What to expect from a vaudevilluvian farce such as Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 2013? (Yes, I made that word up.) The women are strippers, the men are incompetent, and even the title is a clunky mouthful. You probably wouldn’t want to bring the whole family along, lest the kids be confused by the smutty asides and the grandparents dismayed—or, worse, overly excited—by the shaking of nipple tassels after intermission.
Still, the holidays are for old-fashioned fun, whether the “fun” be sugar plum fairies or miserly grumps or women dressed as flamingoes and warrior princesses being sold into slavery. Alan Paul’s sparkling, positively cinematic production currently playing at Shakespeare Theatre is a lavish spectacle, and full of enough retro flair you half expect a black-and-white Fred Astaire to come tap dancing out of the wings. Ignore the hoary old plot, so dated even Pliny the Elder might turn up his distinctly Roman nose, and focus on the songs, which are, like Lora Lee Gayer’s Philia, just lovely.
One of Sondheim’s earliest musicals, the show features a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, the latter of whom went on to create M*A*S*H a decade later. Bruce Dow, last seen at Shakespeare playing Bottom in 2012’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, returns as Pseudolus, the conniving and corpulent slave who barters with his master, Hero (Nick Verina), for his freedom. Along the way he’s helped and hindered by Hysterium (the always brilliant Tom Story) and distracted by a fleet of concubines at the brothel next door, run by Danny Rutigliano’s hapless Marcus Lycus.
The design of the show is so slick it almost clashes with the comedy, although Dow delivers with manic energy, tossing fake babies at audience members and breaking character gleefully to acknowledge when a piece of choreography doesn’t quite go according to plan. When Marcus Lycius parades the concubines in front of Pseudolus, his eyes bulge out so violently that he’s reminiscent of a toga-clad Roger Rabbit. Speaking of which, the parade of Playboy-ready Gymnasia (Jennifer Frankel), the Geminae twins (Ashley Blair Fitzgerald and Sarah Meahl), Vibrata (Lisa Karlin), Panacea (Chelsey Arce), and Tintinabula (Ashley Marinelli) makes the most of David C. Woolard’s vibrantly smutty costumes and Josh Rhodes’s gymnastic choreography.
But it’s Gayer who steals both the show and Hero’s heart, thanks to her insanely dimwitted but sweetly naive turn as Philia. She has the Marilyn Monroe-like ability to make dumb seem both adorable and deliberate while uttering lyrics such as, “Oh, isn’t it a shame? I can neither sew, nor cook, nor read or write my name.” Next to the frantic and ill-conceived scheming going on around her, Philia’s guileless idiocy feels rather refreshing.
Still, if the caricaturish elements are necessarily OTT (Woolard decks out the Proteans in fake rubber bellies and gives Edward Watts’s Miles Gloriosus thighs the size of Hercules), the music is all sorts of refined, featuring a live band led by Adam Wachter. James Noone’s set is also a treat, featuring sharply geometric houses in black and white reaching up from a modern black marble floor (all the better to contrast with the garish hues of Pseudolus’s toga). In the season of festive frivolity, you could do worse than snigger at Shevelove and Gelbart’s gags, even if they’re older than Rome itself.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is at Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall through January 5. Running time is about two and a half hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($20 to $110) are available via Shakespeare Theatre’s website.