It's a bittersweet production for the Manatee Players, but only the sweetness shows through.
The Players' current staging of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is pretty much a delight from start to finish thanks to a lively and charismatic cast, and, of course, to great songs by Stephen Sondheim.
The reason the show is bittersweet is that it's the last show the Players will ever do in their historic home on Old Main Street. They're scheduled to open their next show, "Miss Saigon," in their new home at the Manatee Performing Arts Center on March 28.
As much fun as this production of "Forum" is, it does serve to point out how badly the Players need a new space. There are 17 members in the cast -- not an especially large cast for a musical -- and they barely fit on the stage for the curtain-call reprise of "Comedy Tonight."
The whole cast does fine work here, and the ensemble vocal numbers are among the show's highlights. But any production of "Forum" rises and falls with the actor who plays Pseudolus. Fortunately, Manatee Players regular Mike Nolan is absolutely hilarious.
Zero Mostel, who played the role in the original Broadway version and in the film, is the definitive Pseudolus, Nolan has the same kind of physical and facial abilities. But instead of Mostel's perpetual expression of worry, Nolan has a broad and nearly constant sly smile. He comes across as bemused more than exasperated by the serpentine development unfolding around him, which gives this production an appealing and slightly different flavor.
The plot (with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) is so silly and inconsequential that it hardly merits mention. But essentially, Pseudolus is a Roman slave who tries to earn his freedom by hooking up his young master with the virgin next door. Then, as the saying goes, madcap hijinks ensue. The situation deteriorates into a bawdy burlesque with mistaken identities involving soldiers, slaves, courtesans and eunuchs.
Sondheim is not known for catchy melodies, but "Forum," one his early shows, is full of songs that stick in your head for hours after you leave the theater. "Comedy Tonight" is by far the most familiar, but "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" and several others are every bit as appealing.
Nolan's performance is the most easily notable, but there are some excellent performances all the way through the cast, from the main roles to the small ones. There are one or two performances that aren't up to the level of the others, but that's to be expected in community theater, and they certainly don't damage the joyous overall effect of the show.
Among the standouts are Jason Ellis, who plays the young suitor, who has a stunningly gorgeous voice and Denny Miller, who's hilarious in the smaller role of Erronius. Jgar Hellwig doesn't enter until halfway through the proceedings, but he leaves a lasting impression as the pompous and sinister Miles Gloriosus.
If you really want to look for negative points you can probably find them. Most of the dancing is weak, but director/choreographer Bob Trisolini has devised movements that mostly look OK even when they're done by non-dancers. There are a couple of experienced dancers in the cast, and Trisolini has devised come clever moves for the ones who can handle them. Trisolini also deserves props for his staging of a fast-paced free-for-all near the show's end.
The one thing that truly marred the evening was an obnoxiously long appeal for money before opening curtain. Every theater company in the country needs money badly, but almost none would take 10 minutes before a longish show to plead for donations. It was inconsiderate, but it apparently worked: at intermission, a Players official announced that some had made a $5,000 donation.
Details: Through March 17 at Manatee Players, 102 12th St. W., Bradenton. Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $26; $13 for student. Information: 941-748-5875 or manateeplayers.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.