Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
New Line Theatre

Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's recent reviews of Twelfth Night and Gloria: A Life

Kent Coffel and Cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
There's an interesting artistic conflict in the new production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at New Line Theatre in St. Louis (in the Marcelle Theatre). Co-director (and producer) Scott Miller has made a heartwarming fable out of Stephen Sondheim's 1962 musical, as you'd probably expect. But there's also a loving, lingering quality to the singing and musical accompaniment here that seems to treat a Borscht Belt comedy (with a Tony-winning book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) as if it were on a par with the later, far greater Sondheim musicals. Mr. Miller is right, of course, in showing that the musical genius was always there, waiting to be found. And he gently exposes it more clearly than ever.

In that sense, the New Line revival resolves the whole "young-Sondheim-versus-old-Sondheim-ness" of it all, musically–but did Scott Miller go too far in treating it all, including characterizations and comedy, as high art?

Sondheim never wrote another comedy after Forum–unless you count all those dizzyingly hilarious numbers in all the bittersweet plays and movies that followed, shimmering with complexity and towering over the theatre world for the next thirty or forty years. But in Forum, in 1962, the real, myriad-minded Sondheim seemed like the one who was cowering away in a veil in disguise as the ingenue, disinclined to be seen. Collaboration was always the rule in his career. But until this New Line revival, that later, towering Sondheim never really seemed to be the one "in charge," in Forum.

The outlines of his dry, acerbic wit have always been there. But it took a Zero Mostel (in the lead role) or, decades later, a Nathan Lane to add some kind of monstrous tension to it all. Turns out, Borscht Belt comedy was not really Sondheim's thing. Anyway, now, producer and co-director Scott Miller (author of the new book, "He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheim") embraces the later, greater Sondheim, in spite of the chronology, to reimagine a new Forum.

And as if by magic, or science, a musical lineage from shows like Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods seems to lead us backward into Forum–almost as if Mr. Miller and co-director/choreographer Chris Kernan were predicting all the great plays to come, from an earlier, less highly regarded musical. Mr. Miller once again finds the full clarity and complexity of Sondheim's music and musings, and that, as they say, turns out to be the "star" of our show in this particular case. (Although Forum originally won six Tonys, it was not nominated for its score; Lionel Bart's Oliver! won that year.)

So this year's Forum at New Line is a bit like honoring the composer before he seemed ready to honor himself. The show still manages plenty of charm and wit. But, lacking the incredible construction of a later Sondheim play and with no compensating dramatics in this new mounting, it's definitely more vegan than visceral when it comes to the comedy on the page.

Shevelove and Gelbart based the story on the plays of Plautus (254-184 BC), and so while the jokes are occasionally cerebral, the shape of the story is very basic, indeed. At intermission, when the woman across the aisle from me pooh-poohed it all as "dated," I had to wonder: "which date?" Historicity is the meta-joke here. In case you didn't know, the show is set in ancient Rome, with a strong 20th century vaudeville influence.

But, weirdly, in 1962, when it first debuted, Broadway was taking a big turn away from its own history, coinciding with the advent of the plays of the "angry young men" and taking a new direction which, ultimately, (shockingly) would favor the true, melancholy gifts of this composer over an oddball treasure like Forum, which still smacks of "Golden Age" Broadway. There must be a whole book to be written on that topic–how Osborne, Pinter, and Albee helped set Sondheim free.

This Forum is frequently delightful under Mr. Miller's co-direction, with the energetic Mr. Kernan. Many of the songs are enchanting. Kent Coffel is Pseudolus, the clever servant of youthful Hero, who has fallen in love with the young courtesan next door, Philia; ingenues Ian McCreary and Sarah Wilkinson are adorable, and sing beautifully, too. Mr. Coffel has an occasional echo of the arch comic Jack Benny in his manner and speech and is so adept on stage that he could probably direct traffic in Lower Manhattan, if called upon to do so. He seems gifted to stand at the intersection of great collisions.

But Rob Lippert's scenery, which looks perfect for chewing (like a collection of giant gingerbread houses), goes sadly untasted. Of course, if you compare this Pseudolus to the later Sondheim leads (as we are seemingly invited to do here), Bobby, from Company, would never have made a fool of himself with schtick either, in a show like this. That's the "later Sondheim" influence at work in this new revival, making Pseudolus the sophisticate we all aspire to be.

But if Sondheim the man (in 1962) wouldn't come to Sondheim the mountain (of his brilliant future legacy), then directors Miller and Kernan, and musical director Joe Simpson, are more than ready bridge the gap themselves. Their efforts pay off in the immaculate clarity of music and lyrics, in songs we can suddenly recognize as true to the overall legacy.

Jason Blackburn is great as Marcus Lycus, the brothel owner next door, genuinely delirious as the pace quickens. Gary Cox does nicely as the neighbor Erronius. And Danny Brown is very nearly perfect as Miles Gloriosus, the warrior who threatens to take Philia away. The very nice costumes are by Eileen Engel and there is excellent work from the band, too.

There are genuine laughs, as in the hellzapoppin' panic over a plague, which has a fresh, startling feel after COVID-19. Ann Hier Brown is excellent as Domina, a Margaret Dumont-ish wife to Hero's bemused father, Senex (Robert Doyle). Mr. Miller's male actors almost always underplay, while the women and transgendered characters often get to mug like mad. As if to prove the point, Chris Moore is surprisingly well-balanced as the household's number one slave, Hysterium, until he puts on women's clothing.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through June 24, 2023, at New Line Theatre, Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive (three blocks east of Powell Symphony Hall), St. Louis MO. A fenced, lighted parking lot is right across the street. For tickets and information, please visit

Pseudolus: Kent Coffel
Hysterium: Chris Moore
Hero: Ian McCreary
Philia: Sarah Wilkinson
Senex: Robert Doyle
Domina: Ann Hier Brown
Marcus Lycus: Jason Blackburn
Miles Gloriosus: Danny Brown
Erronius: Gary Cox
Proteans: Nathan Hakenewerth, Brittany Kohl Hester, Aarin Kamphoefner

Band: Conductor/Keyboard: Matthew Kauzlarich
Reeds: Kelly Austermann
Cello: Tyler Davis
Trumpet: Ron Foster
Brass: John Gerdes
Trombone: Adam Levin
Percussion: Clancy Newell

Directors: Scott Miller, Chris Kernan
Choreographer: Chris Kernan
Music Director: Joe Simpson
Stage Manager: Chelsie Johnston
Technical Director: Matt Stuckel
Sound Designer: Ryan Day
Costume Designer: Eileen Engel
Scenic Designer: Dr. Rob Lippert
Lighting Designer: Matt Stuckel
Props Manager: Erin Goodenough

Volunteer Coordinator: Alison Helmer
Graphic Designer: Matt Reedy