A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM
With the ascension of Robert Falls as artistic director two seasons ago, Goodman Theatre instituted a solid, if unofficial, policy of ending its subscription seasons with big-budget summer musicals. The 1986-'87 season closed with Michael Maggio's staging of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, the local premiere of an important Broadway hit that was also a deeply personal reflection of its composer's concerns. The next year saw Falls's darkly provocative revival-revision of a neglected American classic, Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey. Both shows were box-office successes, and both were lavish entertainments of the sort audiences expect summer musicals to be; but both were also artistically significant efforts that reaffirmed Goodman's role as a well-endowed nonprofit theater able to provide a vital and substantive alternative to the tried-and-true fare offered by commercial producers.
In light of this history, Goodman's current 1988-'89 season closer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, feels like a retreat from or even betrayal of the theater's mission. A large, well-financed nonprofit house like Goodman should be committed to the most selective standards in its choice of material. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a fairly common item in the schedules of second- and third-tier stock, community, and college theaters, is hardly in the same league as Sunday in the Park With George or Pal Joey.
So why is Goodman doing it? Presumably, director Frank Galati was attracted by the opportunities for comic invention the show offers. The script's authors, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, deliberately left plenty of room for actors and directors to contribute their own visual and verbal gags. Shevelove, the script's senior writer and a scholar of the odd and the eccentric, intended the show as an homage to pre-Christian Roman comedy and to its 20th-century descendants, vaudeville and burlesque. Both forms relied heavily on the individual personalities of the performers, and this was constructed as a flexible vehicle to accommodate whoever was playing it.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, like its ancient and modern antecedents, is first and foremost a showcase for the two clowns whose scheming propels the story. Pseudolus and Hysterium, slaves in the house of wealthy old Senex, contrive to match up Senex's bubble-headed son Hero with the beautiful Philia--a plan that carries considerable risk, since Philia, a Cretan slave owned by the Roman whoremonger Lycus, has recently been purchased on the layaway plan by the vain warrior Miles Gloriosus. The plot, which eventually involves Hysterium posing as a woman, is primarily a pretext for the relentless antics of Pseudolus and Hysterium. Appropriately, the best thing about this production is the interplay between Louis DiCrescenzo and Ross Lehman in those roles.
On his own, DiCrescenzo is less than satisfying as Pseudolus, a role created by Zero Mostel. Mostel was one of a kind; DiCrescenzo, however, plays the part as an amalgam of fey fat-boy comics throughout show-biz history. A dash of Mostel here, a dollop of Dom DeLuise there, a pinch of James Coco and a smattering of Lou Costello--it's a hodgepodge of homages, energetic but inauthentic. Lehman, on the other hand, is magnificent as the high-strung Hysterium. While DiCrescenzo is busy playing mannerisms, Lehman plays a precisely sculpted personality; his actions and reactions are real, even at their most absurd. This realness brings DiCrescenzo's aimless flopping into focus in the two comedians' scenes together, and it is in those moments that Goodman's Forum has a reason for being.
The rest of the time--well, it's good to see all those talented and well-trained performers gainfully employed, but that's about it. Bill Busch suggests George Burns without actually imitating him as the henpecked Senex, and Carol Swarbrick is a properly grotesque gargoyle as his wife Domina (her protracted "Farewell" is one of the show's funniest numbers, but again it's largely due to Ross Lehman's perfect comic reactions). David Studwell, equipped with a portable phone (one of a number of anachronistic touches that, while individually amusing, fail to add up to a real comic scheme), is a dead ringer for Wayne Newton as the slimy pimp Lycus; David Girolmo is an appropriately blustery braggart as Miles Gloriosus. As the fatuous lovers, George Newbern is a pleasant enough Hero, while Marietta DePrima plays the sweet but inane Philia like a motorized Barbie doll whose circuits are sputtering out.
In paying homage to modern burlesque as well as ancient farce, Forum offsets its clowns with a small army of well-built, scantily clad bimbos of both sexes. The Proteans are a trio of chorus boys who take on a succession of minor roles, including tap-dancing centurions and big-breasted eunuchs. Their female counterparts are Lycus's courtesans, lithe beauties with names like Vibrata and Panacea; but their near-naked parade in act one is pretty tame compared to the sexual sizzle generated by the dancing girls in Goodman's Pal Joey last season. The top courtesan, the sexually athletic Gymnasia, is played by Shannon Cochran, who was also the lead chorine in Pal Joey. There she had choreography and a character; here she just has some moves, and Chet Walker's dance staging is one more area in which this show suffers in comparison to Goodman's previous musicals.
More than 25 years after its Broadway premiere, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum stands as an important show mainly because it was Stephen Sondheim's first major effort as both composer and lyricist. Suffice it to say that Sondheim has improved; the score is a forgettable throwaway compared to the other pop cartoon musicals of its era (Bye Bye Birdie, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, etc), not to mention Sondheim's own subsequent work.
There's nothing out and out wrong with this production; it's as polished and professional an endeavor as one would expect, given Goodman's considerable financial and institutional resources. But those resources should have produced something more than just another tired businessman's musical.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Leonard.