By AILEEN JACOBSON
It might be hard to imagine how three large Roman houses could fit onto the small stage at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. But Michael Schweikardt, the set designer for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” has created an airy street of mini-mansions, each seemingly two stories high, with usable second-floor balconies. And Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director and choreographer, has flooded the colorful stage with the high-spirited antics and zany gags that have made this show a theatrical treasure since it opened on Broadway in 1962 with Zero Mostel in the lead.
Here, Peter Scolari plays the lead role of Pseudolus, a slave who desires above all else to gain his freedom, in an engaging performance that is deadpan and droll, filled with understated comic gestures and low-key asides that work well in Bay Street’s intimate space. Borrowing characters and plots from bawdy works written by the Roman playwright Plautus around 200 B.C., Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart mixed in the more recent traditions of burlesque and vaudeville to concoct a daffy comedy that has often been enhanced by actors’ asides and directorial flourishes.
When “Comedy Tonight,” the initial salvo of Stephen Sondheim’s inspired score, refers to opening the theater’s curtain, Mr. Scolari interjects, without interrupting the song, “We couldn’t afford a curtain — this is Bay Street” (which has had some financial difficulties). Later he names a few Long Island locations in a rapid patter that boosts the show’s madcap pace. Several visual jokes — a salad bowl, a gnome figurine, a set of shopping bags from a nearby mall — bring giggles in unexpected places. (Kathy Fabian is the prop designer.)
These additions, though welcome, are hardly needed in a musical already chock-full of clever jokes — “something for everyone,” as Sondheim’s lyric proclaims. The plot is set in motion when Pseudolus and his master, Hero, strike a bargain that Pseudolus will gain his freedom if he can secure for Hero the young woman he loves. The problem is that she is a courtesan at the neighboring house belonging to Marcus Lycus, a procurer, and has already been purchased by a powerful warrior, Miles Gloriosus, who is on his way to get her.
Complications arise that involve a simpering slave named Hysterium; another neighbor, Erronius, who has been searching for his lost children for 20 years; and Hero’s parents, the lecherous Senex and his bossy wife, Domina. The plot includes a wild chase, a fake funeral and a sweetly ridiculous e
xample of cross-dressing. A number in which the courtesans next door strut their stuff is so outlandish that it acts as a parody of showgirl display while blatantly showing off quite a bit — a commentary that overrides the sexism.
Mr. Sondheim, in the first musical for which he wrote both lyrics and music, adroitly subverted topics that could have proved to be minefields. Among them is the lascivious song “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” which is so delightfully cockeyed in its double entendres and intricate rhymes (“Wouldn’t she be delicious/ tidying up the dishes”) that all is forgiven. With a jaunty tune and more of those shimmying rhymes (“He’s just a sprout” and “He’s all worn out”), Mr. Sondheim sidesteps the ick factor in “Impossible,” in which Hero and his father separately consider the possibility that the other is having a romance with the object of Hero’s affections.
Conrad John Schuck, who plays the philandering father with good-natured aplomb, is part of an excellent cast. As his wife, Jackie Hoffman, always a deft comedian, brings bittersweet muscle to her solo about her husband, “That Dirty Old Man.” Nick Verina, as Hero, and Lora Lee Gayer, as the innocent Philia, his beloved, make a winsome pair singing “Lovely,” in which she explains that being lovely is the only thing she can do.
Tom Deckman, playing the jittery Hysterium, gives the same song a loonier spin when he reprises it later in a duet with Mr. Scolari. Laurent Giroux plays the procurer Marcus Lycus with a bright cartoonish edge (aided by a hairdo that Edward J. Wilson, the wig designer, went all out on), and Nathaniel Hackmann, as the vain Gloriosus, humorously gives the impression of being a giant, even though he’s not. Likewise, the five-person band led by Ethyl Will delivers a sound far fuller than its size would suggest. Throughout this production, small elements make big impressions.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, through Sept. 1 at the Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Information: (631) 725-9500 or baystreet.org.
Posted: August 19, 2013