Despite opening on Broadway more than 50 years ago, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, currently running at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, is hilariously entertaining. The timeless plot is based on comedies penned by the Roman playwright Plautus 2,000 years ago, which proves that dynamics among young lovers, old fools, egotistical leaders and cunning underlings never really change.
Forum won six Tony Awards and is considered one of the most successful musical comedies of all time. With book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, the show is one of the few for which Stephen Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. His rousing opener "Comedy Tonight" sets up the premise of the play, and it's the tune audiences hum when they leave.
The show takes a time-honored plotline from Ancient Rome and a style of improvisational theater from Italy's 16th century, commedia dell'arte, featuring standard characters: masters, slaves and paramours engaged in futile struggles to keep youngsters apart.
Senex (Bob Edes Jr.) plays a house master who ought to have the upper hand over family and servants but is easily outwitted. Pseudolus (Sean Patterson), personal slave to Senex's son Hero (John Michael Haas), bargains for his freedom with a promise to get the girl. A recent import from Crete, the virgin Philia is temporarily lodged in a house of ill repute run by Lycus, conveniently located right next door.
The Petit production's allusions to New Orleans are unmistakable. The red and blue set accented by neon lights resembles the French Quarter more than a Roman piazza. The social classes intermingle so much, one wonders what Pseudolus would gain by being free.
Pseudolus energetically keeps the plot moving, donning disguises, fabricating bizarre excuses and racing in and out of doorways, toga flying. Among the old fools, Senex lusts after a cadre of scantily dressed courtesans while dodging his frustrated wife Domina (Tracey E. Collins). "Never fall in love during a total eclipse," Senex quips.
A high point is a chorus line performed by Pseudolus, Hysterium, Senex and Lycus to "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid." Their timeless male fantasies about a "menial, consistently congenial" servant puttering around the house, "sweeping out, sleeping in," would no doubt be delightful, offering "the sort of help you never get from a spouse."
Shapely courtesans who perform seductive dances have names that stir the imagination: Gymnasia, Geminae, Tintinabula, Vibrata and Panacea — "whose body stands up to every promise."
Hannah Rachel's portrayal of Philia is closer to a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader than a blushing virgin, but she gives a beautiful rendition of another memorable song, "Lovely."
An audience favorite, Hysterium (Keith Claverie), took every pratfall as the sidekick slave. Kissing the hem of his master's garment, he gushed: "I love to grovel."
Finally, the military captain (Kevin Murphy) is marvelously virile when he arrives to claim his virgin bride.
Directed by Ricky Graham, the production delivers all that Pseudolus promised in his opening monologue — nothing portentous or polite, just rip-roaring comedy tonight.