Theater review: 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' by Reprise Theatre Company
Ears sometimes take a while to catch up.
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 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.
Lee Wilkof is appropriately vaudevillian as the slave who helps his young master to liberate an as yet untouched beauty from the next-door house of ill repute. Wilkof is a tad lower-key than some predecessors, but his raucous, half-shouted singing suits the exuberant ode to what this slave most wants: to be "Free."
As the young master, Erich Bergen sweetly floats his high-tenor voice through the love-struck ballad "Love, I Hear," then twines it around doe-eyed Annie Abrams, as the amusingly dim object of his affection, in "Lovely."
The Reprise presentation hews most closely to a version of the show that originated at the Ahmanson Theatre and, in 1972, returned the show to Broadway. A new song for that version, "Farewell," gives Ruth Williamson, as the domineering mother, a chance to show off her unique bass-to-soprano singing range while confounding the song's title by reappearing on stage with Whac-a-Mole determination. (This version also swaps "Echo Song" for "That'll Show Him" and drops "Pretty Little Picture.")
The double-entendre-laden "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" is a trifle underpowered here, but Stuart Ambrose's rich bass is simply glorious in service of the pompous Roman captain Miles Gloriosus and, as a capper, we get Los Angeles legend Alan Mandell showing off some admirably trim legs beneath his tunic as he performs the show's famous shtick as an old man conned into multiple treks around the hills of Rome.
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," Reprise at Freud Playhouse, UCLA, northeast campus. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 28. $70 and $75. (310) 825-2101 or www.reprise.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.