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Shadowbox Musicals presents: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (A Review)

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Shadowbox Musicals debuted their latest production last night – Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and I’m already trying to figure out how soon I can go back to see it again.

Before going much further, I should point out that this isn’t a show I’d seen before, and didn’t know much going in other than that it was a Sondheim musical comedy. So bear in mind my review won’t be taking into account what other productions of the show have done, as I don’t have anything other than this performance to go on. So, consider yourself warned, and let’s proceed…

What I DID know going in, is that this show is Shadowbox’s deepest foray into traditional “showtunes”-style musicals yet. When I first saw it on the schedule for this year, I wasn’t sure what to think — I know they’ve been doing more than just “rock operas” in the musical series (see last year’s Cabaret), but this was Sondheim. Musical comedy. Not something that felt particularly “edgy” or “Shadowbox” to me. But hey, comedy is one of Shadowbox’s core talents, and they’ve long made a habit of challenging themselves to stretch expectations, so…

The band, and bandleader/guitarist Matt Hahn, probably had the biggest challenge adapting Sondheim’s orchestral score to a smaller, more rock-oriented ensemble. They did add some extra players, with Marilyn Boyd on clarinet, Noelle Grandison on flute, and Robert Robuck with an additional keyboard – but presumably still well short of what the piece was written for. At first I wasn’t sure how well this was going to work out, as the overture was very thin and warbly at times, with what sounded like synthesized strings, however, after those early bumps, the band was solid throughout the remainder of the show, bringing great energy to a fun collection of songs.

J.T. Walker III stars in the show as Pseudolus, the Roman slave yearning to be free. Right from his 4th wall-breaking introduction, he owns the stage with his incredible comedic timing, great singing, and infectious smile. If you’ve never seen him perform, then simply that alone should get you out to Shadowbox to catch this show — in my opinion he’s one of the best performers in Columbus, and in both big parts and small, his presence on stage takes things to a different level. Things are no different here, where his smiling scheming Pseudolus keeps the audience’s attention moving right along from scene to scene.

Following closely behind J.T.’s performance are those of Pseudolus’s two main foils in the show – Jimmy Mak as Hysterium, overstressed chief slave, in charge of the house (including Pseudolus, and his naive young master Hero, played by Sami Shabaan) while the master is gone, and Brandon Anderson as Marcus Lycus, owner of the house of courtesans next door. The panicky, guillible Hysterium is a role that fits Jimmy Mak’s style perfectly, and the constant fear that his position in the house will be spoiled by Pseudolus’s blackmail material, or the master and mistress’s early return make for some entertaining moments.

Other great performances include David Whitehouse as Miles Gloriosus, the over-the-top braggart Roman Captain, Robbie Nance and Pam Whitehouse as Senex and Domina, the unhappily wed master and mistress of the house, Amy Lay as the ditzy virgin Philia, and a cheer-drawing repeating gag by Colin Hanson as Erronius, the old man next door. Even the Proteans (Andrew Cioffi, Stephen Crawford, Brett McCardle, and Brian Westbrook) – this show’s version of a multi-character playing chorus – get in some great gags, and more than one scene-stealing moment.

For me, the highlight of the show were the full ensemble pieces – especially the opening “Comedy Tonight” and the “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid”, with it’s building refrains. With the entire cast out on stage singing and dancing together, the entire theater-space is filled with energy, and you really get that “Broadway” feeling. It’s hard not to laugh and sing along.

My only complaint about the show was the overuse of Shadowbox’s video screens. While at times it was played very well (the very beginning of the show, the introduction of the courtesans, and the very end of the show), at other times it’s simply used to show bizarre montage scenes – the two standout distractions being a collection of “love” scenes during the love song, and the alternating serenity and panic during Hysterium’s “I’m Calm”, which unfortunately just distract from Mak’s own great comedic acting. Thankfully the over-videoification is mostly contained to the first act.

Even still, some distracting video moments aside, Shadowbox has gone out on a limb and put together a great show – one with some great comedy, singing, and dancing, and energy such that the 90-minute first act was over before I knew it. And the second act, while it wrapped up the story nicely, left me wanting more….

Shadowbox Musicals presents:
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
Sundays 2:30 & 7:00pm , now through April 26th. (no shows on 4/12 – Easter Sunday)
Tickets are 30/person, 20 for students and seniors

More Info: http://www.shadowboxcabaret.com/columbus/spec_events/forum.php
Video trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaPYtHGA6x8
Dispatch review: http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/life/stories/2009/03/09/review_forum.html?sid=101

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