During the first few audience previews, the opening love song for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum met with tepid reviews in early 1962. Well to spice things up, lyricist Stephen Sondheim created a tune that left no doubts in an audience’s minds as to what they will be seeing a Comedy Tonight. Flash-forward 50 years and under the creative energies of director Karen Paisley and co-creator/actor Jerry Jay Cranford, no one in the audience at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre will have any doubts about the bawdy musical comedy they are going to see May 30 to June 17.
“There may just be something in the water,” Paisley says. “Ancient Greece and Italy are popular with the Shakespeare Festival doing their two shows (Antony and Cleopatra and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Musical Theater Heritage is also doing Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.” Cranford says Italy and Greece have been part of the news for months as their economies are shaky at best. “Perhaps there is something subconscious for us all.”
Cranford also believes this particular Sondheim show with its comedy and mirth harkens back to the old classics and burlesque. “It is part of our inheritance with the appeal of vaudeville,” Paisley says. “It also fits with the mission to perform masterworks and contemporary classics. We take on stories of great merit and even those shows that are pure dramas like The Seagull are not without humor.”
Cranford takes on the lead of the slave Pseudolus, a role that breaks through the “fourth wall” and speaks to the audience. “It is reminiscent of my role as the Genie in Aladdin. I get to bring my sense of humor and a little Nathan Lane to the role. I suppose I get to be an exaggerated me. There is a sort of wink and nudge with this show. It is meant to be full of laughter.” Cranford has been described as the poor man’s Nathan Lane, the Broadway actor known for his ribald sense of humor and playing this role in the mid-1990s. Actor/singer Zero Mostel originated the role for stage and screen.
Paisley and Cranford will also share choreography responsibilities for a cast of around 16. Paisley says each season ends with a musical and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is the ultimate in sunlight and pink frosted cupcakes. “From the overture forward, there is a sense of joy and sweetness,” she says.
Cranford understands the expectations of playing the role of Pseudolus, a Roman slave who hopes for freedom if his plans work to unite two lovebirds. “It can be exhausting to do such a role. When I was the Genie and I was surrounded by people in costumes and their energy, I got energized myself to tackle this role. “Musical theater is our art.” Not only has Cranford worked for Disney, he has traveled Europe and the United States performing in musicals such as Evita and Les Misérables. He also had the opportunity to work with legendary choreographer Bob Fosse’s assistant and Fosse’s wife, dancer and actress Gwen Verdon. Much of the dancing in the musical is reminiscent of Fosse.
“This musical has not been on stage here,” Cranford says. “I have had friends asking me to be Pseudolus. It’s my time to give this a go.” Paisley says musicals are different than plays. “They get into your bones, especially great musicals.” This is the first time for the actor and the director to work together. It’s hard to tell when the two get together. They are playful and zany, exuding energy that could be hard to harness. “We will be fortunate to get to create the environment that is full of fun. The trick will be not losing anyone along the way,” Paisley says. “We have an intimate space and high expectations.” Cranford says the audience can see how engaging the actors are. “They will be able to see that eyes are twinkling or not,” Paisley says.