People who accuse Stephen Sondheim of being too highbrow have usually not encountered “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” It was his first music-and-lyrics score for Broadway and ran for two years on its high-octane promise of “comedy tonight!”
The production that just opened at Foothill Music Theatre boasts an impressive set (Kuo-Hao Lo), good lighting (Michael Ramsaur) and excellent sound (Andrew Heller), but mostly misses its low-comedy mark.
The story, taken from Plautus, centers on Pseudolus, a Roman slave for whom no artifice is too risky or convoluted to gin up his path to freedom. Doug Santana has clearly studied the (Jason) Alexander technique, so if you like your slaves cranky, this bud’s for you, but the deficit of charm makes it hard to cheer through his wacky exploits.
Hero (Anthony Stephens) and Philia (Jessica Whittemore) — the “lovers divided” who “get coincided” — share some sweetly loopy moments, accented by Stephens’ endearingly unselfconscious giggle.
Domina (Jenifer Tice) and Senex (Todd Wright) are Hero’s agenda-crossed parents. Wright is expansive and winning in his surprise at being the unexpected object of the affections of a pretty courtesan. Tice lives up to her character’s name, but needs to get more comfortable with the physical comedy of her spotlight song, “That Dirty Old Man.”
Marcus Lycus (Ray D’Ambrosio) makes for a shifty procurer, but Hysterium (Mike Meadors), slave to Domina, doesn’t really find his footing until Act II. However, joined by Stephens and Wright, they do help make “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” the production’s highlight number.
Miles Gloriosus (Scotty Shoemaker) looks the comedy warrior part but really needs to plumb the depths of his inner himbo, and Erronious (alternatingly played by Steven Ho and Jake Van Tuyl) looks like he wandered in from a neighboring production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The remaining courtesans suffer the usual community theater fate of being asked to project sex appeal in decidedly unsexy costumes, with dances that feel difficult to execute and are accompanied by a hit-or-miss orchestra directed by Katie Coleman.
Co-directors Milissa Carey and Michael Ryken understand the material, particularly the genius book by Larry Gelbart (creator of the iconic series “M*A*S*H”) and Burt Shevelove. Ryken also contributes the excellent physical choreography of the madcap trio of Proteans. Unfortunately, they just can’t squeeze the right kind of energy out of the cast, as becomes painfully obvious in what should be a slapstick chase in Act II.
If you go
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Presented by Foothill Music Theatre
Where: Smithwick Theatre, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 9
Tickets: $12 to $32
Contact: (650) 949-7360, foothillmusicals.comA Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumFoothill Music TheatreStephen Sondheim