Time Magazine
April 29, 1996

They Do Make 'Em Like That
Two stylish revivals - of the farcical A Funny Thing and the
King and I - show Broadway can live up to its past

By Richard Corliss

Something familiar, something to fool ya, something for everyone: the musical is back.  In the next three week (sic) Broadway will welcome three new ones: the Pulitzer-prize winning Rent, the movie-based Big and the tap-a-thon Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk.  Meanwhile, there's a pair of revivals -- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The King and I -- to prove Broadway can still dance, sing, touch the heart and crack the best old jokes.

The two revivals are indeed something familiar: Rodgers and Hammerstein's King opened in 1951, Stephen Sondheim's Forum in 1962; both works were made into popular films and have been previously exhumed on Broadway.  So why revive these now classic shows?

Christopher Renshaw, the British director of The King and I, had a daring idea: not to revamp the story of Anna Leonowens, an English governess who waged a war of wills with the King of Siam, but to underline the convulsive drama at the story's core.  As played by Donna Murphy (steely presence, gorgeous voice) and Lou Diamond Phillips (who eventually shrugs off the shroud of Yul Brynner), Anna and the King are each emotionally isolated -- she as a widow and a foreigner, he as a man bred to believe his own infallibility.  When they finally, lightly touch in the majestic Shall We Dance? polka, it has the thrilling impact of two worlds colliding in harmony.

In their soaring melodies and plummy platitudes, R. & H. songs are secular hymns -- liturgical music for American mid-century.  Sometimes, as in State Fair (originally written for Hollywood, now on view in a tatty theatrical version notable only as a showcase for Broadway's snazziest dance, Scott Wise), the score is so wholesome that it practically cleans your teeth and does your homework while you hear it.  But The King and I  is smarter stuff, with perfect Rodgers ballads like Something Wonderful, beautifully sung here by the largely Asian cast.

In a revival, you come in humming the score.  Sondheim's famous opening tune for Forum - Comedy Tonight - is brilliantly refreshed by director Jerry Zaks into a circus of Technicolor bawdry.   He parades all the fine, low comedians and, for a hilarious moment, some tragedians too.  Like Zak's revival of Guys and Dolls, this Forum is a celebration of shtick.  If a gag was ever funny, from Plautus' time to ours, he'll spit on it and spin it until you have to laugh unashamedly.

Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart called their script "a scenario for vaudevillians."  Zak's triumph is to pay homage to the days of Yiddish slapstick while using actors too young to have played in the Catskills.  Luckily, he has Nathan Lane as Pseudolus, the role created by Zero Mostel.  Though only 40 and only Irish, Lane is the mystic repository of the ancients' physical gag bag.  A double take is concrete poetry when he does it, and a pratfall a pliť.  He also elevates some of his more plebian colleagues.  Mark Linn-Baker, no natural farceur, is at first uneasy as the fluttery Hysterium.  But when he gets into dead-virgin drag and Lane sings a mock-passionate "You're lovely,"  Forum reaches its Seven Hills Peak.

The Birdcage has made Lane a movie star, but Forum shows his true home is the stage.  On his shoulders -- so eloquent in a shrug or a shudder -- he carries this burly romp, and a good share of Broadway's hopes for a year worth singing about.