Before I begin, it should be noted that I accepted an invitation to go review the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s current production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum sincerely expecting to enjoy it. After all, I have relatively fond memories of the first time I saw the musical in MNM Theatre Company’s 2019 production, and who can ever go wrong with Sondheim, right?
But maybe farce, like fish, is something best enjoyed fresh and that quickly decays hereafter, or maybe my theatrical palate has simply matured since those early critical outings. Maybe this is also a different world than it was during those halcyon pre-pandemic days, or maybe it’s even that I’m becoming a bit of a grinch. Whatever the reason, I do have to truthfully say that I did not in fact enjoy the vast majority of the two hours I spent watching this iteration of the respected 1962 musical.
Yet before anyone can blame the cast, I’ll note that I actually found few faults with the fine ensemble showcased in this production. And the natural place to start naming standouts is with Scott Cote, who carries quite a lot of the show on his soldiers as slave and narrator figure Pseudolus. Keeping up with the marathon of a role at all remains a laudable feat, let alone with as much energy and charm as Cote dependably delivered!
Sean Williams Davis, who I was eager to see reprise his role after finding his performance one of the standouts of MNM’s production, also did not disappoint as he again commanded the stage as comedically egotistical Miles Gloriosus. Steven Huynh and Mackenzie Meadows shine vocally and bring a sweetness to the journey of young lovers Hero and Phillia, while Roberta Burke made the queenly Domina’s Act 2 number “That Dirty Old Man” one of the show’s highlights. In other supporting roles, Wayne LeGette, Paul Louis, Jeremy Morse, and Andrew Sellon also get plenty of chances to show off their comedic timing over the course of the madcap plot.
The production was also easy enough on the eyes, taking place against a colorful cartoonish backdrop and incorporating vibrant costumes including eclectic touches like a grape-themed underwear set as well as more typical period attire. But neither technical elements nor the rest of the hard-working ensemble could redeem the script, which I noted as outdated and anti-feminist even during my first viewing and which seems to have become even more intolerable in the meantime.
For one thing, while all the characters inevitably spend some time as the butt of the joke given the show’s farcical nature, the way in which the noblewoman Domina is vilified for being overbearing when she actually seems like one of the more together ones in the kingdom seems to have particularly misogynistic tones. So does the show’s treatment of its other major female character, Philia, a good-hearted would-be prostitute who is problematically portrayed as completely brainless when simple naivety likely would’ve sufficed.
The only other women in Forum’s world are Phillia’s fellow courtesans, who, during one extended sequence that I found especially distasteful, are made to parade themselves clad only in lingerie before a potential client as procurer Marcus Lycus describes his “merchandise” in an uncomfortably objectifying manner.
Similarly sexist overtones persist throughout and perhaps reach their apex in the number Everybody Ought To Have A Maid, in which character Senex describes how delightful it is to have an appealing female servant to leer at and to dominate. He is then joined in this sentiment by three other male characters who too seem to imagine their ideal woman as “obedient and pliable,” in this jauntily problematic ditty.
But these somewhat subjective implications also weren’t the only problem I had with A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Forum; the show also seems to have serious structural issues that render most of its score at complete odds with its slapstick fast-paced plot. Though both shtick and songs were well-delivered, the overall effect quickly became one of tedium as the music slowed down the action while doing nothing to make us actually care about the foolish characters on display. Sure, a few of the gags were still good for a laugh or two, but it wasn’t terribly far into the overlong Act 1 that I found myself hoping each number would be the last.
Perhaps the singular way that I could call this production an improvement on MNM’s is that it incorporates a more diverse cast, with three of the show’s leading roles being played by non-white actors and a few POC ensemble members in the mix as well. Yet even this feature of the show felt more like an attempt to avoid potential criticism than an expression of any coherent artistic ethos. Though, as I’ve noted in some of my other reviews, I generally don’t mind family resemblance or historical accuracy being thrown to the wayside if it allows for more inclusive casting, maybe it’s the fact that I was grasping so hard for anything about the production I could find remotely interesting that I this time wished there’d been a little more of a method.
For instance, including more deliberate racial differences between characters who had different places in the social hierarchy would’ve at least maybe injected some food for thought into the otherwise anodyne proceedings. But, then again, producing food for thought as opposed to amiable moneymakers doesn’t really seem to be topmost on the Maltz’s agenda, now does it?
Perhaps I wouldn’t be judging Forum so harshly if the last show I saw by the company, April’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, hadn’t also struck me as an intellectually and morally vapid exercise. It’s also worth noting that maybe I wouldn’t be as exasperated by their existence if I hadn’t seen two admittedly excellent out-of-town imports win Carbonell Awards for Maltz performances over actual South Floridians who I feel deserved recognition as much if not more.
But, especially given that Forum happens to be playing during a period in which the region seems to be oversaturated with a variety of more deserving works, I have to find myself hesitating to recommend a show that seems to be almost entirely out of alignment with my theatrical philosophy.
Curiously enough, this lack of alignment was thrown into particularly stark relief by my idea to make the Wednesday I saw the show into a manic double-header. In what may also be some sort of record as far as distance traversed in a singular day of SFL theatre-going, I ended up sprinting off of the Brightline just in time to make that evening’s performance of City Theatre’s What The Constitution Means To Me at the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theatre, a show which managed to be both more genuinely thought-provoking and more genuinely entertaining than all of Forum’s empty spectacle.
So, sure, maybe I’d still ordinarily avoid making such a direct comparison in what needn’t be a competition, but it’s not so much that I mean the Maltz any harm than that the deeper issues at play in this apparent dichotomy go far beyond the individual shows. Yes, maybe a frivolous comedy is indeed called for every now and then; but there are plenty of fun, lighthearted plays out there that aren’t as casually complicit in perpetuating toxic ideology. But beyond even that; when there’s only space for so many productions in each theatre’s season and on each individual audience member’s dance card, isn’t there a way in which it’s hard to justify taking potential resources away from a show that could potentially provoke a genuine change in perspective than to offer the cheap comforts of an easy laugh?