BWW Review: FORUM at Walnut Street Theatre
Roman playwright Plautus (251-183 BC) wrote farces entitled Pseudolus and Miles Gloriosus; coincidentally, two of the characters in the show. This ancient's inspiration became a gold mine for in 1962 for Composer/Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and authors Burt Shrevelove and Larry Gelbart of M^A^S^H fame. The title derives from a line often used by vaudevillian comedians to begin a bit: "a funny thing happened on the way to the theatre".
To my mind this is the funniest musical ever written and this star-studded cast of screwball comedians milks every line and excuse for physical humor to bring us an uproarious "comedy tonight". The lead player Pseudolis (Frank Ferrante) also directs; shall we declare this task herculean?
With so many bits and 'takes", slamming of doors, characters disguising themselves as one another, stunning surprises, cunning disguises, pantaloons and tunics, courtesan and eununchs...well, there's something for everybawdy. Ferrante achieved what few others could, a seamless cascade of laughs from opening to closing curtain.
Of all Sondheim shows, FORUM's language has more inadvertent puns, plays on words, semi-tongue twisters that mirror the confusion of the players. His puns are two-sided words; in fact, verbal dilemmas
In previews in the early '60's the show was not doing well. Legendary Jerome Robbins was brought in to doctor. He had Sondheim write "A Comedy Tonight" as the opener, explicitly telling the audience this was to be a wild and ribald night. Ferrante went further. The lyrics state this will not be a tragedy. To reinforce that, he staged actors in still life portraying tragic scenes; a comic effect that opened the show with an exclamation point.
Some of my favorite lines of Broadway are in FORUM: To henpecked husband Senex (Ron Wisniski) who is carting a marble figure of wife Domina, "carry my bust with pride"! Or the slave Pseudolus to his owner: "I love to grovel". It also has the funniest line declaring Act I concluded.
Director Ferrante borrows physical humor from The 3 Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. That is eminently justifiable as an option when one of the subplots is to render Philia the virgin, (AlAnna Smith) unconscious by employing a potion. Sadly, the only ingredient not readily available is 'mare's sweat'. While I don't know if Smith is a virgin (and probably should not ask), she channels naiveté and sings "Lovely" (eyeroll) quite lovely.
Names mean something in this show and Hysterium (Latin for hysterical) (Scott Greer) is a tornado of dangling participles and nerves. In Act II he dons the garb of Philia and tussles with Pseudolus in a comic routine straight out of the Marx Brothers. His solo, "I'm Calm", is frenetic and in direct counterpoint to his character.
'Everybody Ought To Have a Maid' with Senex, Hysterium, Psuedolos and Lycus was a highlight. The song pauses, goes on for another chorus and then repeats that again and again and again.
Domina (Mary Martello) evidently glories in being a shrew. Even her husband hates her. In fact, he heads the list.
Miles Gloriosus (Nichalas L. Parker) has a bellowing baritone as large as his stride, "I take big steps!!"
Costumes by Mary Folino and sets by Robert Andrew Kovach were period-spectacular. Hysterium's hair style and granny glasses gave one pause in the reality department, but a minor issue.
Through October 22. WalnutStreetTheatre.org 800.982.2787
Next up. ANNIE. November 7