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Review - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

With a solidly funny book by Larry Gelbart and Bert Shevelove and a clever, under-appreciated score by Stephen Sondheim (It remains Broadway's only Best Musical Tony-winner with eligible music and lyrics that were not even nominated for Best Score.), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is one of the more dependable titles of musical theatre's standard repertoire.

Based on the low comedy plays of ancient Roman Plautus, translated into the vernacular of American burlesque and vaudeville and punctuated with highbrow relief via liberal arts school lyrics (A song about leering at a housemaid includes rhymes like, "Think of her at the dust bin, 'specially when she's just been traipsing about."), Forum, when its stock characters and vintage routines are played faithfully, is almost a guaranteed fun night for high school and community theatre productions.

But a professional production of the show has got to be a laugh riot. And while director Mark Waldrop's Paper Mill Playhouse production is well-staged with a very funny cast, a vital ingredient was missing on opening night.

From the opening vamp of its classic opener, "Comedy Tonight," through all the twists and turns of the wacky plot involving mistaken identities, unexpected arrivals and tantalizing showgirls, Forum is dominated by its leading role of Pseudolus; a crafty and quick-thinking slave who is promised freedom by his young, lovesick master if he can find a way to help him run off with the beautiful young virgin courtesan who lives in the brothel next door before the arrival of a ruthless warrior who has purchased her to be his bride. The part was written for the great Broadway clown Phil Silvers, who misjudged the show's potential at first and turned it down, allowing Zero Mostel to nab a Tony as the role's originator. Silvers was eventually awarded a Tony of his own for the first Broadway revival and Nathan Lane took the prize for the second. While these three stars were of different styles - Silvers coming from burlesque, Mostel a borscht belt comedian and Lane from musical comedy - what they each gave the role was a commanding central force that guided the comic antics, translated for the plot as Pseudolus' determination to take control of every misguided moment in an effort to gain his freedom by any means necessary.

Paul C. Vogt, a genial comic best known for his work on MADtv, offers a Pseudolus with a sunny smile and a knack for silliness, but nothing in the way of the brio necessary to propel the evening. As is traditional with the role, Vogt adds several of his own gags, and they are quite funny, but he rushes through many of his scripted lines and sings tentatively, sounding short of breath during the trickily-worded, "Pretty Little Picture."

The rest of the company is spot-on. Greg Vinkler as the henpecked husband, Beth McVey as his domineering wife, Justin Bowen as their smitten son, Stephen Berger as the slimy procurer, Chet Carlin as the doddering old man and the richly-voiced Stephen J. Buntrock as the braggart warrior are frequently hilarious as their stock characters.

Two roles are played with a slightly contemporary feel; John Scherer's wonderfully jittery slave-in-chief, Hysterium, has a fun side of nerdiness and Chelsea Krombach plays the innocence of the virginal Philia with a dry layer of knowingness. Her reaction when her lover sings a lyric comparing her to Venus, a moment not in the script, is one of the biggest laughs of the night.

Scenic designer Ray Klausen's Pen and ink depiction of a Roman street and Matthew Hemesath's brightly colored costumes set the show in a lively comic strip atmosphere. In fact, there's so much that's right about this production, I wouldn't be surprised if what wasn't quite working on opening night is now well on its way to being corrected.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson: Top: Justin Bowen, Paul C. Vogt and Chelsea Krombach; Bottom: Paul C. Vogt and Company.

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No, dear playgoers, the fact that you've ventured into an unmarked building on a dark SoHo street, walked down a long hallway draped in red and are now in an open loft sitting mere inches away from a young couple enthusiastically going at it in a standing position up against one of the building's pillars does not mean that you've accidentally wandered into a sex club that somehow survived the ax of Giuliani. You've just found yourself at Transport Group's marvelously mounted staging of Michael John LaChiusa's tensely erotic musical drama, Hello Again.

As with the company's previous production of The Boys In The Band, where audience members observed the action while seated in what looked like an actual midtown apartment, director Jack Cummings III's clever environmental concept enhances the piece, rather than competing with it. Don't let the large bed prominently displayed in the center of the room fool you. Lusty liaisons - there are ten of them in the show - are also likely to take place atop the sturdy round tables where patrons are seated.

But it's all in the name of love; in all its cruel, destructive and self-delusional glory. LaChiusa's chamber musical, inspired from Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 play La Ronde, links a chain of sexual encounters among characters labeled simply as "The Husband," "The Actress," "The Writer," etc.

It begins in the 1900s with an encounter between a lonely whore (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) who is seeking something more tender than cash and a soldier (Max Von Essen) with nothing on his mind but some fast entertainment. When their moment is through we follow the soldier to his wartime one-nighter with a nice girl nurse (Elizabeth Stanley) and then to the nurse's unusual dalliance with a college boy (Robert Lenzi). The chain is finally linked closed when a senator (Alan Campbell) takes up with the whore.

While sex, in assorted variations, is amply on display, so are emotional longings that tear at the heart. Scenes match manipulation and deceit against passion and a need for meaningful human connection; achieved by LaChiusa with pathos and humor. Unlike Schnitzler, he sets each scene, non-sequentially, in a different decade of the 20th Century, allowing his music to shift from jazz to blues to disco and beyond, but the primary mood comes in light, conversational and subtextual scoring played by a six-piece ensemble of piano, strings, reeds and percussion.

The fine ensemble also includes Alexandra Silber, Bob Stillman, Blake Daniel, Jonathan Hammond and Rachel Bay Jones, each contributing thoughtful portrayals to this beautifully intimate piece.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Alan Campbell and Nikka Graff Lanzarone; Bottom: Robert Lenzi and Elizabeth Stanley.

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From This Author Ben Peltz