By PAM HARBAUGH
Or…rather, on Friday, when A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM opens at Melbourne Civic Theatre.
No doubt, this is one of the funniest, and most enduring of American musical comedies. Written in 1962 by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “Forum,” as it’s known in theater-speak, is pure farce, which found its inspiration in ancient Roman comedies.
And still, it has legs. (Rim shot, please…)
Set in ancient Rome, the award winning musical comedy follows the comic exploits of Pseudolus, a slave seeking his freedom. He contrives a convoluted plan which meets with obstacles, which in turn ratchet up the plot twists into quite a knot.Finding that comic sweet spot is Rob Dickman. This MCT production marks the third time he has taken on the role of Pseudolus. He said that the director, Peg Girard was worried that he was bringing too much schtick from his previous incarnations of the role, the most recent of which was 15 years ago.
But Dickman, a veteran stage performer with an operatic voice to boot, laughed out loud at that thought: “I don’t remember those!”
Comedy done right is a delicate balance for all 19 characters in the show, Dickman said.
“You could fall flat on your face with it,” he said. “You don’t go for the laugh. You let the words and action get the laughs for you. I’m not out there milking laughs, but at the same time, you play it big and over the top.”It all goes back to vaudeville, Dickman said.
“It’s fast and smart,” he said. “The first time I did it, reading the script, I said ‘What is this?’ On paper, you don’t really see the comedy until it comes out of your mouth. The speed and timing get into it. Then you have fun with it.”
Under Girard’s direction, Dickman has discovered that his character is like a used car salesman, always on the hustle, looking how he can better his own station in life.
“He will work any angle so that he can get what he wants,” Dickman said. “The comic delivery is better when you can have that sleeziness going on with it.”
Then, as if channeling Pseudolus himself, he quickly added: “Wait, I hate using the word sleezy. It’s not sleezy.”While Dickman has done the show twice before, this is Girard’s first time directing it. Known for her keen ability at directing farce, Girard said the show needs a strong vaudeville style to make it sing.
“If it’s not executed well it can go wrong and be too hammy,” she said.
Typically, the vaudevillian style doesn’t end up with great one-liners. Instead, the laugh lines are the rim shot lines following a bigger set up. It also uses repetition to create silly dialogue, but in the right hands, can be sublimely funny.
It hits the right spot when the performers have fun with one another. Then, she said, the fun is contagious.
But first, the cast has to be comfy with each other. And with this show, about half of the cast are newcomers. So Girard treats them to some home cooked dinner and wine…after the rehearsal, that is.
“That way everybody feels more comfortable around each other,” she said.
“It takes a while to build a rapport with one another,” said Girard’s husband, Terrence.
He plays the role of Erronius, a bit part, really, who makes a few walk-ons. But given Terrence Girard’s status in Brevard theater, his role should be considered a cameo performance.
“I’m on stage for maybe seven minutes,” he said. “But it’s a great little part. Peg had the opportunity to cast new people. I’d done the show and said I’d be happy to take it.
“As small a role that it is, you can have a ball with it and make it hilarious. The axiom of ‘There are no small parts’ is really true in this case.”
Part of the theater lore connected with “Forum” concerns the show’s opening musical number.
In 1962, after a weeks of pre-Broadway tryouts out of town, two theater legends — producer Harold Prince and director George Abbott — were worried. Something was wrong with the show and they didn’t know what it was.
They turned to another theater legend, choreographer/director Jerome Robbins for help. He pointed to the original opening number as being out of place because it didn’t set up the vaudeville humor.
So Sondheim spent a week composing and writing and came up with the classic “Comedy Tonight” to open the show. The light hearted, spirited number set the stage perfectly for the farce that ensues.
Ironically, “Comedy Tonight” became the show’s hallmark musical number.
Bringing the music to life in the MCT production is Dickman’s wife, Kimberly. As music director, she has taken the score and, on a MIDI system, has digitally recorded every instrument used in the score.
“She loves it though,” Dickman said. “And having her as the music director at the same time allows her to finesse the musical numbers.”
Also working behind the scenes is choreographer Heather McFarland Mowad and her sister, Holly Karnes who is the stage manager – the person responsible for running the performances.
Scenic and lighting designer Alan Selby has created the setting of three neighboring houses squeezed into the tight acting space at the 93-seat Melbourne Civic Theatre where, yes, actors sing and dance.
Selby’s wife, artist and actress Nadine Antaillia, was charged to make a bust to represent the character of Domina, who is a tough, overbearing wife and who cries out to her slave, “Carry my bust with pride!”
In 1962, the show won director Abbott an Outer Critics Circle Award and Tony Awards for Abbott, Prince, Shevelove and Gelbart, and actors Zero Mostel and David Burns. Mostel and fellow cast member Jack Gilford re-created their Broadway roles in the 1966 movie directed by Richard Lester.
The awards didn’t stop there. In 1972, a revival won Tony Awards for Larry Blyden and Phil Silvers, who famously wore his thick, large framed eyeglasses while playing Pseudolus. In 1995, the celebrated Nathan Lane won a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for his portrayal of Pseudolus. Its director, Jerry Zaks, also received the Outer Critics Circle Award.
Girard says Forum continues to reap all this acclaim and interest because its humor has universal truths to it.
“It’s the wants and needs of all human beings,” she said. “The characters want freedom, love and understanding. Sometimes how we go about getting these things lead to humorous situations.”SIDE O’ GRITS: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” opens Friday and runs through Sept. 17 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays and Saturday, Sept. 2. Several Sunday matinees are already sold out. Tickets are $29 to $31, plus handling. Call 321-723-6935, visit MyMCT.org or just click on their ad.
This is an edited version of the story running this week in the Melbourne Beachsider.