A Funny ThingHappened on the Way to the Forum, book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Jessica Stone.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
It is a rare night, an auspcious occasion, when a critic can simply sit back and rave about a stage product. Just sit back and rave, not rant. This is just such an moment. Director Jessica Stone, choreographer Denis Jones, Melcap Casting and the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s producers have pulled off the funniest, most musical, not to say magical, extravaganza imaginable with Stephen Sondheim’s 1962 comedy-musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." They have done this with a concept that seemed outlandish and extreme - an all-male cast in a show featuring leggy showgirls and a classic virgin - when it was first announced a few months back. To my surprise, and with my eternal thanks, they have pulled it off.
First and foremost there is the comedy. In a cast led by Christopher Fitzgerald, an inspired young comic actor who has given this company some classic moments in the past, the company takes things to new heights, levels of inspiration and hilarity hardly ever seen on the stage anymore. We have become an industry that demands "meaning" and "sincerity" and "relevance" in our evenings out. Gone is the sheer joy in something well done for its own sake and for the simple idea of entertainment. That word, the "E-word" let’s call it, has taken on a dirty underside: it is something for the simple-minded, the lower classes, the uneducated, something to be looked down at and forbidden to the cognoscenti.
Well, folks, up in Williamstown they are suddenly embracing that "E-word" wholeheartedly and it IS what works best, now and forever. Frankly, they could cancel the rest of their season and just run this show for the entire summer until the College kicks them out to make way for students of serious drama, serious dance. If they could do that it would be my firm wish that those students be compelled to see this show and discover for themselves what makes the theater tick, makes it work, makes it fun.
Fitzgerald as Pseudolus, a Roman slave who has developed the fine art of chicanery into something grander and nobler, is divine. He seems to have very few firm bones in his body. He has an expressive face that makes even the most dire situation into something huggably silly. He sings more then merely credibly, dances like a Ray Bolger clone, seems to be perpetually in motion even when he is standing or sitting still. He understands the subtleties in simple lines and how to make them have maximum impact. In his performance, seamless and easy, he moves in and out of director Stone’s hilarious ideas and choreographer Denis Jones inspired, old-fashioned steps with such ease it as though he is making the whole thing up as he performs.
As his fellow servant and perpetual victim, Hysterium, we have Josh Grisetti who can almost match Fitzgerald for humor and seriousness. Grisetti outdoes even Jack Gilford who played the role originally on stage and later in the film.
In the principal female role of Philia, a Virgin residing in the house of courtesans, David Turner makes the most of all possibilities. While we never forget that Philia is played by a man, he manages to create an unforgettable young woman through the craziest of line readings and physical reactions. In the finale when Philia seemingly invents a musical instrument he is still in character and still the most deliciously delightful young girl on the stage today.
David Costabile has a wonderful time in the role of Lycus, a Procurer. Chivas Michael plays Domina brilliantly and as her husband Senex there is the very funny, highly talented Jeremy Shamos.
The rivals for Philia’s hand are played masterfully by Graham Rowat as Miles Gloriosus, and Bryce Pinkham, in the world’s most outrageous blonde wig, as Hero. Kudos also to Kevin Cahoon for his hilarious take on Eronius.
The entire company of players, fourteen in all, manage to do simultaneous reactions to changes, revelations and outrages and there is hardly anything funnier to watch. The choreography and the chase scene are more comic than I would have thought possible. Early Roman comedy and classic French Farce come brightly into contact in the second act of this breathless show. Although Philia's hilarious revenge song "That'll Show Him" has been replaced by the sweeter "Echo Song" which was cut from the original show, the comedy continues despite her instant recognition of Hero's devious attempt to force her romantic hand.
In the pit are sixteen musicians and a conductor, Gary Adler, who handles the music and a few important props, brilliantly. And here’s something I haven’t said recently, perhaps ever, in a review: the sound design work of Drew Levy and Tony Smolensky was absolutely perfect. Nothing sounded pushed, nothing was forced or over-the-top. The balance between singers and musicians was an effortless combination. I never once felt assaulted by sound. The microphones on people’s heads and bodies were almost universally well placed and hidden and it seemed for most of the time as though I was back in New York in 1962 and the sound was only partially reinforced by foot mikes on the stage again.
Director Stone delivered a wonderful version of "She Loves Me" last year, but she has surpassed herself here and has set the bar very high for anyone or anything to follow up with in the future, here or at any other theater in the region. Her work establishes the standard from now on.
I am hard-pressed to use the word "brilliant" again, but brilliant it is, this fine old show. Often "Gypsy" is cited as the most perfect musical ever written. For me, afer this production, that shifts to "A Funny Thing..." as the director and her company have proven it to be seamless, musical, funny and actually plausible. What a perfect combination! No wonder I’m in love.
Christopher Fitzgerald as Pseudolus; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Josh Grisetti, David Costabile, Jeremy Shamos; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Bryce Pinkham and David Turner as Hero and Philia; photo: T. Charles Erickson
A Funny Thing....runs through July 11 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival located at 1000 Main Street in Williamstown, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.