There's an odd new trend in the arts: verisimilitude. For example, a West Side Story with the Sharks rumbling in Spanish. And who can forget Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ with Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount in the original-cast Aramaic?
This led us to fear a Porthouse Theatre production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum authenticated with 2,300-year-old Latin. But our dread proved groundless, for the theatrical sages at Porthouse Theatre have come up with a savvier device: Meeting freshly goosed antiquity with even brighter production values.
The 1962 show is a magnificent merger of antiquity, '20s burlesque, '30s melodiousness and post-war craftsmanship. Playwright Burt Shevelove came up with a novel take on blissful, purposeful anachronism — musicalizing works by Plautus. Another inspired notion was signing the 32-year-old Stephen Sondheim, who had gained fame as a lyricist, to create the entire score.
The original production was cast with old-time vaudevillians — Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford — and directed by George Abbott, one of the legendary catalysts of musical comedy. With its canny combination of ancient and contemporary ribaldry, the show was an instant smash.
Alas, there are no more great vaudevillians, so Porthouse has used some skilled theater folks to reinvent the form. They have created a production that brings to mind the early efforts of such great comedians as the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, where we thrill to young mirth-makers who seem to be discovering old styles for the first time.
Hence, each leer, pratfall and dirty joke appears to be emerging newly minted. Stage director Terri Kent, with the expert machinations of choreographer Eric van Baars, has found ways to embroider the show with inspired visual puns, witty costumes and daffy physicality.
The casting goes beyond the adept into the wildly imaginative, demonstrating a thorough understanding of the archetypes behind the characters. As the deliciously dense young hero, who's named Hero, Brian Duncan has an uncanny ability to encapsulate ingratiating naiveté. He's a perfect match to the buxom vacuousness of Sarah Roussos' adorable Philia.
Just the way Marc Moritz's Senex peers over his glasses reveals a profound awareness of the befuddled irony of great old clowns. We're not sure whether the greatness of Melissa Owens, as Senex's frustrated wife, stems from her towering wig or her divine exasperation.
I've practically watched Nick Koesters grow up on Cleveland stages and have observed his rampant energy and physical and verbal dexterity for years. But as the slave Pseudolus, the show's prime mover and shaker, Koesters displays a surprising potpourri of comic techniques. Like the production itself, he carries with him an unlimited supply of zestful anarchy.