What a difference a director, a cast, and an orchestra can make! The Reprise! Theatre Company production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is the third I’ve reviewed in less than two years, and though numbers one and two were each excellent in their own way, David Lee’s direction, an all-Equity cast, and a 22-piece orchestra elevate this Forum to a whole new level of brilliance.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum takes us back to the good old days of Ancient Rome circa 200 BC, where three families go about living their lives as next-door neighbors. In the center house resides middle-aged Senex (Ron Orbach), husband to a battleaxe named Domina (Ruth Williamson) and father to a handsome lad named Hero (Erich Bergen). Slaving away for the Senexes are slave duo Pseudolis (Lee Wilkof) and the appropriately dubbed Hysterium (Larry Raben). To their right lives Marcus Lycus (Michael Kostroff), a well-to-do businessman who deals in the buying and selling of beautiful ladies of pleasure. To the left lives Erronius (Alan Mandell), an elderly gentleman whose infant children were long ago stolen by pirates.  (See if you can guess which two characters will turn out to be Erronius’s long-lost twins.)

With Senex and Domina out of town, Hero confides to Pseudolis his love for Philia (Annie Abrams), the most beauteous (and virginal) of Marcus Lycus’s courtesans.  Unfortunately for Hero, Philia’s owner has already promised her to the always victorious Captain Miles Gloriosus (Stuart Ambrose), on his way back from battle to claim his bride-to-be. It’s up to Pseudolis to come up with a plan to insure his young owner’s happiness and his own freedom. As you might imagine, there will be complications aplenty on the road to liberty and bliss.

Among the Sondheim songs which make Forum such a treat are “Comedy Tonight,” “Lovely,” “Pretty Little Picture,” and “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid,” each of which belies the composer’s reputation for “tunelessness.”  Forum may well be Sondheim’s most hummable score ever. Add to that Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s Tony-winning book, which hasn’t aged a day since 1962, and you’ve got a musical that even Sondheim haters will love.  


Director Lee, fresh from his brilliantly reconceived Camelot at the Pasadena Playhouse, makes sure to start Forum off with a big big bang.  “Comedy Tonight,” the show’s signature number, becomes a tour-de-force show in and of itself, with the marvelous Wilkof singing Sondheim’s clever lyrics (“Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone: a comedy tonight!”) as The Proteans, the comedically gifted Matthew Patrick Davis, Russ Marchand, and Justin Michael Wilcox, reenact the musical’s three back stories, including the abduction by pirates of Erronius’s long-lost children, complete with sight gags galore.

The tall, extra tall, and extra extra tall Wilcox, Marchand, and Davis return again and again throughout the evening as slaves, citizens, soldiers, eunuchs, and other assorted characters, and they are brilliant.

So too is everyone else in the cast, beginning with the sensational Wilkof, who per Lee’s instructions portrays Pseudolis sans adlibs, the better to spotlight the comic genius of book writers Shevelove and Gelbart.  Orbach and Kostroff, who have both played Pseudolis in the past, get to sink their comedic teeth into different roles this time and needless to say, neither one misses a laugh. Bergen, who turned the L.A. production of Jersey Boys into the Bob Gaudio story, brings Hero to life (and sings “Love, I Hear”) with a purity and sweetness that makes his latest performance yet another gem. Raben is, in a word, hysterical as Hysterium, and his very un-calm rendition of “I’m Calm” is a side-splitting treat.  Abrams is loveliness personified as Philia, as is her duet of “Lovely” with Bergen.  Ambrose spoofs his macho leading man persona as the hilariously vainglorious Miles Gloriosus. Energetic Ovation-winning octogenarian Mandell milks every one of his moments as Erronius, and gets laughs and applause simply by saying “First time around” (and later  “Second time around”).

Marcus Lycus’s stable of courtesans have doubtless never been more brilliantly (and freshly) portrayed as they are here.  Meg Gillentine jingles and jangles with erotic pizzazz as Tintinabula. Mercy Malick bends her limber body into seemingly physically impossible contortions as Panacea.  The perfectly matched Bradley Benjamin and Candy Olsen execute perfectly matched moves as The Geminae. Tonya Kay cracks a dangerous whip as Vibrata.  Laura Keller is statuesque perfection as Gymnasia.  Together, they are as gorgeous, sexy, and talented a stable as has ever graced a Forum stage.

Finally, there is the magnificent Williamson as the imperious Domina, who not only gets Domina’s signature Act Two complaint “That Dirty Old Man,” but finds her part doubled in size by the reinstatement of a little-heard song from the 1972 Broadway revival, Act One’s “Farewell,” and if you think “Farewell” means “Goodbye,” wait till you hear the phenomenal Williamson sing “Farewell” with no intention whatsoever of saying “Goodbye.”

Peggy Hickey scores top marks for her inventive choreography.  Bradley Kaye’s scenic design has a great Disney cartoon look besides allowing peeks at the upstage orchestra. Kate Bergh’s costumes are gorgeously imaginative.  Jared A. Sayeg’s splendid lighting makes set and costumes look all the more colorful. Then there’s that orchestra, that huge orchestra, under the pitch-perfect musical direction of Steve Orich, sounding bigger and better than just about any Broadway or National Tour orchestra I’ve ever heard. Sound designer Phillip G. Allen oh so skillfully mixes twenty-two musicians with the voices of the eighteen-member cast.  Jill Gold serves as production stage manager.

It’s been two years since I’ve reviewed a show at Reprise! and it felt good to be back, especially for a production as all-around sensational as this one, put together in a mind-blowingly short less than two weeks’ rehearsal. Only pros like those onstage are capable of such brilliance under such time pressure. 

Reprise!’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum gives you not just something aesthetic, not just something frenetic, not just something for everyone, a comedy tonight.  What this very Funny Forum offers is a smashing, stupendous, splendiferous comedy tonight. 

Freud Playhouse, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, UCLA Campus, Los Angeles. 

–Steven Stanley
March 20, 2010

                                                                                                         Photos: John Ganun

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