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Review of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

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Just a few months shy of its 2,200th birthday, Pseudolus by the beloved Roman playwright Plautus lives on as the principal source of the hilarious Larry Gelbart-Burt Shevelove book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, so it is futile to play this Sondheim musical as if the jokes were new. They're millennia old.

The colonnades outside Halton Theater promise a perfect environment for this Roman gambol, and high up, inside the hall, are noble spotlit busts flanking the stage -- in portals over the fire exits that seem to have been fashioned for framing those sculptures. Everybody seems to be on the same page: Carey Kugler with his broadly comical direction, Craig Estep with his well-drilled -- and well-hidden -- musicians, and Ron Chisholm, whose runway choreography at the House of Licus is an authentic Times Square evocation of a salacious Saudi harem.

Kugler has assembled a galaxy of fine talent, old and new, to surround his conniving leading man. Jim Esposito as Pseudolus' master, Senex, is an irresistible blob of gullible, henpecked, lecherous geniality. Courtney Johnson, normally a shoo-in for membership in the Licus sisterhood, proves she can hold down the harpy role of Domina, Senex's wife, and skeletal Kevin Campbell was born to play the preternaturally high-strung Hysterium, topdog slave in Senex's household.

Even without Johnson, there's a bevy of fine courtesans at the House of Licus to bring a lordly crescendo of quivers to Pseudolus as the sassy babes bump and shimmy on display. Tony Wright has exactly the right measure of lip-smacking cunning and crass commercialism as Licus -- with the spine and rectitude of a jellyfish.

Dumb, innocent and infectiously likable, Ashby Blakely and Ashley Bradley rank as the best I've seen as Hero and the virgin whore of his dreams, Philia. Matthew Corbett is a granite mountain of bellowing self-conceit as Miles Gloriosus, the conquering warrior who owns the title to Philia's dainty flesh.

Sadly, there are too many moments when the stolid Miles and the crafty Pseudolus are nearly indistinguishable. Jim Kidd starts off promisingly as our emcee, Prologus, fronting the famed "Comedy Tonight!" curtain announcement before he turns into Pseudolus. But Kidd seems more willing to carry the comedy than enthusiastically able. Buffoonery and slavishness seem beneath him, and he seems to prefer a fourth wall between him and the audience. His comedy touches have an on-demand quality rather than a spontaneous zest coming from within. When an evil grin should contort Kidd's face and enflame his eyes and brows, wide areas of calm, unwrinkled frost remain.

Yes, at 46 years of age, A Funny Thing is the first venerable musical composed by Sondheim. Kidd needs to go back way further than that to bring us Pseudolus. Better yet, he might look around onstage at Halton, behold the mirth that's surrounding him -- an express train to 191 B.C. -- and catch the spirit.

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