New take on ‘A Funny Thing Happened …’ has lots of old-school charm

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Christopher Fitzgerald (in red, fifth from left) stars as Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which is at Two River Theater in Red Bank through Dec. 13.

On Tuesday, Stephen Sondheim received a Presidential Medal of Freedom award in a solemn White House ceremony. And that night, his songs were sung at the Two River Theater, amid pratfalls, risqué double entendres and fart jokes.

Yes, Sondheim is one of the masters of American musical theater, and has done much to move the art form forward. But he is also responsible for the music and lyrics of the proudly silly musical comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — which also happens to be one of the most consistently hilarious plays in existence, and is at the Red Bank theater through Dec. 13. (For tickets, visit tworivertheater.org.).

As Pseudolus (Christopher Fitzgerald), the play’s central character, tells the audience in the scene-setting opening number, “Comedy Tonight, the play has “Nothing that’s grim/Nothing that’s Greek/She” — a fellow cast member — “plays Medea later this week.”

Except he didn’t say “She.” He said “he.” That’s because that actor, like all the actors in this production, is male.

In the show’s program, director Jessica Stone says this was her way of undercutting the show’s sexism: The male characters have all the power, and the clever, conniving Pseudolus is the only character, male or female, with any brains. The female characters are there, basically, to look pretty and be lusted after. Stone thought “it would be interesting to see what happens to the comedy if you make what’s basically an all-male show” — meaning a show created by men, for men — “actually all-male.”

Kevin Isola, left, plays Senex, who lusts after Philia, played by David Turner, in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Kevin Isola, left, plays Senex, who lusts after Philia, played by David Turner, in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

I don’t think, ultimately, it makes that much of a difference. The play’s wacky, Vaudeville era charm survives.

In a way, having men portray the women plays right into the show’s intrinsically lowbrow spirit. There is no easier way to generate laughs than to dress a man as a woman. This adds a layer of ridiculousness to the proceedings, and for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the more ridiculousness there is onstage, the better.

It helps, of course, that Stone has assembled a first-rate cast, led by two-time Tony nominee (for “Young Frankenstein” and “Finian’s Rainbow”) Fitzgerald as the confident, smooth-talking Pseudolus. He may not have the kind of commanding stage presence that Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, who have excelled in the role previously, displayed, but he compensated well by playing up the character’s impish, mischievous side. Michael Urie also showed sharp comic as Pseudolus’ fellow slave, the nervous, rule-following Hysterium (“I live to grovel,” he says).

Standouts among the cast include Max Kumangai, who executes some impressively athletic dance moves as the prostitute Gymnasia and also as a Roman soldier; and Eddie Cooper, who is appropriately terrifying as wife-from-hell Domina (“Never fall in love during a total eclipse,” cautions her husband Senex, played by Kevin Isola).

The show features a live orchestra underneath the stage, with three sections of the stage cut out, to let the sound be heard. Stone and choreographer Denis Jones smoothly move the actors around those potentially treacherous holes, and make the epic chase scene towards the end of Act II as chaotic as it needs to be. Clint Ramos’ bright costumes add to the festive atmosphere, and his ornate armor for self-impressed warrior Miles Gloriosus (Graham Rowat) is suitably over-the-top.

There will be lots of more sentimental holiday-season offerings out there this year. But I can pretty much guarantee you won’t laugh more at any of them than you will at “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

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