“The theater is a temple,” intones Roman slave Pseudolus at the top of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, proceeding to brandish not a Torah or a virgin sacrifice but a clown nose and a rubber chicken. Indeed, this 1962 musical, with score penned by the actual Sondheim at 32, is a shrine to the baggy-toga comedy of Plautus wedded to the Music Hall and the Borscht Belt. In the Boston Theatre Works staging at the BCA Plaza Theatre (through October 20), it’s a shrine squeezed into the confines of a confessional and tarted up as if the priest were Charles Ludlam. But the Tony-winning paean to ancient love and lechery, with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, remains a worship-worthy bit of vaudeville.
“Everybody ought to have a maid,” asserts the jauntiest of the show’s mostly upbeat numbers. (This is a Sondheim for whom Passion wasn’t even a gleam in the eye.) But that doesn’t mean everybody ought to have a full orchestra or an elaborate set. As director Erick Devine told the Boston Globe, you don’t really need three edifices on stage, just three doors. And that’s what we get in Jenna McFarland Lord’s colorful representation of the neighborhood, with Marcus Lycus’s house of ill repute identified by a Vargas-y silhouette above a red-tinsel curtain and the entrance to Senex’s abode a massive revolving door that plays its part in the comedy. Since a character must be hidden on the roof, there are a couple of ladders that serve as percussion sets to augment an unseen three-person band (piano, trombone, and flute) and also give the stripped-down proceedings the aura of a Roman Our Town.
There is more Mel Brooks than Thornton Wilder to Forum, though, with its kibitzing plot built on Pseudolus’s attempt to earn his freedom by setting up his young master, Hero, with Philia, the courtesan next door. This requires some doing, since the valuable virgin has already been purchased by the mighty Miles Gloriosus and is coveted by the blushing lad’s dad, the henpecked Senex. Throw in the classical trimmings attached to neighbor Erronius and a desperate bit of cross-dressing by “slave in chief” Hysterium and you’ve got buffoonery that stretches across the ages.
Devine slims the cast to 15, which includes the trio of “Proteans” who serve as slaves, eunuchs, and kazoo-blowing soldiers. Marcus Lycus fields less fleshly merchandise than is customary and caters to more diverse tastes, offering a boy-girl set of Gemini. The togas are accessorized with sneakers and work boots, not to mention a necktie for Senex and leopard platforms for Lycus. The mostly non-Equity cast sings nicely, especially Christopher Lyons as a bristle-headed kid of a Hero, Jennifer Ellis as the happily airheaded Philia, and Shannon Mühs as a refreshingly un-battle-ax-like Domina. But it falls to the pros to pull off the oft-hoary comedy. Bill Gardiner is more schlubby than wily as Pseudolus, but he can draw inspiration out of his boxers when he needs to. Richard McElvain brings a droll combination of resignation and last-stand lechery to Senex. And Neil A. Casey, with his gift for acid agitation, was born to play Hysterium.