Rome If You Want To
The thespians at the Alley Theatre are known for tackling the radiant poetry of Shakespeare, the domestic psychosexual shenanigans of Edward Albee and the linguistic gymnastics of Tom Stoppard. But a Broadway musical? Yes, they're taking on the 1962 Tony Award-winning A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (by Stephen Sondheim, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove), serving up this classic comedy with madcap delight. The only purpose of the show is to entertain and make us laugh, and it succeeds wildly.
Inspired by the first-century-BC "vulgar" Roman comedies of Plautus, the book, which was written by hardened Broadway veterans Gelbart and Shevelove, has about as much to do with its original source as Little Caesar's pizza has to do with ancient Roman cuisine. But Plautus's basic rules of comedy are evident: the scheming underdog, the lecherous husband, the shrewish wife, the virginal hero and heroine, the pompous soldier, the disguises, the improbable twisting plot, the chases.
The comic traditions that Forum truly glorifies are those of burlesque and the Catskills. This wonderful show is the authors' homage to Borscht Belt vaudeville, low-comedy shtick, rubber chickens and bad drag. The silly, convoluted plot is inconsequential -- it's only there to hang gags and songs on. This production is really about showgirls in skimpy costumes, cheap sets, sex jokes and ad-libs. And in the loving hands of the Alley artists, this low comedy is raised high indeed.
This was Sondheim's first solo venture and his sunniest score, simple and pure. His lyrics are always his strong suit, and Forum's songs are refreshingly breezy and light. Even the bump-and-grind incidental music for the teasing courtesans is more comic than provocative.
The role of Pseudolus, the clever slave who wins his freedom, will always be associated with its originator, Zero Mostel. But here it's brought to joyous, raunchy life by John Tyson. Sporting a slave collar inscribed "Slavus Defectus," he has a ball mugging, singing and prancing like he just stepped out of Minsky's music hall. His impression of erotic pottery figures, complete with sound effects, is gloriously lowbrow. And his shameless glee is so infectious that one of his ad-libs broke up his co-actors. Tyson's performance sets the pace for the others.
Jeffrey Bean's manic Hysterium, the household's domestic slave, is, in a word, hysterical. Sporting a collar of his own that reads "Slavus Perfectus," he lives to serve. When Pseudolus's plans go awry, Bean contorts his rubbery face into countless expressions of desperation and panic, with his body following, slightly out of sync. His hilarious transformation from frump to "Lovely," right before our eyes, is a magic act worthy of Houdini.
As the lecherous, maid-chasing Senex, consummate pro Charles Krohn knows every trick in the book to get the audience to eat out of his hand. His entrance is eagerly awaited by an entire theater full of open mouths. Veteran James Belcher, as father Erronius, who's been tricked by Pseudolus into walking around Rome seven times, gets laughs just by crossing the stage. And Jennie Welch is funny as the scold of a wife in armored bra and towering coiffure, wailing "Dirty Old Man" while manhandling poor Hysterium.
Paul Hope plays pompous warrior Miles Gloriosus, costumed like a Circus Maximus parade float in crocodile shoulder pads and platinum spit curls. He commands the stage, singing "Bring Me My Bride" while being pawed by those luscious showgirls. And his little squeak of vertigo while shouting orders from the balcony is a delight.
If there's such a thing as a Bronx porno king gone bad, then James Black, as Rome's most profitable pimp, Marcus Lycus, is that poster boy. It's an idiosyncratic performance, to be sure -- he sports a dyed jet-black wig, purple multicolor tunic and gold wedgies and growls his lines in a raspy basso profundo -- but it works. When he joins Tyson, Bean and Krohn in the play's most memorable number, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," the quartet stops the show.
Todd Waite makes a perfect love-besotted Hero, all wide-eyed and knock-kneed. Philia, the object of his affections, is played by Elizabeth Heflin, a prodigious actor and one of the Alley's crown jewels. She plays dumb beautifully and looks the part; with her hair, skin and gown all virginal white, she fairly glows on stage. But Heflin's a wispy singer -- if she were in the Coliseum, she couldn't carry a tune from seat IV to seat V.
Vincent Mountain's scenic design has the requisite sketchy look of a cartoon, in deference to the colorful fantasy costumes by Constance Hoffman. Choreographer Michael Tapley cleverly fits his dances to the company's abilities and makes them look like they've been hoofing all their lives. And Forum's energy and laughs never flag, thanks to director Gregory Boyd, who keeps this classic musical pinball machine in constant motion.
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