With Whoopi Goldberg starring in the Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, you probably have the good sense not to expect a traditional Broadway performance. And you'd be right.
But you must hurry. Goldberg's last performance is the Sunday July 13 matinees. Comedian and film/TV star David Alan Grier succeeds Goldberg as Pseudolus on Tuesday July 15. Grier, who's best known for the TV comedy series "In Living Color," has an impressive stage resume, that includes starring as Jackie Robinson in the Broadway musical The First, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award, and Off-Broadway in A Soldier's Play.
Nathan Lane, the original star of the Forum revival, did his share of ad-libbing, but Goldberg's background as a stand-up comic and comic actress, as opposed to being a musical comedy star, led to great expectations. These were not only met since she began performances in Forum Feb. 11 but have been greatly exceeded.
Coming in late at a Forum performance led to a fate worse than coming in late at a Victor Borge concert. Often, according to production stage manager Arthur Gaffin, Goldberg did nothing other than just stand there.
"It was right after the 'Comedy Tonight' number that opens the show when the ushers seat latecomers," he said. "When Whoopi let them off easy, she'd say everything with just a fantastic, wide-eyed look, her facial expression, and a calculated look at an imaginary watch." But there were those nights when Goldberg was in a "get 'em" mood. "Thanks for coming," Goldberg begin. "Did you miss the opening number?" A latecomer might nod yes. "Too bad," Goldberg would reply. "We're not doing it again! And look!" She'd point to more latecomers coming down the aisle. "I'm sorry," she would say. Got caught in traffic, did you? Or was it so good you just couldn't get up from the table?"
The audience would be in hysterics and wildly applauding. As with Nathan Lane before her, Goldberg tries to insert topical ad libs.
Of late, she's been referring to a certain new Broadway leading lady: "Thanks for coming," Goldberg welcomed the audience recently. At their laughter, she added, "No, no, I'm serious. You could have gone to another show. You could've gone to see Raquel." Answering their laughter, she added, "What? What? She's very good!" Goldberg took a long pause. "Raquel still looks good at -- well, a lady doesn't reveal another lady's age. But I'm no lady!"
One of Goldberg's goals at each performance seems to be to break up Brad Aspel, Cory English, and Ray Roderick, the acrobatic actors who play the various roles of the Proteans, by often stonewalling them with a bug-eyed stare and pursed mouth. Whether making an off-the-wall comment, boogeying, or doing the trendy dance, the macarena, she has rarely failed. When they break up or when she forgets the lyrics to a song, Goldberg just brushes it off by saying, "This is one of the wonderful things about live theatre." And always get an ovation.
One of the funniest moments of any of Goldberg's performance has also been at the end of "Comedy Tonight," when Hysterium says, "Thespis, we place ourselves in your hands." Goldberg then turns to the audience and says, "Y'all know who Thespis is? Thespis, as in thespians. No, he's not like Ellen. He's the god of actors."
Early in Act I when the elderly Erronius, played by William Duell, appears behind a curtain that has just revealed five leggy, scantily clad actresses playing courtesans, Goldberg, on sighting Duell, walks downstage and says, "What am I going to do with this old white man? I got one at home!" The remark is a reference to her boyfriend, stage and screen actor Frank Langella, who recently starred in Present Laughter and will star in the fall as the tragicomic hero in Roundabout Theatre's revival of Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.
When a doll representing one of Erronius's babies is thrown at Goldberg, she replies, "I don't want no little blonde baby. That's another movie, honey!" (referring to her roles in the films Corinna, Corinna and Made In America).
Ross Lehman in January replaced Mark Linn-Baker as Hysterium the servant in the house of Senex where Pseudolus is a slave. Lehman is a singer/actor adept also at playing the classics, but Goldberg has found a way to get to him. Late in Act II, she says to him, "Give the cup to Socrates." Hysterium inquires, "Which one is Socrates?" Goldberg says, "Work with me! Work with me! What do you mean, 'Which one is Socrates?' It's a metaphor. We're in Rome! If I said, 'Water under the bridge,' would you ask "Which bridge?'"
Stage manager Gaffin said the company was looking forward to working with Grier but will definitely miss Goldberg. "We've been absolutely having a fantastic time. Whoopi's been terrific from Day One. Everyone adores her. She has brought a huge amount of love to the company and to the audiences. She's been a terrific trouper. She's only missed five shows -- four for illness, and one because she had a previously committed engagement. Her dressing room door has never been closed to anyone who wants to drop in."
However, getting to the dressing room often required a little donation to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a charity that has been dear to Goldberg's heart.
Forum producers were worried that the boxoffice might take a dive when Lane left. But coming up with Goldberg was the perfect solution. Since she began performances, the show has consistently been in the weekly Top 10 of the highest grossing Broadway musicals, according to a production spokesperson.
Goldberg has used her personality and star power to increase the coffers of BC/EFA by $226,906 by raffling videos, signing autographs, auctioning time with herself, and the self of Hirshfeld lithos commissioned by her production company.