A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum at the Jungle Theater

Josiah Gulden, Jon Whittier, Christopher Teipner and Richard Ooms in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum at the Jungle Theater Photo by Michal Daniel.

For the first time in the Swiss cheesy memory of this reviewer, a Jungle Theater play has been directed by neither Bain Boehlke nor by his apparent heir apparent Joel Sass.  Instead, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (at the Jungle, through July 31) is helmed by the redoubtable John Command, maestro of the big bold brassy musical comedy.  Mr. C, who normally holds forth at Bloomington Civic Theatre, has an over-the-top approach to the genre that may not play at the understated Theatre Latté Da but is perfect for this show.  The Jungle, with its exquisite postage stamp stage, barely contains the gleeful pyrotechnics of Command’s work, and this tension gives the piece a sweet thrill.  Boffo.

A Funny Thing, with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and songs by Stephen Sondheim, premiered in 1962 in a production starring the legendary Zero Mostel (rarely has a play been so completely identified with a performer).  The show is inspired by the work of the Roman farceur, Plautus.  This means that the play is a barely coherent but delightful mishmash of earnest but dumb young lovers, sexy courtesans, horny old men, preening soldiers.  Rife with mistaken identities (at one point there are three veiled brides onstage), overworked tricksters (Pseudolus, our narrator/star), sudden impossible revelations, slamming doors, magic potions.

Etcetera.  If you can follow the rapidfire ins and outs of this plot then you have powers of concentration superior to mine.  But no matter.  The silly story provides opportunities for shameless mugging, er, quirky acting.  And of course everything is beautifully balanced by the Sondheim’s songs.  “What I am is winsome / Radiant as in some / Dream come true.”  You would have to have recently experienced a death in your family not to be utterly taken in.

Bain Boehlke may not have directed, but he does provide a grand set, one exploding with vibrant color.  It has little to do with ancient Rome, and much more to do with vaudeville and zippily paced musical comedy.  It effortlessly provides room for what is, by contemporary standards, an enormous cast: 20 actors and 4 musicians.  Boehlke is one of the finest designers you are likely to encounter, anywhere.  His work here is nicely abetted by lighter Barry Browning and costumer Kathy Kohl.

The cast, led by Christopher Teipner as Pseudolus, struts and sweats its way through the show.  Teipner deals with Mostel’s presence through an amazing physical resemblance.  He works hard (and pants), but his unflagging good-natured energy carries the play.

The other actors are also excellent.  The size of the cast prevents me from waxing enthusiastic about everyone (much as I’d like to).  Still, I have to single out: the diminutive Jon Whitter as Hysterium (“But I am a virgin! / Of course you are.”); Claudia Wilkens as the battle-axe with the impish grin; Josiah Gulden as the fright wig wearing procurer, insanely terrified of plagues (and with an astonishingly powerful voice); Eric Heimsoth and Amanda Schnabel as the brainlessly tuneful virgins.  And finally Bradley Greenwald, who plays Miles Gloriosus with howlingly funny Dudley Do-Right swagger.

Kudos to musical director Jimmy Martin and sound designer Sean Healy for keeping these 20 people, with varying musical experiences, on track.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is the Jungle’s summer show.  It has a nice long run but, on the other hand, tickets are selling quickly.  So snap yours up.  Go on a hot night, soak up that luscious Jungle a/c.

Recommended.

For info on John Olive, please visit his website.

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