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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

"What am I going to do with an old white man?" Whoopi Goldberg seemingly ad-libs early in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," then follows with the punch line, "I got one at home." The joke gets a big laugh and irretrievably puts the comic's mark on the role most famously played by Zero Mostel.

“What am I going to do with an old white man?” Whoopi Goldberg seemingly ad-libs early in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” then follows with the punch line, “I got one at home.” The joke — Goldberg’s relationship with actor Frank Langella has been a tabloid staple of late — gets a big laugh and irretrievably puts the comic actress’s mark on the role most famously played by Zero Mostel and most recently by Nathan Lane. Goldberg stays in character as the slave Pseudolus throughout the rest of the show, which is not to say that she leaves her own familiar, immensely likable persona offstage.

What’s surprising is how charmingly Goldberg’s approach fits into this year-old production.

With a few lyric changes and some modified character interaction, Goldberg’s re-gendered Pseudolus does a funny thing to “Forum,” seeming at once innovative and entirely natural. Where Lane brought a manic energy to the musical (and occasionally overwhelmed it), Goldberg downplays the vaudeville shtick in favor of her trademark blend of sass and good humor. And where Lane and Mostel ogled the scantily clad courtesans during the requisite bump-and-grind number, Goldberg shouts a conspiratorial “Get it, girl!”

The ease of the fit is Goldberg’s, and not the musical’s, triumph. It’s difficult to imagine any other actress donning this toga so effortlessly, and who but Goldberg could so brazenly mime the images of a pornographic urn and maintain an audience’s goodwill? When she has to tell a scripted lie by claiming that the young white virgin Philia is actually her daughter, the absurdity itself becomes a very funny joke as Goldberg barely stifles her own laughs.

Goldberg’s singing won’t win any awards — her range is limited in ways her comic talent is not — but the role has never required great musicianship. In such numbers as “Comedy Tonight” or Pseudolus’ big solo, “Free,” personality, of which Goldberg has no shortage, is more important than vocal talent.

Although Lane’s broad, antic style was in keeping with director Jerry Zaks’ campy approach to the musical, it provided little respite for the audience. Now Zaks lets Goldberg use her own hipness as a tacit comment on the musical conventions, her thoroughly modern style (this must be the first time “Forum” has been performed with dreadlocks) a welcome invitation to a new audience that could find this 1962 musical as dated as ancient Rome.

Elsewhere, the production and its cast are holding up, with Ross Lehman ably replacing Mark Linn-Baker as the appropriately named slave Hysterium. Mary Testa has hit a crowd-pleasing stride as the shrewish wife Domina, while both Jim Stanek and Jessica Boevers have grown into their roles as the rather dim young lovers. Lewis J. Stadlen’s gruff perf as old Senex, master of Pseudolus, remains an untextured burlesque.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

St. James Theater; 1,617 seats; $70 top

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