Although full of energy and containing many comic highlights, 2nd Star Productions' "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" seems a little underseasoned, as if there's something crucial missing. It's not as if there aren't a number of fine performers and talented singers here. But the cast's ensemble work is much weaker than its members' individual acting, and directorial missteps interrupt the comic illusion.
This frothy farce demands spot-on timing and precise comic sensibility. The tale, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, loosely adapts various works of Plautus to tell the story of the ancient Roman slave Pseudolus (Chuck Roberts), who makes a bargain with his young master, Hero (Bill Edwards), that he can win his freedom if he succeeds in uniting the boy with a beautiful virgin, Philia (Victoria Wiser). Unfortunately, a fearsome warrior, Miles Gloriosus (David O'Brien), is vying for the maiden as well. As Pseudolus attempts to elude the irate soldier, just about every comic device that has ever been seen on stage is set in motion--cross-dressing, a separated-at-birth revelation and a mix-up of virility and sleeping potions, to name just a few.
Whether you see the characters as millennia-old comic archetypes or more humbly as stock Broadway figures, the script certainly paints them broadly. And that's where the production runs into trouble. Although a number of the actors lend verve and conviction to their characters--Heidi Gwinn's Domina is properly imperious, and O'Brien makes as marvelously self-important a soldier as Edwards does an over-earnest young lover--other characterizations are only listlessly realized. A gaggle of courtesans, including dominatrix Linda Swann and exotic Michelle Wingard, prove to be agile dancers, but their roles are sorely underplayed. Meanwhile, three "Proteans" (Debbie Cooke, Wendell Holland, and Scott A. Hancock), who take on various small roles, are energetic physical clowns, yet sometimes seem out of step with one another.
As the mastermind behind the musical's increasingly absurd proceedings, Richards, on the other hand, strikes a suitably hammy note but sometimes indulges in a little too much mugging or an unnecessary ad lib. And the entire cast is ill-served by Jason M. Kimmell's choreography, which tends toward the staid in a play that demands inventive stage business. John F. Guyton's direction is occasionally clumsy, too, as when the stage is left empty for several seconds while O'Brien attempts to chase after his virgin bride.
Yet the production has many compensations. A number of the cast members have fine singing voices, and the evening moves along at a smooth, lively clip. Jane Wingard's playful, colorful costumes help to create a spirit of good cheer. And the Playhouse's excellent acoustics allow the orchestra to do full justice to Stephen Sondheim's infectious score, with the rousing opening number "Comedy Tonight" and a witty ballad of father-son rivalry, "Impossible," coming off particularly well.
On the whole, the production's rough spots seem mostly a result of insufficient preparation and may well improve as the show continues its run. This cast doesn't lack ability; it just needs more practice working together to perfect its comic timing and keep this airy confection afloat.
The play runs through June 26 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park, Route 3 South, Bowie. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for students and seniors. For reservations, call 301-205-0502.