As the East Coast rolls out its star-studded Sondheim galas and big-ticket revivals, L.A. is enjoying a more modest 80th birthday bash with a revival of the master’s first solo Broadway score, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The farcical structure of Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s book is as sound as ever, and whether it’s the first time you’ve seen “Forum” or the umpty-umpth, there are delights to be found throughout the Reprise Theater Company production.
Sondheim’s score, smoothly directed by Steve Orich, offers only hints of the complex melodies and rhyming and rhythmic flights to come. Still it’s wholly pleasing, alternately muscular and dainty as the moment requires. Reprise even offers rediscovery, with two numbers interpolated from the 1972 Gotham version with Phil Silvers: a diva turn for monstrous matron Domina (Ruth Williamson, splendid) and a truly funny duet for ingenues Hero and Philia (Erich Bergen, late of L.A.’s “Jersey Boys,” and Annie Abrams).
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Ancient scribe Plautus was the libretto’s inspiration but its soul is ancient burlesque, helmer David Lee having assembled the requisite old troupers to pull off that art form’s innocent lewdness: Lee Wilkof as scheming slave Pseudolus, abetted by nervous-Nellie Larry Raben; Michael Kostroff as the sleazy pimp next door to randy old goat Ron Orbach.
As good as they are — and Raben is particularly so — the junior contingent runs away with this “Forum.” If it takes a smart actor to portray a dumb character, Bergen and Abrams must be the smartest thesps in town. Totally sweet and winning, they land jokes and physical reactions that have escaped generations of Heros and Philias, and sell the numbers with unexpected touches of whimsy.
Whimsical is the word for the three youthful Proteans as well, carrying off dozens of roles with the switch of a hat or shmatte. Led by the hilariously towering, marionette-built-of-pipe cleaners Matthew Patrick Davis, Russ Marchand and Justin Wilcox make strong impressions in quick strokes.
And younger than springtime is the oldest cast member, Alan Mandell, a joyous Mr. Magoo as the hapless Erronius.
The well-cast Wilkof seemed off on opening night, with several line fumbles and a sense of riding on sheer willpower by act two. And the climactic chase lacked hellzapoppin brio; some underscoring, even a piano tinkling “Comedy Tonight,” would help.
Peggy Hickey contributes witty choreography — daddies of all ages will applaud the athletic cavalcade of courtesans in buy-me mode — and the show looks great in Kate Bergh’s mock-ancient garb and Jared Sayeg’s circussy lighting, though Bradley Kaye’s three adjacent houses seem somewhat characterless.