Arts & Culture

October 9, 2011

Classic 'Forum' farce to help Forum Theatre debut

Take a little Laurel and Hardy slapstick sweetness, stir in some raucous Three (make that Two) Stooges mayhem, and top with a snarky dollop of Sonny and Cher and you're ready for Karla Burns and Tom Frye.

Take a little Laurel and Hardy slapstick sweetness, stir in some raucous Three (make that Two) Stooges mayhem, and top with a snarky dollop of Sonny and Cher and you're ready for Karla Burns and Tom Frye.

Two of Wichita's best-known and best-loved comic talents are teaming up this week to launch Wichita's newest live venue, the Forum Theatre for Performing Arts on Hillside just south of Douglas in an elegantly restored and remodeled old church.

The show — naturally — is Stephen Sondheim's 1962 bawdy musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Opening night is Thursday, and performances run Thursdays through Sundays until Oct. 30. Tickets are $22 and $24.

The show also gives Burns and Frye a chance to celebrate their 40th year of friendship. They met in 1971 when she was a high school student blessed with a powerful mezzo soprano voice and he was a young theater teacher determined to encourage fledgling talent.

"Over the years, we did everything from summer melodramas at Cowtown and summer theater at WSU to Music Theatre of Wichita to our own musical-comedy nightclub act," says Frye, who went on to teach theater or special education in many local schools while performing and directing with virtually every local theater group.

"I was kicked out of every school in town," Frye jokes. "I was kicked off every stage in town."

He also managed to spend vacations doing summer stock in New York plus taking a year off to perform in the national tour of "42nd Street." He has plans to take his one-man "Tru" about Truman Capote to Off-Broadway.

"I was known as 'The Round Pound of Sound,' " Burns says with a laugh of those formative years. "I think Ted Morris (the late melodrama and Crown Uptown founder) gave me that name."

Burns went on to win acclaim on Broadway and in London's West End, as well as in opera houses from New York to Paris to Cairo in the 1980s and 1990s. She received a Tony nomination for the 1983 Broadway revival of Jerome Kern's "Show Boat." When she reprised her role as Queenie in the 1993 London revival, she became the first black performer to receive the prestigious Olivier Award.

"Tom and I know each other so well that it's easier, not harder, to work together," Burns says in answer to the oft-quoted adage that familiarity breeds contempt. "We are comfortable on stage with each other."

This production represents a milestone for Burns. It will be her first major performance since having surgery for a large goiter in her neck.

"Nine pounds and 10 ounces — that's how big the goiter was," Burns says. "They told me I might never sing again. For months after the surgery, I couldn't speak above a whisper. But I prayed a lot. God gave me this gift for a reason, and I couldn't imagine that he would want me to abandon it."

She spent months in physical and vocal therapy and has been back to singing for only a few months. Her last major Wichita performances were in 2006: "Crowns" for Stage One and "Hi-Hat Hattie," her one-woman show about another Wichita native, Hattie McDaniel, the first black to win an Oscar, for the Orpheum.

"I think I'm back," Burns says confidently. "I'm different, but I'm singing."

Co-star Frye will co-direct "Forum" with Kathryn Page Hauptman, Stage One founder who is now artistic director for the Forum Theatre. This will be his fifth time doing the show.

In the show, with a pun-heavy script by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shrevelove, Burns plays Pseudolus, the aptly — and satirically — named Roman slave who spins wild and wacky tales in an effort to manipulate her patrician owners into granting her freedom.

The role was created on Broadway in 1962 by Zero Mostel and played in revivals by Phil Silvers (1976) and Nathan Lane (1996) —all winning Tony Awards as best musical actor.

It had always been played by a man until Whoopi Goldberg gave it a gender-bending twist when replacing Lane and opening the door for actresses like Burns.

Frye plays Hysterium, the tightly-wound head slave who perpetually frets that Pseudolus' schemes will undermine his lofty (well, for a slave) position and get him in trouble.

Stephen Hitchcock is Hero, Pseudolus' hopelessly romantic young master who has been left in charge while his parents are out of town.

Kylie Jo Jennings is Philia (Greek for "love"), the beautiful girl next door who Hero has fallen for but who is a courtesan-in-training reserved for a returning war hero. Huron Breaux is that boastful warrior, Miles Gloriosus.

The Proteans — essentially the Greek chorus who keeps the audience clued in to what's going on — are Jeff Gates, Jeff Frye and Wes Smith.

Among familiar songs are "Comedy Tonight," "Lovely" and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid."

The five-piece combo is under music director Paul Jackson. Choreography is by John Akins, set by Dan Williams and costumes by Chad Armstrong.

If You Go


What: Classic musical farce with Stephen Sondheim music and lyrics

Where: Forum Theatre for Performing Arts, 147 S. Hillside

When: Opens Thursday; performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 30.

Tickets: $22 Thursday and Sunday, $24 Friday and Saturday. Call 316-618-0444 or go online at

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