For those who think Stephen Sondheim is all about deep and complex music and lyrics … well they're right. But in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," Sondheim's cleverness is mixed into farce.
In the Mad Cow Theatre's production of "Forum," the result is a pleasant evening of laughter at the hijinks of the goofballs on stage.
That the production never reaches the level of "uproarious" is due to the wishy-washy nature of the show itself — never really vulgar enough (despite featuring a house of ill repute) to take the low road, not witty enough to serve highbrow humor.
But at Mad Cow, director Katrina Ploof dispatches her deliciously expressive cast through the pratfalls, mistaken identities and farcical scenery chewing with an expert hand.
The story turns on quick-witted slave Pseudolus' quest to free himself from his young master, Hero, by winning him the heart of Philia, a young courtesan promised to a conceited army captain. Caught up in his ever-evolving schemes are a henpecked husband, an old man searching for his missing children (abducted by pirates), the cowardly brothel owner and the semi-hysterical head slave, aptly named Hysterium.
Alan S. Reynolds' fun scenic design sets a cartoonish tone from the start, and the set adds to the show's liveliness (and makes the Mad Cow's smallish stage seem bigger) with the use of its doors, windows and other apertures.
Musical director Robin Jensen gets such spot-on blending in the singing for the opening number (the famous "Comedy Tonight") and the finale, that it seems a shame Sondheim didn't include more company numbers.
The actors play their parts with a wink to the audience, especially Stephan Jones as the army captain, pumped up in both body and ego. Michael Mucciolo has the right slack-jawed attitude as Hero, and his funny duet with Rod Cathey, playing his randy father, shows off Sondheim's best song in the show.
Rick Stanley, as Pseudolus, crackles with energy and charm — and Thomas Ouellette is so funnily high strung that his nervous outbursts of laughter seem like a necessity. He's wound so tight he might otherwise snap.
Giving them all a run for their money in a variety of roles are Kevin Davis, Lori Engler and Patch Panzella, who juggle scarves, turn cartwheels and do a mean tap dance. And Danny Villnow, as a semi-blind man, makes a simple walk across the stage, bland smile on his crinkled-up face, a comedy treat.
The women, though funny, don't fare quite as well. Melissa Davis is deliberately dopey as Philia, the object of Hero's affection, and Gail Bartell is comically cantankerous as Domina, Hero's domineering wife. But it's tough to glimpse of a heart underneath the characters' surface laughs, and that makes this show much less warm than, say, Mad Cow's production of Sondheim's "Company" last fall.
But even if the laughs in "Forum" are less affectionate, they're still plenty loud.
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See for yourself
•What: Mad Cow Theatre production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," a musical comedy by Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbert
•Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando
•When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, as well as June 13 and July 4 (both Mondays); 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through July 10
•Tickets: $29 adults, $27 seniors and students, $15 for Monday shows
•Call: 407-297-8788Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times