Monday, November 20, 2017
Stage

'A Funny Thing' becomes funnier when improv is added

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened on Broadway in 1962 and won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The farce was made into a film in 1966, has experienced several Broadway revivals and has played in many a high school auditorium.

The funny thing is, it's a brand new show in 2016.

"You may have seen (Forum) before, but you've never seen it this way," said Michael Newton-Brown, director of Eight O'Clock Theatre's version of the bawdy farce set in ancient Rome.

"We tweaked the entire opening, but what really makes the show are the little things not written into the script. We have six people who do improv (comedy) and they do it in the show, too. So it's never exactly the same two nights in a row — which is a little scary.

"Let's just say, 'A funny thing happens at every rehearsal.' "

The musical opens tonight and runs through May 29 at the Largo Cultural Center.

Newton-Brown, who has directed numerous productions for Eight O'Clock and has served as a designer for Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, the NFL, Saks Fifth Avenue and Disney on Ice, has taken a lot of pleasure in adding special satirical touches to the show.

Look for: A mixup of time periods. Themes from your favorite TV show. Snippets from other Broadway musicals.

That's all on top of the classic burlesque- and vaudeville-style gags that make this show just one big fat Roman toga party full of mistaken identities, sight gags, pratfalls, stereotypical characters and harebrained schemes.

Inspired by three farces written by the popular comedic playwright Plautus — Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus and Mostellaria — the musical tells the story of a clever slave named Pseudolus and his attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master, Hero, win over the beautiful but clueless virgin next door, Philia. She is in training to become a courtesan in the house of ill repute run by Marcus Lycus.

Ben Taylor plays the role of Marcus. It's quite a stretch from his 2014 role as Shrek in Eight O'Clock's Shrek, the Musical.

"(Marcus) is an evil, money-hungry character, a comic foil for whom things don't go right," said Taylor, 54, of St. Petersburg. "The guy's a master salesman. For him, it's all about the presentation."

But there are some similarities with his Shrek character as well. Taylor's Marcus becomes a comical cartoon character with a funny voice.

The script is by Larry Gelbart (Tootsie, M*A*S*H), and Burt Shevelove (No, No, Nanette). A very young Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Gypsy) wrote the music and lyrics. The show broke with Broadway musical-comedy tradition by using only one stage set and no real change of costumes, Newton-Brown said.

The whole premise is to keep the audience entertained from beginning to end by serving up a platter of comedy topped with bright and cheerful Roman candles.

"Don't look for deep meanings," said Newton-Brown. "They aren't there."

 
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