ON THE GREEN: TWO TICKETS ON THE AISLE

Joseph York (The Prince), Alison Levier (Cinderella) and Gina Teschke (Little Red) are among the storybook characters going “Into the Woods,” when Phoenix Productions stages the Sondheim musical at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre. (Photos courtesy Tom Martini)

On a weekend that marks the official curtain-up for Two River Theater’s season-opening production of A Raisin in the Sun, two of the area’s longest established community stage companies are offering up something for those who get a thrill from first-nighting — with fresh local looks at a couple of Broadway favorites from the 1980s and 1990s.

When last we looked in on Red Bank’s own Phoenix Productions, the resident theatrical troupe of the Count Basie Theatre was marking its turf with a revisit to West Side Story — an early success for the young lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and an indicator of great things to come. When the company’s 2017 season resumes this Friday, September 15, it will once again look to the Sondheim playbook — and to the storybook realm of the Brothers Grimm — with a musical journey Into the Woods.

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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.

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