The Rome of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is not the Rome of noble chariot races and mace-swinging that Newsweek recently revealed as an unironic inspiration of US troops abroad. Instead, it’s a Sondheim kind of Rome, witty and vaudevillian, written up during a time that still had a grasp of the idea that Rome was nothing America really wanted to imitate, at least not without tongue firmly in cheek. There’s no mistaking the bad old ways of the fallen city — slavery, women bought and sold — because this bawdy musical comedy does such breezily urbane work of sending them up and setting them to music. Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s production of the Sondheim classic is droll, zestily paced, and full of bright colors and enticing choreography.
As in many classic American stories, it’s freedom that the sneaky and outspoken slave Pseudolus (Steven Dascoulias) is after. Luckily for him, his young master Hero (Geo Seery) is suffering from a manipulable case of thwarted love. Fresh-faced Hero is infatuated with Philia (Cary Davis), the young woman he’s spotted up in the window of the cathouse next door, and it seems she’s already sold to the large, beefy general Miles Gloriosus (Joseph Cooper). The forthcoming plan eventually involves switched and mistaken identities, sleeping potions, a bevy of courtesans, and the persistent late-life sexual desires of Hero’s parents.
The two things that are most important to A Funny Thing are voices and tone, and director Adrienne Maitland and musical director William Asher make marvelous entertainment of both. Across the board, these actors sing not just beautifully, with smart nuance and delicious wit (instrumentals should often be toned down a bit to give them more of the spotlight). Tone is an even trickier thing to nail, particularly when it involves humor, but this cast strikes a fine balance — now dry, snarky, and deadpan; now manic and outrageous.
A Funny Thing is Shakespearean in its rich range of characters, and Seacoast Rep makes the variety a real treat, like a particularly good sack of Halloween candy. There are the chaste and innocent young lovers Philia and Hero, whom Davis and Seery give appropriately wide eyes and earnest gazes. The tall and skinny Seery, particularly, with his endearingly bright smile and corn-fed blond hair, really looks the part. Then, in contrast, there’s Hero’s dirty-old-man dad Senex (Don LaBranche, who provides some of the play’s funniest moments with his deadpan reactions to Philia’s misinformed come-ons) and his trying mom Domina (Donna Goldfarb). As a foil to Pseudolus’s droll laziness and self-interest, which Dascoulias manifests in spades, we have the nervous selflessness of the Uncle Tom slave Hysterium, played by Jamie Ceparo with such mania that you might twitch on his account. Hero has a old, slouched, dignified neighbor on the left named Erronius (John Flynn, with great comic timing) and a young, rail-thin, cowardly pimp named Lycus (Jonathan Roth, who moves wonderfully between lust for his wares and fear of anyone in power) to the right.