Drawbridge up, drawbridge down — Nathan Lane’s eyebrows are working overtime in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the season’s most anticipated revival, fitted with Broadway’s most adorable star. Riding high on the success of “The Birdcage” onscreen, Lane is back in the secure hands of Broadway’s master comedy strategist, Jerry Zaks — they were previously teamed on “Guys and Dolls” and Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” Together, they will keep the St. James full, or close to it, for the duration of Lane’s one-year contract.
Zaks, Lane and company work sweatily to entertain, to make good on the opening number’s promise of comedy tonight. No one devises funny stage business of the guilty-laugh sort like Zaks, and there’s enough in evidence here to service a handful of shows.
He’s an incomparable farceur, Lane his equally incomparable instrument — witness the actor’s miming of the pornographic images on an unseen urn, or floundering under the weight of a warrior’s helmet, equally priceless bits.
Written for Phil Silvers, the leading role of the slave Pseudolus eventually went to Zero Mostel (Silvers played it in the 1972 revival), and his partners in jest were David Burns, Jack Gilford, John Carradine and Ron Holgate.
Like them, Lane’s cohorts are veteran musical-comedy performers, though of considerably more tender vintage: Mark Linn-Baker as the hyperventilating uber-slave Hysterium; Lewis J. Stadlen as their henpecked master, Senex; Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa to Lane’s Timon in “The Lion King”) as the whoremonger, Marcus Lycus; and Cris Groenendaal as the vain warrior Miles Gloriosus, the Gaston prototype (“I am my own ideal!”).
They are all fine, though the production trades the barely contained comic anarchy of an earlier era for the campiness that has by now become de rigueur.
The casting weaknesses are in the secondary parts: Jessica Boevers, as the virgin Philia, doesn’t sing well in a role crying out for a Rachel York, while Jim Stanek as her suitor, Hero, is even more insipid than called for. Mary Testa is stolid and charmless as Hero’s battle-ax mother, particularly in her single number, “That Dirty Old Man.”
Brad Aspel, Cory English and Ray Roderick are wonderful as the Proteans, and William Duell is touching as poor Erronius, evermore frail and winded as he circles the seven hills of Rome.
Zaks and choreographer Rob Marshall are at their most coldly frenetic with the leggy courtesans, among whom only Stephanie Pope seems to have a sense of humor. Kudos, too, to Paul Gallo for a vibrant lighting scheme, and to Tony Meola for a subtle sound design — what a treat.
Sondheim has altered some of the lyrics in “Comedy Tonight”– notably, “Something familiar, something peculiar” has been changed to the timelier, if less elegant, “Something expensive, something offensive”– and in “Impossible.”
And “Pretty Little Picture” has been dropped by Zaks, who felt it slowed down the show.
Speed is certainly no problem here. As Hobe Morrison concluded in his 1962 Variety notice, “‘A Funny Thing’ hardly rates as an advance for next year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, but it’s a lively, entertaining night on the town (and) a probable financial mopup.” If the cheering crowds applauding Lane’s very entrance are any indication, the same will hold true 34 years later.