Ancient humor

Foothill Music Theatre revives Broadway farce based on Roman comedy

Foothill Music Theatre takes on the toe-tapping toga party, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," as its summer production this year. The show can be considered a classic not only because it first appeared on Broadway back in 1962 and has been revived and won numerous Tony awards since, but also because it's based on the comedies of Plautus, an ancient Roman playwright whose works are among the earliest known in Latin literature.

The frantic, lighthearted play -- with music and lyrics by Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim, book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart -- is most definitely a farce, with plenty of door slamming, bad puns, mistaken identities, secret potions and obvious innuendos.

Presented by Prologus (Doug Santana) and his company of players, the Proteans, the show has a play-within-a-play construction. The action is set in 200 B.C. and concerns three Roman households: that of the courtesan/slave trader, Marcus Lycus (local engineer Ray D'Ambrosio); the family of Senex (Todd Wright, always wonderful) including his imperious wife, Domina (Jenifer Tice) and their young son, Hero (Anthony Stephens); and the befuddled old man, Erronius (Jake Van Tuyl, double cast with Steven Ho), who's on a quest to find his two long-lost children, kidnapped years earlier by pirates.

Domina and Senex leave their home and son in the care of fastidious "slave-in-chief," Hysterium (Mike Meadors), with strict instructions to keep the boy away from the opposite sex. Meanwhile, overprotected Hero has fallen head-over-heels for the new girl next door, virginal Philia (Jessica Whittemore). Yet she's already been claimed and paid for by egotistic captain Miles Gloriosus (Scotty Shoemaker) but scheming slave Pseudolus (Doug Santana, again) offers to "get" her for Hero for a price -- his freedom. Quick-thinking Pseudolus must scramble to keep his masters in the dark while manipulating everyone around him, slave and citizen alike. Oh, and poor Erronius is still out there looking for those missing, pirate-snatched descendants.

The title of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is a reference to an old vaudeville joke, and the show itself is presented in a burlesque style. The opening number, "Comedy Tonight," is dazzling, with great energy and Sondheim's trademark clever lyrics. Another melodic and lyrical standout is the ridiculous, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," performed gleefully by Santana, Wright, D'Ambrosio and Meadors. The rest of the music, while pleasantly bouncy and brassy, isn't nearly as memorable. Set design by Kuo-Hao Lo is lovely, giving an appropriately cartoonish look to the Eternal City.

The cast of performers is strong (even if Santana seems to be lapsing into a Nathan Lane impersonation at times), with D'Ambrosio and Stephens particularly standing out. When written well, there's always room for good old-fashioned vulgarity and silliness. Yet despite the very talented and likable company, "A Funny Thing Happened" fell short of its intended hilarity. Too many of the gags came across as corny, obvious and flat. There were certainly chuckle-worthy moments, including Pseudolus' impersonation of a soothsayer and a nice bit in which the Proteans provided live slapstick comedy sound effects. Some setups, however, went nowhere, such as the introduction to a downtrodden eunuch character. Maybe the humor seemed fresher and funnier back in olden times (or at least for audiences of the 1960s).

No one expects much character development from a farce, but the female characters in "A Funny Thing Happened" are especially one-dimensional, serving either as vapid sex objects (the courtesans) or as domineering shrews (Domina). The leading lady, Philia, a quintessential dumb blonde, even has an entire song about how she has no purpose other than to look pretty and please men ("Lovely"), which lacks even a trace of irony, let alone a later twist to undermine the message. Other punchlines past their primes include a man dressing as a lady and a henpecked husband chasing after a young maiden.

The show promises, "Something aesthetic. Something frenetic. Something for everyone: A comedy tonight!" and Foothill's version mostly delivers on that promise. It's only a shame the dated play can't quite live up to the quality of its spectacular opening number or the capabilities of the talented cast.

What: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," presented by Foothill Music Theatre

Where: Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills

When: Through Aug. 9. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $13-$32

Info: Go to foothill.edu/theatre or call 650-949-7360.

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