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Theatre Review: Imagine’s Frenetic ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’

This weekend, Imagine Productions opened a jubilant, lively production of the 1962 farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), directed by Chris Gallagher.

This blending/tweaking of every classical theater trope follows Pseudolus (Brandon Boring), a slave owned by wealthy Roman family Senex (Dave Hetrick) and Domina (Denae Sullivan), and assigned to their son Hero (Chris Bullwinkle), as Pseudolus works to secure Hero’s love Philia (Alexa Joy Rybinski) through a series of zany schemes to gain his freedom.
The book is the biggest stumbling block for modern audiences of Forum – many of the jokes were hoary and threadbare even in the early ‘60s and the bits that still feel crisp and modern throw those into deeper relief.

The reason this comedy remains beloved is the Sondheim score, his first Broadway production with lyrics and music, and the cast reminds us exactly why the songs are beloved.

The ribald dissection of genre, “Comedy Tonight” thrills under Boring’s leadership with excellent interjections and harmonies by the ensemble. Hetrick and Bullwinkle’s suspicious father and son duet “Impossible” glides along the perfect line between tender and sleazy. Pseudous’ rhapsody that sets the play in motion, “Free,” soars with an empathetic, grounded reading from Boring and burnished, chimaera call-backs and hype man duties from Bullwinkle.

Boring’s Pseudolus is the cornerstone that holds this Forum up and Hetrick’s Senex is the counterweight: a sly, self-aware representation of a man watching his end growing in its vision and an empire doing the same.

That low-key gravitational pull helps even songs like “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” work in spite of the dated content. “Maid” also works because of the sparkling, quirky barbershop interplay with Boring, Dan Hildebrand’s Hysterium and Preston Eberlyn’s Marcus Lycus (the latter two consistently funny, over-the-top foils throughout).

When the singing stops, the weaknesses of the book are hard to ignore. The cast gets some big laughs, but too much of the comedy is subsumed, made flatter and slower by Gallagher’s direction that seems to encourage everything to be broader and louder. Those excesses contribute to an overstuffed production that feels every bit of its two and a half hours.

Those qualms aside, this is an excellent chance to see some of the great comedic songs of the classic musical era beautifully sung.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through Saturday, February 29 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit imaginecolumbus.org.

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Richard Sanford

Richard Sanford is a freelance contributor to Columbus Underground covering the city’s vibrant theatre scene. You can find him seeking inspiration at a variety of bars, concert halls, performance spaces, museums and galleries.

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