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A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review

 

QUITE A FEW FUNNY THINGS HAPPEN ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM

 

picture - A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Theater Review

By Harvey Perr

Published March 21, 2010

 

 

now playing at the Freud Theater on the UCLA Campus

through March 28

 

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum has perhaps seen better times than its current incarnation at the Reprise Theatre Company demonstrates, but I loved every loopy, demented, wacky, playfully lewd, beautifully sung, raucously performed, crazily comic moment of it. Reprise returns (after its beautiful Carousel), bringing a fresh breath of sweetness just in time for the beginning of spring, and in a celebratory mood in perfect keeping with Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, with as delightful a revival of this sturdy monument to theatrical nonsense as can be imagined. If only all the musical comedies in memory were as funny as Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s fanciful mish-mash of antique Roman comedies, and if only every score seemed as newly-minted as Sondheim’s youthfully breezy music or as witty as his wickedly clever lyrics. It is, of course, merely a hint of the heights he would rise to, but, ah, the sheer gaiety of hearing once again how much more gorgeous his first Broadway score was than we even knew at the time.

 

Under David Lee’s sprightly and inventive direction, with the aid of Peggy Hickey’s simple but hardly simplistic choreography, Bradley Kaye’s sugar-spun set, Jared A. Sayeg’s pastel-paletted lighting, and Kate Bergh’s nifty costumes, this production does not revolve around the character of the slave Pseudolus as most star-dependent productions do, but gives us instead an ensemble of performers who seem to be in seventh heaven merely cavorting for our pleasure and, just as happily, for each other’s pleasure. It’s the kind of ensemble work that is giddily contagious. I can’t imagine anyone but the most stone-hearted cynic walking out of the theater without a great big smile on his or her face.

 

picture - A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The ForumAll the great songs are in the first act, which is perfect, because it leaves room for the second act to engage in some hilarious chases and mix-ups and general comic mayhem that don’t necessarily want to be interrupted by anything but incidental music. But from  the rousing “Comedy Tonight” – which Lee Wilkof (with some deliciously zany assistance from a trio of nutty dancers, Russ Marchand, Justin Michael Wilcox and a very tall Matthew Patrick Davis) – lets resoundingly rip to the rafters or whatever the equivalent of the rafters are at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse – to the bombastically narcissistic “Bring Me My Bride” – which Stuart Ambrose, in the best Howard Keel-like display of transcendent masculinity, makes very much his own – the first act bounces along until it’s time for intermission. But not before we revel in a veritable Roman orgy of musical pleasures, such as the vocal pyrotechnics of Ruth Williamson’s never-ending “Farewell;” the winking innocence of Erich Bergen’s plaintive “Love, I Hear” (as well as his charming counterpoint to Annie Abrams’s marvelously silly “Lovely”);  the vigorous interpretation of the great “Free” by Wilkof and Bergen; the reliably jaunty “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid” (which is sure to get even jauntier as the run progresses); Larry Raben’s antic “I’m Calm;” and, perhaps this reviewer’s favorite of all, “Impossible,” in which father and son, Senex (the terrific Ron Ohrbach) and Hero (Bergen) each wonder what the virgin they both adore might see in the other.

 

And we haven’t even mentioned the physical attributes and multiple talents of the ladies who play the courtesans from the House of Lycus, who put their unique specialties on display in a sequence that was designed, from the start, as a treat for the tired businessmen in the audience. It always works, thanks to all those bumps and grinds, funny or not.

 

picture - A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The ForumThe second act brings the magnificently contemptuous Ms. Williamson back (from a visit to a mother we don’t have to see to know that she is another version of the Domina that Ms. Williamson plays so witheringly) and her version of “That Dirty Old Man.” It's also in this act that Erronius, the old man who is in eternal search of his children, stolen when they were babies by pirates, has to take seven trips around the Seven Hills of Rome, a joke that, in this revival, becomes a special joy because he is nobly played by the haughty Alan Mandell in fine leg-kicking fashion. Just watch how much mileage Mandell gets out of simply crossing the stage and reminding us which time around it is.

 

The Reprise likes to remind its audiences how little rehearsal time their productions get, which certainly relaxes one’s expectations. But, in the end, when it gets as good as Carousel and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum get, what difference does it make how long it takes to get there?  

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

photos by John Ganun

 

 

 
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