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Ancient Rome, Without Morals

Claire Spera |
March 12, 2010 | 10:02 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Ruth Williamson and Larry Raben in 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'
(Photo by John Ganun.)

We've all studied the Romans in history books, and have probably seen some bloody gladiator-inspired films. But for a not-so-serious take on one of the world's greatest empires, look no further than Reprise Theatre Company's staging of Stephen Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," 1962's Tony Award-winning musical. This comical song and dance fest, directed by David Lee and playing at UCLA's Freud Playhouse March 16-28, is based on the farces of ancient Roman playwright Plautus. His third consecutive hit after "West Side Story" and "Gypsy,"  "Forum" is Sondheim's longest Broadway run to date.

Ruth Williamson, who plays the domineering mother figure of Domina, sums up the production in a sentence: "If this show doesn't make you laugh, there's something wrong."

"Forum" tells the story of Pseudolus -- a slave in the home of Domina and her skirt-chasing husband Senex -- who attempts to bargain his way to freedom by promising the couple's young son, Hero, that he'll get him the girl of his dreams, next door neighbor Philia. 

Of course, Philia has already been promised to another man, so it's up to Pseudolus to make sure Hero and Philia end up together, by whatever means necessary (freedom was never closer). Through cases of mistaken identity, fake deaths and plain ol' wooing (think "Romeo and Juliet" combined with "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), everyone gets his "happily ever after." 
"Forum" marks Williamson's fifth show with Reprise; over the course of nine years, she's appeared in such company productions as "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Strike Up the Band."

"I always wanted to be a serious actress. I didn't think I would do musical theater," Williamson explains when reflecting on her childhood, though she had the dance and singing background for it.

When she moved to New York in 1977, the first job she auditioned for was at a children's musical theater company. From landing that gig, she went on to do nine productions on Broadway during her 26-year career in the Big Apple, only two of which were not musicals.

Williamson says the most challenging part of performing "Forum" is singing the songs, which tend to be married with energetic dance numbers, choreographed by Peggy Hickey.

"There's a lot of physical comedy in the show, so I'm singing these Sondheim songs while being gymnastic," she says.

Of the two solos she sings, one of them, titled "Farewell," wasn't actually in the original Broadway show; it was created for the 1973 revival. 

"I'll be singing a Sondheim song most everyone had never heard," she notes. 

The other song, "That Dirty Old Man," reveals Domina's frustrations with her less-than-loyal husband.

"I play the character that everyone groans about when she comes onstage, so I have to look at her like she's misunderstood. She's married to a dirty old man who chases women."

Director Lee "has quite a history in TV," comments Williamson, with a shelf-full of Emmys to match, though "his heart has always been in musical theater." The goal of this musical, Williamson says, is simply to make people laugh.

"It's sort of an old-fashioned burlesque show. It's nothing but a laugh riot-romp. If there's a moral to the show, it's that it's OK to laugh our asses off for two hours ... I hope [the audience is] deliriously happy by the end, and that's all that matters. In the finale we sing, 'What is the moral?' There really is no moral."  

WHAT: Reprise Theatre Company presents "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum".
WHEN: March 17-28, 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun., and 7 p.m. Sun. 
WHERE: UCLA's Freud Playhouse, 1271 Massachusetts Ave., Los Angeles.



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