Review by Liz Eichler of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Congratulations to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company for launching its first musical, the hilarious “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The show is funny, raucous, colorful, bawdy, silly, appealing, appalling, and lovely. Running through September 29, it will make you laugh with the “lovers, liars, and clowns.”
It’s “A Comedy Tonight” and a farce in every definition with ridiculous sight gags, mistaken identities, audience interaction, and more. “A Funny Thing…” is now a classic American musical, one of Stephen Sondheim’s first (1962), with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. It’s based on Plautus’ ancient Greek farces, still funny, still politically incorrect. (Plautus wanted you to pick up the rock and laugh at what was crawling and festering under it—if just for a bit—versus recoiling in disgust, horror, or sadness.)
It is the story of Pseudolus, a slave, who is willing to do anything to earn his freedom, including ruses and tricks to ensure the son of his master weds the woman of his dreams. Three houses are depicted on the eye-popping set, Pseudolus’ family consisting of father Senex (Jim Hopkins), wife Domina (Kelly Mengelkoch) and son Hero (Kelcey Steel); Erronius (the dry humor of Joneal Joplin) who’s been away seeking his lost twin children; and Lycus (Darnell Pierre Benjamin), owner of a brothel and his bevy of talent, and the story unfolds, by the omnipresent Psuedolus, played by Matthew Lewis Johnson with joy, energy, and always a wink to the audience.
CSC regular Jim Hopkins is another audience favorite as the buffoon Senex, flaunting his comic timing, great singing voice, and dad-bod. New to the CSC stage, Kelcey Steele embodies innocence and masculinity, also with a great set of pipes. Of course Jeremy Dubin mines Hysterium for laughs as manager of Senex’s household, and really connects with the audience in “I’m Calm.” However, the highlight of the evening is Senex, Pseudolus and others in “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” so well performed and memorable, (again, not politically correct).
It is a strong ensemble, but a special shout out to the mostly silent: the perfect showgirls Rachel Perrin (Gymnasia) and Ernaisja Curry (Panacea) and all three Minion-like “Proteans” Sara Clark, Caitlin McWethy, and Geoffrey Warren Barnes II who play many parts so well. Balancing out the cheesecake and fruitcake is some beefcake, with recent CCM grad Gabe Wrobel as Captain Miles Gloriosus, with a body and voice that goes for miles as he tries to carry off daffy Philia (Courtney Lucien). Lisa DeRoberts (Vibrata), Leslie Goddard and Kate Stark (Geminae twins), and Sarah Willis (Tintinabula) round out the brothel.
I attended a preview, where they were still futzing with lights, and exploring the archs of the laughs, pacing, and working with the amazing orchestra. The Costumes (Brian Horton) and Set (Shannon Robert) are perfect and well built. The Electric Blue accentsemphasize the frivolity in the colorful costumes, set, and lighting (Adam Zeek). Musical Director Erin McCamley pulls out some great harmonies, Choreographer Vince DeGeorge gets the cast going with Fosse and Flossing and great moves in between. Director Brian Isaac Phillips has put together a great show, still a bit uneven when I saw it at a preview, but the comedy hit.
The show is a hoot, go see it, but the shining star is CSC leadership, both for producing an AEA musical with up-and-coming local talent and for giving audiences the treat to see beloved CSC performers expand their range. Cincinnati has a deep musical theatre bench, and constantly adding to it with faculty and student connections from UC’s CCM, NKU, Miami, Wright State, and SCPA, as well as transplants and other homegrown talent. It is great to see more professional opportunities in Cincy, versus forcing our musical theatre talent out to Chicago, New York, and LA.
So go to “A Funny Thing…” for the laughs, and perhaps your support may encourage future musicals as well! “A Funny Thing…”plays through September 29. Get tickets at www.cincyshakes.com.