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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin
Choreographed by Alex Sanchez
The Muny
July 5, 2017

John Tartaglia, Mark Linn-Baker, Jeffrey Shecter
Photo: The Muny

 

According to the notes in the program, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in its original pre-Broadway run was saved by a last-minute song change, as composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim added “Comedy Tonight” as the opening number and the show became a hit. Well, another last-minute change has occurred for the Muny’s latest production, as billed star Peter Scolari unfortunately had to drop out due to illness, and Jeffrey Schecter, who winningly portrayed Scuttle in the Muny’s last production, The Little Mermaid, was called in four days before opening to take over the role of Pseudolus. Executive producer Mike Isaacason made an appearance before the opening night show to announce the change, and to let the audience know that Schecter would be performing with script in hand.  Still, despite the short rehearsal time, Schecter’s performance is a resounding success, anchoring a production that’s full of wit, energy, and old-school humor.

Based on several comedies by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, Forum is framed as a theatrical repertory performance, introduced by Prologus (Schecter), who will play Pseudolus in tonight’s comedy. Pseudolus is a slave in the house of the wealthy Roman Senex (Mark Linn-Baker), who is about to go out of town with his overbearing wife Domina (E. Faye Butler), leaving his son Hero (Marrick Smith) in the charge of Pseudolus and chief slave Hysterium (John Tartaglia), who aren’t yet aware that the wide-eyed young man has fallen in love with a young woman he’s only seen but never met. This young woman is Philia (Ali Ewoldt), a new arrival at the house of Lycus (Jason Kravits), who keeps courtesans and has sold the virginal Philia sight unseen to a vainglorious military captain, Miles Gloriosus (Nathaniel Hackmann), who is due to arrive any day to claim his bride. There’s also Erronius (Whit Reichert), another neighbor, who is still searching for his long lost children, who were abducted years previously by pirates. Meanwhile Pseudolus seeks to obtain his freedom by helping Hero, but as this is a farce, nothing runs smoothly, with many comic mishaps and misunderstandings happening along the way to the show’s promised “happy ending”.

This is a funny, funny show, with a lot of wild, bawdy, and slapstick humor, and yes, some dated elements and some predictable plot points, but it’s a lot of fun, especially here with this energetic, enthusiastic cast. Schecter has had a difficult job filling in at the last minute in such a prominent role, but he shines, with excellent comic timing, smooth dance skills, and winning stage presence. He even manages to incorporate the script into a few jokes and visual gags. He also manages great chemistry with his co-stars with such little rehearsal time, which is remarkable, and his song-and-dance number “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” with the equally excellent Tartaglia, Linn-Baker, and Kravits is a comic highlight.  Tartaglia especially seems to be reveling in his part as the excitable Hysterium, giving a stand-out performance. There are also strong turns from Hackmann as the haughty, full-of-himself Miles Gloriosus, who has come to claim his bride but would probably marry himself if he could; and by Reichert as the determined, goofily earnest Erronius. As the thwarted young lovers Hero and Philia, Smith and Ewoldt are excellent, as well, with Ewoldt especially funny and in great voice. There’s also a trio of Proteans–Marcus Choi, Justin Keyes, and Tommy Scrivens–who play a number of roles throughout the production and bring a lot of laughs in the process; and six elaborately costumed courtesans (Khori Michelle Petinaud, Katelyn Prominksi, Emily Hsu, Lainie Sakakura, Justina Aveyard, and Molly Callinan) who also contribute to the humor and energy of the show.

This isn’t as big a cast as is usually seen at the Muny, but they fill the stage well, as does the colorful, evocative set by Tim Mackabee, representing the three prominent houses and providing an ideal setting for the action. There are also vibrant costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, wigs by John Metzner, and lighting by Rob Denton,  contributing to the Roman atmosphere as well as the slapstick tone. The staging is brisk and sprightly, with some energetic choreography by Alex Sanchez adding to the overall madcap atmosphere.

This is a funny show. The title doesn’t lie. It’s a kind of show that brings in a lot of old-style comic elements, with some memorable Sondheim songs and a great cast. Kudos again to Jeffrey Schecter for giving such a strong, assured performance on such short notice. I’m sure his portrayal will get even stronger as the show goes on. It’s another excellent production from the Muny.

Cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in Forest Park until July 11, 2017.

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Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine
Directed by Gary Griffin
The Muny
July 21, 2015

Heather Headley, Rob McClure, Erin Dilly Photo by Phillip Hamer  The Muny

Heather Headley, Rob McClure, Erin Dilly
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Into the Woods has been one of my favorite musicals since I was a teenage drama geek listening to the Original Broadway Cast album on cassette tape on my Walkman. It’s the show that, after Carousel (which the Muny hasn’t staged since 1988), had been the musical I’d most wanted to see at the Muny, since the outdoor setting and wider appeal (compared to other Sondheim shows) made it an ideal choice.  Finally, in its 2015 season, the Muny has brought this modern classic to Forest Park, and it has done so in glorious fashion. With its wonderful production values and a top-notch cast, this production is a celebration of the magic of theatre.

