‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is its own reward. Written and awarded liberally 56 years ago, the musical is endowed with timeless comic writing by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, who could bless the sophisticated with the crass to generate a well-honed joke, a jaunty score by Stephen Sondheim, and witty lyrics by the same.
The piece is a classic because its humor is broad, bawdy, and fearless in a way that cannot become dated. Yes, there’s a gag or two that might ruffle a #metoo sensibility and lines that might bear scrutiny from the politically correct, but for the most part, “A Funny Thing” is chocked with farcical fundamentals that tickled ribs in the days of Plautus, the show’s ancient Roman playwright model, and entertain grandly to this day.
Witness Michael Dean Morgan’s current production of the musical for the Princeton Festival on stage through July 1. It has constant bits of business and shtick designed to make the rollicking even more hilarious, but while Morgan provides touches and slapstick routines for the chorus of three known as the Proteans, it’s Shevelove, Gelbart, and Sondheim who carry the day and make Morgan’s staging a success. Manufactured antics at best enhance the authors’ work, which is so well-crafted as not to need much help.
Morgan is smart in keeping his “Funny Thing” fairly straightforward and letting the script and lyrics do their work.
Morgan’s entire cast deserves praise as individuals and an ensemble. Michael Caizzi is a wily, funny Pseudolus, a “Bilko” — a master schemer personified by stage, TV, and film comic Phil Silvers — among Roman slaves who is engineering his way from bondage to freedom. Reliable Patrick James graces the festival with another well-drawn portrayal as Senex, the patrician of age 50 or so who longs for a fling with an ingenue he assumes is his household’s new maid.
Maxwell Carmel is a simultaneously virile and callow Hero. Matthew Mucha stomps with warrior zeal as Miles Gloriosus. Jordan Bunshaft overdoes admirably as Marcus Lycus, a procurer with a house full of comely courtesans, while using a great physical trick to earn laughs as the ancient Erronius, doomed by a soothsayer’s direction to do seven agonizing turns around the seven hills of Rome.
Roxy York is a commanding Domina who, though spoken of as a harridan, is pretty enough to turn a head or two. Stephanie Meadowcroft finds the right blend of coquettishness and denseness for the prize courtesan, Philia.
All of Morgan’s players do their jobs efficiently and amusingly. One does more. That stickout is Michael Bartkiewicz, who makes the prime and fertile role of Hysterium, Senex’s chief slave, funnier and wittier with an intelligent performance that makes the most of every opportunity and nuance.
Bartkiewicz has an endless arsenal of comic tools in his box of takes, expressions, and on-the-mark line readings. The beauty of Bartkiewicz’s performance is it’s so blatantly scene-stealing while seeming subtle, natural, and unforced.
Whether employing a moue, a flounce, or a display or anger or consternation, Bartkiewicz’s approach to broad comedy seems thoughtful, canny, and impeccably judged. This actor is in control of his talent and his ability to connect amusingly with his audience. His Hysterium is a gem. Best of all, much of what Bartkiewicz displays comes as an uproaring surprise. Though obviously rehearsed and prepared, he comes across as being spontaneously inventive about taking advantage of a comic moment.
In general, Morgan’s production is the right kind of clockwork. It wisely trusts able players to know their business and keep the play hopping while investing it with a lot of personality.
Michael Caizzi doesn’t have a lot of variety to his Pseudolus, but he proves he doesn’t need much because he barrels through with energy to spare and exudes a person who knows how to solve every dilemma in ways favorable to himself and to the situation at hand.
Caizzi gives a big performance that includes direct conversation with the audience. It engages, keeps the show moving in spirited tone, and works as a centerpiece for Morgan’s staging.
Jenna Pinchbeck, Erin Ulman, and Caitlin Ablaza play the Proteans, a versatile trio that fills a lot of roles and is charged with doing a lot of physical comedy. The group’s best moment comes when they play Roman soldiers formally announcing the arrival and wishes of Miles Gloriosus in crisp British accents.
Morgan keeps all simple, but he finds the fun inherent in “A Funny Thing.” From “Comedy Tonight” on, the production sails. Musical numbers are all done well, and “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” builds especially well.
Simplicity extends to three large, well-painted doors that serve as the homes of Senex, Lycus, and Erronius, designed by Wesley Cornwell and Megan Berry to be all Morgan needs to let the mayhem proceed. Marie Miller’s costumes are fun, and her triple wedding gowns for Philia, Domina, and Hysterium keep the simplicity going while striking the right note of both confusion and purity.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Princeton Festival, Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Through Sunday, July 1, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. $50 to $65. 609-258-2787 or www.princetonfestival.org