With director Jessica Stone's gender-bendered rejiggering of the beloved Stephen Sondheim-Burt Shevlove-Larry Gelbart tuner, gone in a flash is the guilty pleasure of ogling showgirls; instead, we have the unalloyed pleasure of witnessing awkward men donning silly drag. And even if a few of the performers could do with some pointers from RuPaul, the cross-dressing bountifully delivers on the promise of its opening number: "Comedy tonight!"
Tony Award nominee Christopher Fitzgerald (who happens to be Stone's husband) is extremely winning in the key role of Pseudolus, the genially scheming slave who employs his gift for creative fabrication to secure his freedom -- very roundaboutly, with plenty of pratfalls and intrigue along the way. What's refreshing about Fitzgerald's sprightly approach - he's a veritable twinkletoes throughout, given to impromptu scatting and haywire fits -- is that there's no whininess in his interpretation. He imparts a heartening confidence from the get-go, and one senses he'll prevail in his quest.
Equally stunning are Bryce Pinkham and David Turner as the young lovers, Hero and Philia. Visually, they're a matched set, especially as costume designer Catherine A. Parrott has bestowed both with virginal white robes and platinum coifs. Pinkham resembles a young Leslie Howard -- at once doughty and utterly goofy. When the coltish Turner sings, with tender grace, "I'm Lovely," he's all the more so for not quite being so. Be forewarned that -- in a production packed from start to finish with comic lagniappe -- Turner has a boffo surprise in store for the grand finale stashed up his gossamer sleeve.
Elsewhere among the cast, Kevin Cahoon energetically doubles as Tintinabula (a belly dancer who breaks into tap) and the power-walking geezer Erronius. David Costabile's vaguely fey Lycus is reliably lubricious. Jeremy Shamos's henpecked Senex is spot-on, even if his stint as Vibrata, the animalistic specialty act, appears half-hearted (perhaps on purpose). The Protean corps are all excellent -- especially Joe Aaron Reid, who brings impressive balletic/acrobatic chops to bear both as Gymnasia (Pseudolus's Amazonian favorite) and as Miles' adjutant.
Unfortunately, Josh Grisetti, as Hysterium, is slow to deliver on the promise of his name: when he sings "I'm Calm," he actually appears to be so. Grisetti doesn't really come to life until he's playing dead -- standing in for Philia, whom Pseudolus is trying to pass off as a plague victim, lest the conquering hero Miles Gloriosus (Graham Rowat) claim her as his bought-and-paid-for bride.
Still, by the curtain call, your smile muscles may well be stretched to the breaking point, and you'll be delighted to have made this trip to the Forum.