Chicago Theater Review: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (Porchlight at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 25, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

ANCIENT LAUGHS TIMES TEN

An irresistible mix of Roman “new comedy,” commedia dell’arte, and vaudeville, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum rivals The Producers as the funniest musical comedy ever–and the future seems no threat. Not seen in Chicago since Goodman Theatre’s lavish 1988 production, the once and future 1962 smasheroo is relentlessly right in Porchlight Music Theatre’s rollicking revival. Right now you can’t find a happier 145 minutes in any theater in the Midwest, though the search, of course, continues.

Will Clinger, Bill Larkin and Matt Crowle in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.

Brilliant yuksters Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart combined forces with a young and still melody-mad Stephen Sondheim to shamelessly steal from copyright-free Plautus (251-183 BC). These merry pranksters transmogrified the ancient comic’s Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus and Mostellaria into the perfect farce with music. Originally intended for Phil Silvers, who rejected it as “Sgt. Bilko in a tunic” (but who won a Tony when he starred in the first Broadway revival in 1972), the gutbusting plot focuses on the house slave Pseudolus: This superb trickster will do anything to win his freedom from his young master Hero (cute Miles Blim).

Lorenzo Rush Jr and Bill Larkin in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.

It makes total sense that it all happens on a day in spring, when the Roman Republic hadn’t yet gone global. Pseudolus’ plans A through Z entail securing the affections of Hero’s beloved airhead Philia (comely Sarah Lynn Robertson), a newly arrived and still virginal courtesan in the libidinous House of Lycus. (She is literally the whore next door.) A lot of eyes are undressing Philia, so Pseudolus’ shenanigans involve a delightful campaign of altered identities and strategic deceptions. He bamboozles everyone in sight with whiplash prevarications, magic potions, gender-bending disguises, and a chase scene to hopefully not end all chase scenes.

The cast of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.

As promised in the glorious opening number “Comedy Tonight” (rivaled only by “Tradition” as the greatest table-setter on Broadway), there’s many more than a laugh a minute. The songs–“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” the father and son duet “Impossible,” and the braggart soldier’s “Bring Me My Bride”–are utterly enthralling. (Plus there’s a new charmer: A sweet lovers’ duet “Echo Song,” foolishly cut during try-outs, is here restored with Sondheim’s permission.)

Sarah Lynn Robinson, Anthony Whitaker and Greg Zawada in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.

Rampaging when not romping, Michael Weber’s surefire staging doesn’t miss a rib-tickling giggle, snicker, chortle or guffaw. With a Midas touch for turning everything into laughs, Bill Larkin’s rubber-faced, manically mugging Pseudolus combines wizard timing, toxic zingers, swift asides, slapstick, double takes, pratfalls, magnificent mime, and more punch lines than seem possible to make this super servant an epicenter of hilarity.

Miles Blum and Bill Larkin in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.

Clever casting gives the arch buffoon perfect support. Larkin’s genius jester is backed up by deft zanies, a clown chorus called The Proteans (Jason Grimm, Andrew Lund and Jaymes Osborne) who never met a costume they couldn’t change. Pompously protected by procurer Marcus Lycus (Lorenzo Rush Jr. in full basso profundo), The Proteans’ female equivalents are four goodtime girls much like Mazeppa, Tessie Tura and Electra in Gypsy. These are Tintinabula (Ariana Cappuccitti), Panacea (Erica Evans), Vibrata (Britt-Marie Siversten) and Gymnasia (Neala Barron). The names alone are sidesplittingly predictive.

(center) Bill Larkin, (clockwise around Larkin), Erica Evans, Britt-Marie Sivertsen, Ariana Cappuccitti and Nella Barron

In no time and in a hundred ways, split-second Pseudolus manages to outfox, manipulate, transform or hoodwink his anal retentive fellow-slave Hysterium (adorably androgynous Matt Crowle), his master’s horny paterfamilias Senex (Will Clinger, captivatingly clueless as the “dirty old man”), Senex’ Medusa-like wife Domina (Caron Buinis, a Roman matron in low fustian), and the blustering warrior Miles Gloriosus (Greg Zawada channeling Gaston from Beauty and the Beast). Finally, there’s a forlorn father Erronius (Anthony Whitaker); seeking his children stolen by pirates, this gull is fooled into circling the seven hills of Rome seven times in what is drama’s first and most literal running joke.

Caron Buinis and Matt Crowle in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.The kudos keep coming: Linda Madonia’s musical direction is sterling on gold. Megan Truscott’s cartoon set sheer inspiration. Alexia Rutherford’s caricaturing costumes are worth 1,000 words each, all amusing. Mealah Heidenreich’s props deliver solid sight gags. Brenda Didier’s playful dances burst with anachronistic pleasures–so many Roman friezes reduced to burlesque hoofing in the monumental “Funeral Sequence” and the ravishing opening and closing numbers. Forum is indeed a “Pretty Little Picture”–no, pretty little masterpiece. The musical may not be able to wake the dead but it can certainly convulse the living. A very funny thing happened on the way to Stage 773. You get the joke. Please.

Bill Larkin, Sarah Lynn Robinson and Miles Blum in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.photos by Anthony La Penna

A Funny Thing Happened
on the Way to the Forum

Porchlight Music Theatre
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave
ends on May 24, 2015
for tickets, call 773.327.5252
or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org

for more info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 2 comments }

Linda Spevacek December 15, 2015 at 10:51 pm

We saw Phil Silvers appear in this play in Chicago in about 1972. What theater did he appear in?

Tony Frankel, Editor-in-Chief December 16, 2015 at 3:57 pm

Tricky question, Linda.

In 1964, there was a US National Tour that played the Shubert Theatre in Chicago (with Jerry Lester in the lead, not Phil Silvers).

The only other Chicago visit (that I know of) was Mickey Rooney — riding high on his hit Sugar Babies — starring in the National Tour as Pseudolus in 1987.

Phil Silvers turned down the offer of the lead role. Pseudolus, in the original Broadway production (1962). He then appeared in the 1966 film as Marcus Lycus across from star Zero Mostel, who recreated his Broadway role. After a short run as Pseudolus in Los Angeles (1971), Silvers starred in a 1972 Broadway revival at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre as Pseudolus (for which he won a Best Actor Tony Award).

Does that help, or make things more confusing?

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