Oklahoma City — What happens when you combine Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics, the acting and singing of Yale-trained Star Trek: Voyager star Robert Picardo, and a book glorifying slavery, forced illiteracy, rape, and human trafficking, and mocking the disabled, the impotent, suicide, and homosexuality? That’s right, you get A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was presented by Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre (CityRep) in association with Oklahoma City Community College, directed by Jonathan Beck Reed.
Sondheim’s 1962 musical, inspired by the Roman comedies of Plautus and Borscht Belt comics, can only be viewed now as a cultural artifact, a 50-plus-year-old dinosaur with a super-catchy opening number, “Comedy Tonight.”
The premise, recasting Roman farces for 20th century audience, is a sound one. And indeed, it’s the farcical elements—slamming doors, mistaken identities, puns galore—that still work best. But the scantily clad prostitutes paraded before potential customers, dancing provocatively and at great length in “The House of Marcus Lycus” can, for contemporary audiences, hardly fail to remind us of the women and girls forced into similar fates today in brothels throughout the world.
Further, in the same month in which Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for his meditation on life in post-slavery America, the song “Free,” in which the slave Pseudolus first rhapsodizes about life beyond slavery and then acknowledges that the freedom to provide for oneself could be onerous indeed—he rethinks, “The way I am / I have a roof, three meals a day / And I don’t have to pay a thing.” While the song does continue with a confirmation that freedom is, indeed, the way to go, these lines echo 19th-century American ideas about slavery—the notion that American slaves were indeed better off than they would be if they were free and had to support themselves.
Yes, Sondheim’s music is timeless. But this book, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, is not. A couple of decades ago, in a Broadway revival of the musical, another Star Trek alum, Whoopi Goldberg, took on the role of Pseudolus. Casting an African-American (and a woman, no less) as the star seems like an ideal tool to ironize much of the dated material in the show; flip it on its head.
While certainly some audience members were Star Trek fans there to see the Doctor from Voyager, it seemed that the great majority of the audience were not. Indeed, as the audience exited the theater for intermission, one young woman was overheard to say, “the main guy looks JUST like that guy from Star Trek! It’s crazy!” In any case, Picardo exceled in his leading role as the slave Pseudolus. His voice is expressive and boasts considerable range. He brought just the right comic touch to his role, as well, excelling in the silliness of the farcical requiremens. Alex Enterline displayed a lovely tenor as the male love interest, Hero, and his range of simpering and silly facial expressions was spot-on. His beloved, Philia, maintained an appropriately vacuous expression and a pretty if limited voice as the utterly ignorant blonde beauty. (A joke that perhaps brought more laughs than it should was her persistent inability to distinguish between the concepts of “two” and “three.”)
While keyboard, bass, and percussion were live performers, under the musical direction of Charles Koslowske, the remainder of the scoring was provided by OrchEXTRA, a supplementing software. This is a big step up from completely “canned” music, but is also no doubt financially much more accessible than a live orchestra. For this production, it worked reasonably well, although DFW audiences have certainly been spoiled by Lyric Stage’s full-orchestra musical theater productions.
This is a capable theater company, and the production featured an excellent lead. Staging and costumes, particularly the Converse high tops in various hues sported by the men, were colorful and charming. It’s simply a show that is long past its prime.