In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I report on an all-male revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Here’s an excerpt.
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How do you make the funniest musical ever written even funnier? Jessica Stone has answered that question by staging “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” with an all-male cast at Two River Theater. This new wrinkle is so appropriate that merely to hear it makes you smack your forehead and cry, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Well, you didn’t: The idea belongs to Ms. Stone, a fresh face who first came to my attention when she directed a frisky, poignant revival of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in August at Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse. Most of the 12 cast members in Two River’s scaled-down production of “Funny Thing,” an earlier version of which was seen in 2010 at the Williamstown Theater Festival, double as men and women (the original 1962 Broadway production called for 10 men and 8 women). Nor is her innovation a trendy gimmick: It is, instead, central to the success of this ingenious staging, which amps up the comic effect of every punch line so high that you’ll be out of breath at intermission. If laughter really is the best medicine, then Ms. Stone’s “Funny Thing” will lengthen your life span by at least a decade.
One reason why it works so well is that Ms. Stone has followed to the letter Stephen Sondheim’s shrewd advice not to stage the musical as “mere camp.” Accordingly, her “women” are men dressed in Milton Berle-style drag. They act like women—sort of—but don’t look like them in the least. Philia (David Turner), the Roman courtesan with whom Hero (Bobby Conte Thornton) falls hopelessly in love, isn’t even pretty and wears a wig that could have come from a dime store. cMs. Stone’s purpose is to present the well-worn dumb-blonde stereotypes utilized by Mr. Sondheim, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, the authors of “Funny Thing” (as well as Plautus, the third-century Roman playwright on whose farces it is freely based), in a new light. “It feels like an all-male show already because these female roles are male constructs,” she explained in a recent interview. If, then, they are played by male actors whose maleness is immediately obvious to the audience, the absurdity of the stereotypes will become just as obvious.
When I first read Ms. Stone’s explanation of what she sought to do, I feared that I’d let myself in for a two-and-a-half-hour lecture on the Evils of the Male Gaze. Nothing doing: Not only does she appreciate how head-bangingly funny “A Funny Thing” is, but she’s a top-class farceuse who has mastered the complex art of making sure that every door in a stage farce slams at exactly the right split-second….
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Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:
Zero Mostel sings “Comedy Tonight” (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) on the 1971 Tony Awards telecast: