Change is in the air at Geva Theatre Center as the 2016-17 season kicks off. An extensive, seven-year renovation project, brand new housing for actors nearby, and the addition of new executive and development directors is ushering in a new era for the regional theater.
Because of the renovations, the season opening was pushed back a full month. Playing off the comedic success of last season's best-selling "Monty Python's Spamalot," the opener chosen for this season is "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. The show opened on Broadway in 1962, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical.
In the opening show-within-a-show number, "Comedy Tonight," the plot is thoroughly explained to the audience: boy sees girl, boy wants girl, slave wants freedom, slave is promised freedom if he can get girl for boy. The show mixes classic Greek mythology, farce, satire, and a pinch of vaudevillian: it's a comedy (of errors) tonight.
A certain type of actor usually plays the lead, Pseudolus (the Greek word for "faker"). It takes a character actor who can also sing -- more difficult to find than it sounds -- for the sort of "sidekick" type character who is suddenly thrust center stage and trusted with the fate of the show. Famed stage and screen actor Zero Mostel (who also played roles like Max in "The Producers" and Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof") originated the role, and Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg have both played the role in revival productions. Steve Rosen, a Pittsford Sutherland graduate who has gone on to star in both stage and screen productions around the nation, makes his Geva debut in this role. Rosen easily steals the show. He's engaging to the point of breaking the fourth wall with a wink, but talented enough to be taken seriously.
His counterpart is Hysterium (the hilarious Mark Bedard), slave-in-chief for the same family Pseudolus serves. A host of younger actors -- including SUNY Geneseo junior Jessica Murphy -- play the Greek youth and courtesans (and have physiques that showcase the primarily skin-tight, revealing costumes designed by Devon Painter).
The only thing that challenges Rosen for the spotlight is 2 Ring Circus, a New York City-based group that combines aerial arts, acrobatics and musical theater to add an impressive physical showcase to "A Funny Thing." The performers -- Joshua Dean, Ben Franklin, Kenneth Ziegler, and Lani Corson -- are trained actors as well, and hold actual roles in the show (The Proteans and Vibrata, respectively). Choreography by Rommy Sandhu plays nicely into this, with lots of colorful props and missed connections in the fast-paced numbers.
Director Melissa Rain Anderson is known and loved by Geva audiences for her recurring roles in "A Christmas Carol" and her sold-out directing success of last year's "Spamalot," and 2013's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Anderson excels with works that rely on comedic timing, and this production is another such achievement.
A cartoonish feel from the set design by Adam Koch, lighting by Brian Lilienthal, and sound effects by Bart Fasbender builds the show's world around the audience, while the orchestra under the stage (conducted by Don Kot) doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves for performing at Sondheim's pace.
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is silly, satirical, bawdy vaudeville masquerading as musical theater. At first glance, there's little substance -- but upon closer examination, it's a show that feels eerily relevant. Scantily clad courtesans parade around, pageant-style, while male characters treat them with the same amount of respect one might expect from a certain presidential candidate.
But unlike this year's presidential election, there truly is something for everyone in this show. Even those who balk at the see-through storyline (and costumes) or roll their eyes at the constant puns will find a laugh during the two-hour run -- and that's something everyone could use.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.