Twenty years ago Twin City Stage, then the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem, was decked with the set of a Romeinspired tune-town, the set of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Now, two decades later, the theater will again perform the witty farce, reuniting the script with a former actor-director duo.
“It’s truly one of the funniest plays ever written,” said director Mark Pirolo, who will direct the musical for his third time. “It’s a brilliant farce that just also happens to be a musical comedy. It’s got an amazing pedigree in terms of its writers. It’s just got a great, fun script. ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ for instance, would be a very apt comparison — that type of zany, goofy wonderful humor that she used to have on her show.”
In the musical, Ken Ashford stars as the slave, Pseudolus, who tries to gain his freedom by helping his master win the hand of the beautiful, but slow-witted courtesan, Philia (Gracey Falk). Pirolo added that although the show isn’t considered lewd, it does have some racy moments and isn’t suggested for children younger than middle-school age.
“The last time I directed the show was actually at the Little Theatre, which is now Twin City Stage and that was 20 years ago,” Pirolo said. “One cast member is even in the production again with the same role…. But now he’s the actual right age to play it,” Pirolo laughed when talking about actor Gray Smith, who will replay his former role of Hysterium, the chief slave.
“It’s very nostalgic,” said Smith, who decidedly borrows his age from his various roles. “I’ve been doing theatre in the community for about 30 years, and 20 years ago this particular role is kind of what made me realize I was a character actor. I loved playing the role, so that’s kind of what drew me back to it. He’s a very high-energy character, and, you know, sometimes some roles just fit you.”
“It’s always a pleasure to work with Gray,” Pirolo said. “He’s a very gifted comedian. Every once in awhile we laugh because when we first started in rehearsals I said, ‘So, I don’t really have to give you any direction, you just do what you did, right?’ And he goes, ‘That was 20 years ago, I don’t remember any of it.’ But it actually turned out he did.”
Priolo admits that it helps to be so familiar with a show and to have former experiences from which to draw ideas and inspiration. This is the third time he has directed the musical, and the sixth time he has helped with its production. Not only was he able to adapt and reuse his own set he designed for the musical eight years ago, but he also was able to watch a video of the former Little Theatre production he directed so long ago. “We looked at what he wanted to use from the [previous] production, but there’s also a lot of new,” Pirolo said. “So anyone that saw that production would not be seeing an exact duplicate of that production by any means.
“Each of the actors bring to the role their own unique turn, their own unique perspective on the role. And this is a really strong cast. They sing beautiful and are creative and all of them are doing a great job with the comedy.”
“Anytime you replace a show with a totally different cast in it, it’s going to be very different from the first time around,” Smith added. “Something happens with different dynamics and different personalities… such as different comic timing.” Pirolo says their goal is for the audience to hold their sides from laughter. “The whole point of this show is to have a good time,” he said. “In fact, the last line of the show is ‘What is the moral of the story? Morals tomorrow; comedy tonight.’ There is no big message. Just to come in, have a good time, have some good laughs and leave happy — that’s what [the audience] should expect.”
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opens Friday and continues through Sunday, and May 10-12 at Arts Council Theatre, 610 Coliseum Drive, Winston-Salem. Tickets are $18-$22. For tickets or more information call 336.725.4001 or visit www.TwinCityStage.org.