A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum, book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
(l-r) Logan Lipton, David Bonanno, Marissa McGowan; photo: provided
David Benoit with the Proteans: Spencer Glass, James M. Penca, Josh S. Smith; photo provided
"Stand back. I take large steps."
With the Roman comedy, part farce and part burlesque, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum," songwriter Stephen Sondheim took an enormous step forward and a partial step backward. While still a student at Williams College he wrote a musical version of the Roman play "The Frogs" which was destined to be performed at the indoor pool at Williams. Professionally he had written the lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" two of the landmark musicals people still talk about and produce, both of them more than fifty years old and basically still new and fresh. In 1962 he brought the current show at the Weston Playhouse to the stage for the first time with a cast that included Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, David Burns and Ruth Kobart. They left indelible impressions on those who saw the show.
What we have been discovering about "Funny Thing..." is that it is as timeless as "West Side..." and "Gypsy." Its story is delicious and the dialogue never grows old or tiresome. The songs are still fresh and make us laugh or want to hug someone just as much now as they did before, in the olden times. What is equally refreshing is watching and listening to audiences seeing this show today. Gone is the "need" for relevance, for psychological manifestations, for the importance of political correctness. In this show the men are horny and the women are in control. The central character is a manipulative devil who never gets his comeuppance, although he comes close to it. Disguise and laughter go hand in hand, just the way they used to and no one is killed, maimed or even reduced to a rubble pile of tears and remorse. We just have fun! Fun! What a concept! A musical that is just fun! I donít seem to be able to say that enough.
Up in Vermont the director Tim Fort has assembled a cast and a production team that truly understand what fun is all about. A newly installed orchestra pit is the object of the overture and may include in all performances (seeing only one itís impossible to be certain) the participation of an audience member. Larry Pressgrove makes good use of this new space producing an even and balanced sound from his five-person pit orchestra. Above and behind is the intriguingly utilitarian set by Howard C. Jones that continually surprises as it lends itself to more and more farcical material. Nancy Leary provides an odd cross-over costume concept with bicycle pants, sneakers and togas mixed and matched while Michael Lincolnís lighting design is a broad-strokes style with slashes of color and occasionally epic shadows keeping the eye focused on specific spots on this theaterís unusually small stage.
Fortís leading man, David Bonanno, is an excellent Pseudolus, although he started out seeming to be too young but quickly grew into the role. He has an exceptionally good singing voice, a face that seems to twist into a variety of shapes and feeling of flavors. He moves indelicately back and forth between vanilla and black raspberry...itís hard to explain, but he seems to be more a sensory experience in this role instead of just a person. There is a curious element to his work here that just produces an aura of ice-cream sundaes.
As his young charge, Hero, one of the oddest looking actors Iíve seen in the role, Logan Lipton, gives us a petulant young man with a perpetual pout who presents piquant yet precise postures as part of his acting technique. He poses, but is not a poseur; he is acting his role and that is the part of a young man out of step with his time and his needs trying to understand his own urges. He does it well and though it makes the role different, that difference is less shallow and more contemporary.
He loves Philia, played by Marissa McGowan who is not as silly and insipid an individual as weíve seen before in this part. It amazes me to see how different a role can be when taken from another angle, and this Philia is both lovely (as she sings) and heroic, rather than lovely and colossally stupid. She sings beautifully.
Less successful for me was Sharon Wheatley as Domina, Heroís mother. Too young and attractive for the role, her makeup could make her more severe, but her emotional take on her second act song needs more variety and strength to make it really work for me. A case, perhaps, of indelible memories of the first Domina, Ruth Kobart.
Her husband is the charming and silly Geoffrey Wade. Their excellent neighbor is played by Munson Hicks who makes Erronius a charmer in spite of himself. Marcus Lycus, another neighbor, is played to the silly hilt by Allen Kendall. David Benoit is a peculiar choice for Miles Gloriosus, but he makes the role work and that is never easy when playing an egotistical S.O.B. He comes off as a man with charm, deeply hidden but still there.
Tom Aulino is a very funny and rather endearing Hysterium, the servant who cannot make anything work or anyone behave. The rest of the company fall in line with the principals and the show as a whole seems seamlessly perfect.
Last yearís production in Williamstown seemed absolute and unbeatable. This yearís Weston edition of the show seems marvelous and unbeatable. Where will I see this play next year and how will it seem - no answer and no need. If you require a bit of fun and a time out of the sun plop your buns down in Weston. Itís a funny thing.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum plays at the Weston Playhouse on the town square in Weston, Vermont through August 20. For information and tickets contact the box office at 802-824-5288.