Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Photo 2After a weekend of hearing nonstop about Tomahawk missiles and no-fly zones, I was ready for the "something appealing, something appalling—comedy tonight" promised by the opening number of the Paper Mill Playhouse's terrific production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And, boy, did they deliver the goods! Along the way, the playwrights manage to sneak in some pertinent social commentary regarding class distinctions, women as sex objects and slavery while keeping the laughter level high. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, from left to right: Paul C. Vogt [Pseudolus] and the cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)

Based on the slapstick style and spirit of bawdy Roman comedies by Plautus, the Tony Award-winning Forum written by Bert Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim premiered in 1962 and brought Zero Mostel as the slave Pseudolus to the public's attention. Well, I'm pleased to report that the Paper Mill's casting of Paul C. Vogt in the iconic role isn't a 0 but more like a 10!

The plot is simple: if he can help his young master Hero win the girl he's enamored of, the crafty slave Pseudolus can win his freedom. What sounds like a straightforward plot line is stood on its head by the farcical complications that arise and threaten to derail the path to the true love (and freedom). You see, the girl, Philia, is a courtesan (read: prostitute) in the neighboring House of Lycus, and Hero is the son of a respected Roman citizen. To make matters worse, Philia has been purchased by a bombastic Roman soldier named Miles Gloriosus, and the contract cannot be broken. Mistaken identities, disguises, slamming doors and frantic running to and fro result in madcap mayhem and much merriment—the latter on the audience's part.

Mark Waldrop's firm directorial hand is evident in maintaining the frantic pace without letting it devolve into confusion. Vince Pesce aids and abets Waldrop with choreography that delights and moves the large cast around the stage quite nimbly and fluidly.

Paul C. Vogt gives a solid, hilarious performance as Pseudolus. Despite his girth, he agilely dances and races around the stage to keep his machinations under control, which is sometimes quite difficult to do, given the characters he has to deal with. He channels Zero Mostel as a soothsayer with lots of mumbo-jumbo and mugging (it's said that Mostel improvised a great deal and changed the script at every performance), but Vogt makes the performance his—charming and thoroughly likeable—so that we root for everything to turn out in Pseudolus's favor.

The rest of the cast matches this stellar performance. Justin Bowen and Chelsea Krombach are perfectly cast as Hero and Philia; both actors are easy on the eyes (that is, "lovely," as the song says) and appropriately vacuous, to boot. Bowen is an earnest suitor, and Krombach utters ridiculous non sequiturs with a straight face and wide-eyed innocence.

Superior support is afforded by John Scherer as Senex's head slave Hysterium, a walking nervous breakdown channeling Charles Nelson Reilly; Greg Vinkler as the henpecked, randy, albeit it impotent, Senex; Beth McVey as his domineering but bored wife Domina (left); Stephen Berger as the sleazy pimp Marcus Lycus; and Stephen R. Buntrock as the self-infatuated soldier Miles Gloriosus (right above). As Erronius, a daft Roman citizen (and neighbor to Senex) who has been searching for his children stolen long ago by pirates, Chet Carlin wanders in and out of the action, bringing down the house each time he appears.

The rest of the ensemble includes Ryan Dietz, Michael Timothy Howell and Bret Shuford as the Proteans, jack-of-all-actors who change roles merely by donning a cape, a helmet or some facial hair. Kristine Bendul, Chondra L. Profit, Anne Otto, Lara Siebert, Kristine Covillo and Liz McKendry gyrate and dance as beautiful courtesans whose physical favors are for sale for a short time to the highest bidder.

Production values are equally top-notch. Ray Klausen has designed a cartoon-like street in Rome, and Matthew Hemesath's colorful costumes give the lie to our idea of an all-white Rome with white marble buildings and white toga-clad citizens. F. Mitchell Dana's lighting and Randy Hansen's sound are spot-on and appropriate. And the Paper Mill's orchestra, under the supervision and direction of Tom Helm and Ed Goldschneider, respectively, provide terrific accompaniment for Sondheim's melodic music and clever lyrics, without overpowering the singers.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a feast for the eyes and ears, a true jewel in the pantheon that is American Musical Comedy. And Paper Mill Playhouse has once again done what it does best: salute this great art form with verve, energy and great talent! The two hours you spend in the theater will take your mind off the "tragedy tomorrow" and give you "comedy tonight!"

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through April 10. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit online at

See excerpts from “Forum” here