BWW Reviews: FORUM Proves A Timely - And Timeless - Season Offering at The Keeton Theatre

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Silly, fun and farcical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a delightful musical theater diversion, certain to entertain and delight. Brought to the stage in a Keeton Theatre production directed by Kate Adams, with music direction by Ginger Newman, the Stephen Sondheim- Burt Shevelove-Larry Gelbart confection packs as much of a laugh-filled wallop in 2012 as it did when it first premiered on Broadway almost 50 years ago, proving that a well-written and conceived show just never grows old.

With a score that’s filled with musical theater hits—“Comedy Tonight,” “Love I Hear,” “Free” and “Everybody Ought to Have A Maid” top the list—and classic comic characters who deliver some of the funniest one-liners (even the ones that are groaningly bad—but in a good way!) you’re going to hear in the theater, you’d expect companies to be lining up to present their own versions of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, as often as they’re throwing a curly red wig on a kid and calling her Annie or sending in the Nazis to ferret out a band of singing Austrian tots.

But somehow the theatrical gods have conspired to ensure that when the show is put up (wherever that may be) it is a welcome addition to anyone’s theater-going schedule. In fact, you tend to forget just how great the show can really be until you’re sitting there in the dark, chuckling knowingly, wincing at the bad puns and singing along with the enduring showtunes that set the piece apart from many of the traditional musical theater chestnuts that are offered up season after season.

While the show has had numerous Broadway revivals and it has proven to be a staple in the repertoires of regional and community theater groups, …Forum isn’t produced so often that you noticeably cringe at the mention of its name. Instead, you’re fairly certain a good time is in store and, if you’re really lucky, you’ll be treated to a production that will knock your socks off.

With the production now onstage at The Larry Keeton Theatre, you’ll find yourself somewhere in the middle of those two extremes as Adams, Newman and company manage to find a happy medium, delivering a production that is at times a sheer delight, at others only amusing—but, perhaps most importantly, they provide you with a whole lot of fun, delivered by a skilled cast and crew determined to make the most of their time in the comedic spotlight.

Certainly, “Comedy Tonight” has to be one of the theater’s most engaging opening numbers: It sets up the play’s whole premise, introduces the band of merrymakers and celebrates everything that a good musical comedy is all about. You can’t help but find yourself eagerly anticipating what is to follow: Sondheim’s winning melodies and clever lyrics, the crackling wit of Shevelove and Gelbart’s deliciously pun-heavy book and some strong comic turns by local actors you’ve come to love and respect over the years.

RandAl Cooper leads this particular off-kilter band of mischief-makers in the central role of Pseudolus, the Roman slave who hungers for his freedom and who is given the chance to win his release from a lifetime of servitude if only he can help his master win the love of a comely young courtesan who happens to live next door. Cooper gives a strong performance as Pseudolus, with a focus made all the more winning by his gorgeous voice—in fact, it may well be his voice that truly sets his portrayal apart; we’ve never heard a better-voiced Pseudolus.

Cooper is paired with J.T. Landry, who very nearly steals the show as the anything-but-calm Hysterium, the riotously funny slave-in-chief in the home of Roman senator Senex (played to the hilt with stentorian bluster by Scott Stewart), his wife, Domina (the gorgeous Cat Arnold is the harridan in flowing white robes) and their son Hero (the honey-voiced Jonathan Perry, who proves himself once again an actor of tremendous versatility).

Hero’s heart is all aflutter with the initial pangs of true love for the courtesan Philia (Tara LaHue) who toils in the employ of Marcus Lycus (Michael Rex), a “procurer of women” who has sold the virgin to the towering and imposing Roman military hero Miles Gloriosus (David Arnold ably struts about with macho zeal and its requisite over-confidence in his wonderfully showy take on the role) thus inciting all the wicked and wacky goings-on in the neighborhood as Pseudolus struggles to win Philia over to his master in order to gain his own freedom.

There’s a certain sense of outrageousness (there are slamming doors, mistaken identities and crossdressing men aplenty—the stock of farce—to be found on that tiny little stage at The Keeton) to the action that unfolds during the show’s two-and-a-half hours of fun and frivolity and it moves along at a sprightly pace most of the time, although there were some dropped cues and delayed entrances that tended to slow down the plot’s progression at the performance reviewed.

Still, you have to give the company (which includes Leonard Goodwin as Erronius, the elderly neighbor whose offspring were stolen by pirates years before; Marcus Lycus’ sexy band of courtesans; and “The Proteans,” four chorus members who take up the slack when there are other characters needed in the piece, including soldiers, eunuchs and such) credit for their commitment to having fun and providing their audience with a good time (even if said audience was somewhat unresponsive during the play’s early-going, perhaps because of the carb-heavy dinner served in the hour before curtain—by Act Two,  however, their energy level was decidedly of the up variety).

Adams’ direction helps propel the action forward, while providing the necessary stylistic treatment of the piece that enables the show to zing in its zestful, if sometimes meandering, way. Newman’s musical direction is, as always, superb and her four musicians bring the score to life with a confident panache.

Laura Higgins and Cat Arnold (yep, the very same one who plays Domina with such ferocity) team up to deliver some gorgeous costumes for their bevy of memorable characters, while Robert Allen’s colorful and imaginative set design (when you see the show, be sure to take special notice of the “columns” that support the roofs on the verandas of Messrs. Senex and Lycus—clearly, they are not of the Corinthian or Ionic variety) provides a great backdrop for the hilarious hijinks. Kudos are also in store for lighting designer Kelly Landry and sound designer Darin Richardson for their contributions to the show’s success.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Directed by Kate Adams. Music direction by Ginger Newman. Presented by The Larry Keeton Theatre, Donelson. Through June 23. For details, go to www.thelarrykeetontheatre.com. For reservations, call (615) 883-8375 or go to www.ticketsnashville.com.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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