- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

If your brand of humor tends to be of the baggy toga variety and you find the banana (and, naturally, its peel) a bottomless source of merriment, then Signature Theatre’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is right up your agora.

Under the burlesque-brassy direction of Gary Griffin, the 1962 Stephen Sondheim musical is rousing and rowdy and staged and performed with a comedic sense as warm as the Etruscan sun. And while the cast performs the material with a nudge and a wink, it is mercifully free of the cynicism and irony pervading Mr. Sondheim’s other show in town, the cruel musical about failure, “Bounce.”

This is low-brow musical comedy at its most irrepressible. Certainly, the physical humor and sexual double entendres have been around since the beginning of time, but Mr. Griffin brings such joy and freshness to the task of making classic material new again that you can’t help but get caught up in the goofy momentum.

Who can resist such nutty comic touches as tap-dancing Roman soldiers, a (literally) running gag involving an old man (Stephen Cupo) and the seven hills of Rome, and door knockers that would make Martha Stewart blush? The knockers are just one aspect of Lou Stancari’s set, which zanily skews Roman architecture.

“Forum” is basically an excuse for a group of gifted comedians to extract the most juice out of the Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart book and Mr. Sondheim’s wittily base lyrics. The original Broadway cast included Zero Mostel as Pseudolus, the slave, as well as graceful funnyman Jack Gifford, while Nathan Lane starred in the 1996 revival.

Signature’s orchestra, led by Jon Kalbfleisch, makes the most out of Mr. Sondheim’s delicious score, emphasizing the brass and the vaudevillian sass.

The musical centers on Pseudolus (comic master Floyd King), a Roman slave who wants freedom in the worst way. Mr. King’s cornflower blue eyes grow wide as a toddler’s when he pronounces the title of the song “Free,” and you can imagine that the word tastes like candy, Christmas morning and diamonds in his mouth.

His masters — the henpecked Senex (Harry A. Winter) and his wife, Domina (Donna Migliaccio) — like things the way they are, but when their son, hormone-crazed Hero (Sean MacLaughlin), falls for the courtesan next door (Philia, played with milkmaid dewiness by Lauren Williams), Pseudolus sees his opportunity for liberation.

If Pseudolus can just deliver fair Philia into Hero’s arms, freedom is his — but Philia has been sold to Miles Gloriosus (Christopher Flint), a Roman centurion so extravagantly brawny and bold he makes Russell Crowe’s character in “Gladiator” seem like a eunuch.

The rest of the difficulties involve the stuff of timeless comedy — mistaken identity, men in women’s clothes, double takes, and characters who arrive too early or late.

Of course “Forum” would be merely “Benny Hill” in bedsheets and sandals without a great Pseudolus. And Floyd King, despite a froggy and hoarse singing voice on opening night, played the wily slave with cheek and style. A shameless — and artful — physical clown, he turns a simple walk into a delightfully nimble little dance, and when he demonstrates the erotic poses on a Roman bowl, you are helpless with laughter.

Mr. King’s Pseudolus is a broad character, but not a silly one. There is something touching and uncloyingly sweet about Mr. King’s portrayal of a man who yearns to be a citizen.

Intelligence informs the laughs, and that makes all the difference.

Those who prefer their comedy without a blue tint might be offended by “Forum’s” bawdy sexual humor — the set’s marble busts are, well, busty, and many of the jokes revolve around the courtesans working for Lycus (Christopher Bloch). If you think the gimmicky strippers in “Gypsy” are fun, wait until you get a leer at Tintinabula (the belly-dancing Tryphena Wade), the snake-charming Panacea (Kara-Tameika Watkins), the loving sisters Geminae (Amanda Johnson and Tammy Roberts), the jungle cat Vibrata (Kristi Ambrosetti) and Gymnasia (Sandra L. Murphy), a zaftig dominatrix Pseudolus is ga-ga over.

On the surface, “Forum” may seem like a crude trifle, but the antics are done with the smarts and style that raise shtick to the level of art.

***

WHAT: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” by Stephen Sondheim

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 14.

TICKETS: $28 to $42

PHONE: 703/218-6500

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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