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A Stephen Sondheim musical arrived in Washington with Harold Prince at the helm. The two men hadn’t worked together in a while, but they were both gung-ho about this frothy new entertainment, with its evocation of an earlier, lighter theatrical style. Sondheim had written a charming score and clever lyrics, and the staging boasted a standout performance by a star with peerless vaudeville timing. Alas, before arriving in town, the show had a difficult incubation period, with changes in cast, director, and songs, and though everyone was working feverishly, on opening night, a Washington Post critic opined, “It’s not a bad idea…but a good deal more steam will be needed to reassure you that you haven’t wandered into amateur night.”
The show needed bounce, but it wasn’t Bounce. It was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, on the road to a far happier Broadway reception in 1962 after its creative team figured out what was wrong here in D.C. and put it right.
To see, some 40 years later, just how right they put it, hie yourself to the Signature Theatre, where Floyd King is heading a cast of pratfalling, tap-dancing, rubber-chicken-wielding comedians in an appropriately hysterical Forum revival. King, heretofore celebrated principally as the city’s funniest Elizabethan clown, doesn’t waste any time establishing his credentials as a vaudevillian in what was once the Zero Mostel role. He’s a crowd-pleaser from the moment he comes onequal parts Jack Benny schtick and Ed Wynnsomenessand director Gary Griffin has him set the evening’s improvisational tone with a nifty Shakespeare Theatre joke in the opening number. By the song’s end, there’s also been a Hamlet sight gag (Yorick’s skull makes a brief appearance), and thereafter the audience is pretty much in the palm of the leading man’s hand, chortling away whether he’s tripping over tongue twisters or twisting himself into pretzels to impersonate erotic pottery.
King plays Pseudolus, the conniving, freedom-seeking Roman slave who conspires to get the dashing juvenile lead (Sean MacLaughlin) and the cute virginal courtesan (Lauren Williams) together, while keeping randy parents and leering procurers, not to mention horny soldiers and seductive sluts, at bay. The plot, cobbled together from Plautus by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, is an intricate Swiss watch of a farce. And it supports a Sondheim score that, characteristically, was underappreciated when first heard on Broadway, only to become much loved as hit revival followed hit revival.
At Signature, the songs are being belted by a cast of singing comics, right to the low-slung rafters of a space intimate enough that microphones aren’t required, and the result is that every lyrical joke lands solidly. So do the more delicate phrasing felicities (“Today I woke, too weak to walk”) that make Sondheim songs such fun to deconstruct on second and third hearing. For Signature’s subscribers, this is more likely to be a 22nd and 23rd hearing, of coursewhich ups the stakes for the performers a bit. Still, MacLaughlin and Williams get the mocking tone just right in their sweet balladshe looking alternately appalled and charmed at the blithering idiocy she spouts with such a calculatedly coquettish airand their elders bring a knowing touch of burlesque to the brassier numbers.
Harry A. Winter is briskly amusing as a lecherous father, Buzz Mauro suitably panicked as the slave Hysterium, Christopher Bloch a deftly cringing flesh merchant, and when they join forces with King on “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” it’s hard not to feel that all’s right with musical comedy, whatever the era. Also fun are Donna Migliaccio as a shrill mom whose mood swings seem modeled a bit too closely on Medea’s, Christopher Flint as a bristling peacock of a military man, and Stephen Cupo as a nearsighted geezer who brings down the house at each of several well-timed entrances.
Ample comic use is made of the platforms, balconies, and windows on Lou Stancari’s farcically Flintstonian setting, and if Timm Burrow’s costuming doesn’t make you laugh (his helmets for Roman foot soldiers are capped with feet), you’re just not paying attention. Nor does Griffin’s antic staging miss many opportunities for inoffensively lewd sight gagsthere’s much fondling of statues, pawing of voluptuaries, and running with phallic cacti at groin level, plus a particularly deft use of bananas where many directors would settle for a peel-and-pratfall sequence. You may find yourself wishing, as I did, that after handing King those early Bard-oriented jokes to warm up the audience, the director had found a few more to help make his star a little more at ease with the songssomething involving Desdemona’s handkerchief, perhaps, or an ass’s head. At the final preview, King was still rushing tempos a bit. He’ll relax, no doubt.
The thing is, Forum is such an established smash at this late date that it’s hard not to wish that Signaturewhich is used to doing heavy lifting in making more problematic musicals soarhad taken a few more chances with it. The production, while plenty entertaining, seems almost too effortless, too undemanding of audiences for its own good. It could use the edge that New York critics sensed when Whoopi Goldberg took on the role of Pseudolus not long ago and the script’s talk of slaves suddenly took on added resonance.
Across the river at the Kennedy Center, incidentally, Bounce has that edge. And while Sondheim’s newest show possesses neither the assurance nor the musical familiarity of his better-known work at present, it’s worth noting that such staples of the Sondheim canon as Pacific Overtures, Passion, Merrily We Roll Along, and Assassins were equally troubled in their early incarnations. Forum played to nearly empty houses at the National Theatre 41 years ago, and critics declared its songs unhummable, yet all it took to make audiences cozy up to Pseudolus and his castmates was the writing of a little ditty called “Comedy Tonight.” Who’s to say Bounce’s Mizner brothers won’t be as lucky? Or that we won’t all be humming along when Signature revives the show in a decade or so?
Violinist Daniel Hoffman has just begun coaxing rich, primordial sounds from his instrument on a stage that looks like a huge abstract canvas in God’s Donkey (A Play on Moses) when a pair of upside-down feet appear near him. One foot is sandaled, the other bare. Then a head surfaces next to the feet. As the violinist plays on, head and feet are all pulled from below by the music, the head plopping onto the stage followed by a body that slithers lizardlike toward a downstage cluster of smooth river stones, the feet flipping over onto the stage floor followed by a body of their own.
Those bodies, soon standing erect, belong to Aaron Davidman and Eric Rhys Miller, and the 80-minute, intermissionless evening belongs to them, too. They and director Corey Fischer have infused the Traveling Jewish Theatre’s “Play on Moses” with a well-developed sense of play. The odd, Story Theater-style opening turns out to be a harbinger of much clown- and dance-inspired movement to come, all of it allowing the two men to blend irreverence with piety in their tale of a stuttering, down-to-earth Moses who overcomes personal doubts and limitations to lead his tribe out of slavery to the promised land.
The company’s props are minimal. Fluttering red fabric stands in for the burning bush, those river rocks for the pyramids’ building blocks; and, as Hoffman’s violin emits a cry, a pregnant woman’s skirt becomes her swaddled baby. The script is equivalently playful as it brushes in exposition (“Contact with culture [is] reduced to zero, though zero had not been invented yet”) and moves from Spartan comedy to spare, sometimes haunting evocations of the power of faith. CP