A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Shakespeare fans know that in the Bard's day his plays were performed only by men. The same was true for the plays of Plautus, the third-century B.C. Roman comedy writer whose works inspired Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim to pen the hilarious, vaudeville-style musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Following a run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2010, Jessica Stone's near-impeccable all-male production of Forum has found its way to the Two River Theater. Two-time Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald leads a top-notch cast in one of the most eye-wateringly funny shows you're likely to see this season.
Set in Ancient Rome, Shevelove and Gelbart's zany story revolves around the slave Pseudolus (Fitzgerald), who lives in a house between the homes of Lycus (David Josefsberg), "a buyer and seller of the flesh of beautiful women," and Erronius (Tom Deckman), a doddering old man looking for his children, long ago kidnapped by pirates. Pseudolus longs desperately for his freedom, but to get it he has to help his master, the young Hero (Bobby Conte Thornton), obtain the woman of his dreams — the lovely virgin courtesan Philia (David Turner). A couple of obstacles stand in the way, however. Hero's parents, the "dirty old man" Senex (Kevin Isola) and the hen-pecking Domina (Eddie Cooper), would never allow their son to marry a woman of ill repute, virgin or not; and worse, Lycus has already sold Philia to the blustery soldier Miles Gloriosus (Graham Rowat). After some scheming, including Pseudolus faking Philia's death with the help of his slave boss, Hysterium (Michael Urie), and ridiculous incidences of mistaken identity, all ends happily (as we are promised in the opening scene), with lovers united, freedom granted, and children found.
Stone's stroke of genius with this production is her decision to stage Forum as though a troupe of ancient Roman actors (who would have all been men) is performing the show for a Roman audience. Plausible as this premise is, the real reason behind the casting is perhaps to tone down the musical's indelicate portrayals of women, most of whom are written as harpies, dizzy dames, or prostitutes. Putting men in these roles takes the sting out of the stereotypes (somewhat), making the bawdy jokes and chase scenes less like a Benny Hill cavalcade of bikini-clad bombshells and more like Milton Berle and Flip Wilson skits. Stone's "women" (with few exceptions) ain't pretty. They're clearly men in ladies' clothing; Clint Ramos' colorful, Roman forum-inspired costumes make no attempt to hide the chest hair.
One of the pretty exceptions, however, is the irrepressibly funny Turner as Philia, who, wearing a blissful permagrin, sings "Lovely" with breathy abandon as he and the honey-voiced Thornton create some sticky-sweet chemistry onstage. As Senex's termagant wife, Domina, Cooper does indeed dominate the stage and all on it with his uproarious performance and fine rendition of "That Dirty Old Man." Matching Cooper inch for inch is the tall, handsome baritone Graham Rowat as Miles Gloriosus, who thunders "Bring Me My Bride" and endures the comical antics of Fitzgerald and Urie during the phony funeral scene (Sondheim's music here is haunting and hypnotic).
Having toned down the '60s-era, go-go-dancer sexism, Stone and choreographer Denis Jones (Honeymoon in Vegas) inject huge doses of vaudevillian slapstick, suggestive pelvic thrusting, back flips, tumbles, face-slaps, swinging doors, and farcical races around the houses (Alexander Dodge designed the majestic set) into this two-and-a-half-hour show. The nonstop shenanigans give Fitzgerald the chance to exhibit his superb comedic talent. With spot-on timing and incredible physical agility, he seems born to play Pseudolus. The role has been performed on Broadway by other comedic greats such as Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, and Nathan Lane, each of whom earned Tonys for their performances. Fitzgerald, let it be said, would not look out of place in their company.
Sondheim once commented that his songs "could be removed from the show and it wouldn't make any difference." One need only watch the largely disappointing 1966 film version, which eliminated half of them, to understand how much the songs do matter. Under the baton of conductor Gary Adler, the addictive tunes (just try to keep from humming "Comedy Tonight" on your way home) are Forum's backbone. With a couple of exceptions ("Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" and "Pretty Little Picture" lack the production's inspired energy), the stellar cast and orchestra more than do justice to this classic; it may, in fact, set a new standard for the way Forum is done in the future. Until the show returns to Broadway, Two River Theater's production is equal to any production you might see on the Appian…I mean, Great White Way.