A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Burt Shevelove  and Larry Gelbart
Directed by Russell Greene
Choreography by Mitzi Weinman Perlmutter
Musical Direction Galen Prenevost
Beatrice Herford Vokes Theater, Wayland, MA, through November 14th

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Beatrice Herford's  Vokes Theater is a treasure, a perfect jewel box of a miniature English playhouse built by an eccentric lover of the art of the drama who lured the great stars of her day to come to Wayland and perform upon her toy stage.  Photographs and engravings of these legends adorn the walls-- I touched reverent fingers to the glass over the framed autograph of  the great Ellen Terry.  Mrs. Hereford left her jewel box and her jewels to her fellow amateurs, and the Vokes Players have worked hard over the years to be worthy of it all.  Sometimes they even manage to crowd a whole world onto the tiny stage, as they did for small town South of their fine season opener, "To Kill a Mockingbird".  "A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum" comes out of a coarser tradition than the turn of the century turns Mrs. Herford and friends favored, but some of the elevated surroundings rubbing off on the telling of the tale seems to have done the dirty old thing no harm.  The Vokes production of "Forum" takes the high road, with an upscale set credited to the director and Doug Kiteley, and costumes by Sue Spencer that facilitate director Russell Greene's inclination to trade baggy pants for the classic chiton.  Instead of a borscht-belt banana, James A Fitzpatrick takes charge with a Pseudolus who is elegant and handsome, who sings his comic patter  in a mellifluous baritone that commands admiration and respect.  Fitzpatrick made "Comedy Tonight", "Free", and "Pretty Little Picture" sound like Mozart. His Pseudolus is also very funny--  though I can't for the life me explain how Fitzpatrick does that while retaining so much dignity.

Robert A. Mackie's innocent  lechery as Senex is a class act, too, and his timing is priceless. Mackie may be the best Senex I've ever seen.  Robin Welch, who is African American, has drawn on a couple of cop show pimp clichés in his characterization of "gentleman and procurer" Marcus Lycus, but in such a deft and intelligent way that Welch's new minted Lycus also seems to have gained stature. David Herder doesn't hesitate to appropriate the swishing freed up by Welch's fresh take on Lycus for his own totally hysterical and straightforwardly gay Hysterium.  I thought that I'd seen every ounce of humor that could be squeezed out of this character by now, but Herder got all that other performers had, and then some-- and without losing HIS ridiculous dignity, either.  When these classy guys lined up for Sondheim's outrageous  "Everybody Ought to Have A Maid",  they didn't really have to DO anything: we could tell exactly what they were thinking, and nothing could be funnier.

So far, Russell Greene and team deploy the talent on hand to comic perfection.  But elsewhere Vokes has to settle for something other than what the formula for "Funny Thing" prescribes without discovering a compensatory re-interpretation..  Greene only fields five out of six of the exotic courtesans of the House of Lycus, and these five were ordinary attractive community theatre performers of the female persuasion rather than the spectacular incarnate fantasies called for by the script.
Sorry, ladies.  You were nice, but boring. Kristen Palson as Philia the very expensive virgin was sweet and adorably dim, and her voice was indeed "absolutely lovely": but in her bed sheet costume Palson  looked more like an overgrown baby ready for its nap than a sex object fit to launch a thousand ships.   Hero might have passed for one, if he, like Philia, hadn't been forced to stand next to the dazzling Fitzpatrick all the time.  Kristin Hughes DeVito as Domina had the opposite problem, being too young and softly pretty to serve as Senex's antidote to desire.  Steven Littlehale is also a stretch for Miles Gloriosus, being neither particularly loud nor unusually imposing nor yet small and insignificant enough to play a Miles with a Napoleon complex. Littlehale did commanding very well, though, and proteons Dan Caruso and Brian Woods were excellent as his entourage.

While Sam d'Entremont eschewed stick and dark glasses and general shtick as Erroneus, his minimalist trudge around the seven hills convinced me that less is more.  His is now the Erroneus local productions must live up to.  I think the music, played by an eleven piece band, was probably pretty good.  I say I think, because from where I sat in the last row under the balcony the band sounded as if they were playing in the basement of a building next door.  Somehow conductor GalenPrenevost kept it all together, and I guess if I had to choose between hearing all the Sondheim lyrics or getting the full effect of those eleven instruments I'd choose the vocals.  But I do enjoy the big loud bragging of brass when Miles comes parading  in, and I missed it.