REVIEW: Shakespeare Theatre takes on musical classic in Sondheim’s ‘Forum.’

'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (Courtesy Photo)

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (Courtesy Photo)

What a great Christmas present the Shakespeare Theatre Company has given us — a unique revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The director, Alan Paul, a 29-year-old prodigy from Potomac, Md., has produced a wonderfully fresh, madcap staging of the familiar musical created by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart with music and lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim.

Paul has found ways to capture the infectious fun and laughter in what will become a memorable production of a 51-year-old venerable, farcical musical playing in the Sidney Harman Stage. Even the Signature Theatre masters of Sondheim will have to admire this production.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is a work of convoluted theatrical genius from the creative team that included Gelbart, who would go on to have an impossibly full resume that included the creation of “MASH,” and Sondheim, who became one of the most successful and celebrated composers and lyricists on Broadway.

“Forum” is a wild romp dominated by Pseudolus, a resourceful slave in a Roman household who is determined to win his freedom. It is a role that has been dominated by the Broadway star that created it, the incomparable Zero Mostel, in the debut production and later in the movie. Anyone who ever witnessed his performance naturally assumed he had established an unassailable performance.

Think again. Bruce Dow, the manipulative Pseudolus in this production, is breathtakingly funny, establishing a new standard that future actors will find difficult to match. It is mesmerizing to watch Dow’s expressive face and almost maniacal, yet controlled movements that are delicate and dancer-like, especially surprising for such a big man.

Dow’s smooth movements are echoed throughout the cast in Josh Rhodes’ choreography that controls the madcap mayhem. And the entire cast is strong and effectively pays homage to Sondheim’s lyrics and music.

In seeking his freedom, Pseudolus makes a deal with his immature and clueless master, Hero, who promises he will give his slave his freedom if he can help him win Philia, a virgin courtesan from the neighboring house of Lycus. Unfortunately for Hero, Philia has been purchased by the pompous, strutting Roman Captain Miles Gloriosus, Edward Watts, who will soon be coming to claim her.

Pseudolus concocts one of his glib lies, telling Lycus that Philia suffers from the “smiling plague” and that he will protect Lycus and the other working girl slaves in his house by taking her into his care. His scheme is to spirit Philia and Hero away and achieve his freedom. It isn’t, however, going to be that easy. In clever farces, there is a wide range of convoluted, mistaken situations. Hero’s father, Senex, a randy old man, thinks Philia is interested in him. Philia, who is not very bright, also is of the notion that Senex is Gloriosus.

There is a crisscrossing array of other clever machinations with scantily clad dancing courtesans, an old man, another neighbor of the house where Pseudolus lives, who has been off looking for his son and daughter stolen years before, mistaken identities and dressing in drag. In short, it is the usual range of farcical situations and silly involvements that come together in a delightful series of happy resolutions.

Nick Verina, who clearly understands the dopey, young Hero in love with the virgin Philia, has a strong, melodic voice. When he and Lora Lee Gayer (Philia) sing the amusing, but sweet “Lovely,” it is an emotional blending of Sondheim’s smart lyrics and music — a highlight of the evening. That isn’t to take anything away from the rousing and pleasing opening of “Comedy Tonight” that boisterously establishes the farce that is coming.

Gayer plays the naïve, undereducated virgin who is all looks and sexual promise in a “valley girl” performance. She has a dumb blonde, annoying whine in her voice. She is also an exceptional comedian.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company doesn’t usually do musicals. This one, however, is special and they clearly have a talented pool of strong voices and dancing abilities so it is likely they will offer other musicals. What they have done is shown how good the American musical once was. If you are interested in that experience, this is the show to see.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” continues through Jan. 5, 2014 at The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, $55-$110 available 877-487-8849 and online here.

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