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Pretty little picture: The cast of WTF’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Comedy Tonight

By James Yeara

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Jessica Stone, music direction by Gary Adler, choreography by Denis Jones

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through July 11

1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is to musicals what 1594’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to plays: idiot-proof comedy. Both are so well written that they’ve stood the test of time. Regardless of who performs them, both guarantee laughs. Despite convoluted, inept directorial concepts or miscast ensembles, Funny Thing and Dream will get laughs. Despite being popular fare, both have classical roots (Roman Plautus for Sondheim’s musical, Greek Ovid for Shakespeare’s comedy) and are avatars of comedy. Both are full of the prime comedic devices “misprision” (mistaking of one thing for another), “non sequitur” (the incongruous leap in logic), “alienation effect” (drawing attention to the artifice of the play itself), “Bergson’s bionics” (physical repetition or letting rules, laws, tradition govern a character’s thinking), and the “travesty convention” (man dresses as a woman, or a woman as a man). Both possess prime examples of high comedy (devices based on ideas), low comedy (devices based on the physical), and new comedy (making fun of romantic love). While audiences laugh at each work, academics flutter and swoon over them.

Williamstown Theatre Festival’s season opening Main Stage production of Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning show makes a mockery of the title: It should be Damned Ingeniously Hilarious Things Created on the Way to the Finale. (That finale, the perfect metaphor for the perfection of this production, alone is worth the price of admission). Typically, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays as a star vehicle. I’ve seen Nathan Lane, Zero Mostel (film), Whoopi Goldberg, and several local community theater nabobs du jour star as Pseudolus, the cunning, conniving slave who longs to be free, but I’d be hard-pressed to remember anyone else or any nonstar scene in said productions. Under Jessica Stone’s peerless direction, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at WTF is a constellation: a cast of stars, each with his own brilliance. (It’s an all-male cast that does, amazingly, put the focus on the comedy, not the flesh). Stone’s show achieves that hoped-for theatrical rarity: actual people on stage honestly sharing their humanity in all its quirks. If you see only one show this summer, see this show. It is the best A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum possible.

Unlike star-vehicle versions, Stone’s Funny Thing is smartly done from top to bottom, beginning to end. Once the overture starts under the capable direction of Gary Adler (who is used to great effect in many of the scenes from his sub-stage space downstage center), an uncompleted ink sketch of the Roman street set is projected on a papyrus colored screen stretched across the height and width of the stage and comes to life with the music. The drawing is completed in time with the overture, the finishing touch the only dash of color in the two-story ink drawing: a yellow banana peel at the downstage right corner. While the laugh this creates is only a titter, the delight at such a small touch grows with each connected moment of WTF’s Funny Thing.

Academics appreciate the antithesis created when the masked chorus labor onto stage to enact woe in epic poses and make the sacrifice tragedies demand: a bleating lamb (stuffed; no animals were harmed in the making of this masterpiece), whose severed leg becomes a running sight gag, so to speak. Stone’s smartness shows in borrowing from Sondheim’s original opening number for Funny Thing, “Invocation” (“Mortals I bid you welcome. . . . Gods of the theater smile on us,” the masked Koryphaios intones) then stripping it away to give Sondheim’s hastily written replacement, “Comedy Tonight.”

And it’s off to the races as the story of Pseudolus’ (a hysterical Chris topher Fitzgerald) quest to gain his freedom by helping his master, Hero (a funny Bryce Pink ham), win his soulmate, Phila (a brilliant blithe David Turner), from the clutches of the procurer Lycus (an amusing David Costable), Phila’s belligerent owner, Miles Gloriosus (a jockular Graham Rowat), and even Hero’s father, Senex (a doubly funny Jeremy Shamos, who also creates the chipper courtesan Vibrata), despite the contrivances of the house slave, Hysterium (a hilarious Josh Griesetti), Hero’s mother, Domina (a side-splitting Chivas Michael who also creates the hearty courtesan Panacea), Captain Gloriosus’s Protean Guards (the merry, perky, gleeful, and sparkling Paul Castree, Zackary Grady, Adam Lerman, Jon Patrick Walker, and Joe Aaron Reid, who nearly steals the show with his displays of balletic and gymnastic prowess), and elderly neighbor Erronius (a sanguine Kevin Cahoon, who also creates the buoyant courtesan Tintinabula) plays out in true ensemble fashion.

You’ll find everything you want from a musical comedy in WTF’s production. Director, cast and crew create something very rare that should not be missed by academics and audiences no matter their predilections; this A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum doesn’t just make you laugh, it delights because it’s a dream.

