May 26, 2019

Robbins makes ‘Funny Thing’ happen

When Broadway directors consider presenting a musical, one of the driving concerns is star power. What would “My Fair Lady” have been without Rex Harrison? Or “Camelot” without Julie Andrews and Richard Burton? Or “Hello, Dolly!” without Carol Channing or Pearl Bailey?

When local director Ken Stack presents a musical, he’s up against the same concern. This is just a guess, but when Stack came up with the idea to do “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” he must have known he could rely on the star power of Bangor actor Steve Robbins for a production of “Forum” running this month at The Grand in Ellsworth. The show, which takes place in ancient Rome, requires a lead actor who is graceful, uninhibited, funny and completely out of his mind. Who wouldn’t have gleefully cast Robbins — a whirling reminiscence of Jackie Gleason, the Three Stooges, and even Zero Mostel himself — in the role of Pseudolus?

With over-the-top stamina, Robbins leads the troupe in telling the story of a slave who wants his freedom and two young lovers who want a life together. That’s not to say, however, that the community cast isn’t admirable in its own right. It certainly is. Michael Weinstein and Alan Gallant (as master and slave) are often outrageously entertaining. Zachary A. Field and Sarah Schneider as the young lovers are a talented and comical couple. (She’s a head taller than he.)

The belly-dancing Audrey Swanton and the Egyptian-like Eliza M. Jacobson are alluring with their band of courtesans, including Heather Astbury, Kim Reiss, Malia Barhhart and Mary Holloway.

Steve Gormley is appropriately dense and puffed-up for the role of Gloriosus the warrior. Virginia Cunningham, David Closson and Stanley Davis are also fun in supporting roles. And there’s no way to leave out an applause for the gaggle of proteans who play the chorus roles.

Choreographer Judith Savage has the cast moving in light-hearted steps, and Linda Grindle does some clever work with the costumes. “Forum” is one of those rare musicals in which the man wears the dress, and it’s fun to watch the humor that results from this switch. When is the last time you saw a man carefully positioning his legs so you couldn’t see up his toga?

John Haskell, as music director, keeps the tempos sharp, but often drowns out the singers in volume, particularly in the show’s most recognizable song, “Comedy Tonight.” There are times, too, when Stephen Sondheim’s score is simply beyond the reach of this small orchestra.

The witty script is often bawdy, and the freewheeling sexual mores — not to mention the objectification of women — might turn some audience members off. This is Rome, after all. And worse than that, it’s American musical theater. But in Ken Stack’s production, it’s also a little bit of vaudeville and a lot of fun.

Still, from beginning to end, it’s a showcase for Steve Robbins. Whether he is making goo-goo eyes at a courtesan or devising a scheme of escape, Robbins is a consummate actor, joker, jester and mocker. He and his cohorts do everything they can to give this show its comic bang. If the rest of Rome was anything like this Hancock County cast, it’s easy to see how it fell. Probably laughing on its belly.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” will be presented 8 p.m. Nov. 17 and 18, and 2 p.m. Nov. 19 at The Grand in Ellsworth. For tickets, call 667-9500.

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