The gods of drama must have taken one look at our gloomy economic situation and the sniping presidential candidates and decided that there would be "tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight"! In the same comedic vein as the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, the troupe called Trilogy Rep has mounted a rollicking production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum out in Pleasant Valley Park in Basking Ridge that rivals the recent Paper Mill Playhouse production in quality and fun.
Yes, I did just laud a community theater production in the same breath with two professional companies, but that's how terrific this version of the zany take-off of a bawdy Roman comedy really is. And best of all, it's free!
If he can help his young master Hero win the girl he's enamored of, the cunning slave Pseudolus will be granted his freedom. That straightforward plot line is turned inside out by the farcical complications that arise and threaten to derail the path to the true love (and freedom). Unfortunately, the girl, Philia, is a courtesan (aka 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 bloviating 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.
Jaye Barre once again wields her firm directorial arm to marshal a large cast around the park theater's stage on a terrific set designed by Mark Fentress and decorated by Beverly Webb, consisting of three classical Roman houses: a purple one for the procurer Marcus Lycus, a blue one for the senator Senex and a yellow one for Erronius, the dotty old man who has been seeking his two children kidnapped by pirates years earlier. Marion Hagovsky Drew conducts a sizable group of musicians to accompany the actors who sing Stephen Sondheim's clever lyrics and melodies and nimbly cavort around the stage to the delightful choreography of Deana Toma-Rittenhouse.
Barre has selected two experienced actors to play major roles. As Pseudolus, David Rittenhouse (right, in green) may lack Zero Mostel's girth, but he fills the stage from the moment he pokes his head out of the curtain to inquire whether he missed his cue. In fine voice and with a sly smile, Rittenhouse moves the tale along and has us splitting our sides at his antics. His performance is matched by tenor Bill Corson (left, in blue) as the head slave to Senex, Hysterium, a bundle of nerves and legs of rubber who quivers at the very idea that Pseudolus might be up to no good. And Mark Hewitt is fine as the randy, but impotent, old rogue Senex, anxious to elude his battle-ax of a wife, the aptly named Domina (above, with two courtesans) and beautifully played by Joanna Hoty Russell (whose loud soprano voice echoes off the surrounding hills). The male trio is a scream as they sing the glories of "Everyone Ought to Have a Maid" not once, but three times!
The lovers, Hero and Philia, are played by youngsters Tyler Barnick and Lauren Doyle (below, center)—both very attractive, naive and in fine voice (and yes, he does have nice legs, as Philia notes). Their duet "Lovely" is very sweetly sung. Michael Littman is an appropriately smarmy Marcus Lycus, Ed Schroeder brings down the house as the senile Erronius (who wanders in and out of the action as he circles Rome seven times) and Brian Herrle (right) is a wonderful Miles Gloriosus, infatuated with his physique and his military accomplishments.
The Proteans act as Roman citizens and warriors, and six Handmaidens round out the group of extras who populate the stage at various times. Extra fun is provided by the women from the House of Lycus who gyrate and dance as beautiful courtesans whose physical favors are for sale for a short time to the highest bidder.
Marilyn Gamba, Mary Wegen, Jaye Barre and Marilea Schmidt have designed colorful costumes appropriate to each character, and Bill Corson's lighting design makes the stage look like a jewel shining in the darkness as night falls.
There may be "something familiar, something peculiar" onstage at Pleasant Valley Park, but to be sure, there is plenty of "comedy tonight." Once again, this able troupe of citizen actors has mounted a fine example of American Musical theater perfect for families. So put together a picnic, gather your blankets and lawn chairs and head on over to Valley Road in Basking Ridge for a special treat, for Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum!
Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum will be performed at Pleasant Valley Park, Valley Road (next to the Lyons Veterans Administration Hospital) in Basking Ridge through July 21 at 8 PM. Parking is plentiful and admission is free.