A SPIRITED RETURN TO SONDHEIM'S ROME
Stephen Sondheim, after success as lyricist for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," was 32 in 1962 when he achieved the dream of reaching Broadway with a show for which he had written music as well as lyrics. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" was showered with six Tony Awards.
Sondheim's score wasn't even nominated.
Time has long since vindicated him. As Reprise Theatre Company <http://www.reprise.org/> revisits the show on the eve of Sondheim's 80th birthday on Monday, we have to wonder how anyone could have considered this music anything other than "Lovely" – the title, as it happens, of one of the show's best-loved songs.
This presentation may not be a buzz-builder, in the way that the Nathan Lane-led 1996 Broadway revival was, but as directed by David Lee, it is reliably entertaining and is populated with solid singers who, along with conductor Steve Orich and a 22-player orchestra, put the music's crackling artistry on full display.
The ancient comedies of Plautus inspired Burt Shevelove and his collaborator, Larry Gelbart, to write a knockabout faux-Roman tale full of dreamy-eyed young lovers, sex-starved older adults and crafty slaves, with such plot complications as a houseful of courtesans, magic potions, mistaken identities, unexpected returns and so on.
Sondheim's trademark wit complements this spirit, but in other ways he breaks the rules that Rodgers & Hammerstein established for the modern musical. Instead of furthering the plot, these songs pretty much interrupt the roaring momentum, their sophistication contrasting with the script's elbow-in-the-ribs quality. The change-ups knock theatergoers off-guard, in which state they begin to notice that what, a moment before, might have seemed mere lowbrow bluntness in the script is really as smartly crafted as the songs.
As the East Coast rolls out its star-studded Sondheim galas and big-ticket revivals, L.A. is enjoying a more modest 80th birthday bash with a revival of the master's first solo Broadway score, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The farcical structure of Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's book is as sound as ever, and whether it's the first time you've seen "Forum" or the umpty-umpth, there are delights to be found throughout the Reprise Theater Company production.
Sondheim's score, smoothly directed by Steve Orich, offers only hints of the complex melodies and rhyming and rhythmic flights to come. Still it's wholly pleasing, alternately muscular and dainty as the moment requires. Reprise even offers rediscovery, with two numbers interpolated from the 1972 Gotham version with Phil Silvers: a diva turn for monstrous matron Domina (Ruth Williamson, splendid) and a truly funny duet for ingenues Hero and Philia (Erich Bergen, late of L.A.'s "Jersey Boys," and Annie Abrams).
Ancient scribe Plautus was the libretto's inspiration but its soul is ancient burlesque, helmer David Lee having assembled the requisite old troupers to pull off that art form's innocent lewdness: Lee Wilkof as scheming slave Pseudolus, abetted by nervous-Nellie Larry Raben; Michael Kostroff as the sleazy pimp next door to randy old goat Ron Orbach.
As good as they are -- and Raben is particularly so -- the junior contingent runs away with this "Forum." If it takes a smart actor to portray a dumb character, Bergen and Abrams must be the smartest thesps in town. Totally sweet and winning, they land jokes and physical reactions that have escaped generations of Heros and Philias, and sell the numbers with unexpected touches of whimsy.
Whimsical is the word for the three youthful Proteans as well, carrying off dozens of roles with the switch of a hat or shmatte. Led by the hilariously towering, marionette-built-of-pipe cleaners Matthew Patrick Davis, Russ Marchand and Justin Wilcox make strong impressions in quick strokes.
And younger than springtime is the oldest cast member, Alan Mandell, a joyous Mr. Magoo as the hapless Erronius.
The well-cast Wilkof seemed off on opening night, with several line fumbles and a sense of riding on sheer willpower by act two. And the climactic chase lacked hellzapoppin brio; some underscoring, even a piano tinkling "Comedy Tonight," would help.
Peggy Hickey contributes witty choreography -- daddies of all ages will applaud the athletic cavalcade of courtesans in buy-me mode -- and the show looks great in Kate Bergh's mock-ancient garb and Jared Sayeg's circussy lighting, though Bradley Kaye's three adjacent houses seem somewhat characterless.
Bottom Line: No stars in the "Funny Thing" troupe produces a star performance.
Given its illustrious history, one can imagine a more flamboyant Prologus, or a sexier retinue of courtesans itching to be let loose. But true to the highest values of the stage, where teamwork and collaboration are most treasured, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," at the Freud (pronounced Frood, go figure) at UCLA, should prove a difficult ticket to get.
