A ‘FUNNY THING’ ON THE WAY TO RED BANK

Director Jessica Stone joins actors Michael Urie and Christopher Fitzgerald in a promotional video for ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ the musical comedy opening at the Two River Theater this weekend. 

By TOM CHESEK

It was an early feather in the cap for modern master Stephen Sondheim, representing his first project as both composer and lyricist. Its book, based as it is upon some nearly 1,800-year old works by the Roman dramatist Plautus, was co-authored by TV writer Larry Gelbart on the way to his 1970s series success M*A*S*H. And, as befits a show whose breakout number is called “Comedy Tonight” (“something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone…”), it is one raucously irreverent musical toga party.

First seen by Broadway audiences in 1962, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum proved custom-fit to the larger-than-a-rhinoceros talents of the late great Zero Mostel — with the comic heavyweight starring as Pseudolus, a savvy slave in ancient Rome whose schemes to win his freedom (by helping his master win the fair maiden next door) take a classically farcical turn. The role also proved to be an express ticket to a Tony nomination for whoever filled that toga — from Mostel and old-school wiseguy Phil Silvers to (in its most recent revival) Nathan Lane, and even a well-received turn by Whoopi Goldberg that demonstrated the triumph of the Funny over etched-in-stone casting conventions.

With that in mind, when Red Bank’s  Two River Theater turned to director Jessica Stone (last season’s Absurd Person Singular) for some fresh ideas on this 55-year-old favorite — going up in previews this Saturday on the Bridge Avenue stage — the determination was made that “when in Rome,” do as the Romans did: by casting each and every part with a male performer.

As Stone has explained, it’s anything but a hi-camp drag show, and a twist that met with the personal approval of Sondheim. It’s also a practice that harkens back to the days of old Plautus and his contemporaries — and one that resonates as recently as 2010, when Stone put forth an all-male Forum in Williamstown, Massachusetts,  that starred her husband, two-time Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald (Wicked, Young Frankenstein, Finian’s Rainbow) as the sly strategist Pseudolus.

Fitzgerald reteams with his director-spouse for the TRT production that opens officially on November 20 and continues through December 13. They’re joined in the new staging by a young cast of Broadway veterans highlighted by Michael Urie (Gavin Sinclair on Modern Family) as Hysterium, David Josefsberg (Honeymoon in Vegas), and Manny Stark (On the Town). Reprising their Williamstown roles are Paul Castree (9 to 5), Graham Rowat (Mamma Mia!) and David Turner (On a Clear Day), while Two River returnees include Kevin Isola (My Wonderful Day) and Tom Deckman (A Wind in the Willows Christmas). Gary Adler directs an eight-piece live orchestra, with choreography by Denis Jones and scenic design by multiple Tony nominee Alexander Dodge.

The director spoke to redbankgreen in advance of this weekend’s first preview performances. Here’s a lightly edited transcript.

redbankgreen: This trip to the FORUM picks up from the production that you and your husband did at Williamstown. And while it looks like you’ve got a lot of momentum going in, with three other cast members carried over from the previous project, it’s actually been a whole five years between the two shows. Was that 2010 production considered your first fully staged stint as a director, and how much have you re-thought your approach to the show as you prepare it for the Two River stage?

JESSICA STONE: That earlier FORUM was my first time as director, following several productions as an assistant or associate director, so it meant a lot to me then, and still does! There’s definitely some “muscle memory” in the way we’re approaching this show, but a lot is being created for the first time… for one thing, Michael Urie is a dream to work with. One of the all-time great Hysteriums.

The way this show was written and presented back in the day, it was a perfect vehicle for a larger-than-life personality like a Zero Mostel, a Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, kind of a sophisticated setting for the skills of those old guys from burlesque and vaudeville. Since our current generation of actors comes from a different place than the burlesque circuit, do you approach the comedy here from a different angle? 

We don’t have the same kind of training ground that vaudeville presented back then. When you think about it, it informed so much of our entertainment industry when this show was brand new. But we have some great actors, who have been trained in very different, very effective ways compared to that generation of performers. And when you get right down to it, you either have funnybones or you don’t. There are people working today who really get comedy — and I’m fortunate to be working with many of them right now —but we don’t necessarily have a place to put them in show business as it exists today.

Comedy can be painful. It can be painstaking to master, and the best actors understand the stakes for their character in any situation. They know that there’s an architecture to delivering and setting up a joke.

You can make the case that one person who “gets” it is Nathan Lane, who of course made ‘Forum’ his own on Broadway. You had the experience of working with him on Broadway during your own days as an actor. Did he serve to inspire you to take on ‘Forum’ as your first major project?

Not really; we worked together in ‘The Odd Couple,’ with him and Matthew Broderick, and in a play called ‘Butley.’ And while I consider him a friend, he didn’t have anything to do directly with me taking on that project. He did know about the production, and he was very sweet and supportive of the whole thing, as was Stephen Sondheim, who gave his blessing to the all-male casting as long as it wasn’t “done camp.” He came to see the show in Williamstown, and again when we did a reading of it.

By that point, we’d seen Whoopi Goldberg take on the part of Pseudolus on Broadway, so it was obvious that this fun musical was no stodgy sacred text when it came to casting. It seems somehow perfectly natural to cast the whole show with male actors, and if nothing else, the Romans already set the pace.

As far as I’m concerned, it was already an “all male” production, going back to the age of Plautus, when plays were written strictly by men, for men. And when those old plays were adapted for this musical in the 1960s, it was done by a bunch of guys, with humor that was pretty much for guys. The female roles in the show were along the lines of, well, an illiterate hooker. Which is not to say that you can’t have fun with scantily clad women being chased around the stage by leering old comics. It’s just that it’s interesting to see what happens to the comedy here when all the roles are performed by men. And it’s not a “drag” show by any means; drag is a different art form altogether. It’s a real classic in its own right, in which… just when you think you’re totally in the Borscht Belt…along comes this surprisingly elegant score, that just elevates the entire experience. We just don’t have to be precious about our classics!

‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ goes up in previews on Saturday, November 14. Opening on Friday, November 20, it runs through December 13 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($20 – $65 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here

Also on the agenda is a screening of the 1996 Mike Nichols film ‘The Birdcage‘ on Thursday, December 10 that finds cast member Urie (movie-maven host of the Logo network’s ‘Cocktails and Classics’ series) joining fellow actors and film buffs on the couch of Two River’s VIP Lounge for a session of fun facts and trivia plus “priceless chatter with some of Broadway’s biggest stars.” A $25 admission price includes movie, light bites, drinks and a chance to win tickets to the closing performance of ‘Forum’ (as well as the official backstage toast with cast and crew). Seating for the 7:30 p.m. event is very limited, and reservations can be made right here.