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University of Iowa News Release

Oct. 3, 2003

Naughty Romans Launch University Theatres Season

The stage will be filled with the sexy antics of naughty Romans when the 2003-2004 University Theatres Mainstage season at the University of Iowa opens with one of the enduring classics of American musical comedy, Stephen Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Performances will be at 8 p.m. Oct. 16-18 and 23-25, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19 and 26, in the E.C. Mabie Theatre of the UI Theatre Building.

The first production to feature both music and lyrics by Sondheim, the risque "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" was an immediate hit in the 1963 Broadway debut starring Zero Mostel, and the musical soon reached millions worldwide in the film version in which Mostel was joined by Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, Michael Crawford and Jack Gilford.

The hilarious dialogue was co-written by Larry Gelbart, who is best known for his work on the long-running TV version of "M*A*S*H."

Set two centuries before the Christian era, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is loosely based on the comedies of Plautus, who lampooned the Roman society of his time.

The over-the-top plot is set in motion by Pseudolus, a slave who dreams of freedom and is willing to do almost anything to obtain it. When his owner's young son falls madly in love with a beautiful Cretan courtesan, Pseudolus sees his chance. Of course, his wacky scheme disintegrates into slapstick chaos and then is miraculously resolved before he can celebrate his freedom in the show's signature song, "Comedy Tonight."

The production will feature the UI directorial debut of James P. Birder, who leads the Department of Theatre Arts program in stage management.

Birder grew up steeped in musical theater: His father, Dudley Birder, is the founder and director for more than 40 years of Music Theatre in Green Bay, Wis., and James remains the resident director of that company.

An Equity stage manager who has worked nationally and internationally in ballet, drama, modern dance, musicals, jazz and rock 'n roll, James Birder boasts New York credits including the tours of "Mame," "Nunsense," "Man Of La Mancha," "For Colored Girls . . . Suicide," "Sugar Babies" and "Sophisticated Ladies."

For Radio City Music Hall, Birder served as a stage manager for the Myrtle Beach production of "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular" starring the Rockettes. He was the production stage manager and lighting designer for the Milwaukee Ballet and the Nikolais/Louis Dance Companies; lighting designer for the Dave Brubeck Quartet; and an art director for Landmark Entertainment Group's Japanese Theme Park, Harmony Land.

He is an executive board member of the Stage Manager's Association in New York, and as a vice commissioner for the United States Institute for Theatre Technology he coordinates the National Stage Management Mentor Project.

The production will also introduce a whole new crop of graduate student actors in the Master of Fine Arts program. The MFA program in the Department of Theatre Arts is a three-year program in which admission is not staggered: Each three-year group enters the program simultaneously, and this fall begins a new cycle.

And the production features yet another creative attempt to overcome long-time theater chair E.C. Mabie's attempts -- either historical or legendary -- to design the theater so that the musicals he despised could not possibly be staged.

Alison Ford's scenic design called for a raked stage to be built over, and several feet above, the Mabie stage, enabling the creation of an ad-hoc orchestra pit.

The musicians, conducted by musical director Adam Lewis, will be in the traditional pit location, in front of and below the level of the stage.

The production also features costume design by Andre Harrington, lighting design by emeritus professor David Thayer, sound design by Tony Rogers and choreography by Daniel Stark of the Dance Department.

Tickets are $20 ($10 for UI students, senior citizens and youth) from the Hancher Auditoriium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial 319-335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to 319-353-2284. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial 319-335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

Tickets may be ordered on-line 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Hancher's website: .

Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction. Information and brochures may be requested by e-mail:

Tickets may also be purchased at a substantial discount as part of the Division of Performing Arts subscription package. A brochure detailing the theater, dance and music components of the subscription season is available from the box office or from the Division of Performing Arts at

University Theatres is the performance unit of the Department of Theatre Arts, which is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail,

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073,

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