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It is the best of Sondheim, it is the worst of Sondheim. It is the first Sondheim, it is the quite possibly the last Sondheim. It is Forum. It is Bounce.
Let’s start with the best.
Floyd King is perhaps the only actor in this town capable of making one forget a legendary screen performance by the mythic Zero Mostel. And yet King — who utilizes every last bit of his vast comic prowess as Pseudolus, a Roman slave bartering for his freedom in Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — pretty much zeroes out any memory of Zero.
King may be the centerpiece, but the production as a whole at Signature Theatre is a ribald, zesty affair, an evening that leaves you in stitches and busts open any stitches you might happen to have (those just out of surgery are best advised to avoid the show). A frothy, farcical burlesque that lampoons ancient Rome, Forum is about one thing and one thing alone: making the audience laugh. Without interruption.
It’s not easy creating comedy this brilliant, but years later you can almost feel the young and unbridled talent of Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics in 1962, and book authors Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, surging through the proceedings. Director Gary Griffin dives headlong into the zany fray, never holding back. Griffin whips his cast into the kind of frenzied screwball froth that Signature’s first production of the season, Twentieth Century, ultimately lacked.
The evening is a treasure trove of comic performances, from King’s sparkling Pseudolus, played with a broad, appealing wink and nudge, to Donna Migliaccio’s brash and exceedingly loud Domina, to Christopher Flint’s strapping and obnoxiously narcissistic General Gloriosus to Steven Cupo’s brief yet keenly played turn as Erronius, an elderly blind Roman coerced into a bit of Olympiad-worthy athletics. As would-be young lovers Hero and Philia, Sean MacLaughlin and Lauren Williams sing their hearts out (and melt ours in the process). And much praise must be heaped on a trio of actors who portray everything from foot soldiers to eunuchs with the equal degrees of comic wham, bang, boom.
The plot to Forum is an inconsequential toss-off, a mere vehicle for jokes and musical moment. Not inconsequential in the least, however, are Sondheim’s songs, which exhibit, even in those early years, a startling need to strive for something beyond the conventional, a need to present things — even comedy — on an intellectual plane.
Forty years later, Sondheim is still traversing that intellectual terrain. But his newest effort, Bounce, doesn’t bounce, fly, or do much of anything. It just sits there, like a very expensively produced lump.
The problem lies in the narrative construct. This real-life tale of the brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner who at the turn-of-the-Twentieth Century found their fortune in a rash of get rich quick schemes and, in architect Addison’s case, a talent for opulent, larger-than-life design (he was largely responsible for the mansions of Palm Springs), never once congeals.
There may be a musical in the story of these two men. But Sondheim — working with director Harold Prince and John Weidman, who wrote the book — hasn’t found it. What he has found, strangely enough, is an act two love story between Addison and a young, spoiled heir named Hollis Bessemer. The song in which the two men discover their love — “You ” — is a magnificent moment of emotional bliss in an otherwise barren wasteland.
To be fair, the evening has a few good numbers — including a spry title song — and a richly realized and completely captivating performance by Richard Kind as Addison. It also a offers up a whiff of nostalgic greatness with the appearance of 1930s film star Jane Powell as Mama Mizner, who sings with a songbird’s sweetness and commands the stage with a regal grace.
But Howard McGillin, who possesses a classic Sondheim baritone, is miscast as Wilson. If McGillin is capable of depth, he’s far too busy cavorting in the shallow end of the pool to display it here.
Bounce ends its run at the Kennedy Center this weekend. It will be a surprise if it lands anywhere else.