“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Players by the Sea

A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

“Forum” is based on the comedies of long-ago Greek playwright Plautus (251-183 BC), with a modern-day book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. An interesting little-known fact about the show occurred during pre-Broadway tryouts when it wasn’t doing well. Jerome Robbins was consulted; he advised presenting the show as a wild, ribald comedy, and got the talented Sondheim to write “Comedy Tonight” for the opening number. That did it: after opening on Broadway in 1962, it remained for almost 1,000 performances, garnered six Tonys, was adapted as a film in 1966, and has been produced in theatres throughout the world.

The setting is, as you might expect, ancient Rome, brought to life with wonderfully colorful sets by Scenic Designer Tom Fallon.

The story revolves around Pseudolus, a crafty slave, who has one wish: to be free. This maniacally energetic but likable character is portrayed splendidly by Al Emerick, who has returned to the stage after an absence of three years. Veteran theatre goers will remember his fine performances in many shows. We especially appreciated his appearance in “The Subject was Roses” at Theatre Jacksonville.

Pseudolus lives in the household of Senex (Allen LaMontagne), a henpecked Roman Senator who is married to the vain and demanding Domina (Amy Allen Farmer – and oh, does she sing!). The couple is going on a journey to visit her parents. In their absence, Pseudolus will be responsible for caring for their son Hero. Hysterium, their chief slave, will be in charge of household matters; the role is portrayed by Paepaeala Pimienta in his debut at Players.

Pseudolus wants his freedom and is willing to do anything to get it. His master Hero is young, handsome and temperamental. He is portrayed by Billy Speed in his first community theatre role – he  sings marvelously and we expect to see him in more roles in future. While Hero sees no reason to help free Pseudolus, he has a wish of his own and is willing to do anything to get it – he wants the virginal brothel-dwelling lovely, very lovely, but not overly-bright Philia (Julie Harrington, who has several impressive credits on local stages).

Pseudolus is a problem solver and strikes a deal with Hero – he will deliver the goods in exchange for Hero’s promise of freedom. Complications ensue when they discover that brothel owner Marcus Lycus (Christopher Humphries, who handles this businessman’s role with flare) has sold Philia to Miles Gloriosus (Jimmy Alexander, an excellent singer, who has appeared in many roles on our local stages) who will be arriving at any moment. Miles Glorious isn’t just anyone, he is a great Roman war hero – his evident self-centeredness is surely his only flaw.

Pseudolus uses complicated maneuvers to protect Philia from being claimed by Gloriosus as his bride and to bring the two young lovers together.

Erronius is portrayed by Jim Warren, a retired engineer from St. Augustine who stays very busy on our local stages. He is hilarious as the aged widower who has spent the last twenty years searching for his two children who were captured in infancy by pirates.

While there is dancing throughout, it gets wild when we encounter the exotic courtesans from the house of Lycus; they include Gymnasia (Chelsea Black), Geminae (Shauna Clark & Anna Fleece), Vibrata (Kimberly Cooper York), Tintinabula (Amanda Jackson), and Panacea (Charity Zappone). Stephanie Riner was the choreographer.

The Proteans portray multiple characters in many scenes –  slaves, merchants, soldiers, etc., zipping on and off stage in various costume. The members of this high energy group included Jake McGraw, Chinua Richardson and Kris Stam. We have seen this show several times in the past, we but have never seen the Proteans appear so often and so dramatically.

The songs have become standards over the years and include such singable favorites as “Comedy Tonight,” “Lovely,” “Impossible,” and “Everybody Ought to have a Maid.”

Michael Lipp, who directed the show, has directed or been an actor in almost ninety productions, and is a true theatre authority. He has another field of expertise: he recently retired after 33 years of teaching with Duval County Public Schools and is currently a faculty member at the Bolles School, where he teaches AP Physics. You are going to love what he has done with this show.

The fifteen songs were played by an excellent band hidden away back stage, which was led by Andrew Phoenix, Orchestral Music Director; Tina Wilson was the Vocal Music Director.  Band members included Andrew Phoenix (Drums & Keyboard II), Erin Barnes (Keyboard l), Sean Tillis (Bass), Alexander Hernandez (Woodwinds), Carson Smisek (Trumpet), and Kimberly Zielinski (Violin).

Others on the Creative Team included Tyvin McSwain and Toni Diamond-Bingham (Producers), Jereme Raickett (Production Manager), Cassie Neiss (Stage Manager), Julia Leadley (Assistant Stage Manager), Katie Dawson (Scenic Charge Artist), Ben Sparenburg (Lighting Designer), Main Stage Music Theatre (Costumes), and Destiny Golden (Audio Technician).

Viewers will love this classic on stage Jan 24 -Feb 15! The theatre is located at 106 6th Street North in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. For reservations call 904-249-0289 or visit playersbythesea. org.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.