Monday, October 1, 2007
A fairly funny thing happens on the way to this Forum
Bill Gardiner convinces Neil A. Casey that he's "Lovely" in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Who says there's nothing new under the sun? I've never known of anyone who didn't harbor a soft spot in their heart for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim's (and Burt Shevelove's and Larry Gelbart's) valentine to Roman farce, but now I do: the Globe's Louise Kennedy, who informs us in her review that "it's not so funny anymore . . . Clearly, the attitudes and assumptions of the musical's book . . .needed some dusting off to play to a contemporary audience." Said datedness apparently derives from the show's sexist attitudes: "Its women have two choices - bimbo or shrew - and its men are either henpecked, clueless, or unsexed." In short, the show is now, according to the headline, "a little too ancient."
Ahem. First off, since when is 2,200 years so very old??? The plays of Plautus - one of which, Pseudolus, is the source of A Funny Thing - are merely plays of a certain age, Louise. Two millennia is the new thirty, dontchaknow. Second - somehow I doubt a rewrite by the cast of The View would make A Funny Thing much funnier. Indeed, not much could make it much funnier.
But Louise humorlessly soldiers on: "the problem here is that the production sometimes camps up these attitudes and sometimes plays them straight." Uh - that's not "the problem," that's the idea. Director Erick Devine and his cast get the tone just about right - jazzily self-aware, with nods to both the 60s and 70s (beneath their tunics, these Romans sport sneakers and platform shoes), but also aware the show's 'sexist' stereotypes aren't going anywhere soon; indeed, they're part and parcel of the human condition. (Why is it that gay men crack up at the ditzy drag jokes in Forum but feminists see red at its bimbos and shrews?) So please, Louise, just deal. The glory of Forum is its hilarious book (although it's the first show for which Sondheim provided both words and music, the score lacks the master's later recondite depth), and if you really can't see that, then I just feel sorry for you.
Still, it must also be said that this is hardly the funniest Forum one could wish for (and its piano/flute/trombone combo sounds pretty thin). It's the first Broadway musical for Boston Theatreworks, and they simply don't yet have the casting depth of, say, The Lyric, New Rep or SpeakEasy - or perhaps, with Zanna Don't and Gypsy both up and running, we have finally exhausted the resources of Boston Conservatory. Still, Theatreworks has bagged at least two local stars, Jennifer Ellis and Neil A. Casey, who both deliver near-perfect performances. The rest of the cast, however, although they definitely break a sweat, often lack that perfect alignment between performer and role that makes a finely-tuned contraption like Forum really fly. In the central role of Pseudolus, for instance, Bill Gardiner deploys a solid singing voice and a wittily thought-through performance - but he's simply a good actor rather than a natural stand-up, the way such famous Pseudolii as Zero Mostel, Nathan Lane, and Whoopi Goldberg were, and so the show never channels that zing that comes from the conspiratorial bond between audience and star. There are bright spots elsewhere - Richard McElvain seemed exhausted the night I saw him, but I liked his almost winsome reading of Senex - but in general, the show has the familiar fun-but-sometimes-fumbled vibe of many a smart, game college production.
To be fair, many in the audience the night I saw it were doubled over at its big numbers; your fun will be doubled, too, if you're a Forum virgin rather than a veteran. Aficionados, however, will still enjoy Jenna McFarland Lord's candy-colored set, which distills the show's farcical needs to just three slamming doors - though they never really slam (one actually spins) - and Kimmerie H.O. Jones's clever costumes, which include such inside jokes as a pair of Phil-Silvers-specs on Hysterium (Silvers appeared in both the film version and the first Broadway revival). Director Erick Devine likewise has more than a few inspired gags up his toga. Over all, there are enough funny things in this Forum to make it worth a trip.