There are two keys to a good production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Key 1: a good Pseudolus, wily slave and emcee, master clown, fine vocalist, fourth-wall-busting happy destroyer, and gifted pratfaller.
Key 2: three crazy, talented Proteans. They're Proteans because they play many roles. They present parts of the story you can't otherwise see onstage (example: the abduction of the children of Erronius by pirates, which can't just be told to us but must be shown), and also act as prostitutes, soldiers, slaves, anyone else needed.
With those two keys, you could act Funny Thing in a landfill and still get laughs.
The Princeton Festival production of Funny Thing, through July 1 at the Matthews Acting Studio, jingles these keys in its toga. The production makes of a small budget a big virtue. Michael Caizzi channels Zero Mostel in movement, hamminess, and ad-libs, adding a likable dose of himself. And three bows to Caitlin Ablaza, Jenna Pinchbeck, and Erin Ulman, the Proteans, a terrifically silly mini-ensemble within the ensemble.
This stripped-down, back-to-the-roots rendition is simultaneously slapdash, as it must be, and tight. Eleven well-cast actors, most of whom can really sing, keep the warhorse in a lather. Forum is often a big production, all flashing swords, swirling togas, and elaborate sets, as in the great version at the Walnut Street Theatre last fall. Here it's three doors, three windows above, and a bench that gets moved around for greatest chaos. Director Michael Dean Morgan and set designer Wesley Cornwell thus focus us on things done, sung, and said.
Crucial, since the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart is one of Broadway's funniest, with as much vaudeville and 1940s shtick as Roman farce. Caizzi and company honor the book with slapstick most frenetic. And the lyrics by then-young (as of 1962) Stephen Sondheim are wondrous: You know the songs are good when the audience laughs in understanding, even as the lyrics help the story along.
All of that was richly on display Sunday afternoon. As meant to, the brilliant tune that made the original show a smash, "Comedy Tonight," instantly won over the audience. The hilarious "Lovely" is sung first by the virgin harlot Philia (sweet-voiced Stephanie Meadowcroft) and her lover, Hero (fresh-faced Maxwell Carmel), as a naïve description of herself, and later as most idiotic praise by Pseudolus, of his boss slave Hysterium (Michael Bartkiewicz, crazier as the show goes on), dressed as a bride. And "That'll Show Him," again by empty-headed Philia, is a stand-up piece of utter nonsense.
Many folks have noted, and tried to explain, the resurgence of farce here, in England, in France, and elsewhere. Is public life now so mortally absurd that we need the release from taste and care of a Forum? Well, that's how the show advertises itself: No moral, no meaning, just "something for everybawdy," as Pseudolus puts it. That's what the Princeton show gives us.