The story is well-known now, since this play is so popular with regional, community, and school theatre companies. It’s basically a blend of various well-known fairy tales along with some original elements, as a childless Baker (Rob McClure) and his Wife (Erin Dilly) are sent on a journey to break a family curse by a mysterious Witch (Heather Headley) with secret motives of her own. Also on their own quests are Cinderella (Elena Shaddow), who wishes to escape her unhappy  home life with her cruel Stepmother (Ellen Harvey) and self-centered Stepsisters (Jennifer Diamond as Florinda, April Strelinger as Lucinda) and her weak-willed Father (Michael McCormick). She wants to attend the King’s festival , but soon finds herself being pursued by a persistent Prince (Andrew Samonsky). Meanwhile, the young lad Jack (Jason Gotay) is sent to the woods by his Mother (Zoe Vonder Haar) to sell his beloved cow, Little Red Riding Hood (Sara Kapner) meets a Wolf (also Samonsky) on the way to Grandmother’s (Anna Blair) house, and the isolated Rapunzel (Samantha Massell) lives a lonely existence being stowed away in a tower by the overprotective Witch and pines for another handsome Prince (Ryan Silverman). All these stories weave together in a complicated but clever way, with many surprises in store as the characters learn the truth of the old adage “be careful what you wish for”.

This is a story of archetypes and motivations, using fairy tales to present a complex morality tale with several important messages, especially that actions have consequences. The issue of parents as role models for their children is another major theme, as the show’s iconic closing number “Children Will Listen” exemplifies. It’s a multi-layered story, with some deceptively dark connotations, but also with a lot of fast-paced action and precisely timed comedy.  It’s one of those shows where timing is absolutely essential, and for the most part, this production gets it right. I did notice a few small issues with dropped lyrics and dialogue, although I’m sure all of that will be ironed out as the show continues its run. It’s impeccably staged, with the paramount sense of urgency maintained and the characterization compelling.

This is something of an all-star cast here, as well. Tony winner Heather Headley as the Witch is probably the most recognizable name, and she makes a profound impression, expertly conveying the Witch’s single-minded determination as well as her often creepy preoccupation with Rapunzel. Her takes on “Stay With Me” and “Witch’s Lament” are heartwrenching, and “Last Midnight” is powerfully effective, with Headley’s excellent vocals and imposing stage presence. McClure is ideally cast as the show’s Everyman figure, the Baker, bringing all the required conflict and sympathy to the role as well as a strong tenor voice. He works especially well in his scenes with McCormick as the “Mysterious Man” and with Dilly, in a winning performance as the determined, witty, and sometimes preoccupied Baker’s Wife.  Other standouts include Shaddow, who takes Cinderella on a believable emotional journey and delivers a great rendition of “On the Steps of the Palace.” Samonsky and Silverman are suitably handsome and self-absorbed as the Princes, with their duets on “Agony’ and its reprise among the comic highlights.  There’s also Kapner, displaying excellent comic timing as the snarky, confrontational Little Red and Gotay, who is amiable as the brave but not-too-bright Jack. Muny stalwart Ken Page is in excellent form and voice as the Narrator, and there are also strong turns by Vonder Haar as Jack’s Mother and Anna Blair as the ethereal figure of Cinderella’s Mother. Maggie Lakis operates a particularly expressive life-sized puppet as the cow Milk White, as well, and The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is put to clever use in various moments from the show’s storybook intro to its more somber, cautionary conclusion.

Visually, this production is a wish come true, exemplified by Michael Schweikart’s spectacular set. It’s giant storybooks in the intro give way to a more mysterious, versatile unit set that suggests a wooded setting and makes excellent use of the Muny’s giant turntable in portraying various areas in the dark and looming woods. The real trees framing the set are an added atmospheric bonus.  The costumes, by Andrea Lauer, are colorful and appropriate to the characters, with a variety of styles from the traditional to the more modern, giving the show a timeless effect.  There aren’t a lot of flashy special effects in this production, with the various transformations and magical entrances and exits mostly performed through staging or fairly simple lighting, but it all works well, with Rob Denton’s lighting being particularly striking.

Sondheim at the Muny is a wonderful thing. I wasn’t sure it would ever happen, and it has now with one of his more accessible shows. The Muny has done Into the Woods right, and I’m glad. It’s a journey of wonder, mystery, drama, comedy and tragedy, all well-paced and staged by a stellar cast.  It was worth the wait, and it’s worth the journey into the “woods” of Forest Park to witness the magic.

Elena Shaddow, Sara Kapner, Jason Gotay, Rob McClure Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Elena Shaddow, Sara Kapner, Jason Gotay, Rob McClure
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Into the Woods is running at the Muny in Forest Park until July 27th, 2015.

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