BWW Reviews: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM - A Roman Holiday Treat at the Shakespeare Theatre Company
Something familiar, something peculiar, something appealing, something appaling, something convulsive, something repulsive, something esthetic, something frenetic, something erratic, something dramatic, something that's gaudy, something that's bawdy...all part of Stephen Sondheim's incredible lyrics for his opening number "Comedy Tonight" from his very first Broadway show that he wrote both the music and lyrics, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.
The Signature Theatre has the reputation for putting on presentations from the Sondheim canon, but the Shakespeare Theatre Company? STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn crossed the Potomac to direct a Signature Theatre world premiere play by Paul Downs Colaizzo, PRIDE IN THE FALL OF AUTREY MILL which just ended a successful run starring Christine Lahti. Now, Kahn has decided to pluck a Sondheim musical for his own Shakespeare Theatre Company. After his success with producing the musical CANDIDE three years ago, what a brilliant idea to present this musical farce during the holiday season. What's next? Signature Theatre's Eric Schaeffer putting on Hamlet?
Getting back to the opening number, "Comedy Tonight". It was this number that according to the composer in his treatise "Finishing the Hat" saved his show and it happened while it was in Washington during previews. at the National Theatre. Audiences until then, had little understanding they were in for a show that was full of burlesque and farce. But once "Comedy Tonight" was written, audiences immediately understood.
Making his STC mainstage directing debut is the very youthful Alan Paul. During the opening number, Paul quickly includes an actor with a skull beginning a sonnet from HAMLET, "NO" says the narrator Pseudolus. "Tragedy tomorrow. comedy tonight." Shortly thereafter, the curtain opens and there are three witches from MACBETH and they are quickly dealt with.
Paul at the ripe old age of 29 has directed a masterpiece. What a great future he has in store if this production is an indication of his abilities. In the STC wonderful publication "Asides" (visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org/Asides), dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg describes how Paul has risen to the position he now encumbers. Like Paul, I also saw the 1996 Broadway revivial of FORUM with Nathan Lane. While Paul was able to get Nathan Lane to sign his FORUM poster (which he hangs in his bedroom), I am lucky to have a FORUM Playbill that my son Justin while at Yale Law School got the composer to autograph "To the Shubows, Stephen Sondheim." Somehting I will always treasure.
While FORUM won the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book in 1962, Sondheim was never even nominated. Zero Mostel played the leading role of Pseudolus, garnered a Tony, and did the film in 1966.
The title of the show was taken from vaudeville comediens who would begin a story by saying, "A funny thing happend on the way to the theater."
The book, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbert, is based on three comedies by the Roman playwright Titus maccius Plautus (254-184 B.C.E.). The musical is unusual in that there is only one set and hardly any costume changes which was unusal at the time. The set (wonderfully done by James Noone) is comprised of three homes in Rome. In the center lives Senex, with his wife Domina, son Hero, and house slaves Pseudolus and Hysterium. To the left , the house of Marcus Lycus who runs a house of prostitution, and on the right is the home of the elderly Erronius, who has been away searching for his long-lost children.