- Tom Hurst
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Mad Cow Theatre, Stage Left through July 10
Producing a big, bawdy, Broadway musical on the postage stamp-sized stage of the Mad Cow Theatre is like playing a major league baseball game without any of your stellar sluggers. Just as a lineup comprises nine hitters with at least a few hot bats among them, shows like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum are written to include several boffo production numbers with all the girls, glitz and gusto that a major Great White Way show can afford.
So if you're smart and still want to win for your fans, you do what a good ball team must do when the big bats are on the bench: You play small ball. You bunt, steal, spray singles and squeeze out runs one at a time. Luckily, Forum director Katrina Ploof, realizing her limitations of cast and space, has directed the 1962 Tony Award-winning show (words and music by Stephen Sondheim) in a way that emphasizes the strengths of the show: sharp comic characterizations, intimate musical numbers, direct conversation with the audience and an overall friendly, ingratiating tone.
Carrying out Ploof's game plan is a terrific cast of Mad Cow regulars, plus a few new calves. Veteran Rick Stanley plays Pseudolus, the slave who will do anything to gain his freedom - the comic engine of the show - as if the part were made for him. He exhibits the same manic deliberation and quick verbal wit that garnered Nathan Lane his Best Actor Tony for the show's 1996 Broadway revival. He is ably abetted in his madcap adventures by Thomas Ouellette, who imbues the role of Hysterium with perfectly calibrated … well, hysteria.
Stephan Jones is an ideal Miles Gloriosus, the vainglorious warrior who turns the rest of the play's characters into quivering jelly molds with only a look and a sneer, and Rod Cathey does a good turn as Senex, the henpecked and lecherous Roman senator married to Gail Bartell's shrewish Domina. Melissa Davis and Michael Mucciolo portray the young lovers Philia and Hero with appropriately dewy-eyed innocence. Tony Dietterick as Marcus Lycus and Sara Catherine Barnes as Gymnasia make the most of their ancillary roles, and Kevin Davis, Lori Engler and Patch Panzella, as the Proteans, dance and cavort their way across the stage as various crowds, soldiers and eunuchs.
Unlike most of Sondheim's subsequent shows (this was the first Broadway production for which he wrote both words and music) not many hit tunes from Forum have survived the slew of amateur and community productions presented in the last 50 years. Even so, songs like "The House of Marcus Lycus," "Lovely," "Free" and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" display more than a hint of the musical and lyrical genius that earned Sondheim his reputation as the finest Broadway tunesmith of the late 20th century. You can catch them all in Mad Cow's enjoyable small-ball production.