Paul Farnsworth’s tilted, comic book-colored sets are the first thing you see at the Open Air Theater in Regent’s Park’s new production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and they couldn’t get an otherwise uneven revival off to a giddier start. There, on full view, are the three Roman houses that set in motion the dizzy plot, their facades a riot of skewed, screaming pigment that immediately tip you off that all is not to be taken seriously in Stephen Sondheim, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove’s Plautine adaptation. That much is worth remembering during the straiter-laced stretches of a staging that won’t exactly be remembered for its vocal finesse. But even when the company’s invention begins to flag, the designs prompt a chuckle, leaving the audience feeling almost as bright as the cavalcade of color they have been drinking in all night.
Thirty-seven years after its premiere, “Forum” retains its knockabout charm, even if it has the misfortune to deliver its best number — the now-classic “Comedy Tonight” — right at the start, rendering the rest of the first score for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics somewhat anti-climactic. And hypothetically, at least, this musical has an ideal home in Britain, since its determinedly broad tits-and-bum shenanigans are entirely of a piece with England’s own anything-for-a-leer comedy “Carry On,” which explains the association with “Forum” over the years of “Carry On” mainstay Frankie Howerd. (He was the West End’s last Pseudolus at the Piccadilly more than a decade ago.)
Our guide through the evening this time around is Roy Hudd, the popular comedian and variety artist who possesses just the right genial insouciance to guide us through a very tall tale of deliverance from servitude. What Hudd doesn’t have is much of a voice, but he’s pretty much at one with a cast that substitutes in good nature and amiability for what it lacks in vocal chops, moving in and out of the amplification much as Catherine Jayes’ orchestra moves in and out of tune.
The exceptions start with the gloriously bombastic Miles Gloriosus of Peter Gallagher (not the Broadway Peter Gallagher), a moussed-haired vision in blue suede shoes who has only to swivel his pelvis to send the courtesans into a swoon. As the wide-eyed young lover Hero, Pseudolus’ master, Rhashan Stone is better when singing than not; elsewhere, he indulges the same over-the-top mooniness that characterized his Roland Maule earlier this year in the Ian McKellen “Present Laughter” in Leeds.
As for comic invention, director Ian Talbot’s brightest ideas pertain to the quartet of so-called Proteans, who come on sporting Cupid’s arrows during “Love, I Hear” and otherwise as often as not recall the beloved Coneheads from the heyday of “Saturday Night Live.”
There have been far funnier versions of “I’m Calm” than that offered up by Gavin Muir’s Hysterium, just as many a Philia — the (va-voom) virgin — has been less shrill (and more youthful) than Claire Carrie’s is here. But why split hairs about a not-great musical that wants nothing more or less than to elicit some groaning belly laughs? On a balmy night in Regent’s Park, few London settings are so delightful. And if it starts to rain, worry not — Farnsworth’s inspired stage set will make a smile your umbrella.