Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum – Book by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart – Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

By Joe Straw

A few months ago I kept thinking that I’ve always wanted to see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart with Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Okay, well, I didn’t say that aloud to myself or mentioned the names. 

So here I am wishing to see this show and, wouldn’t you know it, the opportunity comes up twice this season, once at Theatre Palisades and the other at Long Beach Playhouse.

While I try not to make a comparison, art being as it is, I will say this.  The two shows performed were almost unrecognizable as being the same show. (More on this later.)

The Long Beach Playhouse presents A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum directed by Michael Ross through September 3, 2011. 

I can only write about the night I was there, a week into the run of the show.  Nevertheless, a week is more than enough time to discover what works and what doesn’t.  So it’s a safe bet to come a week later and witness the magic.  

Larry Gelbart, the writer, is funny.  He always was.  The original “A Funny Thing…” in the early ‘60s didn’t come easy as the show struggled to make it to Broadway.  They worked it until it worked.

And this is a musical that still runs on Broadway.  It is a proven crowd pleaser.  Nathan Lane did this show recently and YouTube has a video of the opening number on the Letterman Show.   On that small stage it was fantastic!

So in this rendition of “A Funny Thing…” the ad-libs and the improvisations (of which there were many) should have been left at the rehearsals. The lesson here is: don’t try to improve a musical that has already proven itself.  Stick to the book.  Also, songs that were previously thrown out, because they didn’t work, should not be put back in.  They didn’t work then, they’ll not work now.

Briefly, the musical is about a slave Pseudolus (Scott K. Ratner) who will do anything in his power to gain his freedom from his master Hero (Matt Riggle).

Hero’s oversexed mother Domina (Eloise Coopersmith) and his father Senex (Karl Schott) are off on a journey to visit relatives.  They ask their slave, Hysterium (Floyd E. Riggle) to look after the boy.

But Hero gets into trouble the moment they leave by going to the pimp’s house Marcus Lycus (Greg Nicholas).  Hero is lusting after a very beautiful girl he has seen there.  

Testosterone getting the better of Hero, he enlists Pseudolus to help him get the girl.   Pseudolus will only help if he can gain his freedom.  It’s a hard bargain but the deal is struck and both cocks strut to the house of Marcus Lycus.

Pseudolus, with a tempting bag of coins, and “acting” citizen of Rome wants to see, taste and feel all of the girls in the house, on Hero’s behalf (of course).  And as each girl is paraded in front of Pseudolus, each unveils a unique mysterious charm, Tintinabula (Angela Asch), Panacea (Vashti Emigh), The Geminae (Victoria Baker and Phie Mura), a meowing Vibrata (Laura Rensing) and Gymnasia (Jacqueline Case).  They dance into the lusting arms of Pseudolus.   Unfortunately, none of these girls are the one Hero desires.

Moment later Hero spots Philia (Katherine Waisanen) as the one he is looking for.  But Marcus says she is a virgin promised and sold to Captain Miles Glorious (Russell Montooth) a vain Roman soldier.  

Quick thinking Pseudolus asks Marcus Lycus of her origins.  Marcus tells him Crete.  Pseudolus covers his mouth and tells Lycus there was a plague in Crete! And the first signs of the plague is a smile.  He tells Lycus he will take the girl (he’s already had the plague) and keep her in the safety of Hero’s home.

They hustle the “sickly smiling” Philia into Hero’s house and ask her not to answer the door until she hears three knocks.  Philia has not had the pleasure of counting to three and does not know how to do it, or there is something in her character makeup that is missing.  One is never sure.

Pseudolus wants to keep her quiet and in order to do that he has Hero steal Hysteria’s potion book because he wants a sleeping potion to make it look like Philia is dead.

For sleep - main ingredient: mares sweat.

Just when you think things will settle down, Senex (Dad) comes home.  When he sees Philia he lusts for her in his heart and in other places.  He is as naughty as the next neglected Dad and he wants his Philia! 

But, Pseudolus arrives just in time, breaks them up, and tells him that she’s the new maid.  And, by the way, he tells Senex, because of his travels, he smells like the backside of a mare. 

Pseudolus tells Senex to freshen up for the maid by using the bathroom of the house of Erronius (Jerry Loeb) who, by the way, has been away looking for his two children who were stolen by pirates some twenty years ago.

And, as faith would have it, Erronius (Jerry Loeb) comes home.  But he is sent away by the soothsayer (Pseudolus in disguise) to walk the seven hills of Rome to bide for more time.

Later, Miles Glorious shows up looking for his bride, and that’s when everything starts to fall apart, or come together, depending on your perspective.

One is not in the habit of giving recommendation but here goes.  What this show needs is a good foundation of lust.  And this breaks down into a couple of mathematical formulas.

No lust = No comedy. 

If no lust, then no sex, and therefore not funny.

Lust (good, bad, misguided, or naughty) = Good comedy.

Maybe this is not a provable math formula but there’s a point to be made here.  Without pure unadulterated maniacal lust this show has a long way to go to make up for the lost laughs.

But, on the other hand, the audience in Long Beach seemed to have a very good time and maybe this interpretation is suited to those patrons.

Scott K. Ratner as Pseudolus and Prologus needs to leave the improvisations at home, trust the material, and seek a higher truth in his objective.

Karl Schott, Nathan Stanton, and especially A.J. Salas all did fine jobs as the Proteans.  They were all over the place and kept the show moving.

Karl Schott as Senex was fine as Hero’s Dad.

Domina also did a good job as Hero’s mother.  One is not sure if the choice to lip lock her son was a good choice or a disgusting one but she went after it anyway.  For the most part she was convincing and quite good.

Matthew Riggle had some very nice moments as Hero.  Still, the role requires a stronger choice than being a mere bystander.  There are a number of things that a young man can do when one is in lust or love.  There are stronger choices to be made in this musical and Riggle should find them.  

Floyd E. Rigle Jr. as Hysterium could make stronger choices in relationship to his name.  There is a reason he is called Hysterium.  Also, leave out the ad libs.  The book works better.

Greg Nicholas as Marcus Lycus has a name that gives his character away.  He likes to sell you what you want. He likes what you like and he likes what you want.  He likes to please his customers.  Nicholas did a fine job and had a nice voice.

Angela Asch did a very nice job as Tintinabula.  Also, Vashti Emigh was tantalizing as Panacea, someone who would cure your temporary ills. Victoria Baker and Phie Mura were nice as The Geminae.  (It’s too bad you can’t break up the twins.) Laura Rensing, as Vibrata, let out a meow that had the audience in stitches and Jacqueline Case was fine as Gymnasia.

Katherine Waisanen as Philia was fine but needs work on her objective and character development.

Jerry Loeb, as Erronius, was too young to be old.  Also, with the name Erronius, the character needs to make many mistakes in his quest of his objective.

Russell Montooth as Miles Gloriosus did a very good job and was very suited for that role.  

Michael Ross, the director, should pull on the reins with the off book banter.  It increases the length of the show and often times send it in other directions.  More could have been made of the space.  The actors were well in the background or too far upstage and the chase scene went on for an eternity.  Also, he needed to give focus on the characters name.  There are reasons the characters are called Erronium, Vibrata, Hysterium, etc., and there is a purpose for those names.

Bill Wolfe was the musical director and Marie Madera Gleerup was the choreographer.  

The one thing that I thought was absolutely wonderful was the closing number, A Comedy Tonight.  The choreography worked, the singing was beautiful, and the actors, in that brief moment in time on stage, all worked together to give the audience a great ending and that’s worth the price of admission.

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