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LIGHTNING REVIEW: 'Funny Thing' lights up the Playhouse stage

The supple legs of Mary Claire King (Gymnasia), Nick Santa Maria (Pseudolus), Scott Cote (Lycus) and Sam Sherwood (Hero) star in 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' at the Flat Rock Playhouse. The supple legs of Mary Claire King (Gymnasia), Nick Santa Maria (Pseudolus), Scott Cote (Lycus) and Sam Sherwood (Hero) star in 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' at the Flat Rock Playhouse.

What catches the eye from the start of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is the way designer Stephen Terry has bathed the stage in light.

The amped up lighting has a way of accenting the joy of a two-hour show that's just fun. No social message. No dark meaning. No heavy anthems.
Come to think of it, it's as simple as Pseudolus promises:
"Old situations, new complications
"Nothing portentous or polite
"Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight"
Take a script by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (who later created M*A*S*H) and songs by Stephen Sondheim, add a sensational cast of veteran actors and its a recipe that can't go wrong, right? No. everything goes wrong, when it comes to the story. But the performance on stage, under the deft comic touch of director Lisa K. Bryant, goes right. Bryant has made sure the show plays light throughout.We get a hint from the way the actors perform that they had fun during rehearsal, taking a chance here, inventing an ad lib there. The result is a show that has a more up-to-date tone without sacrificing the sense that this is the way theater used to be — and I mean that in a good way.
I was enthusiastic about the prospects for "Forum" as soon as I learned that the Playhouse had cast Nick Santa Maria as the lead. Santa Maria made me a believer in his hilarious performance as the lead comic writer in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," back in the spring. Paired again with the beloved veteran Scott Treadway and a host of other vagabonds, Santa Maria leads the performers through the paces of the show, which has scarcely a moment of downtime. It's said that the producers drafted Sondheim to add music because the show as straight comedy — to be oxymoronic about it — was too funny. The audience had no time to breathe between belly laughs. Maybe that's myth. But as we say in the newsroom: too good to check.
Sort of like "Twelfth Night" or "A Midsummer Night's Dream," story is secondary to the visual and vocal laugh lines.
But here goes: Pseudolus (Santa Maria) wants his freedom more than anything in the world and can figure out no way to get it. His owner, Hero (Sam Sherwood), falls in love with Philia, a virginal courtesan in training (Lilly Tobin) at the brothel run by the sleazy Lycus (Scott Cote, who had the Playhouse audience in stitches as Harry the Horse in "Guys and Dolls"). Lycus, unfortunately for Hero, has already sold Philia to Miles Gloriosus, the hunky but pompous Roman captain, played with impressive pecs and quads by Jarid Faubel. If Pseudolus can figure out a way to win Philia for his Hero, Hero will grant his freedom.
Add in a trio of guards who prance and mug for two hours, Hero's father (Preston Dyar) and witchy mother (Linda Edwards), the bevy of beauties from the brothel (featuring the stunningly flexible Mary Claire King, as the fittingly named Gymnasia) and appearances by the most seasoned of veteran vagabonds — Ralph Redpath, Janie Bushway and Betsy Bisson — and you have a mashup of comedy and song that does not disappoint.
As Hysterium, Treadway gets to display the full range of his comic portfolio. He's stressed out, put upon and devious. He dashes to and fro in a chase scene. With Philia, he stages the back-to-back revolving search; neither can see one another despite the fact that only a foot separates them. And of course he's forced to play a woman as part of Pseudolus's preposterous plan to fool the Roman captain.
Mistaken identity, near misses, rapid-fire dialog and narrow escapes lead us in one big circle back to where we started, with Pseudolus's promise fulfilled.
"Nothing with gods, nothing with fate
"Weighty affairs will just have to wait."
At the Playhouse, it's just "comedy tonight" (almost) every night, for three weeks. If you've been waiting for a hilarious fast-paced comedy that asks nothing of the audience but to go along with the fun, this show is for you.

* * * *

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is performed 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased by calling the Playhouse box office at 828-693-0731, toll-free at 866-732-8008 or online at