Go ahead, laugh.
It’s an understandable reaction, considering that Southern Nevada is in the midst of a theatrical throw-down involving some of the funniest musical comedies of all time.
Recent contenders range from “The Book of Mormon” at The Smith Center to Super Summer Theatre’s “Spamalot” at Spring Mountain Ranch, where the musical comedy cavalcade launched last season with “The Producers.”
And speaking of Super Summer Theatre, its upcoming “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — which begins a 12-performance run Wednesday at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park — may be the most uproarious of all.
At least when you consider how long it’s kept audiences laughing.
Consider the fact that it’s been more than 50 years since “Forum” first hit the Broadway stage, where it racked up six Tony Awards — including best musical.
But it’s been centuries — make that millennia — since audiences began cracking up at “Forum’s” source material, the farces of Roman playwright Plautus, who died in 183 B.C.
Of course, “Forum’s” book writers, the late Larry Gelbart (whose credits include the Emmy-winning “M*A*S*H” and the Oscar-winning “Tootsie”) and Burt Shevelove, made a few changes along the way.
But the essentials remain, according to “Forum” director-choreographer Tim Bennett, who cites the show’s “very classic, old-fashioned comedy.”
To quote “Forum’s” equally classic opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” from the pen of composer Stephen Sondheim, audiences can expect “something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone — a comedy tonight!”
And “Forum’s” comedy differs from other recently seen in Vegas “superfunny” musicals, Bennett says.
“ ‘Book of Mormon’ is so edgy-funny,” he says, while “The Producers” and “Spamalot” not only reflect “contemporary” humor but bear the stamp of their distinctive comedic creators: Mel Brooks and Monty Python, respectively.
“Forum,” by contrast, combines ancient farcical elements — from fast-paced chases to mistaken identity — with humor that dates to 20th-century vaudeville. (Even the show’s title spoofs a favorite vaudeville-era opening line: “A funny thing happened on the way to the theater … ”)
As “Comedy Tonight” promises, “Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns — bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!”
Not to mention “pantaloons and tunics, courtesans and eunuchs, funerals and chases, baritones and basses.” Along with “Stunning surprises! Cunning disguises!” And, lest we forget: “Panderers! Philanderers! Cupidity! Timidity! Mistakes! Fakes! Rhymes! Crimes! Tumblers, grumblers, bumblers, fumblers.”
The musical’s antic action centers on the wily Roman slave Pseudolus (played by Bruce Block), who attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master Hero (Cory Lloyd) win the hand of Philia (Celina Speights), the virginal girl next door.
Alas, the house next door belongs to Marcus Lycus (John Wennstrom), a buyer and seller of beautiful women. Even worse, Philia has been promised to the mighty Miles Gloriosus (Carnell Johnson), a warrior who’s on his way to Rome to claim her.
Also in on the frantic farce: Senex (James Claflin), Hero’s father and Pseudolus’ boss, a henpecked Roman senator; Erronius (Jack Walczak), an elderly neighbor searching for his children (who were kidnapped in infancy — by pirates); Domina (Terri Gandy), Senex’s domineering wife; and Hysterium (Stephen Rinck), Senex’s chief slave.
For all of the rollicking physical comedy they get into, Sondheim’s “Forum” score — his first as both composer and lyricist, after contributing lyrics to the legendary “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” — adds more than a bit of wit to the madcap proceedings.
Sondheim has since created his own Broadway legend, taking musicals in challenging new directions with such works as “Company” and “Sweeney Todd.”
By contrast, “Forum” is “so opposite of what we think of as Sondheim material — it’s belly laughs and gut reactions and physical humor,” Bennett points out. Yet, “one of the most brilliant things about Sondheim is, he writes lyrics the way people talk. The rhythm and style in his lyrics is still there.”
Consider the sprightly “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” in which Senex, Pseudolus, Marcus Lycus and Hysterium extol the virtues of feminine household help:
“Everybody ought to have a maid, everybody ought to have a menial, consistently congenial and quieter than a mouse. Oh, oh, wouldn’t she be delicious, tidying up the dishes, neat as a pin. Oh, oh, wouldn’t she be delightful, sweeping out — sleeping in.”
Audiences of a certain age will appreciate the slyly risque references, but “there’s nothing in there that is so specific it won’t go over the heads of kids,” Bennett says. “It’s the same thing with the courtesans — kids can appreciate guys ogling pretty women.”
And unlike some Super Summer Theatre productions, where “subtlety can be lost” at the expansive Spring Mountain Ranch setting, “there’s nothing subtle” about “Forum,” the director points out. With all “the chases and the people in and out of doors,” the show’s frantic farce “carries over,” even to the faraway back row.
Overall, Bennett “can’t imagine a person on Earth who wouldn’t enjoy” this particular musical comedy, with the accent on the comedy.
He’s been eager to direct it every since he first saw it — “mostly because it was so much fun to watch,” Bennett says. “I was laughing until I was crying, from beginning to end.”
And all these years later, now that he knows the show by heart, “I still sit there in rehearsal and laugh till I cry.”
Come Wednesday, Super Summer Theatre audiences will have the chance to follow his lead.
Contact reporter Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.