Review: ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ at the Walnut Street Theatre

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Want to make one of the zaniest shows of all time even zanier? Just add Frank Ferrante.

Frank Ferrante. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Frank Ferrante. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ferrante has directed the Walnut’s new production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and he’s also playing the leading role. Ferrante has suffused the show with his anything-for-a-laugh style, giving it a big dose of side-splitting vitality.

Mind you, Forum didn’t need any improvement. The book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart is one of the funniest ever devised for a Broadway musical. And Stephen Sondheim’s score – filled with exquisite ballads (“Love, I Hear”), cunning commentaries (“Pretty Little Picture”), and a perfect opening number (“Comedy Tonight”) – is one of his best, which is really saying something. (Forum debuted in 1962, and it’s startling to hear how much rhythmic and lyrical invention Sondheim was giving to his songs so early in his career.) But as good as the songs are – and the show wouldn’t work without– the appeal of Forum is largely due to its humor.

Mary Martello and Scott Greer. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Mary Martello and Scott Greer. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The plot is as old as the seven hills of Rome: Scheming slave Pseudolus wants his freedom in return for uniting his master’s son, Hero, with his true love, Philia. However, this being a farce, there are a lot of complications, including a house of ill repute, a Roman soldier who has been promised Philia as his bride, Hero’s parents (who won’t stay out of town as expected), a next-door neighbor (who also won’t stay out of town as expected), and Hysterium, a slave whose attempts to solve all of these problems somehow end up with him dressing as a woman and pretending to be dead.

Such hoary complications seem remarkably fresh in Ferrante’s production. Best known for playing Groucho Marx in a long-running touring show, Ferrante is a scholar of vaudeville and vintage Hollywood comedy. He’s imbued this Forum with the flavor of early 20th Century comedy, adding visual and verbal references to both The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges. And watch out for his quick-witted ad-libs, which on opening night cracked up both the audience and one of his co-stars.

He’s greatly aided by actors that gives their roles the same level of energy and invention. Ron Wisniski is lovably befuddled as Hero’s father Senex, and Mary Martello plays Senex’s wife Domina with the right touch of shrewish menace. (She played the same role in the Arden Theatre’s fine 2006 production.) Fran Prisco, virtually unrecognizable under some thick makeup, is fabulously fey as the sleazy Marcus Lycus. Nichalas L. Parker has a thunderous voice and an imposing manner as the soldier Miles Gloriosus. And a lightning-fast trio (Ben Dibble, Jennie Eisenhower and Dave Jadico) handles most of the knockabout physical comedy.

Not everything about this Forum works. The madcap chase scene in Act Two comes off as rather forced. As the two young lovers, Brandon O’Rourke and Alanna J. Smith sing prettily but lack the necessary sparkle. And the sturdy Scott Greer is the least hysterical Hysterium I’ve ever seen, coming off as far too levelheaded and missing the character’s essential mania.

But there’s so much about this Forum to recommend. Even Robert Andrew Kovach’s set design is witty, with cockeyed houses and Las Vegas glitz that signal from the start that we shouldn’t take any of this seriously. Mary Folino’s gaudy costumes are ornate for the main cast and, for the chorus line of Marcus Lycus’ courtesans, barely there. Michelle Gaudette’s energetic choreography makes good use of a limited playing space.

The Walnut’s Forum is ridiculously over the top – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, with an intermission.

The company. Photo by Mark Garvin.
The company. Photo by Mark Garvin.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays through October 22, 2017 at Walnut Street Theatre – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call (215) 574-3550, or purchase them online.