When the curtain rises each night on Queens College’s production of the musical comedy classic “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” audiences will likely find themselves roaring with laughter at the nonstop rollercoaster of onstage shenanigans. Little could they imagine the laborious preparations that will have gone into making it all appear so effortless.
Under the keen directorial eye of Broadway veteran Charles Repole, chairman of the Department of Drama, Theatre & Dance, which is presenting the show in collaboration with the college’s Aaron Copland School of Music, rehearsals for the show began five weeks prior to the scheduled April 11 opening night.
Working with a mostly student cast, not only theater majors but those in other academic areas as well, Repole — who garnered a Tony Award nomination for his portrayal of the title role in the Broadway musical “Very Good Eddie” — turns the show into a learning experience for his proteges.
In fact, during a brief break at a recent rehearsal, Repole said he chose the show because he “thought it was time the students learned this kind of humor. The jokes come from the characters. It’s a teaching opportunity — louder, faster, funnier.“
From the outset, Repole offers his actors insight into their characters.
“She’s a blank slate,” he tells Grace Kahl, of her character, Philia, an innocent young courtesan. “I don’t think she knows very much.”
To Alex Schirling, who plays Marcus Lycus, the “buyer and seller of the flesh of beautiful women,” Repole suggests a change of posture. “Chest out. He’s proud of himself. Go home and practice in the mirror,” he advises.
In an effort to explain the rapid back-and-forth banter required for a particular scene, Repole references the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine. It’s not the only time he confronts a generation gap, as he is met with blank stares from some of the students.
As the late nights pile up, many of the students are struggling with the demands of a show whose style is foreign to many actors of similar age.
When it comes to developing a character, Repole said, “We usually teach to work from the inside out. Here we’re working from the outside in. It’s like in a dance. How do you add the comedy if you don’t know the steps? Then the character comes in.”
For the pivotal role of Pseudolus, a conniving slave whose relentless pursuit of freedom is at the center of the plot, Repole recruited a former student, David Holliday, who last appeared at the college in a production of “The Pajama Game” in 2005.
“It’s neat for me to be back at the university level. It’s extremely inspirational,” Holliday said, speaking of the actors with whom he shares the stage. “I can see the hunger in their eyes.”
While he ultimately walked away from the theater, calling it “a tough lifestyle,” he said that being back on stage has “given me a bug to possibly get back out there. I’d love to always keep a foot in the arts.”
Stephen Winburn, 22, who plays the role of Hysterium, unwitting cohort to Pseudolus, wolfs down his now-cold dinner from a foam container, and explains that he had previously worked with Repole on a production of “Anything Goes,” though most of his onstage work has been in nonmusicals.
“It’s different from what I’m used to,” he said. “It’s very high-energy, very fast- paced, a lot of movement.”
Admitting he is “terrified of musicals” and apprehensive about auditioning, senior Thomas Stagnitta, also 22, finds himself in his first musical, in the featured role of the dirty old man, Senex. He acknowledges that Repole provides a “very safe environment. He knows what he’s doing. I trust him.”
The students’ enthusiasm is palpable and many of them must make tremendous sacrifices to pursue their theatrical ambitions, though it becomes clear that sometimes other aspects of life interfere.
One cast member dropped out of the show because of personal circumstances. Many of the students are forced to miss rehearsals or arrive late because of conflicting classes or other issues.
Winburn says he has “gotten used to the rehearsal schedule here so I make all my classes before 6 p.m. We rehearse from 6 to 10. I try not to make any social appointments after that.”
“I have 25 students who work, have classes,” Repole said. “Some support their families. It’s always been tough to get them together. It’s not a class. I have to be able to work around their schedules.”
When: April 11-14 and 18-21
Where: Goldstein Theatre, Queens College, 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Flushing
Tickets: $18; $10 for seniors and students with QC IDs
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