BWW Review: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM Raises the Dead at Pittsburgh Public

BWW Review: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM Raises the Dead at Pittsburgh Public

Common consensus for many years was that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was the funniest musical of all time. The more recent contenders to the throne, namely The Producers and The Book of Mormon, certainly pack the laughs (and I'll admit I'm more partial to Mel Brooks than Burt Shevelove, personally), but there's a "timeliness" to them. It helps to be familiar with Broadway tropes, with the ins and outs of showbiz, with the quirkiness of Mormon culture or campy 1950s films, to truly enjoy the newer shows. On the other hand, Forum seems specifically designed to have NO baggage whatsoever, and to be able to be approached by just about any audience with the same level of appreciation.

As Ted Pappas's final musical for the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, it's a fitting send-off, as the show itself looks back at broad Roman comedies while the production tips its hat to several defunct forms of populist entertainment: vaudeville's parade of clowns and gags; burlesque's lovely (and rarely nude, contrary to reputation) dancing ladies and hoary comedians; and perhaps most of all, the television variety show, which was still alive and kicking when Forum premiered. Even if most millennials and adjacent generations have only seen Carol Burnett and company in clip shows or PBS retreads, it's impossible to see some of the broad mugging and physical comedy and not think of "those old TV programs they used to show in the sixties before the Internet."

It would be folly to try and present a plot thumbnail more intricate than this: con-artist slave Pseudolus (Jimmy Kieffer) wants to be free. Everyone else wants to get laid. Comedy ensues as paths cross, plans are thwarted and identities are mistaken, usually due to Pseudolus layering lie upon lie.

The plot is mostly a vehicle for great jokes, and Sondheim's songs are mostly pleasant but forgettable, with the exception of the now-standard opening, "Comedy Tonight." This is a show that lives and dies on its cast alone, and this being Pittsburgh Public, the cast does not disappoint. In the lead role, Jimmy Kieffer is distinguished from many broader Pseudoluses (Pseudoli?) by his deep voice, dignified bearing and seeming refusal to mug or riff. He is a strong departure from the clowning portrayals of Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg, and very much the way we may imagine Zero Mostel from listening to the cast recording... as opposed to the loosey-goosey, unpredictable way Mostel allegedly played the role most of the time on Broadway. The brilliance of this approach is that it enables Kieffer to simultaneously play the clown and the straight man to himself, and assume the opposite position of any other character he encounters.

Reuniting from last year's exquisite reimagining of The Fantasticks, Jamen Nanthakumar and Mary Elizabeth Drake once again play quirky young lovers, Hero the freeman and Philia the virgin concubine respectively. Shevelove's script for Forum being rather loonier than Tom Jones's for Fantasticks, the characterizations here are broader than last year, to great comedic effect. Drake's Philia is the greatest brainless beauty character since Amanda Seyfried in Mean Girls (and yes, Drake DOES outdo Heather Morris's hysterical turn as the idiot savant Brittany on GLEE). That's not to imply Nanthakumar has to play the straight man or the boring one in the relationship- his joyous, ineffectual romantic hero wins far more laughs than sighs, with his cheerleader leaps and moony grins.

The show's biggest name is Stephen DeRosa, best known for playing vaudevillian and "made man" Eddie Cantor on Boardwalk Empire. Here, he channels a different vaudeville star, with a frizzy, balding wig and crowing voice evidently styled after Larry Fine of The Three Stooges. As Senex, a husband in a midlife crisis, his lasciviousness balances well against Nanthakumar's naivite as they both pursue Philia... while both attempting to avoid the notice of overbearing wife and mother Domina, as played by Ruth Gottschall. Seeing Gottschall in heavy makeup with a huge, absurd hairstyle, it was like the second coming of Carol Burnett herself, a comparison that only grew closer and closer during an endless slapstick chase in Act 2. (Say what you want about the show's retrograde gender politics, where women are primarily objects: they give just as good as they get in the topsy-turvy chase scene.) At my performance, Gottschall got the night's biggest laugh when she reacted, in character, with surprise to a gasp from the audience.

There's not a bad role in the whole show, with star turns for each and every one. Allan Snyder, quickly developing a reputation as Pittsburgh's premier singing character actor, makes waves here as boastful soldier Miles Gloriosus- think Gaston but a little fey. Gavan Palmer, as high-strung bootlicker Hysterium, makes the perfect foil to Kieffer's Pseudolus and manages to sell even the most dated old chestnuts in the cross-dressing scene. In a small but vital role, Jeff Howell's Marcus Lycus brings an almost Shakespearean poise and dignity to the pretentious pimp next door.

And now, a word about our ensemble. The men of the ensemble, as a trio of Protean clowns, play a number of interchangeable roles amusingly, with their impersonation of Marcus Lycus's eunuch slaves being the best. The play gives them relatively little to do, perhaps because the sight of the trio mugging in garish Roman clown-wear is funnier than anything else they could be doing. The women of the ensemble, on the other hand, get a specialty showcase number of their own, as the courtesans in "The House of Marcus Lycus." They don't sing, and they don't precisely dance either: instead, what we get is an authentic recreation of the Gypsy Rose Lee era of burlesque, all poses and shimmies, bumps and grinds. It's a lot more complex and taxing than it sounds, as vintage burlesque is not a "classic practice" taught today the way other period styles like Fosse may be. I had to check my program repeatedly to determine that these women were musical theatre actresses, not burlesque-revival professionals. (Seriously, Dita Von Teese, put these lovely ladies on your next tour!)

I'll be sad to see Ted Pappas go, as his is the only era of the Pittsburgh Public that I ever got to see, and I have many good memories of his shows. Still, what a triumphant way to start saying goodbye.

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From This Author Greg Kerestan

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