(from left) Megan Cavanagh, Bob Greene, Michael Rhone and Rudy Guerrero don togas for the 42nd Street Moon production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Photo by www.davidallenstudio.com
Anybody’s enjoyment of the 1962 Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbart musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum depends largely on the actor playing Pseudolus, the lie-spouting slave and comedy motor at the center of the show.
Zero Mostel originated the role – did anyone have a bigger comic motor than Zero? – Phil Silvers played it in 1972 and Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg took turns in the most recent Broadway revival in 1996. I’ve seen several productions of Forum and experienced what the Romans used to call Pseudolus annoyaolus, which is to say, the actors in the role were working so laboriously to be funny that I never laughed. It’s not surprising that Pseudolus breaks a sweat, but I really don’t want to.
The 42nd Street Moon production of Forum now at the Eureka Theatre is the first where I didn’t grow to dread the ever-expanding machinations of Pseudolus, who never met a lie he couldn’t enlarge. The reason is simple: Megan Cavanagh. She’s doing a little gender bending to play the scheming slave, and she’s marvelous. The old vaudevillian aspect of the role doesn’t escape her, nor does she belabor it. She’s a natural comic, so she doesn’t have to force the laughs. And she’s absolutely charming. She has grace where other Psuedolii have goals. She makes you laugh while they want to make you laugh.
To paraphrase Dinah Washington, what a difference a dame makes.
In this new era of 42nd Street Moon shows that are not staged concerts and not elaborate productions, the key to a successful production is a performer on which to hang the show, and in this case, it’s Cavanagh. Other cast members offer pleasures, and the show itself, though never my favorite Sondheim, has its fair share of laughs and musical delights. Any show that contains “Comedy Tonight” is going to be assured of at least one legendary show tune.
Director Greg MacKellan knows exactly how the show should go, and though he’s somewhat limited for space on the Eureka stage –farce requires a certain amount of running room – he and choreographer Tom Segal manage plenty of lively action. Some of Segal’s dance moves are especially funny in an acrobatic cartoon kind of way.
Cavanagh shines in her every scene, and she gets some spirited assists from Rob Hatzenbeller as Miles Gloriosus, a vain soldier whose charm doesn’t extend beyond his own face reflected in his breast plate, and Michael Rhone as Hysterium, whose ironically titled “I’m Calm” is amusing.
The Forum second act, though long on farcical chases, complications and resolutions, is lacking great musical moments, save for reprises of “Lovely” and “Comedy Tonight.” But it’s a nice touch that the short re-cap at the top of the act is underscored by “Love Is in the Air,” the original opening number that was ever so wisely replaced out of town by the show-defining “Comedy Tonight.” Kudos to musical director/pianist Dave Dobrusky and reeds player Nick Di Scala. They sound great and they’re lovely in togas.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
42nd Street Moon’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues through Oct. 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415 255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.
Here’s Ruthie Henshall and Carol Burnett singing “Lovely” from Forum (the clip is from the 1999 Broadway Sondheim revue Putting It Together).
And here’s Burnett with Bronson Pinchot putting a twist on “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” also from Forum (and also from Putting It Together).