By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Maybe the best description of the Apple Hill Playhouse’s latest production, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, might be the first lines from the opening number: “Something familiar/something peculiar/something for everyone/a comedy tonight!”
It certainly deserves the “familiar” epithet. Though Forum opened on Broadway in 1962 it’s, actually, much older than that. Much, much older. The show was born from three comedies by Roman playwright Plautus, making it over 2,000 years old. In ’62 writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart combined those three Plautus plays, along with a huge helping off their own show biz genius, into one musical.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum continues through August 4. Apple Hill Playhouse, Delmont. 724/468-5050.
The production was an immediate success initially running for a few years, followed up by a movie version from director Richard Lester with several important revivals along the way. And it’s been a staple in local, regional, community and summer theaters almost from the beginning. As an interesting side note, it’s the first show for which Stephen Sondheim wrote both the words and music. (Up until then he had only supplied lyrics for Gypsy and West Side Story.) Though that original production won all kinds of Tonys, including Best Musical, Sondheim wasn’t nominated for anything and the reviews at the time barely mentioned his score.
He has since said that the songs were written to give the audience a chance to breathe because Shevelove and Gelbart, having come up through the ranks of writing for television comedy in its infancy, had been schooled by some of the legends from burlesque and vaudeville and all of that comedy know-how went into the show. The book for Forum, according to Sondheim, is so funny it was his job to provide quieter spots where the audience could stop laughing and settle down.
With its lineage and having been written in a bygone comedic idiom, there is something slightly “peculiar” about Forum as well. It’s not just a Roman comedy, it’s also a slamming door farce, wily servant vs. befuddled master, social satire and mistaken identities nonsense shot through with a 1960’s “Friars Club” style of sexual politics woefully out of date in the #MeToo era.
The Apple Hill Playhouse production, directed with energy by Erin Stetor-Seaberg, certainly has it’s own peculiar elements as well. This production is really all about a local summer theater driving itself to meet the demands of the script. It’s not just that it’s such a large cast, but the actors must be adept at a very particular style of comedy playing rarely seen these days – think of performers like Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Nathan Lane, Buster Keaton and Whoopi Goldberg who have, at one time or another, appeared in variation iterations. It’s hardly a surprise, then, for me to say that this charming local theater company doesn’t have the necessary specific talent pool on which to draw.
Nathaniel Yost does bring a huge amount of comedy mania to the role of Pseudolus and, as a bonus, unfurls a powerful voice as well. And Dean Morris has a fun time with the aptly named Hysterium. I enjoyed the manner in Stetor-Seaberg handled the concubine’s introduction with a terrific sampler of movement from Amanda Gaines-Borders, Alexis Caldwell, Carolyn Jerz, Kaycie Miller, Christina Lamanna, and Alyssa Bruno.
What I found particularly fun was the audience, they were hooting with laughter and gasping with surprise … as if the jokes and situations weren’t 2,000 years old. They left the theater singing the praises of this cast and production so, I guess, there really is “something for everyone.”