Review: A laff-a-minute ‘Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ (Walnut Street Theatre)

Listen
The cast of 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' at the Walnut Street Theatre, with Frank Ferrante in the center. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

The cast of 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' at the Walnut Street Theatre, with Frank Ferrante in the center. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

If you’re going to overdo the musical “A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” you may as well get a high-jinkser like Frank Ferrante to direct it and play the lead role. And if you’re not going to overdo “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” why bother doing it at all?

 

It was written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and scored by Stephen Sondheim as a goof. (Zero Mostel starred in the original, in 1962.) The side-splitting production at Walnut Street Theatre, with Ferrante at the helm offstage and on, runs beautifully on overdrive.

He plays Pseudolus, a conniving Roman slave who falls into a situation that could get him his freedom. All he has to do is pair his owners’ son with the gal next door. Sounds easy, no?

No. First, the boy’s folks don’t want him messing around by messing around. Second, the girl is a new neighbor and next door is a brothel. Third, she’s under contract to wed a fearsome military giant who’s on his way to get her.

For crafty Pseudolus, it’s a piece of cake layered with deceit upon deceit. The plot runs very much like a daffy Marx Brothers movie — coincidentally, Ferrante got his start Off-Broadway playing Groucho. You can still sense the Groucho in his voice. But the way he takes over a stage, dancing around it as he plots his character’s next caper, is more reminiscent of British performer James Cordon, the late-night TV host who made his name in America for comically traversing the stage in Broadway’s “One Man, Two Guvnors.”

Ferrante is quick to smash that invisible wall between audience and stage — in fact, the show’s one instantly recognizable lead-off song, “Comedy Tonight,” is meant to do just that. But he takes it a step further, using just about any reason to ditch the script and cajole the audience to more laughter. Ferrante’s aided in this by a cast of Walnut faves who play along like co-conspirators, and an orchestra that pumps things up.

Hero, the young man Pseudolus must aid, is played by Brandon O’Rourke, and the object of his entranced eyes is the virgin Philia, portrayed by Alanna J. Smith; the two are sweet together. Hero’s demanding mom is Mary Martello (fresh off a star turn in Arden Theatre’s production of “Gypsy“) and his dad, Ron Wisniski, is particularly fine as your everyday long-suffering Roman husband. Scott Greer is the chief slave of the household, Fran Prisco is the pimp next door. Nichalas L. Parker is the great warrior who arrives to claim his new bride, and Bill Van Horn plays an old man who must walk the Roman hills to find two children stolen from him long ago. Ben Dibble, Jennie Eisenhower, and Dave Jadico are “the Proteans,” so named because they play a variety of roles, cleverly built. It’s largely an all-star Philly cast.

The plot turns and turns and turns on Robert Andrew Kovach’s unit set of three house-fronts, the actors are dressed in appropriately gaudy ancient clothing by costume designer Mary Folino. (I’d like to see the Walnut’s budget for the stand-out sandals alone.) When in Rome, do what these Romans do — everything wrong, and to great effect.

_“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” runs through Oct. 22 at Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.