Stoneham’s ‘Forum’: Well-performed comedic chaos

From the left: Neil A. Casey, Jenna Lea Scott, Devin Bean, Nicholas Davis, Jordan Ahnquist, and Angelo McDonough in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Photo: Mark S. Howard

From the left: Neil A. Casey, Jenna Lea Scott, Devin Bean, Nicholas Davis, Jordan Ahnquist, and Angelo McDonough in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

STONEHAM – Before Stephen Sondheim got wrapped up in fractured fairy tales, homicidal barbers and the like, he found himself knee-deep in a piece of supreme silliness.

The 1962 musical comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” now at the Stoneham Theatre through Oct. 4, is notable for being the first play for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, and his trademark cleverness shines in the witty lyrics.

And even though he was just starting out as a theatrical composer and wasn’t quite the Sondheim we’d come to know and love, he did pen for this show “Comedy Tonight,” and the funny “Everyone Ought to Have a Maid.”

One of the reasons “Forum” succeeded then and now is the Tony Award-winning book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, who would later go on to create the TV series “M*A*S*H.”

Devin Bean, top, and Chip Phillips in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Photo: Mark S. Howard

Devin Bean, top, and Chip Phillips in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

The Shevelove-Gelbart team has crafted the piece to run at a frenetic pace — get in, get the laugh, and get out, much like the TV sitcom, even though its actual roots have to do with the farces written by the Roman playwright Plautus in the Second Century B.C.

In Roman days, a large-scale spectacle was called a circus maximus. Every circus needs a ringmaster, and in this case it’s Neil A. Casey, long one of the finer comic actors in the area. Here he’s Pseudolus, a slave who longs to be free and believes he has found a way to that freedom.

Casey is as quick on his feet as they come, and especially so with an ad lib or an unscripted one-liner. Uncontrolled chaos is his milieu of choice, and “A Funny Thing” works best when he works in tandem with John James Pirroni, a capable partner in crime as Hysterium, the head slave in the House of Senex who is exasperated when he gets caught up in Pseudolus’ plots.

Liana Asim makes her Stoneham debut as Marcus Lycus, the proprietor of the House of Lycus, which deals in the pleasures of the flesh, and her courtesans (Maria LaRossa and Ceit M. Zweil) attract the attention of young Hero (Jordan Ahnquist), who lives adjacent to the brothel in the House of Senex.

Shevelove and Gelbart had some real fun with the Roman names, including Senex (Chip Phillips — A clue – senile is derived from it) and Stoneham favorite Kathy St. George as his his ultra-suspicious, shrewish wife Domina, who as usual knocks her song (“That’ll Show Him”) out of the park.

There’s some fine young talent backing them up. Jenna Lea Scott has a nice comic turn and a running gag as Erronious (another clever pun), a neighbor of Lycus and Senex, who is persuaded to circle the seven hills of Rome seven times as he struggles to comply with the “instructions” given him by “soothsayer” Pseudolus as part of Erronius’ search for his missing children..

Angelo McDonough made a splash as Bud Frump in Stoneham’s “How to Succeed in Business” and has some nice moments as a Protean.

Stoneham has had much success in integrating into its mainstage productions actors and actresses who grew up in its young company program. “Forum” has a fine performance by Winchester High senior Devin Bean as Philia, the would-be courtesan in the House of Lycus who is actually still a virgin and under contract to be wed to the towering, glowering Roman captain Miles Gloriosus (a very funny Mark Linehan), and who longs instead to be with Hero.

Along the way, there are the traditional elements of farce: multiple instances of mistaken identity, slapstick chases, characters in drag, doors opening and closing, etc.

Mathhew Lazure’s set makes good use of the front entrances of three adjacent homes as well as a centerstage trap door for entrances and exits.

It’s all wrapped up happily in a messy, convoluted but undoubtedly happy ending for Hero and Philia, the now-free Pseudolus and almost everyone else save for Senex and Domina, who are still unhappily married.

Ilyse Robbins and Weylin Symes co-direct and Robbins’ choreography is fine, but “Forum” is more about the comedy than the singing and dancing, befitting a show that once starred the late Zero Mostel, who really couldn’t do either.

There is no “message” in “A Funny Thing” other than to relax, sit back, and enjoy some “Comedy Tonight” from some skilled, seasoned pros and up-and-coming talent.

The Stoneham Theatre production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Directed by Weylin Symes and Ilyse Robbins. Choreography by Ilyse Robbins. At the Stoneham Theatre through Oct. 4. http://www.stonehamtheatre.org.

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