A (very) Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

“Tragedy tomorrow, Comedy tonight!”

And with that opening refrain comes one of the clearest promises in musical theatre history, and perhaps even theatre history. Tonight, you will laugh. Tonight, our only goal is to throw everything we have at you and make you laugh as loudly, as heartily, and as frequently as possible.

Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat: STC’s Funny Thing is indeed a very “funny thing.” You will laugh, a lot. Whatever your sense of humor is, I guarantee there are at least 12 gags packed in that will get a rise out of you. “Something for everyone,” indeed.

Danny Rutigliano as Marcus Lycus and Bruce Dow as Pseudolus (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Danny Rutigliano as Marcus Lycus and Bruce Dow as Pseudolus (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

If you start to break it down, it’s a pretty diverse list: There are dick and fart jokes. Groan-worthy puns. Vaudeville-style schtick as old as Moses’ toes and twice as corny. Wordplay. Commedia del Arte. Classic farce. Classical comedy. Running gags that pay off late in the show. Audience interaction. Improvisation. Pop culture references. Jokes that force actors to break character for a moment, only making the the gag funnier. Meta-humor. Pratfalls. Borderline offensive prods. Manhandling of baby dolls. And so many “rule of three”-based buildups that even if you have no idea what that term means, you’ll figure it out by the end of the first act.

The most astonishing thing is, though, that nearly all of it works. Within the spectrum of the fantastic cast and creative team, Forum manages to land a staggering number of the setups it deploys. It fires like a machine gun – if one laugh doesn’t hit, the next one probably will. Or the next one. Or the one after that.

Much of the comedy on display is highly technical and intricately crafted, timed, and polished, and credit for that work belongs to director Alan Paul. Not only is the laugh-to-joke batting average quite high, but it all hangs together stylistically, which is no easy feat. Pseudolus farting on Hysterium’s face shouldn’t really work right next to clever Stephen Sondheim lyrics, and yet it does, and that is to Paul’s credit.

Of course, some of that credit belongs in the hands of bookwriters Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, perhaps the most bizarrely unsung heroes in all of this (pun intended). Sondheim’s name is the one proudly emblazoned on the posters and programs, and the legacy of the show is definitely that it was the birth of “composer/lyricist Sondheim” to the mainstream. But let’s give due diligence to the Shevelove/Gelbart team. They dip into the bag of tricks they honed writing sketch comedy, which may be the closest spiritual relative to the style of the show. (Shevelove on the Bell Telephone Hour, Gelbart for Sid Caesar, both for Dinah Shore. Gelbart would later go on to create things you may have heard of like Tootsie and this little thing called M*A*S*H).

As for Sondheim, somehow this show, which was actually a pretty big hit for him, has managed to become one of his “underrated” scores, probably because it’s so mainstream (Sondheim fans were hipsters before hipsters were hipsters, which…makes them super-hipsters?). But give a listen to songs like “Lovely”, “Impossible”, “I’m Calm”, and marvel at the effortless bridge between the intellectual and the broad.

The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Josh Rhodes’ choreography helps a lot, too. Keeping with that theme of “same show” comes witty dance routine after witty dance routine, employing gymnastics, tap dance, kick lines, and even a little burlesque. Highly athletic and hilarious in its own right, Rhodes keeps the laugh faucet running when a lesser choreographer might have just opted to paint a “Pretty Little Picture” onstage. (Side note: does this song usually get cut? Because it’s cut here.)

Adam Wachter, too, deserves a lot of credit, for creating big sounds from relatively few bodies, namely in his pit. At only seven deep, you’d think that might be a little thin for a Golden Age musical, but the Dan DeLange orchestral reduction makes you enjoy the heck out of what you get, even if you secretly long for more.

Design-wise, we once again have a huge show in a tiny box. James Noone’s set design seems like a high-gloss take on a simple idea on the surface, but those three Roman houses have dozens of tricks: traps, doors, switches, ropes, winches, and gags of all sort busting out at the seams.

Rui Rita’s lighting for the most part highlights the action, shifts the tone, stays inconspicuous, and buttons the jokes/songs, though sometimes the joke is an overblown lighting cue or a song awkwardly ending without a button, in which case Rita also succeeds admirably. David C. Woolard’s costumes are gorgeous, and often quite hilarious in their own right, especially the eunuch tummies, and all contribute to the high level of polish that is needed to make such mad-cap hijinx feel safe.

The important point is that all three of these designs actively contribute to the comedy and never provide pointless distraction. And to Jason Tratta, I simply say thank you, for creating a sound mix for a musical where it doesn’t sound amplified at all, and boosts just enough to make actors with strong voices audible over a pit. Your sound effects are funny, too.

Tom Story as Hysterium and Julie Johnson as Domina (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Tom Story as Hysterium and Julie Johnson as Domina (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Okay, the cast: everyone contributes, everyone has skill in the comic medium. Right down to the male Protean ensemble and the lady Courtesan ensemble, you’re looking at a stage full of individuals who can all bring the funny, as individuals and as a group. Danny Rutigliano, as Marcus Lycus, keeps popping in my memory, as he could have been pulled right out of a Sid Caesar sketch. Harry Winter can get a huge laugh from a look to the audience during a funny cross (no spoilers here) or simply walking into a pole.

As Philia, Lora Lee Gayer makes some of the weirdest character choices I’ve ever seen for a comic ingenue character, but boy do they work. Electing to play up the character’s over-sheltered side, many of her choices and deliveries are genuinely unexpected, and prompt suitably huge responses from the crowd. Hero, too, brings some refreshing quirk to an innamorati character, and Nick Verina sneaks some good winks in under the surface of Hero’s lovestruck veneer.

Highly Recommended
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Closes January 5, 2014
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
Washington, DC
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $110
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets 

Did you know that Tom Story could sing? As Hysterium, Story probably could have gotten away with a nebbish character voice and called it a day, since his work in the book scenes is so on-point. I doubt anyone would have minded if he basically spoke-sang “I’m Calm.” But there’s a robust sound in there! Also, it should be noted that while Story easily lands Hysterium’s big comedic routines and surface traits, my favorite of his contributions were some of his smaller reactions, like the way he’ll crawl back into a pose or protect himself from a predicted hit or lament whether or not he looks pretty in a particular situation (again, no spoilers for the 12 of you who haven’t seen Forum).

And at last we come to Bruce Dow, the comic ringmaster of the whole shebang. What is there to say to praise him that hasn’t already been said to praise the overall effect of the show? After all, Pseudolus IS Forum. And Dow carries that burden square on his back, and with pretty light feet, to boot. Seriously, he traverses this stage quicker than some of those dancers.

What Dow brings to Pseudolus is an eager showman’s energy, personifying the promise of Prologus at the start – not only will this show do everything in its power to make you laugh, I will. He milks those gags, runs those laps, makes those faces, plots those schemes, and sells those lines and lyrics. The effect could be exhausting, but instead it comes all the way back around to being quite charming. And as long as you’re laughing at the jokes, it works.

That promise is certainly fulfilled by STC’s Forum, “setup” to “pause” to “punch”.

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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 Alan Paul . Choreography by Josh Rhodes . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by John Dellaporta.

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More reviews:

Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Esther . WeLoveDC
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Chuck Conconi . WashingtonLife
Keith Loria . TheaterMania
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Bob Ashby . ShowBizRadio
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Anne Tsang . DCMetroTheaterArts 

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