At last: a National Theater musical without an iota of subtext! As followers of tuners at this address have long been able to attest, the National has been second to none in plumbing the heretofore hidden depths of some classic American shows, among them “My Fair Lady,” “Oklahoma!” and the defining “Carousel” of anyone’s dreams. What, then, might this aesthetic bring to bear on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the first Broadway musical of NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner’s relatively fledgling reign? (Hytner had said he was going to steer clear of the Broadway musical canon, but such pronouncements are made to be abandoned.) The answer, happily, is nothing beyond the hilarity one demands from a musical that depended on shtick, physical business and double takes in 1962 and certainly does now. As directed by Edward Hall in a tonal about-face from his self-consciously somber NT take on David Mamet’s “Edmond” last summer, this “Forum” is always fun and, on occasion, even inspired. And with two-thirds of the seats priced at £10 (about $18) in accordance with the ongoing Travelex sponsorship, it’s undoubtedly the best bargain in town.
For all the vaunted wit of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, starting with one of the best openers (“Comedy Tonight”) ever penned for Broadway, “Forum” in performance isn’t always as fun as it needs to be. Here working as solo composer for the first time, Sondheim lets the score flag in a second act that parades on the musical’s two worst songs (“That Dirty Old Man” and “That’ll Show Him,” both, interestingly, written for the distaff principals) one after the other, requiring the cast to jump through even more comic hoops than usual to keep this Plautine caper afloat. That Hall’s company manages that and then some (even, it has to be said, when a few of the voices let the singing side of the evening down) honors the vaudevillian roots of a decidedly American piece that turns out to be not that far in temperament from the larky, knockabout spirit of British music hall.
The result is a cast that feel at home with the material in a way that isn’t always true when Brits take on a Broadway template. Desmond Barrit’s Pseudolus may not possess the manic bark of Nathan Lane, who won the first of his two Tonys for playing the illiterate if irrepressible slave who wants nothing more than freedom in Jerry Zaks’ Broadway revival. But Barrit’s casual bonhomie — “Silence, I am about to say the sooth,” he announces, in his first-act guise as a soothsayer — pays off big-time, set against the comic extremes of some of his colleagues. While Barrit’s hangdog expressions are made to order for a scintillatingly deadpan remark like, “I should be whipped, gently,” several of the others maraud about Julian Crouch’s set as if gentleness were ancient Rome’s greatest vice.
You have to love the outsized brio of Isla Blair’s Domina, the general’s daughter who is seen early on gloating at the sort of statue to oneself that would give others the shivers. (Blair played young heroine Philia in this show’s British preem some 41 years ago.) Or the sheer abandon of Hamish McColl’s cross-dressing Hysterium, who hovers inches away from madness. Or the overt grotesquerie of David Schneider’s Marcus Lycus, who resembles nothing more than a rabid caricature of Mario Cantone (which is saying something!)
Occupying a category all their own are the fear-inducing thighs of Philip Quast’s feather-festooned Miles Gloriosus, who strides on late in the first act with absurd conviction and that amazing voice, which ends up playing second fiddle to a physique that, frankly, doesn’t seem altogether possible.
Hall would seem to have scant experience in musicals, not to mention in the kind of sustainedly ribald eye-rolling that, taken too far, can start to pall. (One is tempted to argue the success of the show depends largely on props, which this time around include various severed limbs and a steaming pile of horse dung.) But he has wisely surrounded himself with a cunningly diverse array of talent, starting with Rob Ashford (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”), who turns “Comedy Tonight” into a choreographic cavalcade not seen at the National since, well, “Jumpers”: The male chorus comes leaping out of a prop-heavy crate that seems to surprise Pseudolus as much as it does us.
Under Martin Lowe’s musical direction, the orchestra sounds unusually crisp, which means the playing always rivets the attention even when the player does not: Vince Leigh’s Hero must be one of the older, more pallid interpreters of this tuner’s juvenile lead.
Yes, there are times when the energy sags, though fewer on this occasion than I remember from either the 1986 London revival at the Piccadilly Theater, with the venerable Frankie Howerd as Pseudolus, or Zaks’ New York version a decade later.
And in Sam Kelly’s bespectacled, hilariously henpecked Senex, husband to the fearsome Domina, this “Forum” turns genial high spirits into something approaching genius. “The virgin was waiting,” he informs us near the start of act two. “That’s what they do best.”
But not half as well as this old pro lands absolutely every laugh.