By Kay Kipling
There’s a little bit of a family reunion feeling to the Manatee Players’ A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and a bittersweet one at that, as it’s the final production to be presented in the theater troupe’s longtime home at downtown Bradenton’s Riverfront Theater. (The long-awaited new theater, the Manatee Performing Arts Center, opens in March.) As is befitting a community theater, there are veteran performers onstage who’ve probably done more shows than they can remember here, but there are also younger or just newer cast members making their debuts—the next generation, you might say.
Not that this show, the first to feature both music and lyrics by a then-young Stephen Sondheim (with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) is one to allow much room for sentiment. From the opening number on, which promises Comedy Tonight, Forum is about getting laughs, and if it doesn’t always succeed, it still manages to entertain nicely.
In case you’ve somehow never seen this 50-year-old show before, it’s set in ancient Rome, where the slave Pseudolus (Mike Nolan, not as zany or antic as Zero Mostel in the original, but suitably crafty and lecherous when required) is scheming to win his freedom by pleasing his master, the young Hero (Jason Ellis) with the prize of his desired bride, Philia (Caitlin Longstreet). Unfortunately, she’s betrothed to soldier extraordinaire Miles Gloriosus (Jgar Hellwig, just about perfect as the posturing macho man), so Pseudolus has to cook up a plan to prevent that wedding, pronto.
Ultimately, that means dressing up his fellow slave, the nervous Hysterium (Rodd Dyer, comically twitchy and twittering), as the soldier’s supposedly plague-ridden bride, while also trying to keep Hero’s randy father, Senex (Mark Shoemaker), away from both Philia and his suspicious wife, Domina (Meg Newsome). And don’t forget the long-missing neighbor, Erronius (Denny Miller), who turns up at just the wrong moment, or all those scantily clad courtesans next door…
It’s all ripe for a lot of fun, especially in the second act, which features a fake funeral courtesy of Pseudolus and the disguised Hysterium. For the most part director/choreographer Bob Trisolini (assisted by musical director Bobby Brader) has a cast well suited to their characters, with cute chemistry between Ellis and Longstreet and nice work by Shoemaker and the aforementioned Nolan, Dyer and Hellwig. And no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it still cracks me up when Erronius totters across the stage, making his rounds of the Seven Hills of Rome.
Forum continues through March 17; for tickets call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.