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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (04/18/1996 - 01/04/1998)


 

New York Daily News: "'Funny' Outta be Funnier"

They're wearing powder blue in the forum this year. If I was thinking about Nathan Lane's costume, I guess it's because I wasn't laughing very much.

This revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" stars the currently hot Lane (of "The Birdcage"), but what was eagerly awaited turns out to be disappointing.

The 1962 show is hardly a work of great refinement, but unless it's done with some precision, as it was originally, it seems little more than a diversion for tired businessmen.

The plot the machinations of a Roman slave who has been promised his freedom if he can secure a lovely girl for his handsome young master is based on Plautus. The humor, however, comes from sources as diverse as burlesque, vaudeville and the Borscht Belt.

The original production, directed by George Abbott, moved with such elegance you didn't realize its origins were in the lowest of low comedy. This show, directed by the usually estimable Jerry Zaks, is broad, campy and flabby. Sure, it gets laughs, but so does Henny Youngman.

Interestingly, the poster for "A Funny Thing" doesn't even mention Stephen Sondheim. This is probably sensible marketing. There are, after all, people still alive who remember "Passion" and "Assassins" who might not know that when he wrote "Funny Thing," Sondheim still wanted to entertain audiences rather than enlighten or afflict them.

His sparkling score for "A Funny Thing," considered negligible in 1962, is the show's greatest asset, especially in a revival as unfocused as this. The dazzling lyrics (has Sondheim ever written anything more delicious than "I pine, I blush, I squeak, I squawk/ Today I woke too weak to walk"?) and the nimble music require a discipline, a rhythmic precision too often absent from the proceedings.

If the show is to be more than just a collection of leering gags, you have to believe that Pseudolus, the Roman slave, really does want to be free and that he is genuinely fearful of the world that has enslaved him. Lane's portrayal is simply that of a gagster making funny faces, sticking out his tongue, bouncing around the stage as if he were an overstuffed toy. He sings well and does his pratfalls gracefully, but without a spine, the character seems weightless. As his sidekick, Hysterium, Mark Linn-Baker has a winsome, cute quality that serves him well when he is pretending to be a dead virgin. The funniest performers are Ernie Sabella, a burly brothelkeeper (he'd make a great Pseudolus); William Duell, who provides the show's best running gag, and Lewis J. Stadlen as an old man whose long-dormant libido is suddenly awakened. Cris Groenendaal does well as a braggart.

Jim Stanek is wonderfully debonair singing the witty "Love, I Hear" and "Lovely." Jessica Boevers, who plays the young woman on whom the plot turns, is extremely talented but does not have the sort of looks on which plots turn.

Tony Walton's sets and costumes have a brashness in keeping with the broad style.

"Forum" is funny a lot of the time, but it should be far more impressive.


New York Daily News
04/19/1996

New York Post: "Funny Thing happens to be great"

When you virtually stop a show simply by starting it, you may be said to have arrived. Nathan Lane's appearance in Stephen Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," at the St. James Theater last night, indeed had something of the ambiance of a coronation - Nathan the Good, King of Broadway.

But before going on let me make one thing perfectly clear. I'm a sucker for Sondheim's "Forum." I loved it when I first saw it with Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, and I have loved it every other time I've ever seen it. Why, I almost loved that movie version.

So, face it, I would have loved it even if Jerry Zaks' new production starring the ineffable Lane had all but done a belly-flop on its face. Luckily, it didn't.

Surprisingly, Zaks' staging seems much closer to the original by George Abbott (with a shrewd anonymous assist from Jerome Robbins and choreography by Jack Cole) than his rather more personalized treatment of "Guys and Dolls" a few seasons back might have led one to expect.

The completely beguiling set and costumes by Tony Walton - the original designer - look if memory still serves, a pastel shade brighter and cartoon funnier, and for the "Comedy Tonight" opening he and Zaks have introduced a splendid new sight gag.

