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By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

No matter how many times one sees one of the funniest, most hilarious, musical comedy-farce  productions of the last 50 years, one still cannot help but enjoy the sheer madness and outrageous comedy audaciousness of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” , created by the legendary Broadway team of Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart.

The only comedy writer/playwright with a better comedy track record than Shakespeare is the incomparable legendary Neil Simon, author of more than 33 Broadway smash hits with three of them running simultaneously in a single season!  No one has ever done that before or is it likely to achieve that again. Gelbart created TV’s MASH, Shevelove wrote Radio, TV, and movie comedies with Gelbart, and the Bard’s comedy credits are too numerous to list here.  Need I say more?

Which brings us then to the gold standard of The American musical comedy:  Either “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” or “Gypsy” are the recognized candidates. So choose your pick.  Both are bullet proof when it comes to music, lyrics, and librettos in structure, and execution.  Both are just flat out great entertainment.

So as long as North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) is presenting “Forum” as the final production of its 36th season, it’s proper and fitting to review one of the best examples of a block-buster musical hit for audiences of NCRT.

“Forum” is the result of judicious research of playwrights of yore, by play director David Ellenstein, who  did his homework well; coming up with a favorite of his and mine, in the process. If I were to attempt to boil down a plot synopsis that would make sense of the onstage shenanigans from this gifted cast of top comedy-farceurs, I wouldn’t be able to finish this review in time for my paper. So with a mea culpa to Director Ellenstein, I’m borrowing and paraphrasing some his research notes.

This wacky play was originally written and staged by bawdy Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus 2000 years ago. It’s a play
about sly servants, senile skirt-chasers, hen pecked husbands, domineering matrons, lovesick young, and comely courtesans, with hearts of gold; all mixed up in mistaken identities, disguises, double takes and double-entendres.

If Marty Burnett, resident Set Design wizard could take the NCRT production of “Around the World in 80 Days, on their cozy stage imagine what he and Lighting designer Matt Novotny could do with Rome, The Forum, and its environs, replete with the gorgeous gossamer costumes for sexy dancing girl outfits designed by Elisha Benzoni, along with authentic looking togas and robes for the male actors.  The costume for Roman Captain Miles Gloriosus makes one want fall in line and march off to a battle somewhere.  The choreography of Colleen Kollar Smith is tastefully done and is delicious to watch.

In making all the silliness come alive, belongs to a talented and gifted company professional actors, who when they find themselves on stage in a comedy-farce know exactly what to do and how to  do it. There are thirteen splendid actors who make the magic happen.

NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein who is also the director of “Forum” made a smart choice in casting Omri Schein in the lead role of Pseudolus, the slave who will do anything to buy his freedom.  It’s a star turn in a cast chock full of clever, talented, and inventive performers. Mr. Schein has energy and comedy timing to burn.  It’s a very impressive performance.

Kevin Hafso Koppman as Hysterium, delivers a highly nuanced comedy gem of a performance as the harrassed head servant/slave in the House of Senex;  Andrew Ableson as Senex ; the man who can’t quite catch the young Virgin Philia, sweetly  and naively played Noelle Marion; Chris M. Kauffmann as Hero, the love interest of Philia; Melinda Gilb as Domina, ‘she who must be obeyed’ and wife of Senex;  John Greenleaf as Erronius, who keeps searching the Hills around Rome for his two children who were captured by Pirates years ago (Remember, I told you it was a complicated story); Jason Maddy as the commanding Captain Miles Gloriosus of the Roman army; Luke H. Jacobs as Protean/Eunuch; Jean Schroeder as Tintinabula, an exotic dancer from the House of Marcus Lycus; Amy Perkins as dancer Protean/Panacea, also from the House of Marcus Lycus; Missy Marion as Protean/ Vibrata , yes, she too is from the House of Marcus Lycus, and David McBean as the man himself Marcus Lycus, in a terrifically inventive, fresh, scene stealing performance as Rome’s  procurer extraordinaire.

There so many inventive directorial touches in this production that have the creative fingerprints of David Ellenstein all over it, makes NCRT attendance mandatory.

This cast is as close as one can get to a nearly flawless production.  The live musicians under the direction of Ron Councell feature: James Beauton, percussion, Sean Laperruque, Violin, Viola, Keyboard (2), Jim George, woodwins, and Ron Councell on Keyboard (1).  In a musical production there is no substitute for live musicians over tracks.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach, CA and runs through August 12, 2018. Don’t Miss It!