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Zero Affect 

A Funny Thing hasn't been the same since Mostel

Surfers spend their lives seeking the perfect wave; dieters pursue the Platonic ideal of fat-free mayonnaise. Lovers of musical theater aren't quite so demanding. When it comes to the fabled musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, they no longer seek perfection; even a halfway-decent staging would be cause for celebration.

The original 1962 Broadway production was a kind of miracle, a fall-out-of-your-seat hilarious farce conveyed in an effortlessly breezy manner. The show made an unlikely musical comedy star of Zero Mostel, whose onstage excesses are now the stuff of legend. In the ensuing decades, actors portraying the wily slave Pseudolus have come to believe that they too have carte blanche to play fast and loose with the intricately structured script. Why not? Mostel did. Mostel, however, was a true clown. And beginning with the first national tour in 1963, when baggy-pants comic Jerry Lester was cast as Pseudolus, the charm was beaten out of Forum, apparently never to return.

So perhaps it would be wrong to castigate the current production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis for its debasement of the original material. This is merely the most recent in a long, sad line of wretched Forums. Perhaps because in his director's notes in the playbill Edward Stern informs us that he saw the Broadway production, we hoped for more of a return to the sprightly source; instead we get less -- and worse.

The first clue that this is going to be a dreary exercise comes in the overture, which on opening night was performed by a pitifully under-rehearsed orchestra. But that's just for starters. Throughout the evening the songs' tempos are wrong. "Love, I Hear," for instance, is a sweet story-song that introduces the plot. (In ancient Rome an innocent lad has fallen in love with a courtesan. Now his slave has to figure out how to bring boy and girl together.) Here the song is performed at a jackrabbit pace that defies storytelling. The same is true of "Impossible," which travels a delectable journey as the naive boy and his sex-starved father alter their views about love. It's difficult to savor Stephen Sondheim's witty lyrics when they are racing by.

But then, wit of any kind is little in evidence here. When, for example, in the opening scene Pseudolus pretends to extract a brassiere from a woman in the audience, you can be assured that the production has chosen the low road. In the lead role Bob Walton has a good time impersonating Bert Lahr and Paul Lynde; it's Pseudolus who eludes him. Walton's task is to keep the show as light and aloft as a beach ball; instead he pounds it to death with a shameless, please-love-me performance that ignores the character altogether. Apparently neither director nor actor is aware that the show's spine is about Pseudolus' craving for freedom. It's not by chance that "Free" is the central song in the overture. Walton performs that endearing ode with all the empathy of Al Jolson plowing through "Mammy."

But all is not lost. Seventy minutes into the evening's wreckage, Nat Chandler strides onstage as the vain centurion Miles Gloriosus and shows everyone how musical numbers are supposed to be sold. Chandler understands that his task is to serve the script as written; he knows that punch lines are to be set up, not pummeled.

There are occasional other moments when the spirit of the original show peeks through. "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" is amusingly performed. And the script by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart -- when allowed to breathe -- elicits laughs aplenty. For that matter, so do some of the cheap ad libs; the opening-night audience laughed itself empty. Clearly, everyone onstage is striving mightily to appease the gods of comedy. But those in the audience who cherish the deft, buoyant charms inherent in Forum are likely to find this version godawful.

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