Reprise Theatre Company's revival is an apt tribute to Larry Gelbart (1928-2009), who co-wrote the dynamite book and to whom the production is dedicated. The superb cast, without a conventional star name to its credit, goes engagingly and energetically, literally from strength to strength and always hilariously. It's like being in the theater at the opening of this play nearly 50 years ago, slightly distorted by traveling through a time machine.
The show goes entirely as Lee Wilkof's little Prologus goes, relentlessly driving the action with his frenetic energy, flat-voiced wisecracks and occasional shtick (including a hilarious gurgling stomach bit in Act 2). The whole cast is dressed in Kate Bergh's fabulous costumes, rich in diaphanous gowns for the women (especially Annie Abram's heavenly Philia, the virgin of the piece) and provocatively short tunics for the men.
One could write a paragraph about nearly cast member, as the musical's eccentric characters keep the audience in stitches throughout. A bawdy tone in the production kicks in only toward the end, when confusion and sexual energy mixes riotously Mozart's Figaro with Shrevelove and Gelbart's Rome.
One has to mention Stuart Ambrose's Miles Gloriosus, 7 feet tall, always jumping up on tables and things and threatening to plunge his long cruel sword anywhere he pleases. Matthew Patrick Davis, another 7-footer, leads a gaggle of three Proteans with just the right combination of extreme (think Plastic Man) athletic and comedic virtuosity. The dazzling dancing turns by the courtesans are a great treat.
Director David Lee's decision to ease into the audience's confidence pays dividends: After the generic strains of the Overture, and the necessary setup of "Comedy Tonight," Ruth Williamson's "Farewell" ignites an eveninglong musical fire. Paced slowly to begin, with at first only a hint of the wicked Gelbart humor, Williamson wrings every last bit of laughter out of the never-ending encores that is its gimmick.
The brilliant yet simple stage design, with three houses looming alarmingly, assures the intimacy of the night by making the players more than life-size. Kudos to the onstage orchestra, 23-strong, featuring Steve Orich's carefully and respectfully revised orchestration. After so many electronic pit bands, it is a pleasure to hear real instruments.
"Something familiar...something peculiar," promises the opening song. Indeed so, and in a very good way. Following his Broadway breakthrough as a lyricist for "Gypsy" and "West Side Story," Stephen Sondheim made his debut as a composer-lyricist in 1962 with this madcap vaudevillian farce, adapted by co-librettists Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart from the comedies of Plautus of ancient Rome. The show endures as a side-splitting and melodic lark. It requires performers as skilled in comedy timing and physical dexterity as they are in song and dance. Director David Lee's revival meets those challenges in a scrumptiously satisfying revisit to an old favorite—faithful to the original, though often fresh and inventive.
Central to the narrative's lunacy is the wily slave Pseudolus, who'll do anything to obtain his freedom—from chasing down a mare to get sweat for a secret potion to bullying his cohort Hysterium into masquerading as a dead female virgin. Lee Wilkof's Pseudlous takes charge of situations with little muss or fuss. The actor doesn't push his gag lines, and he's not a mugger in the mold of Zero Mostel, who originated this role. For the most part, Wilkof's restrained playing is quite effective.
After all, there are plenty of characters around Pseudolus who could never be accused of subtlety. None are quite as brazen as Ruth Williamson's battle-axe wife, Domina. Towering over the men around her and physically pummeling the helpless slave Hysterium (the uproarious Larry Raben) as she sings, she's Ethel Merman by way of Attila the Hun, to hilarious effect. Her scenery-chewing "Farewell" (added during the shows' 1972 revival) is a highlight.
The evening is filled with scintillatingly funny performances: Michael Kostroff's weasly procurer, Marcus Lycus; Alan Mandell's befuddled codger, Erronius, searching for his long-lost children; Stuart Ambrose's egotistical warrior, Miles Gloriosus; Eric Bergen's dewy-eyed romantic, Hero; Annie Abrams as his brainless but gorgeous beloved, Philia; and Ron Orbach's horny wannabe philanderer, Senex. Also sublime are the multipurpose Proteans (Matthew Patrick Davis, Russ Marchand, and Justin Wilcox), as nimble a trio of eunuchs, soldiers, and whatnots as you'll ever see. Likewise sensational are the athletic courtesans (Meg Gillentine, Mercy Malick, Bradley Benjamin, Candy Olsen, Tonya Kay, and Laura Keller), put through their stunning paces by choreographer Peggy Hickey.
Steve Orich's crackerjack music direction serves the sprightly score terrifically, and the visual elements (Bradley Kaye's set, Kate Bergh's costumes, and Jared A, Sayeg's lighting) are lush and lovely. This delicious evening of song and slapstick restores the "comedy" in musical comedy.