TBTS returns with A Funny Thing
IN HARMONY: Ortiz and Broyles as Philia and Hero.
Well, it’s finally happened. With all the suspense of a backstage musical, after being shuttered for four years, Matunuck’s 74-year-old Theatre-by-the-Sea is up and running again.
How appropriate that the premiere musical is a celebration of comedy over tragedy, the raucous burlesque A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (through September 2).
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, the musical hit Broadway in 1962 and grabbed nine Tony Awards. In the Matunuck barn theater, the costumes and other production values are top-notch, with choreography by Andrea Eskin and direction by Amiee Turner.
Burlesque is the style used to get straight to our funny bones here, with shameless sight gags, humor as broad as a grin, and actors sometimes speaking directly to us, like Groucho Marx waggling his cigar at the camera.
We are in ancient Rome, where Pseudolus (Jean-Pierre Ferragamo) introduces the story to us. He is a slave in the house of the elderly Senex (Bob Del Pazzo) and his bossy, pointy-nosed wife Domina (Gail Yudain). They are going out of town, which is an opportunity for their son Hero (William Nash Broyles) to yearn more openly at the pretty face that’s recently been appearing on the balcony of the brothel next door, the House of Marcus Lycus (Bruce Warren).
The snappy exchanges are straight out of the burlesque tradition. Pseudolus: “A brilliant idea!” Hero: “Yes?!” Pseudolus: “That’s what we need — a brilliant idea.”
Pseudolus has his big chance. Hero agrees to give him his freedom if he can arrange a tryst with the beautiful brothel-bound Philia (Evy Ortiz). Trouble is, she is a virgin betrothed to legionnaire Captain Miles Gloriosus (Zachary James).
The casting here is magnificently on the money. James is a square-jawed giant, closer to 7 feet than to 6. Broyles has a sweet, boyish smile that adds just the right dimension to Hero, similar to the innocence of Ortiz’s Philia. The head slave of Senex, ostensibly in charge of Pseudolus, is Hysterium (Christopher Swan), a nervous wreck who all but trembles apart like an old jalopy speeding on Roman cobblestones.
Holding the show together is Pseudolus, of course, and Ferragamo has the con man slyness to fit the character and the comic chops to keep us laughing. There are plenty of plot complications to help with the latter. The father of Pseudolus’s master returns and is soon under the impression, thanks to Pseudolus’s quick thinking, that Philia is his new maid. (She in turn mistakenly thinks that he is Miles Gloriosus, so her first words to him are “Take me!”)
This is a Sondheim musical, so we can rely on lots of clever songs that advance the action and, in this case, keep us smiling. Emotional high points are amplified: in “Free,” Pseudolus and Hero wax ecstatic about the virtues of citizenship; singing “I’m Calm,” Hysterium is anything but as he takes pride in appearing less nervous than usual; in “Lovely,” Philia and Hero share their agreement about the bubble-headed young woman’s single, though notable, virtue: beauty.
But wait a minute — dimwitted blondes, brothels, and dirty old men? No, this show is not politically correct as far as the official line on gender politics goes. But if, like me, you regard such antics as a campy demonstration of how far we’ve come from a need to take offense, you might laugh too. In one scene, the woman-as-sex-object motif is as overt as can be as the six professional residents of the House of Senex, sans Philia, each do a little dance to parade their pulchritudinous skill sets. With names like Vibrata, Tintinabula, and Gymnasia, they show how pole dancing has nothing on old-time burlesque.
Theatre-by-the-Sea was purchased earlier this year by Massachusetts cinema chain owner Bill Hanney and has been set up as a nonprofit theater, with himself as producer. Producing artistic director is Amiee Turner and managing producer is Joel Kipper. Both have had extensive experience as actors in musical theater; Turner has five Broadway shows among her credits. The ownership papers were signed only seven weeks ago, so their getting a show up and running so quickly — and a first-rate one at that — is encouraging for the seasons to come. Since post-performance cabarets will again be happening at the adjoining Seahorse Grill, pretty soon the last four years might seem like just an unusually long winter break.
, Stephen Sondheim
, Amiee Turner