Probably most families have movies and plays that are an immediate source of hilarity in the collective memory. My family does, and one of them is this 1962 musical currently re-mounted at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, one of the Garden State’s fine regional theaters. With the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H) and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, it’s exuberant, ridiculous farce from beginning to end. (The team of Shevelove and Gelbart is responsible for one of our other faves, too, the movie The Wrong Box.)
This was Sondheim’s early days, when his songs were more tuneful, and there are lovely duets (“Lovely”; “The Echo Song”) and showstopping ensemble numbers (“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”; “Comedy Tonight”). Well, the last-mentioned would be a show-stopper if it weren’t the show-starter, and in the Two River production you know from that first moment, when the eight-member orchestra takes off, that you’re in for an exciting ride!
This production of A Funny Thing, directed by Jessica Stone, uses an all-male cast. She first tried this concept at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2010 to great acclaim, and it works well, injecting an extra layer of absurdity. This casting choice is historically accurate, actually, as the original comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE)—A Funny Thing is very loosely based on one of them—relied on all-male casts. As in Shakespeare’s day, women weren’t allowed to play on stage. Plautus’s works included a number of stock characters, including the clever slave, the dumb beauty, the lustful old man, the braggart soldier—all of whom appear in A Funny Thing.
Except for the hero of the story—the extremely clever slave Pseudolus—cast members play multiple parts and appear to be having as much fun as the audience. They do a great job, and after such antic and energetic performances, they must need a serious nap or perhaps chiropracty. Christopher Fitzgerald is an irrepressible Pseudolus, Graham Rowat a superior Miles Gloriosus (“I am my ideal”), and I’ve never seen a better Philia than David Turner’s, as a young woman lightly touched with the awareness she’s a dimwit.
If you want some pure fun, don’t miss it! On stage until December 13.
Too far from New Jersey? Netflix (or try your local library) has the movie version, featuring Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Phil Silvers, and a very young Michael Crawford (who achieved super-stardom many years later as the lead in Phantom of the Opera), or order it below.