Shakespeare Theatre Company A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumBy Bob Ashby • Dec 5th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Shakespeare Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Sidney Harman Hall, Washington DC
Through January 5th
2:30 with intermission
$20-$110 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed December 3rd, 2013
In mid-November, critic Peter Marks of the Washington Post published a piece headlined “A (shopworn) comedy tonight…,” disparaging what he viewed as the tendency of respectable, classically oriented theaters to lower themselves by scheduling popular audience attractions, even to the point of mounting (gasp!) musicals. He specifically cited the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) decision to present Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, contrasting it unfavorably with the company’s choice of The Comedy of Errors for its 2005 holiday show. “Are you getting a which-of-these-things-doesn’t-belong kind of vibe?”, he asked.
To anyone reading this review, let me assure you that STC’s Forum is anything but shopworn. Roll-in-the-aisles funny? Yes. Near-perfect comic timing? Check. Well acted, well sung, inventive? Count on it. Unworthy to be presented by a company named for Shakespeare? No way. Liberally adapting and building on source material from the Roman playwright Plautus — as did Shakespeare for The Comedy of Errors, incidentally — Sondheim and collaborators Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove constructed a brilliant farce, to which STC and director Alan Paul do credit.
One of the oddities of Forum is that it saves the best for first. The opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” written here in Washington during a troubled 1962 pre-Broadway tryout for the show, is arguably the best opening number in any musical (a very different sort of song, Oklahoma‘s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” is also a strong candidate). Paul spices the number up by mixing in a couple Shakespeare blackout spoofs and an extended baby doll-tossing bit. Pseudolus (Bruce Dow), and ultimately the entire cast, set the wild and silly mood for the entire evening.
In a role originated by the famously unpredictable, ad-libbing Zero Mostel, Dow is as outrageous, lying, conniving, quick-thinking, and likeable a rogue as one could ask for. Even when Dow strictly follows the script, his Pseudolus feels delightfully improvised. His presentation of “Comedy Tonight” and “Free” are fine examples of character singing. Tom Story portrays his sidekick, Hysterium, as a nervous, often hapless, nerd, heavy plastic glasses and all, and his physical as well as vocal comedy in “Calm” is spot-on. The pair’s reprise of “Lovely” in Act 2 is a highlight, especially when Hysterium begins to buy into his role as a beautiful, even though dead, maiden.
While Pseudolus is at the center of the action, Forum depends on close ensemble work to succeed. So when Pseudolus, Hysterium, Senex (Steve Vinovich), and procurer Marcus Lycus (Danny Rutigliano) join in one iteration after another of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” the hilarity grows each time through. When the pretty, smitten Hero (Nick Verina) and the beautiful, dumber-than-any-post, Philia (Lora Lee Gayer), sing of their mutual infatuation their voices are indeed “Lovely.” The production’s only choice with which I disagreed was to give Philia an annoying character voice, a fault that any competent courtesan school who taught her to be unremittingly lovely and winsome would surely have corrected.
Senex and Hero, father and son both seeking Philia’s favors, join amusingly in “Impossible,” a prototype of male duets in later Sondheim shows (e.g., “Agony” in Into the Woods and especially “It Would Have Been Wonderful” from A Little Night Music). The biggest, loudest audience acclaim of the evening went to Julie Johnson as Domina, Senex’s battle-ax wife, for her bravura performance of “That Dirty Old Man,” a relatively brief, but amazingly written, song into which Sondheim manages to cram a wide variety of moods and vocal demands. Miles Gloriosus (Edward Watts), all over-the-top machismo, with booming baritone voice to match, and Erronious (Harry Winter), a confused elderly fellow who Pseudolus sends on several circuits around the city to free his house for other shenanigans, round out the cast. A particularly nice touch was to equip Erronious with a battery-powered scooter, the sort advertised for Medicare recipients on late-night television.
Paul keeps the movement fluid and intricately timed throughout, never more so than in the extended chase scene that brings the plot to its conclusion. The choreography (Josh Rhodes) is athletic and sexy, with the multitasking Proteans (Matthew Bauman, Nick Flatto, and Blakely Slaybaugh) and courtesans (Ashley Marinello, Chelsey Acre, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Sarah Meahl, Lisa Karlin, and Jennifer Frankel) having frequent opportunities to display their skill and energy. The courtesans (each of whom gets an individual moment during “The House of Marcus Lycus”), aided by David C. Woolard’s character-specific and often revealing costumes, also get to display quite spectacular bodies. The costuming was another area of excellence in the production, from the simple white lines of costumes for Hero and Philia (the latter humorously triplicated for Hysterium and Domina in Act 2) to the hyper-masculine armor for Gloriosus to the garish robe for Marcus Lycus, which one can imagine having turned up among discards from a closet in a Playboy Mansion. The proliferation of doors, windows, and levels in the three houses that comprise the heart of James Noone’s set enable the characters to pop in and out of the action at a second’s notice, indispensible in farce.
No need to worry about whether a particular type of play is an appropriate project for a given theater company. It’s like what Duke Ellington is quoted as saying: “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” Productions as good as this one belong on any stage, any time.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
- Senex: Steve Vinovich
- Domina: Julie Johnson
- Hero: Nick Verina
- Hysternium: Tom Story
- Pseudolus: Bruce Dow
- Erronius: Harry Winter
- Miles Gloriosus: Edward Watts
- Marcus Lycus: Danny Rutigliano
- Tintinabula: Ashley Marinelli
- Panacea: Chelsey Arce
- The Geminae: Ashley Blair Fitzgerald and Sarah Meahl
- Vibrata: Lisa Karlin
- Gymnasia: Jennifer Frankel
- Philia: Lora Lee Gayner
- The Proteans: Matthew Bauman, Nick Flatto, Blakely Slaybaugh
- Director: Alan Paul
- Choreographer: Josh Rhodes
- Set Designer: James Noone
- Costume Designer: David C. Woolard
- Lighting Designer: Rui Rita
- Music Director/Additional Dance Arrangements: Adam Wachter
- Sound Designer: Jason Tratta
- Wig Designer: Paul Huntley
- Orchestrations: Dan DeLange
- New York Casting: Binder Casting
- Resident Casting Director: Daniel Neville-Rehbehn
- Head of Voice and Text: Ellen O’Brien
- Literary Associate: Drew Lichtenberg
- Assistant Director: Gus Heargerty
- Associate Choreographer: Lee Wilkins
- Production Stage Manager: Joseph Smelser
- Assistant Stage Managers: Hannah R. O’Neil and Robyn M Zalewski
- Dance Captain: Thomas Ortiz
- Rehearsal Pianist: Jonathan Tuzman
- Production Assistant: Maria Tejada
Disclaimer: Shakespeare Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9972.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.