But the general look and feel of the show is basically unchanged from 1962, and it is fascinating how much of the actual intonation and phrasing of the singing echoes the past. Zaks, who obviously encouraged Faith Prince to offer a virtual imitation of Vivian Blaine in "Guys and Dolls," does much the same with leading actors here.

The musical itself is a delight. The score - there are new and rather lighter orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick - falls off slightly in the second act, but the young Sondheim is full of the joys of spring both in his carefree music and astonishly nimble lyrics. And the book, this is vaudevillian magic.

The crazy story - don't ask but it's basically a Roman slave winning his freedom by helping his young master get his virgin bride from a whorehouse - was the idea of Burt Shevelove.

Shevelove wanted to carve a musical out of the comedies of Plautus (circa 254-184 B.C.), and enlisted the help of Larry Gelbart. In the end, they came up with their own version of Plautus, incorporating bits from many of the plays and spinning them with the shtick of the old American burlesque.

Zaks has gathered together three of the guys he had in Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," Lane, Mark Linn-Baker and Lewis J. Stadlen, plus such fine comic hands as Ernie Sabella, William Duell, Chris Groenendaal and Mary Testa, and added a couple of gifted juveniles for the ditsy lovers, Jessica Boevers and Jim Stanek.

Then he brought on the clowns and stirred. The choreography by Rob Marshall still finds its highlight in the individual dances that Shevelove's meticulously named courtesans, but doesn't seem that different from Cole's earlier solos. There is only so much you can do with bumps, grinds and ballet!

Zaks is matchless in providing comic business - not only for his principal Roman clowns but also for that three-man Chorus of all duty, the Proteans, Brad Aspel, Cory English and Ray Roderick.

And the cast is super. Linn-Baker has a nutty charm as Hysterium, not least when he is persuaded he is a lovely virgin; Stadlen's bumbling and growling Senex is also a joy, as is Ernie Sabella's pandering flesh-peddler, Lyeus.

But, of course, the funniest thing that happens to us on the way to Sondheim's Forum has to be Pseudolus, slave of slaves, top banana, lubricious, resound and, in his servile fashion, totally commanding. And now, for his generation, Nathan Lane.

The question must be asked. Is he as good as Zero Mostel? Frankly, no - Zero was a willful, wicked original genius and, just as frankly, Nathan, although deliberately less assuming, less eye-rolling and less overbearing is still not yet sufficiently unlike Zero for it not to matter.

That said, Nathan Lane remains a national treasure - and a certainty to follow in the steps of his predecessors in the role, both Mostel and later Phil Silvers, in winning this season's Tony.

It's a great performance, a great show, and one of those few fantastic evenings on the town which really can send you home feeling like a blithe spirit dancing on air.


New York Post
04/19/1996

New York Times: "Nathan Lane In Sondheim's Roman Romp"

For whatever reasons, the time seems ripe for a smart, cheeky, buoyant revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and the spiffy new Jerry Zaks production, which opened last night at the St. James Theater, is it.

This brazenly retro Broadway musical, inspired by Plautus, is almost as timeless as comedy itself. Here's a glorious, old-fashioned farce that, with its vintage Stephen Sondheim score and its breathless book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, celebrates everything that man holds least dear but can't deny himself: lust, greed, vanity, ambition; in short, all of those little failings that make man human.

Yet for all of its disguises, mistaken identities, pratfalls and leering jokes, "A Funny Thing" is as sophisticated as anything now on Broadway. In its own lunatic way, it's both wise and rigorously disciplined. Easy sentimentality is nowhere to be found here; in its place: the kind of organized chaos that leads to sheer, extremely contagious high spirits.

"A Funny Thing" should be around for a long time. Or, at least, for as long as the skyrocketing Nathan Lane, his name now in lights above the title, stays on to play the part that made a Broadway star of Zero Mostel in the first production, in 1962. As Pseudolus, a subversive Roman slave, Mr. Lane triumphs, but not alone. He leads an ensemble assault on the manners and morals of ancient Rome (circa 200 B.C.), on today's political correctness and on what passes for good taste in an era when the boundaries between good taste and bad are virtually invisible.

