A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
A door-slamming, tit-shaking, tears of laughter-inducing farce of the first order, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is the show theatre lovers of Melbourne have waited for all year (despite one of the most unattractive marketing campaigns in recent memory).
A year or so out from Melbourne Theatre Company, Director Simon Phillips basically heads his own personal troupe of theatrical collaborators and performers. And what a team they are. The top-notch creatives of Forum have worked together on MTC hits such as Urinetown, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and The Drowsy Chaperone as well as commercial musicals such as Priscilla and Love Never Dies. The assembled actors, save for one new face, have all appeared in these hits as well. Clearly, the pre-established familiarity and trust have facilitated the creation of this latest sidesplitting delight.
The term ‘musical comedy’ is often bandied about for shows that have a bit of light relief between the usual boy-meets-girl developments. The comedy in Forum is on another plane altogether, an expertly constructed farce that turns the screws tighter and tighter as the evening progresses. Loosely and lovingly based on the works of Plautus, the genuine laughs in Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s script come at a pace that has seldom been achieved since. Even 2011’s smash hit One Man Two Guvnors stumbled in its second act, whereas Forum just rides a wave of ever increasing hilarity to its highly satisfying conclusion.
Much has been written of the deceptive simplicity of Stephen Sondheim’s score, the first Broadway show for which he wrote music as well as lyrics. Despite winning six 1963 Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Author, the score was not even nominated (the winner was Lionel Bart for Oliver!). “Comedy Tonight,” a late addition that saved the show, ranks with “Tradition” and “Wilkommen” as the greatest of opening numbers, clearly establishing the cheeky, bawdy, irreverent tone and introducing the entire company.
After a pair of ‘I wish’ numbers, in which we hear of young Hero’s desire for love and slave Pseudolus’ dream to free, the score flows on with an extraordinary number of charm songs, ostensibly giving the audience’s ribs a moment of relief from the relentless hilarity. “Lovely,” “Pretty Little Picture,” “Impossible’ and the show-stopping “Everybody Ought to have a Maid” are pleasures to be savoured, with music that is instantly hummable even for complete newcomers to the score.
While a production like this in Broadway or the West End would have one or two star names at most, Phillips and Producer John Frost have assembled an extraordinary line-up of performers, and the effort has certainly paid off. The actors’ comic skills, Phillips’ slick direction and the brilliance of the script combine to create the appearance of hilarious impromptu shenanigans. Minor line flubs and opening night nerves will surely be smoothed out as the season moves full steam ahead.
Phillips is ably supported by his regular Associate Director Dean Bryant and Choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, the two of whom had their own comic triumph earlier this year with The Production Company’s The Producers.
One odd misstep in the musical staging is the overblown number “That Dirty Old Man,” in which tacky gimmicks overshadow the clever shifts of passion in the lyrics.
Gabriela Tylesova, surely in demand the world over after her eye-popping work in Love Never Dies, has framed the action in a rather astonishing design that begins on stage as the traditional three Roman houses of the plot and ascends to abstract chaos overhead whilst also housing the musicians above the stage. Tylesova has also designed a cavalcade of perfectly witty, and revealingly sexy, costumes.
Nick Schlieper’s lighting effectively transforms the single set to create a range of moods and images, and assists the audience by pinpointing the action as the pace and pandemonium escalate.
Musical Director Mathew Frank and Musical Supervisor Guy Simpson keep the music fresh and light, with subtle updates to the vocal and dance arrangements. Pristine sound design reveals the full colour of the brassy, percussive score.
Master performer Geoffrey Rush would reap acclaim from simply stepping out on stage but he has achieved far more here. The central role of desperately conniving slave Pseudolus has been portrayed in the past as a jolly, rotund, camp figure. Rush has re-invented the role as a wiry, scab-kneed, mealy-mouthed schemer who progressively stumbles under the weight of the ever-growing burden of mistakes and ineptitudes of those around him. Having had no songs in his last musical starring role, as Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone, Rush finally shows that he also has a fine singing voice.
Mitchell Butel, looking a scream in a severe Roman version of a Louise Brooks bob, has the funniest arc, transforming from being the rigidly uptight master slave to being seduced into dressing up as a beautiful young dead maiden in one of Pseudolus’ plans. Butel is in full control of his hysteria as Hysterium, expertly exuding an air of barely concealed frenzy, tinged with delight, in his voice and body language.
Magda Szubanski, another to reveal a talent for singing here, is a delight as the domineering Domina. Fast Forward fans might see her wig as a matronly update on Pixie-Ann Wheatley. Szubanski’s tendency to almost crack up, however, may be amusing in Kath & Kim blooper reels but really has no place on the professional stage. Shane Bourne, as Domina’s long-suffering patrician husband Senex, presents a likeable characterisation although he is let down at times by his broad Aussie accent.
Melbourne’s sweetheart of the stage Christie Whelan succeeds in projecting the loveliness of virginal courtesan Philia. Her vague airheadedness, reminiscent of Dory in Finding Nemo, is a particularly endearing aspect of the comedy. Whelan makes a gorgeous pairing with the handsome Hero of Hugh Sheridan. A newcomer to the Phillips fold, Sheridan is revealed as a confident, appealing, highly talented stage performer. (Aficionados of fine male torsos will not want to blink during Sheridan’s brief towel clad appearance at the top of act two)
Gerry Connolly gives himself fully over to the portrayal of an oily, unlikeable pimp as Marcus Lycus. Adam Murphy, in the most spectacular costume of the show, proves a mightily masculine Miles Gloriosus, and his singing is outstanding. Stage vet Bob Hornery steals every scene he is in as Erronius, befuddled old man in search of his children, stolen in infancy by pirates.
For those of you who have absolutely no interest in pirates (wink wink) there are the stunning Amazonian courtesans of the house of Marcus Lycus. Brooke Synnott stands out in a jaw-dropping display of her incredible flexibility. Luxury casting comes from the presence of Susan Ann Walker as particularly voluptuous and man hungry courtesan, Gymnasia.
Frantically supporting the action in innumerable roles are the three Proteans. Triple threat Rohan Browne again demonstrates his talent for physical comedy. Troy Sussman shakes his curls and flaunts his belly in the name of slapstick. Further luxury casting comes from everyone’s favourite music theatre teddy bear crush Brent Hill.
The ovation of the audience at the conclusion of the show is marked by a sheer joy and elation that is often sought but rarely heard.
From newcomers to devotees, theatregoers of all levels are sure to enjoy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, now playing for twelve weeks at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne.
Phillips and team joined the cast on stage after the curtain calls to offer the last round of applause to the memory of publicist extraordinaire Suzie Howie, who passed away during the week.
Photos: Jeff Busby