A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Reprise, 3/26/10

10 04 2010

(An “Objective” Review)

With a vastly condensed rehearsal period, Reprise’s revivals of classic musicals can be of a rather unpredictable quality.  Last season’s star-studded production of The Fantasticks (with Eric McCormack and Lucas Grabeel) never quite coalesced.  However, this season has presented a stunning set of popular favorites, from Carousel to their most recent A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Reprise’s choice of more familiar musicals for this season’s program undoubtedly aids the curtailed rehearsal time. While not often included in the quintessential Sondheim canon, Forum has been repeatedly mounted on the Great White Way, as well as in regional and school theaters, since its Broadway premiere in 1962.  In fact, Sondheim claims that the show is foolproof: “It can be done by any high school class or a group of vaudevillians and the play holds up” (qtd. in Banfield 91).  He attributes the show’s success to the intricate plotting, witty dialogue, and brilliant situational comedy of his collaborators, the late Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove.  Yet Sondheim’s vibrant production numbers – delicious respites from the relentless farce – contribute just as significantly to Forum’s staying power. Reprise’s production, nimbly directed by David Lee, expands this comedic text to delightful, larger-than-life proportions; the gods of the theater are certainly smiling on this production.

With a cast of several Broadway veterans, Reprise’s Forum wisely exploits its potential as a vehicle for star performances.  Despite a flat voice, Ruth Williamson’s fiery Domina literally dominates the stage; her “Farewell,” which repeatedly interrupts the forthcoming action, keeps the audience rolling with each reprise.  Williamson’s active engagement with the audience – breaking the fourth wall to cast a piercing glare when someone “Boo’ed” her entrance in Act II, for instance – likewise sets off unstoppable fits of laughter.  Stuart Ambrose’s Miles Gloriosus seems a distant relative of Beauty and the Beast‘s Gaston; his pomp and pretension are enhanced by the clever Proteans, who swiftly transform from faithful soldiers to eunuchs to slaves as the scene requires.  The wide-eyed lovers Hero (Erich Bergen) and Philia (Annie Abrams) offer a flighty romantic strain in tunes like “Lovely,” later twisted into magnificent comedy when reprised by Pseudolus and Hysterium in drag.  Even in the rather minor role of the elderly Erronius, Alan Mandell lights up the stage with each trudge around the mountains in search of his long-lost children, stolen in infancy by pirates!

A history of great performances lies behind the lead role of Pseudolus, the slave who longs for freedom.  Originated by Zero Mostel and reprised by Nathan Lane in the 1996 Broadway revival, Lee Wilkof steps into the role with a dynamic, comedic force of his own.  Mediating between stage and audience, Wilkof’s quick improvisational skills propel the farce to new heights. When his pants accidentally dropped during the March 26 performance, Wilkof peppered the rest of the evening with clever quips referencing his costume malfunction; and when Hero failed to catch the marriage contract hurled to him, Wilkof exploded, “It worked in rehearsal!” Transforming the failed mechanics of the production into the very fabric of the comedy, Wilkof keeps Forum light on its feet, constantly surprising the audience with new physical gags and ad-libs.

Forum foregrounds its stellar cast and continually showcases their individual talents, particularly in Peggy Hickey’s contortionist choreography for the girls in the House of Marcus Lycus. Wonderfully cartoonish costume design coordinates with the simple unity of set: the vibrant houses of Lycus, Senex, and Erronius, slightly masking the orchestra. And although subordinated to the star performers in each song, the orchestra – with Steve Orich at the helm – kicks off Forum with a rousing Overture; this classic musical component gives the musicians a chance to shine as stars in their own right.

With a string of successes this season, Reprise seems poised for an exciting production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying later this spring.  However, one can only hope that Reprise’s future will strike a balance between the quality production of these Broadway classics and reviving more rarely-performed musicals, its original mission.

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3 responses

10 04 2010
staylorellis

I will offer my dad’s short “subjective” review as a counterpoint: “The show was great last night. We laughed and laughed. I remember seeing the movie years ago and now I want to rent it.”

11 04 2010
42nd Street Moon

If you missed Reprise’s Forum, come up to San Francisco this fall for 42nd Street Moon’s production, starring Megan Cavanagh (A League of Their Own, Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius, Mel Brook’s Robin Hood) as Pseudolus. For more information check our website later this summer http://www.42ndstmoon.org.

11 04 2010
staylorellis

Sounds like an exciting production!

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