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Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Two River Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall

David Josefesberg, Michael Urie, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Kevin Isola
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
You may be wondering why Jessica Stone's production of Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—which premiered at Williamstown Theatre Festival four years ago and is currently playing at Two River Theater in Red Bank—features an all-male cast. The show is something of a sausage-fest to begin with, so why remove the distaff altogether? Is it a nod to classical theatre, populated by men alone? Not likely, since women acted in the theatre of ancient Rome from the Imperial period onward. Is it a way of examining the sexist treatment of the female characters, who are presented as either decorous prostitutes or sexless harridans? If so, it does a bad job, with the male actors barely attempting verisimilitude. All I can imagine is that Stone needed a contrivance to add some intrigue to what is, on the whole, a rather mediocre production.

Forum is usually a fairly idiot-proof musical. Although it was Sondheim's first outing as a composer/lyricist—and differs in style and content from most of his corpus—the superb music bears much of the signature that has made his work the indelible cornerstone of the American musical theater for the last fifty years. Shevelove and Gelbart's airtight book is laugh-a-minute, with ample room for talented comic actors to flex their improvisational muscles. It is a testament to the strength of the material that even in a production as misguided as Stone's, many of the laughs remain inherent.

The problems begin as soon as the curtain rises and Christopher Fitzgerald takes the stage. Fitzgerald—who is Stone's husband and frequent collaborator—is an able musical theater performer who often shines in small roles (he was a standout in the otherwise woebegone New York Philharmonic concert staging of Show Boat). Here he is cast in the leading role of Pseudolus, the slave who must procure the virginal consort Philia (played by David Turner) for his master's son Hero (Bobby Conte Thornton) in order to earn his freedom. Pseudolus has been catnip for larger-than-life musical comedians like Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, and Nathan Lane, all of whom won Tony Awards for the role. It requires rubber-faced physical comedy, razor sharp timing, and a pleasant singing voice. In that respect, Fitzgerald is one for three.

Fitzgerald's voice is light and charming, but he does not have the charisma to carry a show. He spends most of the musical's prologue, "Comedy Tonight," working hard to look casual, and generally falling short. Despite one well-timed improvisation acknowledging a blown line, his ad-libs generally landed with a thud the night I attended. The overall impact of his performance is akin to that of an under-rehearsed understudy: professional, respectable even, but rarely thrilling.

By contrast, Michael Urie walks away with the evening as Pseudolus' fellow slave Hysterium. A reliably winning stage actor in half-a-dozen plays over the last few years, this was my first encounter with Urie in a musical role. His singing voice is stronger than I would have expected, but more importantly, he understands comedy in an old-school, every gesture counts sort of way. A raised eyebrow or a sly wink speaks volumes from him. He stops the show cold with a manically delivered rendition of one of the show's best known numbers, "I'm Calm," living up to his character's name.

Thornton is handsome and agile as Hero, although the age gap between him and Turner makes them a somewhat improbable virginal couple. Turner chooses to convey Philia's loveliness—and airheadedness—by delivering his lines in a voice so deadpan Ben Stein would be proud. It sent much of the audience into howls, but I rarely smiled. Further, Turner's physical carriage remains unmistakably masculine, all wrong for a character who is supposed to represent the ultimate embodiment of femininity.

Eddie Cooper does a much better job projecting womanliness as Domina, Hero's mother. Looking striking in a sky-high wig and silvery frock, Cooper belts Domina's showstopper "That Dirty Old Man" to the rafters, without sacrificing delicate comic timing. (He's a worthy heir to his Tony-winning father Chuck.) Unfortunately, as Domina's husband Senex, Kevin Isola's attempts to convey the character's advanced age come across like a cheap impersonation of a stroke victim.

The rest of the ensemble are largely solid, with David Josefberg a standout as the flesh trader Marcus Lycus. Graham Rowat cuts a dashing figure as the captain Miles Gloriosus, but his singing sounded underpowered at the performance I attended. Tom Deckman wrings laughs out of the thankless (and aptly named) role of Erronius. Paul Castree, Max Kumangai, and Manny Stark round out the cast in a handful of small roles.

Choreographer Denis Jones works some magic with the crowd-pleasing "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," but much of the long first act drags as we wait for those familiar Sondheim standbys to be performed. The cast works hard, but I spent much of the evening identifying with Pseudolus, longing to be F-R-E-E free.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues at Two River Theater through Sunday, December 13, 2015. Tickets ($37-65) can be purchased online at, by phone (732-345-1400), or in person at the box office (21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank).

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