A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

26198376_10155188947538388_7020959063962384231_oTed Pappas first staged A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for Pittsburgh Public Theater 20 years ago as a guest director. He has chosen it as the last musical he will direct & choreograph as the company’s Producing Artistic Director.  Even though a lot has changed in those twenty years, Forum is a fascinating period piece from many perspectives.

Forum is the first musical in which Stephen Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics. After West Side Story, (Leonard Bernstein’s score and Sondheim’s lyrics) opened on Broadway his friend Burt Shevelove commented on the lack of “low-brow comedy” on Broadway and mentioned a possible musical based on Plautus’ Roman comedies. Sondheim called a friend, Larry Gelbart, (creator of M*A*S*H*) to co-write the script. Forum reflects many of the attitudes and perceptions that were prevalent in the 1960’s, the era of Mad Men.

For those of us who love the musical theatre lyrical art form, there is no better show than A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Sondheim offers the perfect marriage of lyrics to score seamlessly merging contrasting ideas with alliterations and perfect rhymes.

Forum is set on a street in ancient Rome, in front of three adjacent houses. First is the brothel of Marcus Lycus (Jeff Howell) who takes his profession as a peddler of fresh flesh very seriously. Next is the House of Senex (Stephen DeRosa), his wife Domina (Ruth Gottschall), and their son Hero (Jamen Nanthakumar) and their Slave-in-Chief, Hysterium (Gavan Pamer). Last is the house of Erronius (James FitzGerald), who bemoans the unsolved kidnapping long ago of his son and daughter by pirates.

Pseudolus (Jimmy Kieffer), Hero’s slave, convinces his master to grant his freedom if he can secure Philia (Mary Elizabeth Drake), the lovely virgin in Lycus’ stable of courtesans for Hero. Pseudolus blackmails Hysterium to help with his scheme to obtain Philia, which is complicated by the fact she has been sold to a Roman soldier, Miles Gloriosus (Allan Snyder).

Director Pappas demonstrates his mastery of the intimate performance space of the Public with a tightly choreographed approach and sophisticated execution. The overall vision is not as slapstick and physical as the Three Stooges but, more in the manner of a slightly toned-down Monty Python adventure. All the creative elements tie together humorously. However, the treatment of women as slaves and purely objects of sexual desire is troublesome and always lurks in the background of this burlesque style comedy.

Jimmy Kieffer as Prologus (center)
Jimmy Kieffer as Prologus (center)

Kieffer, who also portrayals the MC aptly named Prologus, hooks us in the classic opening number “Comedy Tonight” with his impish style and charm. He smoothly transitions to the freedom-yearning Pseudolus, a schemer, a bit of a scoundrel and a master con artist.

Pseudolus, Marcus Lycus, Hysterium, Hero and Miles Gloriosus (Kieffer, Howell, Pamer, Nanthakumar, and Snyder respectively) have the heavy lifting in this male -centered comedy. It is Pamer, as the groveling Hysterium, who steals the show when he walks out in drag to become the dead Philia.  Snyder, last seen at the Public in Daddy Long Legs is the handsome and suitably conceited as Miles Gloriosus in all his royal purple splendor.

Mary Elizabeth Drake nails the sweetest, but not the brightest girl in the brothel role of Philia. She is happy to just be “lovely” and nothing more. Ruth Gottschall has some great bits as Dominica, Hero’s mother. Her facial expressions and amazement are amplified by the intimacy of the Public’s performance space. Jim Fitzgerald gets a stream of laughs as his Erronius jogs across the Public stage before finally returning home.  Jonathan Blake Flemings, Andrew Pace, and Mark Tinkey channel the Marks Brothers as the Proteans, the shows utility players. The courtesans, Tintinabula (Stephanie Maloney), Panacea (Monica Woods), Vibrata (Jessica Walker), Gymnasia (Elyse Collier) and the Gemini Twins (Brooke Lacy and Andrea Weinzierl) are all lovely and skillfully add the burlesque bump-and-grind element to this bawdy comedy.

Allan Snyder (center) as Miles Gloriosus with the courtesans
Allan Snyder (center) as Miles Gloriosus with the courtesans

Perhaps what Pittsburgh and the Public will miss most after Pappas has left is the collaborative team he has built over the years. The design team of James Noone (Sets) Kirk Bookman (Lights) have brought lush and visually stunning productions at the Public and Forum is no exception. Martha Bromelmeier use of Tony Watson’s costume designs brings a riot of color and textures to the stage.  Zach Moore once again deserves kudos for the Sound Design. Forum is one of the best sounding musicals you will hear in Pittsburgh. It is a perfect balance of orchestra, dialogue, and vocals that maintain the intimacy of the Public.

Forum’s original 1962 Broadway run won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Author (Musical). However, things have changed since then, particularly our views on the roles of women in society. Many of us struggle with how to see art that no longer fits today’s moral and ethical standards even when viewed in the context of the time in which it was created.

An example is “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” which is hilariously funny as portrayed by Senex, Pseudolus, Hysterium, and Lycus. Its perspective is a fifty-five-years-old one from a salacious boy’s club era of misogynistic remarks.

The program notes say “There will be no social commentary tonight. There is no political posturing or correctness” in Forum. “These characters will virtually all be misbehaving – for your benefit.”

Even in a brilliantly cast and well-executed production; slaves and women viewed purely for their overt sexuality, have ceased to be hysterical. Something I thought a lot about after the performance.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, performances now through Sunday, February 25th at the O’Reilly Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theater’s home in the heart of Downtown’s Cultural District. For tickets call 412.316.1600 or visit https://www.ppt.org/production/51427/list_performances

Thanks to the Public for the complimentary tickets and the people in front and behind us who talked through most of the first act.

Photos by Michael Henninger