The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 21, 1996

Review: Theater
A Funny Thing is Happening on Broadway Again
by Clifford A. Ridley, Inquirer Theater Critic

NEW YORK - Can it really be 34 years since Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim cobbled together some 2,000-year-old plots by Plautus, decked them out in the world views of burlesque and the Marx Brothers, and gave the world A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum?

It scarcely seems that long, perhaps because there was something out of time about the madcap musical farce that starred Zero Mostel as Pseudolus, the Roman slave who wins his freedom by uniting two empty-headed young lovers.  Although they continue to speak to us today, such musicals as Showboat, Carousel and Company nonetheless resonate in historical contexts; each is a recognizable product of its age.  But Forum was sui generis; it had no predecessors and spawned no imitations.  It didn't have to be created in 1962; it just was.

And in Zero Mostel, it had a star of such overwhelming presence that he remains remarkably fresh in memory.  This may account for the fact that while Forum is often reprised by amateur and semipro companies, its only Broadway revival was a 1972 production starring Phil Silvers; for whom the Pseudolus role was originally written -- and who, unwisely, turned it down.

As musical comedy gave way to musical theater, with its emphasis on ensemble and concept, the form developed few stars who could stand up to the recollection of Mostel chewing up a part that allowed him to do just about anything -- which, to the dismay of the creators, he often did.

But now there is Nathan Lane, who stars in the revival that opened Thursday at the St. James Theater.  And there is director Jerry Zaks, ou age's closest equivalent to the man who staged the original (with some crucial help from Jerome Robbins), George Abbott.  Abetted by such dab hands as designer Tony Walton, choreographer Rob Marshall, and a splendid supporting cast headed by Mark Linn-Baker and Lewis J. Stadlen, Lane and Zaks have brought forth a sunny, airy Forum, a bawdy romp through an old Roman courtyard peopled with lovers and lechers, courtesans and warriors, each more addled than the next.

The plot?  Don't ask.  Devised by Shevelove and Gelbart, it twists and turns in a series of scenes that, under Zak's direction, succeed one another with dizzying speed.  At its climax, no fewer than three damsels in white chiffon (one of whom is Linn-Baker in drag) chase and are chased through and around the three slightly askew houses on Walton's witty set.  (And when was the last time you saw a single-set musical?)  It's all perfectly worked out, and in fact Forum is less a musical than a play with music, one that probably could get by just fine had composer-lyricist Sondheim never joined the project.

But mayhem can use a break now and then, and Sondheim has obliged the score that includes the witty opener "Comedy Tonight" (which Zaks has punctuated with the most elaborate sight gag I've ever seen), the breezy "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," and the sublimely dopey ballad "Lovely."  All in all, to be frank, it's not one of Sondheim's more memorable efforts -- especially after the intermission, when the show as a whole seems in rather unseemly haste to wrap things up.  But any score that includes the lyric "I pine, I blush, I squeak, I squawk;  / Today I woke too weak to walk" is not to be taken lightly.

As for Nathan Lane, he's as engaging as Pseudolus as you doubtless imagine.  He hasn't Mostel's performing-elephant physicality, but he has the buoyant elasticity of the classic clowns (watch his extended pratfall in the second act, when he collapses under the weight of a soldier's enormous headdress) as well as a persona that revels in personal humiliation and plain old silliness.  When he disguises himself as a soothsayer, you may not know why he proceeds to affect a lisp.  But if you can restrain yourself with he declares, "I am about to thay the thooth," you have more self-control than I.

He is, in short, quite irresistible.  So is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.