The Kelly Critics is a joint program of the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh CLO's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musicals, in which students at Kelly schools review musicals at other Kelly schools.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I do not come to criticize Winchester Thurston’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” but to praise it. Julius Caesar and the philosophers that came before him hardly tell of the comedy of Rome, but Stephen Sondheim’s musical takes a new look at an old culture.
Winchester Thurston’s choice of musical comedy fit like a hand in a glove: as I arrived, the classical architecture of the theater itself coupled with the lobby’s décor left me thinking that I was on my own walk to the forum.
The curtain opens to charismatic slave Pseudolus explaining to the audience that they’re in for a “Comedy Tonight.” By establishing this connection, Pseudolus becomes the puppet master, the man we look to when things go awry. But it is he, after deciding that he seeks to be “Free,” who catalyzes the show’s comedic fiasco by making a deal with his owner, Hero. Young Hero’s love Philia, who has been sold as a courtesan, introduces many colorful characters with their own various conflicts. The title proves true, as a degree of comic relief lies in each character, from the domineering Domina and her regretful husband Senex to the couple’s head slave Hysterium. Three more distinctive and vindictive men, Marcus Lycus, Miles Gloriousus, and Erronius complete the small but powerful cast of characters.
Atop the long list of notable things about Winchester Thurston’s performance is the impressive and seemingly unending cast of male leads.
Leading man Nathan Hurrell plays a well-disciplined Pseudolus and handles his role of leadership with a constant smile. Hurrell is in good company with veterans Adam Berkebile as Hysterium, and James Counihan as Senex, at his side for much of the musical. Nathaniel Brodsky skillfully interprets the fox like character Marcus Lycus through his dialogue and movement. Though all are successful individually, perhaps the best showcase of these four actors’ talents comes during the long declaration that “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.”
In only his first production at Winchester Thurston, Josh Brelsford plays a convincing Miles Gloriousus with the vigor and voice of a veteran. Danny Wittig warms up to the stage as Hero, a role that works well for a teenager.
The thrill of watching Hurrel, Berkebile, Counihan, Brodsky, Brelsford and Wittig results from their genuine and radiating joy of being on stage.
That being said, the strong voices of the leading ladies Sarah Waters and Carly Heywood can hardly go without mention. As Philia, Waters shows she is comfortable in the limelight and did not miss a note in her incredible soprano. Heywood, on the other hand, utilizes versatility in her acting skills to take on the powerful personality of Domina. Several courtesans, in colorful costumes, add much needed dancing and feminine presence as well.
The Proteans are more refreshing than a typical ensemble due to their regular stage presence and, of course, comedy. They, like their fellow players, are adorned in toga like costumes that are representative of the era but do not take any spotlight away from the actors themselves.
What makes “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” a difficult musical for the high school level is that it is acting dominant, meaning players cannot simply rely on their voices. This did not affect the cast at all, however. I could tell that just as much effort went into preparing the dialogue as the actual music.
Intimate describes Winchester Thurston’s small company. And while there is something to say for audience connection, there were downsides as well. The small professional pit orchestra made me miss large student sections. Similarly, the single set, though enhanced by multiple levels, was an old sight by the end of the musical.
Just flipping through the program and seeing the cast biographies affirmed my suspicions that director Barbara Holmes knows what she is doing. And after witnessing her cast at their finest, I believe more than just comedy occurred on the way to the forum.
Reviews are edited by senior theater critic Christopher Rawson. For more high school musicals coverage, go to http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/ and scroll down.