Princeton Festival presents a perennial favorite

A scene from
A scene from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at the Princeton Festival
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum at the Princeton Festival

This perennial favorite fully upheld the Princeton Festival’s traditionally high standards in every way. It played to a packed house (SRO) that roared with laughter at all the right moments, and applauded until their hands were in danger of damage. When you stop to think about it, that is pretty amazing for a show that has its origins over 2,000 years ago in the writings of the Roman satirist Plautus. Much of humor rarely translates well across time, generations, and cultures, but the satire and slapstick of Plautus is just as funny now as it was millennia ago, and no doubt will be millennia hence as well.

The embellishment of the story with some of Stephen Sondheim’s best song writing has made A Funny Thing a staple of high school musicals and stock companies everywhere. You simply can’t help but leave the theater humming “Comedy Tonight.” I’m still singing it around the house the day after the performance.

They updated the show and it worked superbly

This high degree of popularity and familiarity presented director Michael Dean Morgan and his team with a challenge; to risk updating a show that audiences love without losing the appeal and comfort level of the familiar. They took a risk, playing with gender identities and it worked superbly. Having three young women play the proteans and courtesans, roles usually filled by three young men and six female courtesans, was a brilliant and effective innovation that I rather think Plautus himself would have agreed captured perfectly the spirit of the story. He might well wish he had thought of it first.

The casting for this production merits the highest praise. I saw the original production way back in 1962 at the Alvin Theater. I’ve seen the movie I don’t know how many times and quite a few armature productions as well. At no point in the Festival performance did I think, “I dunno… this performer is good but so and so was better.” For one thing I didn’t have time for musings on the past. This performance moved at lightning speed and had my attention gripped tight right from the opening number.

Michael Caizzi in the lead role of Pseudolus met the challenge

Playing a role that has been defined for all time by a theater immortal such as Zero Mostel has got to be an intimidating assignment. Nonetheless, Michael Caizzi in the lead role of Pseudolus met that challenge head on and gave us a high-energy performance with perfect comic timing. Further, he did it without trying to be Zero Mostel. He gave us the Caizzi version and I have no doubt Mostel himself would have enjoyed it because it was wonderful.

Michael Bartkiewicz, as the frantically stressed head slave Hysterium, and Jordan Bunshaft, as the oily procurer Marcus Lycus (and as Errronius) were comedy treats. The very cute Maxwell Carmel as Hero, the lovesick young man was perfect in the role. His duet with Philia, his true love played by the enchanting Stephanie Meadowcroft was exquisite. Matthew Mucha as Miles Gloriosus, looked acted and sang the part to hyper-macho perfection. Patrick James and Roxy York as Senex and Domina were convincing and delightful. Caitlin Ablaza, Jenna Pinchbeck and Erin Ulman as the proteans easily switched from being soldiers to courtesans with marvelous fluidity.

Nate Golden’s choreography was a joy to watch

Wesley Cromwell and Megan Berry created a simple but highly effective set and lighting design. Corey Everly directed an excellent pit band (which was actually in a balcony.) Maria Miller’s costume designs tipped a hat to the original production but were creative and perfect for each character. A very special mention must be made of Nate Golden. His complex and perfectly rehearsed choreography was a joy to watch. Michael Morgan and the entire cast and crew deserve our praise and thanks for an evening we will not forget.