Saturday, August 29, 2009

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM AND WEST SIDE STORY AT STRATFORD

Reviewed by James Karas
If you have to produce musicals at a Festival that bears Shakespeare’s name then choose from the best and do a great job. That is what the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has done this year. The musicals of choice are West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
If you had to list the best Broadway musicals on the fingers of one hand, West Side Story should be one of them. It has an incredible provenance being the product of some of the finest creative talents of Broadway in the 1950’s. The idea for the musical belonged to the great Jerome Robbins. He choreographed the original production making the musical into a virtual ballet.
The book was written by Arthur Laurents who of course based it on Verona’s star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The feuding Montagues and the Capulets become youth gangs of New York. They are the “American” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks who have territorial wars on the crowded streets and alleys of the west side of Manhattan.
The lyrics were written by a young man named Stephen Sondheim and the music by the prodigiously talented Leonard Bernstein. West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 and it, as they say, has never looked back.
The Stratford production directed by Gary Griffin is muscular, energetic and simply spectacular. Paul Nolan as Tony and Chilina Kennedy as Maria are strong leads with vocal and kinetic power. Jennifer Rias is outstanding as Anita. Brandon Espinoza is the athletic and agile Riff, leader of the Jets and Andrew Cao is Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.
West Side Story is as much a ballet as a musical. There are visceral instrumental pieces that require a highly capable corps of dancers to perform them. The production has an excellent group of dancers and singers to do the job.
The under-used Stephen Russell plays the humane druggist and Bruce Dow is the blustering Officer Krupke. Don Chameroy plays Schrank and Mike Nadajawsky is Glad Hand.
The brilliant choreography is by Sergio Trujillo with Joshua Bergasse as co-choreographer. Rick Fox is the musical director and he brings out all the muscle and lyricism of Bernstein’s music.
A Funny Thing Happened has roots that go much further back than Romeo and Juliet. It is based on the comedies of Plautus (about 254–184 BC) from which Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove took characters and materials to shape a wonderful plot about a wily slave named Pseudolus (Bruce Dow) who will do anything to gain his freedom. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical was a great hit in 1962 and it is still thoroughly entertaining.
The plot is hilarious. Hero (Mike Nadajewski, is in love with the lovely virgin Philia (Chilina Kennedy), the girl next door, who has been sold to the braggart soldier Miles Gloriosus (Dan Chameroy). “Next door” is the house of Marcus Lycus, (Cliff Saunders), who is a seller of courtesans. And you should see some of his samples!
Pseudolos and chief slave and collector of pornographic pottery Hysterium (Stephen Ouimette) must find a way of breaking the agreement of purchase and sale with Miles. He will not be dissuaded and arranging for the feigned death of Philia seems like the only solution. But where do you get a body for the ruse especially now that the usual body-snatcher just died and his body was snatched?
And then there is the subplot of Philia mistaking Hero’s horny father Senex (Randy Hughson) for Miles and being ready to surrender herself to him. A cup of mare’s sweat comes in handy in derailing his plan.
Dow is a natural comic and makes the role of Pseudolus all his own. Ouimette is perfect as the dour-looking and “puritanical” Hysterium and Randy Hughson is hilarious as Senex. Chameroy is not pompous enough as Miles but that’s because he goes for cheap laughs.
The dialogue is witty, the songs melodious and the whole thing fast-moving and utterly entertaining. Director Des McAnuff invents much comic business and he has a tendency to go over the top. Hero and Philia can be played straight and there is no need to invent comic stunts for them. Why dress the all-purpose Proteans with modern sailors’ hats? He could have gotten more with less but nothing can take way from this rollicking and thoroughly enjoyable production.

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