Larry Raben, Ron Orbach, Lee Wilkof, and Michael Kostroff
in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(© John Ganun)
Larry Raben, Ron Orbach, Lee Wilkof, and Michael Kostroff
in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(© John Ganun)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, now being presented by Reprise Theater Company at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, is a tricky musical comedy -- one that needs finesse to not devolve into 150 minutes of tired shtick. While David Lee's new production hits some of the right notes, the end result is more a pleasant diversion than a crackerjack presentation -- in large part because star Lee Wilkof's too-understated performance causes many of the jokes to fall flat.

Featuring a script by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, the musical -- a farce about the slave Pseudolus (Wilkof) who will do anything to obtain his freedom -- parodies both the Roman comedy format and America's distinctive burlesque of the 1920s, with scantily clad girls, Jewish humor, and sex, sex, sex. The show also features some of the most charming songs ever penned by Stephen Sondheim, such as "Love I Hear" and "Lovely," along with such showstoppers "Comedy Tonight" and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid."

Wilkof is an enjoyable actor, but the part of Pseudolus really requires a clown who can think on the fly and even bring a sense of danger to the proceedings. Wilkof's performance is simply too safe. Also problematic is Larry Raben's grating and too predictable turn as Hysterium, Pseudolus' aptly-named fellow slave.

It's the supporting players that thrive here, bringing a sharp edge to the show's humor. Ruth Williamson plays the witchy Domina , wife of Senex (Ron Orbach), as a naughty old lady whose coldness shields her bubbling libido; Annie Abrams turns the virginal Philia into a delightful birdbrain; Alan Mandell, as the doddering old Erronoius, turns the simplest lines into chortles; Michael Kostroff summons the ghost of Phil Silvers as the duplicitous procurer Marcus Lycus; Erich Bergen brings more than just boyish charm to the role of the innocent Hero; and Stuart Ambrose bring nuance to the vainglorious dullard Miles Gloriosus, turning the character's inflated egotism into comic gold.

Lee has included some clever visual touches, such as the courtesans forming a battleship for Gloriosus, complete with a figurehead up front. He also finds many funny activities for the multi-tasking Proteans, played by Justin Wilcox, Russ Marchand, and the ginormous Matthew Patrick Davis.

Choreographer Peggy Hickey's gymnastic moves give the courtesans extra oomph, particularly Tonya Kay's Vibrata, and costume designer Kate Bergh has great fun with the ladies' outfits, especially Kay's S&M black leather garb and Mercy Malick's naked stocking with feathers.

This Funny Thing is often funny, it's just not consistently hilarious.