A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Cast your mind back a few months ago. The Shakespeare Theatre Company announced its new season- Shakespeare! Wilde! More Shakespeare! Coward! How divine, darling. But in that first announcement, there was a noticeable absence, a gap we all minded. The December show was missing, that holiday presence that fills in the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's. The previous season, it was a gorgeous Midsummer in winter. The year before that, the Cuban Much Ado. If you have the patience to follow me one more year back, we had Mary Zimmerman's transcendent Candide. The mystery remained for a few weeks, but soon enough, the announcement was made- the missing show would be A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

(Er, come again?)

Now, now, there's precedent. Candide, and many years before that, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera.

(But, really.  For serious.  Forum?)

STC leaped to make their reasoning clear as eyebrows darted upwards across town. They pointed to those previous forays into musical theatre. They gesticulated with abandon towards the pedigree of Forum: Plautus, for one, and that most magnificent of musical theatre monarchs, Stephen Sondheim hisownself. They jazz-handed the announcement  that Bruce Dow would be back, following his comic turn as Bottom last year. Familiar faces, titans of the musical theatre canon, razzle dazzle, and the chance to do something unexpected- who could ask for anything more?

Because at the end of the day, theatregoers don't need to know WHY. They get to judge theatre on more immediate concerns, chief of which is the question, Is it a good performance? There are as many different factors at play in that question as there are ways to answer it, of course, but if we're seeing Forum, there's really only one metric that matters.

Is it funny? Is it REALLY funny? Is it made of towering heights of absurdity, and does it plummet into fabulously low comedy? Is the comic timing snappy? Does it, ultimately, sparkle like a vampire in the sun? If these questions seem broad, here's a simpler one: Can we make Tom Story wear a dress, and will it be as good a gag as that setup portends?

Friends, Tom Story is a pretty, pretty princess.

If we judge a comedy by laughs, Forum is a great success. Not every joke is a winner, but when they work, they work gloriously. There was a woman seated behind me last night who sounded as though she was having the greatest night of her entire life, judging by the profundity of her belly laughs that rang out again and again. The cast is working very, very hard and while yes, sometimes the seams do show, sometimes those seams give the production that little extra jolt of something special. These aren't gods, they're a gaggle* of very talented actors all assembled together and getting the chance to do what they do best- entertain us. There's a wonderful vaudevillian undercurrent to all the proceedings in Forum, and that music hall tradition goes back to commedia and back still further to the Roman comedies that inspired bookwriters Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbert. I like to see actors act, and when the opening number so happily breaks the fourth wall down to set the evening's tone, we know that that's exactly what we'll be getting.

And let's be clear- it's a damn fine cast at work here. Brian Dow works harder than anyone on the Harman stage (with the possible exception of the Proteans, played by Matthew Bauman, Nick Flatto, and Blakely Slaybaugh), and is the necessary rock that all the absurdity can rest upon. Tom Story is a delight, and it's a pleasure to see his musical theatre chops on display. All praise and honor must go to the knockout performance of Lora Lee Gayer as Philia. She's just as lovely as promised, but also fantastically weird in a way that's as unexpected as it is consistently hilarious.

Director Alan Paul has likewise assembled wonderful talent in his creative team. James Noone's sets and David C. Woolard's costumes are just the right level of cartoon fun, and Josh Rhodes has choreographed some deliciously old school musical theatre numbers for the cast to perform. I don't understand the intricacies of choreography enough to explain just why the movement seems so perfectly suited to a musical comedy from 1962, but there it is.

Everyone wondered why STC might have chosen to include Forum in its season, and theories abounded. At the heart of much of the speculation was that a Serious Shakespearean Theatre seemed an unlikely candidate for musical farce from fifty years ago, the implication that perhaps it was below its dignity. STC argued its case in press materials, in interviews, in podcasts, in formal and informal forums around the city- Forum is a classic example of musical comedy created by a master of the genre. Now, the funny bit is that if you substitute any other genre for "musical theatre," no one would have batted an eye.

It's an odd case. Why on earth is musical comedy different?  First, take a gander* at the comedy aspect. Fans of Shakespeare love to argue on behalf of the comic potential of his plays as one of the reasons they're still (oh, the dreaded word) "relevant"- the man wrote some mighty fine jokes, and clever staging can mine even more comic potential from within the iambic pentameter.  As for music? Just last week, I was in New York to see Twelfth Night in a sublimely musical production from the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare loved the rhythms of verse and the possibilities of prose- he loved word play just as much as Sondheim ever has. Music is all over the canon and no one would be so silly as to pretend otherwise.

Why then are we all so wary of a classical theatre company tackling a classic musical? Is it because Forum isn't just musical theatre, but musical farce? Is that the kicker? Are we that far above the slamming doors? It seems like a great pity if we are, especially as Shakespeare loved low comedy as much as the next glover's son with small Latin and less Greek. I'd love to tally up the dick jokes in Forum with the average Shakespeare play and see who'd win (spoiler- the answer is EVERYBODY WINS). I'm not looking for an answer so much as wondering why we all have felt such a need to talk about it for the last six months. My guess is that it might have more to do with how much we like speculating about season programming as way of proving how clever we all are about this business we call show... but that's just me.

More to the point, Forum is damn funny, well sung, lovely to look at, and if it's not leading us to a glorious tragic catharsis, it's certainly giving us a fun night on the town. Bloggers cannot live on farce alone, but yours truly certainly likes to mix high art and low art and dick jokes and jazz squares and come out humming a catchy tune.  If anyone wants me, I'll be in the back, choreographing my own routine to "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"- care to join me?

* All goose-related puns are absolutely intentional.


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