More than a little gender flexibility is going on in Grays Harbor College’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — and it’s a blast.
The musical comedy opens Friday at the Bishop Center, launching a two-weekend run.
Based in ancient Rome, the Tony Award-winning Stephen Sondheim musical revolves around Pseudolus, a slave scheming for freedom by playing matchmaker for her master’s son. When the plan goes awry, Pseudolus desperately attempts to keep up her end of the bargain.
And therein lies the first change from the original: The lead character was originally male, played on Broadway (and the 1966 film) by the late great Zero Mostel. Here, Pseudolus is a woman — artfully played by Analei Holt.
Director Andrew Gaines, head of the GHC drama department, said he went into his auditions with an open mind about Pseudolus because Whoopi Goldberg played the part in the 1997 revival.
“Also, not many guys can sing that role; so even if we did have someone who fit the character type, it’s very difficult to sing,” he said. “Analei ticked all those marks: She could sing it well, and she had a good sense of humor.”
After that, he said, one thing led to another. Marcus Lycus, the brothel owner, also was cast as a female (McKenna Hansen). So were the soldiers, and even the eunuchs.
But only one gender-swap will be remarkable even to those who’ve never seen the original: The sultry courtesans are played by men. They don’t sing falsetto, either: They use their own voices.
“That was a stretegic decision on my part,” said Gaines. “Looking at this musical through this post-#MeToo moment in history, it really comes across as sexist. The women are objectified in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. … But by casting all of the courtesans as men, it’s now actually funny.”
Vocal director Ian Dorsch embraced that change, too.
“The courtesan scene (in the original) was just so leery,” he said. “Having the courtesans be guys in drag kind of defuses that, because it’s stupid and silly instead.”
And boy, do those guys steal the show. Jeff Beard and Dan Jackson, for example, are surprisingly acrobatic as the twins.
“I am the oldest courtesan, by a mile,” laughed Beard, who’s in his 50s. “I happen to be the father of one of the other courtesans!”
The rest of the harem — Eric Beard, Carlo Bernal, Carlos Cruz and Mitchell Hatfield — also will have the audience in stitches with their outlandish dances and naughty demeanor onstage.
In fact, the entire ensemble is fun to watch in action. Gaines has worked extensively with the actors on physical comedy and punchline delivery in keeping with the Vaudevillian feel of the play.
“Once they get their lines down, once they get the tempo down and the chemistry starts building, they sense each other, and it’s like they start dancing verbally and physically,” he said. “It’s really fun.”
“A Funny Thing” runs March 1-3 and 8-10 at the Bishop Center for the Performing Arts. Curtain rises at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays.
Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $12 for students and $8 for children under age 12. They’re available in advance at ghc.edu/bishop or by calling 360-538-4066. You can also buy them at the door.