans, soldiers and townspeople, and the opening-night audience responded warmly to their enthusiasm.

The Student Arts Collective presents "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" through Sunday in the college's Studio Theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Performances are at 8 p.m. today, tomorrow and Saturday, and at 3 p.m. Sunday. Reservations: 410-772-4900, or www.howardcc.edu/studentarts

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