BWW Review: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM at TheaterWorks - Sondheim Strikes Again in Peoria!
TheaterWorks has a long-standing, credible connection to Stephen Sondheim musicals. They've served as tentpole productions of the company's 33 year history. Starting with the Arizona premiere of INTO THE WOODS in 1991 (starring Cathy Dresbach and Jon Gentry) and quickly followed by the Arizona premiere of ASSASSINS (also starring Cathy Dresbach and Jon Gentry), producing Sondheim was TheaterWorks writing the roadmap for attracting the Valley's strongest and most respected actors by doing the shows they want to be in. TheaterWorks' productions of ASSASSINS and SWEENEY TODD transferred to the Herberger Theater Center in consecutive seasons (an unheard-of event). More recently, we've seen both a highly regarded, smart staging of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and a production of FOLLIES that is widely considered a highlight of the decade in Phoenix area theater. While perhaps not living up to those shows, their current Sondheim tuner, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is a pure crowd-pleaser chomping on the TheaterWorks stage.
The book, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, borrows greatly from the bawdy work of Ancient Roman playwright Plautus. It is fertile material for fast-paced, outrageous, aside-driven comedy. It also identifies historically as one of Broadway's foremost star-vehicles. In fact, no actor has ever played Pseudolus (the show's lead role) on Broadway without winning the Tony Award for Best Actor (Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, and Nathan Lane). It is an expert undertaking and in TheaterWorks' production, Hector Coris delivers the goods. From the show's opening number, "A Comedy Tonight", he brings an animated, grounded in sass delivery. He immediately obliterates any fourth wall then deputizes the cast into his world of anything for a laugh.
The story can be summed up as: Roman slave Pseudolus is promised his freedom if he can connect his young master (Hero played by Thomas Smith) to the still-innocent, soon-to-be courtesan Philia (a delightful Kathlyn Rodin) that Hero has spied in a brothel window. Philia has been promised to Miles Gloriosus a prominent Roman military officer played by enjoyably by Teddy Ladley as a tribute to Gaston of Beauty and the Beast fame. Pseodolus enlists Hysterium (a glorious Jesse Berger) to keep Hero's mother and father unaware of Hero's courtship of a courtesan. Mistaken identities, outrageous cover stories, some one-liners, a lot of physical "bits", and a Deus ex machina later and you've arrived at the end of an athletic success of a farce.
It's no surprise. Director Peter Hill established himself as the preeminent Phoenix farceur in the 1980s and 90s with slapstick comedies like RUN FOR YOUR WIFE and LEND ME A TENOR running for four to six months at Max's Dinner Theater. He knows how to handle vintage comedy and FORUM is a great example.
The choreography by Paul Pedersen is exceptional, especially the Act One presentation of the brothel's many courtesans. This section could have been be derivative and oversexed. Mr. Pedersen invested creativity and injected complex intricacies without getting overstated or artsy. His female ensemble rises to the challenge.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is Sondheim's first musical for which he wrote both the music and lyrics. He had been the lyricist for WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY and it was quite rare for a lyricist to crossover to doing both. To get Broadway producers to take a chance on him, Mr. Sondheim crafted this likely popular hit. That origin has FORUM sometimes feeling like if the Coen Brothers wrote an episode of "Friends". Or maybe a better comparison would be Aaron Sorkin's early TV comedy "Sports Night", sure it's funny but how does it compare to "The West Wing" or "The Newsroom"? With that in mind, the FORUM score is fun yet dutifully complex. Steve Hilderbrand, TheaterWorks' Resident Music Director, maintains the Richard Rodgers whimsy while honoring the nuances of early Sondheim.
Bright, TV style lights by Jeff Davis and an easy-on-the-eyes set by Tiana Torrilhon are attuned to the show's style. Their contributions boost the audience's acceptance of the genre.
But the centerpiece of the evening is Mr. Coris. It is an uncommon skill to perform scripted asides as true improv, but he pulls it off deftly. And it's those kind of maneuvers that keep the show from skewing towards camp. With some supporting cast relying a little too often on funny faces and not often enough on comic timing, he keeps the show on course.
One last mention. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and The Bechtel Test. Well, the show has eight female roles: six (eager) courtesans, a nagging/scolding wife (humorously played by Kathleen Berger), and an airhead blonde. It is perhaps unsettling when that realization emerges. Each type taken on their own, they are (I guess) excusable for the sake of comedy. But added together and without the balance of a single female character that goes beyond sex object or negative stereotype, it is worth mentioning and a conversation worth having. Would a progressive like Mr. Sondheim write this musical today?