On the way to Two River Theater’s ‘Forum,’ things got much, much funnier


Two River Theater’s “Forum” isn’t just funny, it’s hysterical, hilarious, uproarious, delirious, crazy. It’s a scream with plenty of that coming from both the stage and the audience. With an all-male cast, the 1962 musical comedy hit under the superb direction of Jessica Stone seems like a new show for modern times.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing not to like about this show that continues in Red Bank (NJ) through Dec.13. I’m hoping to catch another performance myself.

We all know ” Forum” is funny. Very funny, with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (the creator and producer of TV ‘s M*A*S*H). And it’s the first time Stephen Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics for a Broadway show, complementing and softening some of the frat house antics on stage. Barely five minutes into the show the  cast is giving us a group fart with behinds directed at our faces. Glad I was about 8 rows back in this intimate 350-seat theater.

A cast of 12 superb actors play 25 parts and are supported by eight musicians (sounding like a full orchestra). Denis Jones‘ choreography enhances the funny bits, particularly in “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.,” plus a madcap opening of “Comedy Tonight” that includes animal sacrifices to the gods, Roman style, less we forget this comedy was Inspired by the farces of Roman playwright Plautus (251–183 BC).

Plautus’ plays, with comic elements still used today, included puns, door slamming, mistaken identify, disguises and social commentary about class. Stone’s version includes an homage to vaudeville with footlights and follow spots and chase scene that would make Max Sennett’s Keystone Cops seem sluggish.

Kevin Isola (Senex) and David Turner (Philia) in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Two River Theater. (PHOTO: T. Charles Ericskson)
Kevin Isola (Senex) and David Turner (Philia) in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” (PHOTO: T. Charles Ericskson)

But every moment isn’t rude or farcical in this show. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. The staging of “Pretty Little Picture” with lighting by Jeff Crofter and Jake Degroot and scene design by Alexander Dodge was tender and beautiful, a moment your can only experience via  live theater.

The young lovers Hero (Bobby Conte Thornton) and Phillia (David Turner) — both the epitome of innocence and limited brain power — watch shadow puppets against a large round transparent screen while three other actors create images representing the lyrics sung  by Pseudolus about how wonderful life would be if they could run away and be together. At the end of the song, the screen floats up into the sky and takes its place as a full moon. It was simply enchanting.

This classic girl-next-door story, however, is dominated by the slave Pseudolus, the dynamic Christopher Fitzgerald, a slave who longs to be free and help his master Hero win the girl while everything he touches seems to go awry.  Well, that’s farce for you, with a gorgeous set by Alexander Dodge with plenty of doors to slam, ladders to climb, and a stage with an apron over the pit musicians that nearly brings the action into the laps of the audience in the first few rows.

As a matter of fact, conductor and keyboardist Gary Adler finds himself in the play at times handing off and receiving props from the actors.

From left, David Josefsberg (Marcus Lycus), Michael Urie (Hysterium), Christopher Fitzgerald (Pseudolus), and Kevin Isola (Senex) in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Two River Theater. (PHOTO: T. Charles Ericskson)
From left, David Josefsberg (Marcus Lycus), Michael Urie (Hysterium), Christopher Fitzgerald (Pseudolus, and Kevin Isola (Senex). (PHOTO: T. Charles Ericskson)

While Pseudolus dominates “Forum” other actors — everyone plays multiple roles — stand out, especially Michael Urie as Hysterium, the head slave who is left in charge of the house while his master Senex (Kevin Isola) and mistress Domina (Eddie Cooper) visit  her mother in the country. (He is my new theater crush).

Urie’s inner calm as Pseudolus’ spins story after outrageous story to help his master win the girl and earn his freedom, is perfect. His ability to turn an incredulous “Whaaaaaat?” into a five-syllable word as Pseudolus’ schemes get crazier is masterful.  He finally agrees to a disguise to help Pseudolus, but is not happy when he finds out his role. “You didn’t tell me I had to be a girl!” he says, aghast. “Have you seen the cast?!” Pseudolus responds, incredulously, about the female-free production. Cue riotous audience laughter.

From left, Bobby Conte Thornton (Roman Soldier), Graham Rowat (Miles Gloriosus), and David Turner (Roman Soldier) in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Two River Theater. (PHOTO: T. Charles Erickson)
From left, Bobby Conte Thornton (Roman Soldier), Graham Rowat (Miles Gloriosus), and David Turner (Roman Soldier). (PHOTO: T. Charles Erickson)

Two River Theater mostly produces plays and does an excellent job doing so. Under the artistic direction of Jon Dias and managing director Michael Hurst, the company last season staged a small cast,  stripped down, highly satisfying “Camelot” and this season a new approach by a young, very talented director for “Forum.”

As a long-time theatergoer and critic, new ways to stage “old” musicals is, I believe, one of the most exciting ways to enjoy theater. Any professional theater can revive a popular musical to sell tickets. It’s the company that dares  to do something new and innovative for its subscribers and single ticket buyers, takes a chance, and hits the mark — that company really wants my attention and that of younger audiences. Kudos to Two River’s ambition and artistic leadership.

P.S. I really feel sorry for those people who raced out the door at the end of the show. They missed  the extended, choreographed curtain call where each cast member performed a unique skill. When creative directors such as Jessica Stone spend time planning the curtain call  (She is my new director crush) you know they really love what they are doing and really want to please their audiences. It’s like an early Christmas gift. Thank you.

Order tickets, learn more about Two River and upcoming shows, click here.

Christopher Fitzgerald (in red, fifth from left) as Pseudolus and the company of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Two River Theater. (PHOTO: T. Charles Ericskson)
Christopher Fitzgerald (in red, fifth from left) as Pseudolus and the company of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Two River Theater. (PHOTO: T. Charles Ericskson)

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