Funny things happened on the way to Bowie

Pretty Little Picture Funny Thing Happened ForumBOWIE – The variety of dinner theater experiences is my subject in mid-April, as dinner theaters offer diverse experiences in our environs. Moving from west to east, we start in Frederick and end in Prince George’s County. 

The Way Off Broadway Dinner Theater in Frederick presented a classic Broadway musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” from March 23 – May 19. The golden age of dinner theatres was perhaps the 1970s, and during this heyday, such musicals were the recent fare of the previous decade or two. Thus, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” was an anniversary of sorts: for the theater’s 25th year, Way Off Broadway returned to this Stephen Sondheim standby, one of the Frederick dinner theatre’s first productions. The material itself goes much, much farther back, for it is based on three plays by the playwright Plautus from Roman antiquity.    

The plot is simple: a clever slave who wants his freedom in ancient Rome can do so if he helps his master woo and win a beautiful girl. The true joy of the play is the bawdy romp of mistakes, misdeed, and misunderstandings. The Way Off Broadway team achieves all this in a lively manner, and the Broadway-style tunes are sung well and boisterously, although only “Comedy Tonight” and “I’m Lovely” are likely to stay in mind after the show is over. The small stage setting is simple, yet every inch is used effectively to present farces taking place in three houses on a street in Ancient Rome. All are Roman in costumes and settings, yet the memory evoked is rather a classic Broadway of the mid-twentieth century.

A very different theatre experience is on offer at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, which is presenting “Newsies” from March 15 – June 10.

This is a musical based on a 1992 Disney film – a movie once received as lackluster but which has since developed a certain cult following. Although revolving around a newsboys strike in the late 1800s, Newsies comes across more than a bit like Glee or High School Musical. In this spirit, the audience at Toby’s enjoys a play based not on an ancient classic or a vintage musical, but of a cult classic.      

Yet Plautus, inspiration for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” long ago wrote: “Are you frowning because I said this was to be a tragedy? I am a god: I'll transform it to comedy.” The writers of “Newsies” tried valiantly but ultimately failed to transform into comedy the poverty of orphaned newsboys and the violence of strikebreaking against them. A typical unsuccessful try at humor in Newsies: “Whoever said war is hell wasn’t trying to sell newspapers.” This line even fails at cynism.        

Another troubling issue in “Newsies” is that the modern musical score (with the exception of a flamboyant performance of “That's Rich”) is completely out of sync with the era of the late 1800s. Here a significant difference emerges between “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Newsies”: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” mixes ancient Roman comedy with the Broadway musical, and the audience relishes the comic incongruity this achieves. In "Newsies," such juxtaposition is not intentional comedy but unhappy accident and mismatch.        

There are also anachronistic phrases like “he doesn't do happiness.” This modern expression is said by a familiar face, Theodore Roosevelt, future president of the United States, but at the time of the plot still governor of New York. No nuance to TR’s portrayal or that of publisher Joseph Pulitzer is given: Roosevelt is all good and Pulitzer all bad. These were both complicated men who should not be treated in such a simplistic manner.    

The performance of “Newsies” at Toby’s is very professional, sporting firm acting, effective lighting and staging, and, above all, the refined choreography in a show which is dominated by newsboys dancing. Several news boys splitting newspaper broadsheets à la Gene Kelly’s dance sequence in the film Summer Stock is nothing less than deft. A show, however, is only as good as its source material, and Newsies clearly has limitations.    

For those unfamiliar with dinner theatre and not ready to take the full plunge, Bowie Community Theatre on April 18 may be just the right ticket. For the price of a Wendy’s hamburger and a soda, one can see a mystery play with science fiction overtones in "They Clone from Outer Space." Bowie Community Theatre in Prince George’s County has been putting on these productions at Wendy’s at 16400 Harbour Way in Bowie for some time. This 7 p.m. production may be their last at least for a while, so those not used to the dinner theatre concept of combining food with live drama might enjoy this first exposure in a low-key, friendly setting.


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