By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater
Watching the big cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum fit itself onto the decidedly small stage at Mad Cow Theatre is like watching a couple of dozen clowns pour out of an old VW Beetle. You know it can be done, but you’re damned if you can figure out how.
And there’s another similarity: You know this kind of comedy is old hat, but you’re cackling at it all the while.
Forum may be pushing its 50th birthday, and it may turn up on college and community-theater stages often enough to keep composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim in legal pads and pencils. But thanks to director Katrina Ploof and an ace trio of veteran comic actors, this frothy musical comedy comes pretty close to looking like a classic.
The production marks the return to Mad Cow’s stage of actor Rick Stanley, who was everywhere in the theater’s early days but more recently has taken his talents elsewhere. Stanley’s world-weary Pseudolus has seen it all, and his exasperated take on Forum’s Rome and its dimwitted citizens gives the show its comic thrust.
But this particular Pseudolus has artful assistance — from Thomas Ouellette (better known as a director at Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Mad Cow and Rollins College’s Annie Russell Theatre), whose nimble-witted Hysterium is beside himself simply because he has seen so terribly much go wrong; and from Stephan Jones, who channels the smoldering bits of his El Gallo and the scary bits of his Sweeney Todd to make a Miles Gloriosus whose might is only exceeded by his vanity.
Forum, of course, is an early 1960s musical-comedy take on burlesque, with comely young women, leering older men and a battle-axe trying and failing to keep everyone else in line. (One of many tips of the hat to burlesque: Pseudolus says he has more bad news to deliver, and Hysterium replies, “I hope it’s good.”)
Thanks to Alan S. Reynolds’ ingenious scenic design, this production suggests a cross-breeding with a later-’60s artifact, Laugh-In: In addition to the three doors in the set that stand for the houses of Erronius, Lycus and Senex, there are hidden windows all over the place, and all manner of unlikely objects show up through those chinks.
And, in a nod to the musical end of musical comedy, choreographer Kevin Davis and his two fellow Proteans (Lori Engler and Patch Panzella) tap-dance niftily through many of their scenes.
The cast is filled ably with other comic talents, especially Melissa Davis as the deliciously vacuous maiden Philia to Michael Mucciolo’s sweet-faced Hero; Danny Villnow’s dogged Erronius; and Sara Catherine Barnes’ priceless Gymnasia, a dominatrix with her tongue firmly in her cheek.
Rod Cathey is a suitably brow-beaten Senex; Gail Bartell, her eyes rimmed in black, makes an amusingly scary Domina; and most of the rest of the cast do fine in smaller roles. One favorite moment: When Cathey, Stanley, Ouellette and Tony Dietterick (as Lycus) sing “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” the four of them are so cute and silly that they banish any sexist smirk from the stage.
The production’s final melee may seem a little drawn out, but Ploof and musical director Robin Jensen keep things moving nicely most of the time, and their actors leave nothing to chance. You may want to take in Forum just to see Jones use the reflection on his sword to zhuzh his hair, or to hear Ouellette moan like a mule in pain, or to listen to Stanley make his quavering, portentous call to Thespis, the inventor of acting. Whatever reason you have, be assured: Thespis has answered the call.
‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’
What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim-Larry Gelbart-Burt Shevelove musical.
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through July 10 (also, 7:30 p.m. June 13 and July 4).
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Cost: $29 general, $27 seniors and students, $15 Mondays.
Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1.