If you’re looking for a few laughs, attend a comedy. If you’re looking for nonstop laughter, then you need vaudeville.
And that’s what director David Gardiner is looking to deliver in the Viterbo University production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
“The students and audience will not be familiar with this type of comedy,” he said, but they will connect with it.
Inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus (251 to 183 BC), the musical tells the bawdy story of a slave named Pseudolus and his attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master woo the girl next door.
The plot displays classic elements of farce, including puns, slamming doors, mistaken identity and satirical comments on social class. The title derives from the line that vaudeville comedians often used to begin a story: “A funny thing happened on the way to the theater.”
“I’m emphasizing something that doesn’t get quite so much emphasis,” Gardiner said. “A number of the songs have a kind of patter and soft-shoe rhythm. There are lots of comic bits. It’s a farce, so there are lots of chases,” he said, and a large cast that includes a clever servant, empty-headed lovers and a lustful old husband.
“The show that we’re doing is very colorful. The costumes are a treat for the eyes. The music is really a treat,” he said, because it was written by Stephen Sondheim.
“We’ll use that vaudeville humor,” he said.
But first he had to teach his cast about that kind of humor, so he showed them Marx Brothers movies and Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons to give them a feel for the vaudeville structure.
“Everybody sat around, ate popcorn and watched the movies,” Gardiner said. “This was a first one for many of them. Farces, simple plots, a sense of mounting desperation and very, very physical humor.”
“We have great singers, and we’re having a lot of fun,” Gardiner said.
So is music director Nancy Allen, who said the students put on Vaudeville shows for each other after watching the Marx Brothers so they could get a feel for the genre.
“It was amazing watching them flexing their comedy muscles. David did a great job.”
Because it’s Sondheim, the music is great, she said. “There’s great vitality and rhythm.”
And because it’s Sondheim, “It’s very wordy, with fast diction. It’s an earlier Sondheim production, so the meters aren’t as difficult. The difficulty is getting all the words out to the audience.
“The orchestral score and accompaniment is pretty difficult,” she said so Gardiner has pared down the orchestra to add to the vaudeville feel and to simplify things.
“He would like more Vaudeville. It’s probably a lot more intimate and more fun.”
“Timing will be a big issue,” Gardiner said. “It’s a traffic play, with lots of chases.”
“David is doing a wonderful job of developing these kids’ sense of comic timing. It’s really really going to be fun for the audience,” Allen said. “If people don’t come out of there wiping the tears from laughing ... It’s just a slice of great fun.”