When walking into a Stephen Sondheim musical, audiences usually expect class, complex harmonies that are witty and a story full of gloomy darkness. Premiere Productions staging of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum! is crass, with crowd-pleasing ditties and a tale full of sunny lightness.
Playing at the Welk Resort Theater, the hardcore farce takes place in Ancient Rome. Pseudolus (Vista Broadway Theater co-owner Randall Hickman) is a slave who desperately wants to be a free man. His “master,” Hero (Kevin Mcdonald) falls in love with Phillia (Kailey O’Donnell), a virgin courtesan who recently moved into the house of the immoral Marcus Lycus (Torre Younghans).
Hero cuts a deal with Pseudolus promising him freedom, if he finds a way for him to be with Phillia. Unfortunately, a colorful cast of characters might keep Hero and Phillia from ending up together.
This is a big year for director and choreographer, Ray Limon, whose rendition of Anything Goes recently played at the Welk Resort Theater. He knows how to handle big musical numbers as well as physically demanding humor all taking place on Douglas Davis’s, Vista Broadway Theater co-owner’s, intentionally cartoonish set.
His choreography, especially in tunes such as “Comedy Tonight” and “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” has plenty of pizzazz. The dancing never veers far away from the consistently cheeky tone.
While the music and lyrics display some of his trademark intelligence, here Sondheim’s tunes are similar to more modern crude hits such as The Producers and Monty Python’s Spamalot, which Hickman directed last year. Spectators can’t help but tap their toes to catchy songs making fun of sexism, idiocy and those that are middle aged.
Matthew Naegeli’s prerecorded music direction is synched well, but it is a little strange not hearing a full-length overture live. However, the audio is easy to listen to once the action begins and is used effectively as underscore during several scenes.
Though many theatergoers associate “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum!” with Sondheim, the book by Burt Shevelove and “Mash” co-creator, Larry Gelbart, doesn’t seem to get enough credit. It’s quite baffling to discover that a musical with so much edgy and anarchic humor came out in 1963.
Hickman carries the adventure and captures the sly and quick-thinking nature of the master of ceremonies, Pseudolus. He hilariously shifts back and forth from being confident to stressed out whenever his plans begin to comedically unravel.
Mcdonald and O’Donnell poke fun at some of the clichés of star-crossed lovers in drama with acting that is intentionally over the top. The two of them are an appealing couple and they harmonize well in “Lovely” and “Pretty Little Picture.”
As Pseudolus’s perverted sidekick, Hysterium, Shaun Thomas portrays the role as a hapless slave who is always on the edge of having a panic attack. He turns his big number, “I’m Calm,” into an examination of neurosis.
Act 1 focuses primarily on the main roles and Act 2 gives the ensemble, including Dan Windham, Younghans, Robin Lavalley and Devin Collins, many standout moments. Despite that fact, the first half has a lot of build-up and the second moves and concludes at a very quick pace. The frentic climax allows almost the entire cast to take part in one outrageous sight gag after another.
With costumes, by the Theater Company, that appear as if they belong in a gladiator movie and bright cheerful lighting from Jennifer Edwards, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum!, has big laughs for all. As Pseudolus proclaims, “tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!”