Hysterium (John MacNaughton), Pseudolus (Jared Hoffert) and Senex (Ron Baumanis) perform "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" in a scene from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at the Croswell Opera House.
It was a lively crowd for the opening night of the latest musical at The Croswell in Adrian Michigan, as theatregoers were treated to a delightful evening of Stephen Sondheim's timeless, “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” a play that derives itself off the works of ancient Roman playwright Plautus, and a whimsical farce in the style of Vaudeville slapstick. The plot displays many iconic elements which have preceded in comedy for, literally, centuries. We get our daily dose of puns, the slamming of doors, cases of mistaken identity (which frequently involves characters disguising themselves as one another) and a play as such wouldn’t be complete without satirical comments on social class. The Croswell season has already reached, and forgive my pun, new “heights” this summer as they have reopened the doors to the public after an extensive renovation that saw Michigan's oldest theatre getting updated with a brand new lobby, the inclusions of a full service bar, and elevators to the seats on the upper balcony. Their shows, however, have also reflected that ambition. I’ve been lucky enough to see each show this summer and they all represent solid theatre. But I have to say, “Forum” represents the best staging so far.
“Forum” is an interesting show in that it was written at a time where it was seen as politically correct, and today some could roll their eyes at the sexism the writers incorporated into the piece. It still makes for terrific comedy, but at some expense. Director Mark DiPietro (who helmed “The Drowsy Chaperone” last summer for The Croswell) - keeps the pace and tempo of this show moving a mile a minute. And he has enlisted in a stellar cast that not only have the comedic chops to keep the laughs coming, the technical aspects and the set design only add to the flavor.
As mentioned before, “Funny Thing” is a frothy sendup of ancient Roman comedies, which themselves relied heavily on stock characters and bawdy jokes. This is true in DiPietro’s production, who brings his cast to be totally ridiculous and extra physical in their roles. When the slave Pseudolus (Ann Arbor native, Jared Hoffert) walks on stage for the opening number “Comedy Tonight” to make the audience laugh it feels correct. For his part, Hoffert succeeds widely, and is a superb Pseudolus, combining sharp comedic timing with a wonderfully hilarious high-stakes commitment to all his tricks and ruses.
The next song, “Free” has Pseudolus singing about how all he wants is to escape from his bondage. So when he finds out that his master Hero (played with such good boyish charm by Adrian’s own Xavier Sarabia) is in love with the courtesan next door, Philia (played with the right amount of ditz by Emily Hribar), he strikes a bargain with him. He’ll get him the girl, and Hero gives him his freedom. Sarabia is heartbreakingly silly as Hero who floats around the stage fluttering about how much he is in love with Philia. And his voice offers up a soothing rendition of “Lovely.” As the virginal Philia, Hribar matches Sarabia's charm, as the, less than smart, courtesan who believes everything she is saying. The character is such a clutz, that it makes her occasional sexual overtures all the more priceless.
So what’s stopping these two lovebirds from riding their horse off into the Roman sunset? Quite a bit actually, as it turns out. First, there is Hero’s mother, Domina (Julia Hoffert), who is obsessed with keeping her son ignorant about the mysteries of romance until she sees fit. Hoffert, who is the wife to lead actor Jared Hoffert, displays a good balance with her vocal chops and embodies the perfect stereotype of a crazy mother (which reaches it’s peak during her song “That Dirty Old Man”). She then charges her loyal slave Hysterium - (played by the scene stealing John MacNaughton) - to uphold her wishes while she and her husband take a trip to the country. MacNaughton is a laugh out loud riot. He presents such an aroma of energy on that stage, that it becomes impossible to take your eyes off of him, as he jumps from scene to scene trying to resolve as many issues as he can, he is very anxious despite his ironically titled song “I’m Calm.”
But it isn’t just the wishes of parents and watchful slaves that wreak havoc on Pseudolus’ matchmaking quest to freedom. You see, Philla has been promised by her master Marcus Lycus (Stephen Kiersey) to Captain Miles Gloriosus (Cordell Smith), a renowned soldier who is held in high esteem by everybody in Rome. Kiersey does a fine job in his character performance as does Smith who struts around with his pompous ego, that his catchy numbers like “Bring Me My Bride” and the absolutely hilarious “Funeral Sequence” seem well in place.
As if that wasn’t enough, Hero’s father Sennex (Ron Baumanis) returns home from his trip early to find Philia, who, not surprisingly, mistakes him for her captain, throwing herself all over him. The next hilarious set piece finds father and son falling in love with the same woman. The conundrum of which is showcased in the fun number “Impossible.” Thankfully for Sennex the house of his next door neighbor Erroneous (William E. McCloskey) is empty. And, believe it or not, more hijinks ensues.
Naturally, the Croswell production is also backed by a slew of strong supporting characters that all get their due in the spotlight. John Bacarella, Mark Hyre, and AJ Howard play the ensemble of characters that shift in and out of scenes playing various characters, from soldiers to slaves. But the show wouldn't be complete without the musical backdrop that are boasted by a seasoned orchestra headlined by musical director Jonathan Sills. On the tech aspect, aside from a few muffled sound miscues on opening night, all flowed well. U of M graduate, Leo Babcock brings life to the stage as we see a set that allows many levels for our actors to work off. (Philia at one point, ends up on the roof of a house two stories up). They’re also, many, many, doors for our actors to run in and out off. Which culminates in the second act during, what the production team calls, “The Chase” sequence. It’s a sequence where we see every character run around the stage in a beautifully synchronized fashion. It’s likely the best scene you’ll see on the Croswell stage this summer.
Meg McNamee does no small task at costuming this beast, and makes it look easy and Chris Goosman mixes the sound design perfectly into the show.
All of the songs are a toe-tapping good time, with each punchline hitting their mark. Sometimes the pacing can be a tad off putting and the suggestive humor could make you wonder if you should leave the young ones at home (most of the humour would likely go over their heads anyhow). But the greatest strength is seeing community theatre at it’s gosh darn best. The city of Adrian should be so fortunate, and if you live in surrounding areas you probably should make time this weekend to go see it. With these dark times infesting our country, there is no doubt that we could all use, a comedy tonight.
“A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” continues this weekend August 18th and 19th at 8:00 p.m and August 20th at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $35.
For more info and to purchase tickets head to www.croswell.org