The actors in North Coast Rep’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” work up enough antic comic energy to levitate a fleet of chariots.
All that exertion (and talent), though, can’t quite manage to shake the dust off the Stephen Sondheim-composed 1962 musical about love, lust and slapstick-y subterfuge in ancient Rome.
Whether you find the vaudeville-minded humor of “Forum” to be inspired or just kind of corny is, of course, a matter of taste. What seems less up for debate is that parts of this show —which NCRT programmed more than a year ago — land a little awkwardly in a post-#MeToo era.
Comedies that poke fun at human weakness and barely suppressed lechery may be timeless, but such moments in the piece as “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” — an ode to “obedient and pliable” domestic workers that features such lyrics as “wouldn’t she be delicious / tidying up the dishes” — maybe ought to have stayed in 1962.
But while “Forum” is not remotely Sondheim’s finest to begin with, director and NCRT artistic chief David Ellenstein has amassed something of an all-star cast for this admirably ambitious production, including a couple of excellent dancers and some of San Diego’s top comic actors.
They number 13 altogether, and — might as well say this now, because it needs to be said — not one of them is a person of color. Given that representation is a huge topic in theater right now (locally and nationally), it’s surprising to see, particularly for a theater that in the past has shown an enthusiasm for diversity.
Even the 1966 film version of “Forum” had a more racially diverse cast than this production more than 50 years later; why it couldn’t happen here, with an ensemble that’s among the largest NCRT has ever fielded, is a puzzle. Theater, after all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it seems as though a revival both ought to exist for a reason and find a way to speak to our time.
“Forum,” in its defense, does still deliver laughs under Ellenstein’s skilled direction, particularly as the comedy turns more frenetic and physical in the second act. And the show has a strong pedigree: Writers Burt Shrevelove and Larry Gelbart based it on the farces of the Roman playwright Plautus.
The unstoppable Omri Schein, an NCRT regular, stars as the slave Pseudolus, a consummate wheedler who launches an elaborate plot to earn his freedom.
That scheme involves getting the virginal courtesan Philia (a sweet-voiced Noelle Marion), who resides in the house of the flesh merchant Marcus Lycus (David McBean), paired off with the lovestruck Hero (Chris M. Kauffman), son of the aristocrat Senex (Andrew Ableson).
To work the deal, though, Pseudolus has to navigate complications from the likes of Senex’s wife, Domina (the matchless Melinda Gilb); the excitable slave-in-chief Hysterium (Kevin Hafso Koppman, another top comic talent); and the befuddled elder Erronius (John Greenleaf), who still seeks two of his children kidnapped years earlier by pirates.
And if that’s not enough, in strides Miles Gloriosus, the vain military hero played with perfectly over-the-top posturing by Jason Maddy.
Missy Marion and Jean Schroeder also step in with impressive dance sequences (choreographed by Colleen Kollar Smith), and Amy Perkins and Luke H. Jacobs grab some good comic moments, although both feel a bit underused.
Everything about the show comes off as polished, from the playing of musical director Ron Councell’s four-piece band to Elisa Benzoni’s splashy costumes to Marty Burnett’s suitably whimsical set, host to several “slamming door” comic sequences.
Maybe it’s not time to shut the door on “Forum” just yet — but a funny thing happens to some shows when times and ideas change.
‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 12.
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Tickets: $45-$56 (discounts available)
Phone: (858) 481-1055