A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum -- Theater Review

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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.

Venue: Freud Playhouse at UCLA, Westwood (Through March 28)
Cast: Lee Wilkof, Larry Raben, Annie Abrams, Stuart Ambrose, Erich Bergen, Michael Kostroff, Alan Mandell, Ron Orbach, Ruth Williamson
Book by: Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart
Director: David Lee. Music director: Steve Orich
Choreographer: Peggy Hickey
Scenic designer: Bradley Kaye
Costume designer: Kate Bergh
Lighting designer: Jared A. Sayeg
Casting director: Amy Lieberman
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