Theater Review - Toga party

Tavern goes over the top for Forum

The Shakespeare Tavern swaps Elizabethan tights for Roman togas by staging Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The Tavern typically takes a silly approach to Shakespeare’s comedies and with Forum, it seems delighted to take a whack at a show with jokes written in the 1960s, as opposed to the turn of the 17th century.

Forum is the theater’s first Broadway musical, and director Heidi Cline and company strive to do right by its songs, but the show’s main priority is getting laughs by any means available. At times, Forum doesn’t just lightly tickle the audience’s funny bone but roughly tackles it. Nevertheless, it’s hard to resist a show with such a puppyish eagerness to please.

In writing Forum’s book, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (future creator of the “MASH” TV series) didn’t just evoke old-fashioned vaudeville-era clowning, they reached way back to the Roman comedies of Plautus for inspiration. Forum begins with a deceptively simple premise: Wisecracking slave Pseudolus (Clark Taylor) can win freedom from his owner Hero (Brandon O’Dell) if he unites the young man with the girl next door, Philia (Viveka Chandrasekaran), a vacuous virgin.

The problem is that Philia’s residence is a house of ill repute. Not only does the panderer Lycus (Jeff Watkins) own Philia, he’s already sold her to a bloodthirsty warrior named Miles Gloriosus (big-voiced Daniel J. Cook). Pseudolus’ attempts to secure Philia’s release sets off an increasingly tangled series of complications, like the fact that Hero’s hen-pecked father Senex (Tony Brown), believing Philia to be his new maid, becomes an unwitting romantic rival to his son.

The Pseudolus role, played on Broadway by the likes of Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, lends itself to the broad hamminess of one of the classic clowns of stage or screen. Clark Taylor has an ingratiating comfort level before a crowd but tends to strain for effect. Delivering lines from the corner of his mouth, he pays tribute to famous pieces of shtick rather than finding his own comic voice.

Forum’s most outrageously funny performance comes from Jeff McKerley as the aptly named Hysterium, “chief slave” of the Senex household and Pseudolus’ reluctant accomplice. Whooping and flailing, McKerley goes wildly over the top but still manages to build a consistent performance. He does double-duty as Forum’s choreographer, coming up with footwork that ranges from the old-fashioned soft shoe to the most idiotic dance steps of today, including an invocation of the macarena.

Forum’s most famous number is the introductory piece “Comedy Tonight,” one of the most catchy and appealing songs Sondheim ever wrote. Concocting such rhymes as “eunuchs” and “tunics,” “Comedy Tonight” generates such cheer and energy that it could nearly sustain Forum through to the end.

Not that the rest of Forum’s songs are substandard, and in fact, the show has an unusual relationship to its music. In most musicals, the songs tend to be the most heightened, exaggerated moments. But Forum goes to such slapstick extremes that the songs (with exceptions like Hysterium’s “I’m Calm”) can be the play’s mellowest scenes. When the farce reaches frenetic levels, the subtle showmanship of numbers like O’Dell and Brown’s mutually suspicious “Impossible” or O’Dell and Chandrasekaran’s airhead duet “Lovely” comes as a welcome breather.

But this Forum places a higher premium on humor than musicianship. Some bits are amusingly timely, like a throwaway Lord of the Rings quip or the feathered “pimp” hat Watkins wears. If the Tavern’s Forum goes for quantity over quality, the guffaws exceed the groans by a (rubber) nose.