Last night A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and let there be no doubt, it is the biggest display of theatrical fireworks ever seen on a Berkshire stage. It sparkles, it sizzles and it pops. It is the first play for which Steven Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics, and under the near-miraculous direction of Jessica Stone, it is not only a tribute to the musical comedy form, it sets a whole new standard.
To compare it to a fireworks display is not that far fetched. It elicited oohs and aahs from the audience when the curtain first went up on a glorious two and a half story set. Then again during the final curtain call when the actors rewarded the cheering audience with yet another round of surprises, bringing them to their feet. In between we all laughed ourselves silly, for this Forum has most certainly put the comedy back into musical comedy.
Of course the title comes from the line that vaudeville comedians often used to begin a story: “A funny thing happened on the way to the theater”. Sondheim wrote this in 1962, and the book is by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and had the legendary Zero Mostel in the original cast. Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane have also played the lead. I even saw a revival with Whoopi Goldberg in a role reversal as Pseudolus.
But, my heart be still, as much as I love the comedy, this is a musical, and there is soaring singing, too. Sondheim’s music never sounded better with a deliciously brassy 16 piece orchestra in the partially covered pit which also doubled as part of the stage. The sound was near perfect, the balance between singers and instrumentalists having found the sweet spot. Let’s hope the sound designers from other companies are taking notes, and budgeters are beginning to realize that hearing everything is part of good theatre too.
The stage business was ceaseless, with the conductor being handed flowers and assorted props during the course of the show. And when the brass let go full volume, it reminded us how critical a large pit band is to shows like these.
Since there is not a single thing wrong with this show, the question becomes where to start with the credits. Well first a laurel wreath to WTF Artistic Director Nicholas Martin who has worked with most of the cast over the years, each of the actors giving 110% to this show, sometimes 220% since many in the all-male ensemble were double cast in the roles of Roman courtesans.
The plot of this fresh, “old” take on Forum sticks to the basics while making it new again. Forum is the story of Pseudolus the slave (Christopher Fitzgerald) who must win his freedom by playing matchmaker for his master, Hero (Bryce Pinkham).
As the slave, Fitzgerald has proved himself one of the greatest comedians working the stage today. A serious actor as well as a lovable clown, he has done a dozen shows in as many years with Nicholas Martn and the WTF. As Pseudolus he used every trick in the jester’s book to keep the audience in a state of hysterical laughter. On top of that he layered some classic clowning, mime and busker techniques making it impossible for the audience to know what he had up his sleeve next. Fitzgerald is an onstage magician who never stopped moving and whose misdirection kept the whole cast and audience in turmoil.
The other standout was Josh Grisetti as Hysterium, particularly when he donned the white gown of Philia and played dead. Or almost dead. As Senex, the father, Jeremy Shamos was appropriately goofy and could match Fitzgerald gag for gag.
The plot is convoluted, but by the middle of the second act the stage action essentially becomes a French bedroom farce. All at once there are three Philias (Domina, Hysterium and the actual Philia) all wearing identical white robes and veils being chased in and out of the three on-stage houses and two side alleys, doors slamming, a classic scene of mistaken identity and surprises as the demanding masters, tricky slaves and frustrated young lovers put the zany show into overdrive.
The production itself is amazing, from the set and costumes to such small details as follow spots. During the quartet shown in the lead picture, look at the stage, there are four, count them, follow spots – one for each singer/dancer. This made the scene absolutely eye popping, and by shadowing the performers incredible routine helped produce an equally awesome audience reaction – they just went wild.
What is amazing is that this show goes from zero to sixty in the first few minutes, and then never stops moving into higher and higher gear. The audience ate it up, And so did I.
This Independence Day weekend there will be plenty of fireworks all over the Berkshires, but none more impressive than those happening on the Main Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
If there is one show that you absolutely, positively have to see this summer, this is it.
This Forum isn’t just “as good” as Broadway, It’s better than the last revival I saw there. I am already thinking of seeing it a second time.
If you don’t snap up the tickets first.
Williamstown Theatre Festival presents A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Book by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart, Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Scenic Designer – Alexander Dodge, Costume Design – Catherine A. Parrott, Lighting Design – Jeff Croiter, Sound Design – Drew Levy, Tony Smolenski IV, Production Stage Manager – Gregory T. Livoti, Production Manager – Joel M. Krause, Casting – Melcap Casting, Choreography – Denis Jones, Music Direction – Gary Adler, Directed by Jessica Stone.
Cast: Tintinabula/Erronius – Kevin Cahoon, Protean/Gemeni #1 – Paul Castree, Lycus – David Constabile, Pseudolus – Christopher Fitzgerald, Protean – Zachary Grady, Hysterium – Josh Grisetti, Protean – Adam Lerman, Domina/Panacea – Chivas Michael, Hero – Bryce Pinkham, Protean/Gymnasia – Joe Aaron Reid, Miles Gloriosus – Graham Rowat, Senex/Vibrata – Jeremy Shamos, Phila – David Turner, Protean/Geeni #2 – Jon Patrick Walker. June 30 – July 11, 2010, Main Stage. Two hours, thirty minutes, one 15 minute intermission.