Mr. Sondheim has been quoted as saying that he found this show, the first for which he wrote both the music and lyrics, "very experimental," in that it's "a direct antithesis of the Rodgers and Hammerstein school." "The songs," he said, "could be removed from the show and it wouldn't make any difference," meaning that the book would still make uproarious, low-comedy sense.

That, thank heaven, is a fate we don't have to consider. Mr. Sondheim's score both serves the comedy and provides a sort of commentary on it. From "Comedy Tonight," the rousing anthem that opens the show and provides the finale, "A Funny Thing" is propelled as much by its witty, comically inane love songs and patter songs as by its book. It's only experimental in that farce, as George S. Kaufman once said of satire, "is something that closes on Saturday night." You don't often find it on Broadway anymore.

The Zaks production is big, but it gives the impression of being intimate, which is vital to the success of a farce in which each character is chin-deep in the tangled, misunderstood affairs of everyone else. To the extent that the story can be synopsized, "A Funny Thing" is about the escalating complications that follow Pseudolus's attempt to win his freedom by arranging the elopement of his brainless, virginal young master, Hero, and the equally brainless, still virginal courtesan, Philia. She has been sold but not yet delivered to the army captain Miles (pronounced MEE-less) Gloriosus.

When Miles shows up to claim his bride, Pseudolus's plans to stall the captain are interrupted by the arrival of, first, Hero's lecherous father, Senex, whom Philia mistakes for Miles, then Hero's battle-ax mother, Domina, and finally Erronius, a cheerfully muddled old man who has been off searching for his son and daughter, stolen 20 years before by pirates. Add to these characters: Hysterium, a fearful slave blackmailed by Pseudolus into acting as his accomplice, and Lycus, the pimp who lives next door with Philia and the other courtesans.

In what seems to be no time at all, Pseudolus is masquerading as Lycus, there's a funeral featuring a corpse not really dead and three different Philias are tearing around the stage more or less at the same time. At one point, four separate stories are hanging in the balance, including that of old Erronius. For reasons I can't go into, he's been advised by a soothsayer (Pseudolus) to walk around Rome's seven hills seven times, which he does with game resolve.

All the action takes place in a Roman street in front of three houses through which entrances and exits are made with split-second timing. The set, designed by Tony Walton, sees ancient Rome as it might be visualized in a comic book: everything is slightly bent, like the motives of the people inhabiting the space.

Though Mr. Lane is the focus of the production, he is surrounded by some very good clowns: Lewis J. Stadlen (Senex), Mark Linn-Baker (Hysterium), Ernie Sabella (Lycus) and Mary Testa (Domina, a lovesick cross between Margaret Dumont and Xantippe). Jim Stanek (Hero) and Jessica Boevers (Philia) aren't exactly clowns, but they sing beautifully and remain comically dim throughout.

Mr. Sondheim is being too modest when he suggests that his songs could be removed and nobody would miss them. His music and lyrics are absolutely integral to the evening's fun.

Consider "Impossible," in which Hero and Senex each gloomily suspect that Philia is in love with the other. Or, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" (in which "a menial" rhymes with "congenial"), an enthusiastically bawdy number sung by Pseudolus, Senex, Hysterium and Lycus. Or "Lovely," when Philia happily admits that being lovely is what she does in life. It's funny and sweet when it's first sung and very funny when reprised by Hysterium, who, disguised as Philia, begins to fancy himself in his miraculous transformation.

And what can one say about the show's amazing courtesans? Today's fashion might require that one identify them, possibly, as show women, or maybe showpersons. Though they're trained dancers and do some athletic turns choreographed by Rob Marshall, they also function as -- there's no other term that fits -- showgirls. They are the sort of long, leggy young women Ziegfeld used to dress up his revues by undressing them. It may not be too much to suggest that "A Funny Thing" is making fun of all such sexism while clearly enjoying the spectacle.

