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                          A Funny Thing Happened

                          On the Way to the Forum

                                                       Porchlight Musical Theatre

                                                                     by Dan Zeff

Chicago– One of the pleasures of playgoing is attending a really good revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” In the proper hands the musical is funny and clever and deftly handles Stephen Sondheim’s delicious lyrics. And so it is with the hoot of a staging by the Porchlight company.

“Forum” blends the conventions of ancient Roman comedy with the shtick and genial vulgarity of American burlesque. The story is a wacky account of how a Roman slave named Pseudolus connives his way to winning his freedom by bringing two young lovers together. The story is nonsense, but it is intricately organized nonsense, demanding the precision of a high grade farce in delivering its warp speed knockabout humor. The show requires a dozen quality performances, led by the actor who plays Pseudolus (the role that cemented Zero Mostel as a Broadway superstar), and the sharpest of directing.
The characters are all stock figures from Roman comedy, like the battle-ax wife, the henpecked husband, the blowhard army officer, the simpering heroine, fussy eunuchs, and courtesans with suggestive names like Tintinabula, Panacea, Vibrata, and Gymnasia. The plot wallows in mistaken identities, confusions, and endless high speed dithering in which characters just miss embarrassing meetings by a nanosecond as they dash in and out of doorways and alleys.

Photo Credit: Anthony La Penna

Thanks to Sondheim (in his first show composing both words and music) and book writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, “Forum” remains continuously buoyant, never (well, almost never) descending into inanity and silliness. The show may deal in the broadest of comedy, but it’s a very savvy and sophisticated work and it makes enormous demands on the performers, especially their stamina. The show has a high-speed motor that sweeps the viewer along with its raunchy humor and sharp as a tack score.

The Sondheim score may not offer any hit songs but the spectator who pays close attention to the wordplay in such numbers as “Comedy Tonight,” “Free,” “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” and “Impossible” will be treated to the verbal dexterity and wit that would make the composer the nonpareil of musical comedy poets in our time.

The Porchlight goes a long way toward success by casting Bill Larkin as Pseudolus. Larkin, who bears a remarkable facial resemblance to Don Rickles, is the show’s engine, a whirling dervish of energy as his character manipulates and improvises the other characters into the inevitable bundle of happy endings.

Larkin gets plenty of help from the 16-member supporting cast, starting with Lorenzo Rush, Jr., as Lycus, operator of a high class brothel in the town. Rush, who is built like a Chicago Bears nose tackle, has a commanding comic presence and a potent singing voice.

Will Clinger and Caron Buinis play the browbeaten elderly husband Senex and his harridan wife Domina. Senex is turned loose among the courtesans like a little boy starved of sweets who finds himself in a candy store, and Domina is the sourpuss who is suspicious of her husband’s fidelity and plenty randy herself. They both sing well and even better, act with spot-on comic flair.

Miles Blim plays the young lover Hero like a gawky teenager and Sarah Lynn Robinson is the innocent virgin Philia who is the object of Hero’s romantic passion. Robinson is a real stunner and Blim’s Hero can count himself very lucky to win the affection of such a potential sexpot. They make kind of an odd couple on the Porchlight stage but in the never-never land of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” anything is possible, just so it offers opportunities for double entendre dialogue.

The honor roll of fine supporting performances continues with Matt Crowle as Pseudolus’s fellow slave Hysterium, Greg Zawada as the blowhard army captain Miles Gloriosus, and Anthony Whitaker in a particularly fetching comic performance as a Roman citizen who appears late in the show as the key to unraveling all the narrative mayhem. The chorus consists of Jason Grimm, Andrew Lund, and Jaymes Osborne, who flit from role to role with impressive quick change skill, in one scene a trio of eunuchs and in others as Roman foot soldiers or slaves.

Photo Credit: Anthony La Penna

The show is acted out on a small playing area dominated by the facades of three bi-level connecting houses on a Roman street effectively designed by Megan Truscott. Alexia Rutherford designed the vast wardrobe of pseudo Roman costumes, including the sexy outfits modeled with considerable erotic effect by the four nimble courtesans, played as delectable eye candy by Ariana Cappuccitti, Erica Evans, Britt-Marie Siversten, and Neala Barron. Robert Hornbostel designed the sound and Becca Jeffords the lighting. Brenda Didier choreographed the dances that complement the songs neatly. Linda Maldonia leads the serviceable six-piece off stage orchestra.

Director Michael Weber earns the highest praise for orchestrating the production with so much pace and visual flair, and occasionally, sly wit. Weber’s triumph is best exemplified by a late scene in which virtually every character is turned loose to dash around the stage as the narrative pulsates to its joyous conclusion. The scene, which goes on for several minutes, is a marvel of synchronized timing that leaps from giggle to giggle without once flagging in comic invention. The scene demonstrates that Weber is a master of that most difficult of dramatic forms, the farce. It would be a pleasure to see him at the helm of a revival of “Charley’s Aunt” or “Noises Off.”

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” runs through May 24 at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Most performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 773 327 5252 or visit porchlightmusicaltheatre.org.

       The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.            April 2015

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