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Virgin On the Roof!

Theatre Memphis' Forum has got the gams but not the gags.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The name doesn't say it all, but it says an awful lot. Beginning a joke with the words "You know, a funny thing happened on the way to [fill in the blank]" is to practitioners of comedy what rhyming moon with June is to Tin Pan Alley. And true to form, Forum, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart's 1962 musical comedy, is chock-full of jokes that people had stopped laughing at 10 years before its debut. It is predictable in every way, and that is part of its glory. When it first appeared on the Great White Way, Forum served to legitimize one of the most ancient forms of popular theater: burlesque. It was also a fitting eulogy to this bold and bawdy entertainment which was clearly on its deathbed. It was the perfect vehicle for comic actors like Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, who cut their teeth in burlesque houses where genius filmmaker Preston Sturges' theory of comedy reigned supreme: A leg is better than an arm, a pretty girl is better than an ugly one, and a pratfall is better than anything. Sondheim went above and beyond in his tribute to burlesque by borrowing plot devices from Plautus, the popular Roman playwright and spiritual father of the form. Plautus' farces were essentially an excuse for one naughty joke after the other -- the same naughty jokes which would be staged 2,000 years later by the baggy-pants comedians of burlesque who were famous for their lack of originality. In burlesque, the joke itself is relatively unimportant. It's all about the telling.

In the 40 years since Forum debuted, it has been (poorly) adapted to film, become a staple of regional theaters, and been revived on Broadway with show-biz whores like Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg in the leading role. With material this familiar an adequate performance doesn't begin to cut the mustard, and, sorry to say, that's exactly what Theatre Memphis provides. Adequacy, and nothing more. In terms of musicianship, perhaps not even that. Only Michael Williams' (unnecessarily) opulent set and André Bruce Ward's uniformly brilliant costumes match the show's unbridled zaniness. That said, even an adequate Forum is good for a little titter and titillation.

The story might easily be described as "what story?" Pseudolus, a slave, has been promised his freedom if he can deliver to his master the love of his life, a young virgin who has, much to the slave's dismay, already been purchased (yes, purchased) by the pompous war-hero Miles Gloriosus. The rest is a breakneck mishmash of sight gags and mistaken identities, bolstered by 16 of Sondheim's typically literate tunes. While TM's production manages the pace just fine, the gags aren't given anything like the life they deserve. Forum's requisite display of the female anatomy is right on the money, and every man with glands will immediately understand Pseudolus' fascination with the amazonian Domina. But even in this arena something is missing. The girls' dance routines, even the more acrobatic ones, owe more to the legacy of community-theater choreography than to Sally Rand.

As Pseudolus, Greg Krosness channels the physicality of Zero Mostel (who originated the role) but lacks Mostel's lecherous edge. Even so, he manages the physical comedy better than anyone, save a bewigged Barry Fuller, whose knack for broad comedy is legendary around these parts. Both Ron Gephart (Senex) and Michael Gravois (Hysterium) turn in solid comedic performances right out of an old vaudevillian's handbook, and Arlyn Mick's big-sissy take on the boisterous Miles Gloriosus elicits a good deal of laughter. But no gag goes far enough and some never even get off of the ground. When Gravois, clad in a pretty pink dress, and Krosness duet in the show's comic centerpiece, "Lovely," it should bring down the house. But the song is more presented than performed and it only gets a chuckle.

The band, which consists of piano, keyboard, bass, and drums, was responsible for the evenings sourest moments. The fact that any of the actors stayed in key as the bandmembers hunted for their notes was nothing shy of a miracle.

And now for the zinger. Before the pay-what-you-can performance, TM's executive producer Ted Strickland addressed the audience by saying that some folks may not have payed enough. With a big cheesy grin he essentially threatened that if the pay-what-you-can program was going to continue they should maybe consider paying more at intermission. Clearly, Strickland, like the cheapskates he chastised, has missed the point of pay-what-you-can, and his comments can only be described as the pinnacle of tackiness. For the record, pay-what-you-can is a night where the cash-conscious can see a show without blowing their budget and where those who can afford it are encouraged to pay perhaps even more.

Through May 19th.

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