Not even the courtesans can upstage Mr. Lane, however. Unlike the legendary Mostel, who delighted audiences by reportedly climbing all over the show and more or less taking it hostage, Mr. Lane succeeds by working with his colleagues. He insinuates himself into the consciousness with a kind of devious, hard-edged innocence. He's as priceless in uncharacteristic repose as when he's cavorting about the stage organizing some new caper or blissfully caught in a courtesan's scissors grip. Coming from "The Birdcage," his first big Hollywood hit, Mr. Lane is welcome back on Broadway where he belongs, at the top of the bill.

In the context of the season's other musicals, "A Funny Thing" looks heaven-sent.


New York Times
04/19/1996

Variety: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"

Drawbridge up, drawbridge down -- Nathan Lane's eyebrows are working overtime in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the season's most anticipated revival, fitted with Broadway's most adorable star. Riding high on the success of "The Birdcage" onscreen, Lane is back in the secure hands of Broadway's master comedy strategist, Jerry Zaks -- they were previously teamed on "Guys and Dolls" and Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor." Together, they will keep the St. James full, or close to it, for the duration of Lane's one-year contract.

Zaks, Lane and company work sweatily to entertain, to make good on the opening number's promise of comedy tonight. No one devises funny stage business of the guilty-laugh sort like Zaks, and there's enough in evidence here to service a handful of shows.

He's an incomparable farceur, Lane his equally incomparable instrument -- witness the actor's miming of the pornographic images on an unseen urn, or floundering under the weight of a warrior's helmet, equally priceless bits.

Written for Phil Silvers, the leading role of the slave Pseudolus eventually went to Zero Mostel (Silvers played it in the 1972 revival), and his partners in jest were David Burns, Jack Gilford, John Carradine and Ron Holgate.

Like them, Lane's cohorts are veteran musical-comedy performers, though of considerably more tender vintage: Mark Linn-Baker as the hyperventilating uber-slave Hysterium; Lewis J. Stadlen as their henpecked master, Senex; Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa to Lane's Timon in "The Lion King") as the whoremonger, Marcus Lycus; and Cris Groenendaal as the vain warrior Miles Gloriosus, the Gaston prototype ("I am my own ideal!").

They are all fine, though the production trades the barely contained comic anarchy of an earlier era for the campiness that has by now become de rigueur.

The casting weaknesses are in the secondary parts: Jessica Boevers, as the virgin Philia, doesn't sing well in a role crying out for a Rachel York, while Jim Stanek as her suitor, Hero, is even more insipid than called for. Mary Testa is stolid and charmless as Hero's battle-ax mother, particularly in her single number, "That Dirty Old Man."

Brad Aspel, Cory English and Ray Roderick are wonderful as the Proteans, and William Duell is touching as poor Erronius, evermore frail and winded as he circles the seven hills of Rome.

Zaks and choreographer Rob Marshall are at their most coldly frenetic with the leggy courtesans, among whom only Stephanie Pope seems to have a sense of humor. Kudos, too, to Paul Gallo for a vibrant lighting scheme, and to Tony Meola for a subtle sound design -- what a treat.

Sondheim has altered some of the lyrics in "Comedy Tonight"-- notably, "Something familiar, something peculiar" has been changed to the timelier, if less elegant, "Something expensive, something offensive"-- and in "Impossible."

And "Pretty Little Picture" has been dropped by Zaks, who felt it slowed down the show.

Speed is certainly no problem here. As Hobe Morrison concluded in his 1962 Variety notice, "'A Funny Thing' hardly rates as an advance for next year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, but it's a lively, entertaining night on the town (and) a probable financial mopup." If the cheering crowds applauding Lane's very entrance are any indication, the same will hold true 34 years later.


Variety
04/18/1996

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