'Funny Thing' Happens at Pierson Playhouse

Great singing and slapstick comedy can be found in this Theatre Palisades production of the 1963 Tony winner for best musical.

At the opening night performance of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Pierson Playhouse on June 3, the cast and its director clearly understood how to serve up the requisite broad and bawdy comedy required to make this musical succeed.

“Morals tomorrow. Comedy tonight” are the show's closing lines, summing up the essence of this 1963 Tony Award-winner for best musical, co-written by Larry Gelbart (producer of television’s M*A*S*H) with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim. Nothing deep here. Just pure high jinks borrowing shtick from vaudeville, burlesque and elements of classic farce.

A fine cast led by Travis Dixon as Pseudolus not only supply quality laughs, but for most of the numbers, rise to the level of Sondheim’s intricate score. 

Based on the ancient Roman comedies of Plautus, the plot centers on a scheming slave’s attempt to win his freedom by helping his master woo a beautiful virgin. Rather than detail the interweaving plots between characters from the houses of Erronius, Senex and Lycus, suffice it to say that the fast-paced escapades build to a frenetic, joked-filled finish. 

The musical is filled with memorable Sondheim songs, most notably “Comedy Tonight,” which opens and closes the show.

Any successful production of Forum depends on a quality performance from Pseudolus, a part originated by the great Zero Mostel on Broadway and played by such talents as Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg. Thankfully, Dixon manages to romp around the stage with boundless energy, never seeming to break a sweat. Couple that with first-rate singing and Dixon succeeds at keeping the antics at a high, amusing level.

The book by Burt Shevelove and Gelbart is filled with old-style slapstick humor, sexual innuendos, satire, puns and fearless buffoonery, which can make or a break a production of Forum. Credit director Scott Martin for knowing his material and staging quality zaniness, plus an ensemble cast that creatively works the funny. 

Bradley Kesden scores a winning, self-assured turn as Senex, the henpecked husband trying to score with a young maiden. Kesden knows how to land a great line (“Never fall in love during a total eclipse”) and improvises with amusing ease.

Kristin Towers-Rowles, as the dim-witted Philia, possesses that rare combination of accomplished vocalist and deft comedian. Her singing and timing stand out, whether she's trying to shake off a fake bird perched on her hand, belting out operatic arias or simply struggling to count to three. She most likely inherited some of those skills from her grandmother, stage and screen actress Kathryn Grayson (of Show Boat fame).

Other performances worth noting include local Palisadian Gail Wirth, who smartly uses her vocal dexterity to great comic effect as the obnoxious wife of Senex; and Luis Ordaz, playing it to the hilt as the egocentric Miles Glorious (“I am a legend in my own time”).

Despite some garbled lines, the miscasting of a few minor roles (namely the older-looking courtesans), and, at times, uninspired choreography, the brisk pacing, quality sets, costumes and production values make this Forum rise above standard community theater fare.

There’s good reason Gelbart calls this one of his favorite works. Its blend of bygone comedic styles proves refreshing in a culture determined to push the envelope of grotesque, shock-inducing raunchiness. However, parents bringing young children should be aware of suggestive humor.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., until July 10 at the Pierson Playhouse, 941 Temesecal Canyon Road.

For reservations and information call 310-454-1970 or visit the theater website.


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