 

Massacred

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, directed by Julianne Boyd

Barrington Stage Company, through July 17

On his first entrance in the title role, Jeff McCarthy, whose articulation (along with too many members of the cast) is not up to the demands of Sondheim, refers to himself as Sweeney “Tot.” Unfortunately, he proves himself right.

Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd elevated the source material above its melodramatic roots to achieve tragic dimension as Todd, a victim of a corrupt society, returns to London to exact revenge on those who robbed him of his position, his love and his reason for being. Despite its forays into Grand Guignol, courtesy of the industrious Mrs. Lovett, who bakes Todd’s throat-slashed victims into meat pies, the musical attains a Shakespearean grandeur through Todd, who becomes part demonic, part machine and part fallen hero. Given a setting in the Industrial Revolution, it becomes an arresting metaphor for any dehumanized society. If only the productions it has spawned could embrace its size and seemingly discordant parts with the same majesty as did the original.

While not the worst of the eight productions I have now seen of this masterpiece, Barrington Stage Company’s is deeply flawed in little and big ways. Wisely, director Julianne Boyd has used much of the dynamic staging that Harold Prince brought to the premiere version in 1979 (still the best), and her set designer, Wilson Chin, has similarly adapted the concepts that Eugene Lee brought to his original design. This allows for the story to be fluidly and sensibly told, but it is all for naught if the lyrics can’t be understood and the central performance is misconceived.

I missed about a quarter of what the actors were singing, and my companion missed more than half; complaints I heard from others indicated that it wasn’t a problem with the location of our seats. Part of the problem is the actors’ projection (articulation, volume and resonance are all compromised). Part is the amplification upon which they rely too heavily, and part is the poor balance in Darren Cohen’s orchestra.

Not usually guilty of this most basic failure are Christianne Tisdale (compelling and clear-voiced as the Beggar Woman), Timothy Shew (pitch-perfect as Beadle Bamford), Shonn Wiley (earnest as Anthony Hope, despite some mangled lines) and a nine-person chorus of young actors featuring a standout tenor named Paul Betz. This ensemble is electric in its delivery of the indispensable “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Branch Woodman, merely competent earlier as Pirelli, redeems any shortcomings when he joins with Shew in providing the show’s most thrilling moment as they sing in eerie falsetto, “Swing your razor wide, Sweeney!”

While she is lovely and committed, and possesses a sweet voice, it is all but impossible to understand Sarah Stevens’ Johanna. Ed Dixon is a muddled Judge Turpin, whose self- flagellation is as halfhearted as his delivery, and he fails to achieve anything near the requisite unsettling perversity in his voyeur’s version of “Johanna.”

Harriet Harris, who overacted her way to a Tony award in Thoroughly Modern Millie, is thoroughly underwhelming in the plummy role of Mrs. Lovett. She is a chore to listen to in virtually everything she sings; “The Worst Pies in London” lacks the vigor that Angela Lansbury, Beth Fowler and Patti LuPone brought to their various versions. Worse, the delightful duet, “A Little Priest,” which is a highlight of the show for many, is given the worst performance I have ever heard as words and rhymes are butchered. She and McCarthy ham it up where drier delivery would net greater laughter, and McCarthy far too gleefully enters the British Music Hall mode with her where more contrast between the two would be far more effective.

McCarthy, so effective in Boyd’s productions of Mack and Mabel and Follies, becomes an even greater liability than Harris. He has a few moments, but his Sweeney never attains the stature as a melancholy tragic hero and demonic machine of revenge. When he hears the terrible story of how the judge raped his wife, McCarthy interrupts with a petulant and unscripted, “No, no, no, no, no!” The effect is that of a child throwing foot-stamping tantrum. Later, in “Epiphany,” the most dramatic, frightening and exuberantly mad declaration of war on humanity ever put to music, McCarthy never feels fully threatening; he leaps about as a man playing at being mad, with a stance suggesting a birdlike dinosaur. His Todd is more like a fellow who is having a nervous breakdown as opposed to one blooming into lethal psychosis.

Smaller details disappoint, too, such as the omission of the opening funereal music, which sets us up to be shocked by an ear-piercing factory whistle blast. Nor are there sufficient suggestions, apart from the revolving central unit, of the Industrial Revolution. It is a rather tame production; the throat-slashings never erupt into geysers of blood representative of Sweeney’s exultant catharses. And for all the pelvic thrusts (three characters resort to this cliché), the Beggar Woman’s references to Anthony’s genitalia remain private jokes due to a coat that clearly prevents her from either noting his endowment or noticing that it lists to starboard.

I did like two of Boyd’s original touches: Swinging lights in the asylum scene lend a Hitchcockian flair, and a large poster announcing Sweeney Todd opens the show, only to appear in bloody tatters at the end. Apt in more ways than one.

—Ralph Hammann

 


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