THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

Exuberant ‘Forum’ a joyously liberating romp

By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / July 5, 2010

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’’ is likely to be the funniest show you’ll see all summer — or all year. Here’s the catch: It runs only through July 11, and tickets are going fast.

If there’s any goodness or grace in the world, though, this version of the Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbart/Stephen Sondheim musical will go on to have a longer life somewhere, because it is simply the best imaginable incarnation of this comic classic. From the first sight gag to the last scrap of circus-inspired lagniappe, every moment of the show is cleverly planned, wittily executed, and a laugh-out-loud riot.

I’ll confess right now that other stagings (and Richard Lester’s mashed-up movie version) had led me to think of “Funny Thing’’ as a sometimes funny but often dated Latinate farce. Thank you, Jessica Stone and your marvelous cast, for proving definitively how wrong I was.

The bones of the show, of course, go all the way back to Plautus, but its 1960s vintage is also heavily apparent, particularly in its air of joyous liberation for everyone — except the women, who are either bimbos or shrews. But Stone plays brilliantly with that problem by using an all-male cast, a move that gives the stereotypes an ironic twist and lets us laugh with the show instead of at it.

And there’s plenty to laugh with, from the predictably ridiculous turns of the plot to the affectionate sendups of Roman history, musical-comedy convention, and macho posturing. As the clever Pseudolus schemes and plots his way to freedom, the dimwitted young lovers Hero and Philia warble sweetly to each other, and the long-married Senex and Domina bicker and backbite, we can just sit back and enjoy the merry mayhem of it all. Add a nervous chief slave named Hysterium, the crafty panderer Lycus, and the boastful soldier Miles Gloriosus — to say nothing of the bevy of courtesans and the hordes of assorted citizens, from monks to lepers — and you’ve got a full Roman circus of fun.

In an odd way, the cross-dressed cast makes the show more family-friendly. My son adores the movie (particularly Zero Mostel’s Pseudolus, because, really, what’s not to adore?), but he always squirms miserably during the love scenes, and even more miserably when Lycus is parading his lovelies for Pseudolus to ogle. Turn the hip-swiveling beauties into parodically preening guys, though, and he’s laughing just as helplessly as the rest of us.

Catherine A. Parrott’s amusing costumes help, of course, as does Alexander Dodge’s simple but opulent set: three Roman houses on a bare street, each with columns in a different richly saturated hue. And it’s a joy to hear the full sound of the orchestra, directed with verve and panache by Gary Adler.

At the center of all this fruitful effort is the expert and exuberant work of the cast, from Christopher Fitzgerald’s Pseudolus on through the ranks. Fitzgerald is a smaller and meeker presence than, say, Mostel, so his Pseudolus is a different sort of comic creature — less overbearingly manipulative, more quietly and craftily and humbly so. And he moves with a nimble surefootedness that brings out all the humor of Denis Jones’s delightfully light-hearted choreography. You might not think a man could reduce you to snorting sobs of laughter just by skipping, but Fitzgerald can.

Then there’s Josh Grisetti’s high-pitched Hysterium, Jeremy Shamos’s shamelessly lusty Senex, Chivas Michael’s surprisingly touching Domina, and David Costabile’s leering Lycus. Bryce Pinkham as Hero and David Turner as Philia make an adorable pair of idiots — and Turner has a talent up his sleeve that sparks a dazzler of a postlude to the show.

Don’t miss that moment — or any of the many, many funny things that happen along the way in this fantastic “Forum.’’

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM Musical with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by: Jessica Stone. Music direction, Gary Adler. Choreography, Denis Jones. Set, Alexander Dodge. Costumes, Catherine A. Parrott. Lights, Jeff Croiter. Sound, Drew Levy and Tony Smolenski IV.

At: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through July 11. Tickets: $30-60. 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org