Over two thousand years of comedic tradition (the twenty-one extant comedies of Roman playwright Plautus, no less!) feed into the plot of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Plus, it draws on the talents of an A-list of twentieth-century Broadway theater creators, including Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and Jerome Robbins, not to mention its writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Add in the unerring comedic instincts of director/choreographer Ted Pappas and actor Jimmy Kieffer (as the wily and desperate slave Pseudolus) and the cartoonish scenic and costume designs (James Noone and Martha Bromelmeier, reprising a design by Tony Walton), and you have a show that is virtually guaranteed to make you laugh.
I’m not going to bother to go into the plot of this musical, because it’s the plot of nearly every comedy you’ve ever seen all rolled into one: indeed, one way to describe this musical would be to say that it takes up all the familiar character types and farcical situations of comedy and commedia dell’arte, adds the spirit of the American musical theater song and dance idiom, shakes vigorously, and produces a frothy cocktail of merriment and confusion.
The Public’s production is beautifully executed, anchored by Kieffer (who did a similarly disarming turn as the servant in A Servant to Two Masters) and augmented by delightfully zany performances from a cast that includes Gavan Pamer as the anxious (and aptly named) Hysterium, Jeff Howell as the procurer Marcus Lycus, Ruth Gotschall as the harridan Domina, Stephen DeRosa as her browbeaten husband Senex, Allan Snyder as the braggart soldier Miles Gloriosus, and James Fitzgerald as the daffy elderly Erronius. Rounding out the cast are the comic lovers Jamen Nanthakumar (Hero) and silver-voiced Mary Elizabeth Drake (Philia); three agile Proteans (Jonathan Blake Flemings, Andrew Pace, and Mark Tinkey) who serve as all of the supernumeraries needed for the action, and a bevy of scantily-clad courtesans who bump and grind their way through the story (these are, in alphabetical order: Elyse Collier, Brooke Lacy, Stephanie Maloney, Jessica Walker, Andrea Weinzierl, and Monica Woods).
Every aspect of the production is top notch, from the first-rate acting and singing, to the sure-handed staging and choreography, to the impressive scenic design (which got a round of applause at the reveal the night I saw the show), to the bright, character-defining lighting (Kirk Bookman), to the crisp and crystally clear orchestra (under F. Wade Russo’s direction, with sound design by Zach Moore). So: if all you want to know is whether this staple of the American musical theater canon is well produced, you should probably stop reading here. Seriously, just look at the picture below and stop.
Because, alas, I’m sorry to say that I am going to be that killjoy viewer who – while I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the show, or that I didn’t laugh – found it really hard to fully board its train. It is, after all, a musical comedy whose sexual and racial politics are fifty (if not two thousand) years behind the times. While I know that much of the intention is to satirize and send up the attitudes and behaviors that the characters display, nonetheless it’s pretty hard not to see little more than a replication and reification of patriarchal scopic regimes in (to take the most glaring example) the Vegas-showgirl costumes and high-kick, butt-waggle dance moves of the long-limbed courtesans as they strut their stuff for sale. Funny Thing… reveals its retrograde gender politics in other places as well: in the overwhelmingly more negative “comic” traits ascribed to the female characters than the male characters; in lyrics in which we are invited to snicker at Philia, who is dumber than a doornail but “happy to be lovely,” or at the idea that Miles Gloriosus has “no time to lose” because there are “women to abuse”; and in the uncritical uptake of the play’s tired use of cross-dressing and homophobia to generate laughs.
Equally egregious is the lack of diversity in casting: there are only three non-white actors in the nineteen-member ensemble, only one of whom (Nanthakumar) has a prominent speaking and singing role. I appreciate that artistic director Ted Pappas, in his last year at the Public, might wish to indulge in a trip down memory lane. But the lack of diversity on stage, coupled with the show’s treatment of women as literally nothing other than objects of male desire, reads, to this viewer at least, less like nostalgia and more like a head-in-the-sand retreat from our present socio-political moment.