Slaves, Sex and Centurions

Very Little Theatre gets irreverent with Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum captured our country’s imagination when it debuted on Broadway in 1962. A young Stephen Sondheim wowed audiences with an interesting score, providing a teaser to his masterful later works. The book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart is based on Plautus’ Roman comedies, resulting in a goofy, sometimes brainy farce that manages to reflect a deep respect for the humor of antiquity.

Winner of several Tony Awards including Best Musical, and released as a film in 1966, Forum — now playing at the Very Little Theatre — is a product of its time. America in the 1960s was smart enough to appreciate the references to an ancient civilization but relaxed enough to guffaw heartily when a slave pours mare’s sweat on his master.

Director Michael P. Watkins offers a reverent production of this irreverent musical. There is no battling with the script to eek out a few extra jokes or excuse away the dated sexism. The play rises and falls to its natural rhythm, and is what it is: bawdy and brash, with a healthy dose of Latin puns.

I do wish the band had been larger and louder, as it was somewhat overwhelmed by other elements of the production. Watkins’ cast, however, is excellent, and you can almost imagine the director pulling actors out of various Eugene venues to assemble his musical comedy dream team.

It will not surprise anyone that Tom Wilson is magical as Pseudolus; his innate comedic timing and obvious work ethic, combined with an eerie ability to never once seem conscious of being on stage, carry the show. What makes this production different is that he has found his comedic match in Cody Mendonca. As Hysterium, Mendonca doesn’t wilt under Wilson’s energy, but rather radiates his own easy quanta right back at him.

Seeing Forum again was like revisiting an old friend, a brilliant, if dirty-minded and incredibly silly friend that I had forgotten I missed.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays through April 4 at the Very Little Theatre; $15, 344-7751. 

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