Friday, June 19, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A fun, “A FUNNY THING’ lights up Porthouse Stage!

From the time I saw ‘A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM,’ several days after its 1962 opening, it’s been my “feel good” musical. Whenever I need a happy fix, I put on the cd. Just hearing Steven Sondheim’s music and lyrics to “Comedy Tonight,” “Free,” “Lovely,” and “Pretty Little Picture,” makes even the most overcast day glow.

‘A FUNNY THING’ is now on stage at the Porthouse Theatre. Though not a perfect production, nothing that director Terri Kent and her cast do, diminishes my love of the show.

Inspired by the farces of ancient Roman playwrights, its a bawdy story of a slave named Pseudolus and his attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master woo the girl next door. In this case, the girl next door isn’t a sweet innocent, but a virgin prostitute (go figure). The show contains all the elements of farce. Yes, there are lots of double sexual entendres, slamming of doors, mistaken identities, unrealistic plot twists, and the freedom for actors to just let loose and do vaudeville shticks.

The Broadway production won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book. It ran nearly 1000 performances and has had many revivals and evolved into a successful movie.

Broadway legends about the show include that the show's creators originally wanted Phil Silvers in the lead role, but he turned them down, allegedly because he would have to perform onstage without his glasses, and his vision was so poor that he feared tripping into the orchestra pit. Milton Berle also nixed the project. Then, along came Zero Mostel, who not only was the show’s star, but became a Broadway legend for not only this show, but for his Tevya in ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.’

This was Sondheim’s first Broadway attempt at writing both words and music and opened the doors for another star to emerge.

Porthouse’s production is delightful. Nick Koesters makes the role of Pseudolus his. This is not a Mostel imitation. He plays with the words, the lyrics, the audience.

Eric van Baars’ creative choreography helps with the quick pace, visual hysteria and general fun mood as did Rayna Middleton’s costume designs.

Koesters is well supported by J. P Makowski as Hysterium, who lives up to his hysterical character name, and Marc Moritz as Senex, a hen-pecked husband. Sarah Roussos, she of beautiful face and glorious voice, as Philia, the virgin, adds the right touch of fun with her wide-eyed stupidity. The male dancers were great, as was Mark Monday, as the old man in search of his lost children. He got cheers for doing nothing more than stumbling across the stage and counting the number of times he “walked around the city.”

On the other hand, though he has a great voice, Brian Keith Johnson, didn’t totally sell his uber-machoness as Miles Gloriosus, the Roman general. Melissa Owens wasn’t shrewy enough as Domina and Brian Duncan, who has a very pleasing voice, wasn’t beguiling enough as Hero, giving a surface level performance. Jonathan Swoboda’s musical direction was highlighted by some squealing brass, especially in the overture.

In spite of the minor flaws, the results are so fun-making that a woman behind me moaned, between howls, “I think I just wet my pants from laughing.” My 13 year old grandson was grinning from ear to ear as he watched the hysterics.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM’ is a great summer entertainment and the production calls out for going to the theatre and having a good time! It’s worth attending for no other reason than seeing Nick Koesters, do his “thing.”