A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Michael Trakas | 09 Jul 2016 10:42am
Artform’s staging of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has all the cheery exuberance and somewhat retro fun of a toga party at an American frat house — do the on-campus Greeks do that anymore, or has such innocent naughtiness disappeared in today’s overload of digital ersatz sophistication? If so, too bad for them; this evening of capers is merrily nonsensical, a Sondheim/Shevelove/Gelbart celebration of the ‘tricky slave’ rom-coms of the Roman (not Greek) theatre of Plautus.
Forum works a vein of comedy with origins around 200 BC, but by now, though very much alive and perhaps even timeless, it’s something of an artefact itself. Originally staged in 1962 it was the first production for which Stephen Sondheim wrote both lyrics and music.
Its now familiar and ever catchy musical numbers are all here. The opener A Comedy Tonight is begun by Cory Wordlaw as Pseudolus, the clever slave yearning for his freedom, and is taken up by the full cast. They’re an impressively large gathering, 18 in all — so many that one wonders if half of them aren’t obliged to wait outside by the stage door until called as the Broadway Studio theatre is so compact. The cast’s youth matches its exuberance. That is entirely appropriate since at heart this is a send-up of youthful intrigue outwitting watchful and concupiscent old age. And that, for sure, is an eternally renewing theme.
The ‘front men’ are slaves and knaves: on one hand Wordlaw as personal slave to his love-smitten young master Hero (Benjamin Essenhigh) and Andy Moore as the ponderous major domo Hysterium left in charge while the masters are away, and, on the other hand, Lycus the local brothel keeper (Dave Hughes) and Chris Arden as Hero’s father, eager to taste of the panderer’s wares. I must also mention at this point the scene-stealing threesome of Proteans (Adrian Smith, Barry Knight and Paul Stone) whose over the top (in a good way) characterisations throughout the piece nearly steal whatever scene they are in.
Wordlaw is always fine comedic value throughout the show. Zero Mostell originated the role of Pseudolus, but given his weight and girth Mostell was more leer and lyric than pratfall. Wordlaw has the quiver and rubber-faced grimaces for the role, but he also has a bounding physical energy. Moore as Hysterium is a fine, deliberate, distrustful foil, and the two work together with the familiar ease of a vaudeville duo.
This production entices you with its humor, candor and energy, so that you willingly excuse some incongruities: the set was rudimentary but serviceable, yet if anything more grand had been attempted it would have left the audience with nowhere to sit in the small studio space; the costumes include some improvised low-budget assemblages that might have been draperies in earlier life. One particular bit of fantastic casting and costuming is that the Geminae (twins), played by Emilie Harris and Rochelle Bisson, really do look like twins! And I cannot forget all of the other lovely courtesans (Natlaia Wigley, Sarah Chapman, Lydia Porter), especially Laurie Brown as Gymnasia, who’s costume, although not strictly period, left nothing to the imagination and was just perfect as was her willingness to allow other members of the cast to bury their heads in her cleavage without even blinking. I also enjoyed the cast’s playfulness with the audience. This is one of those rare shows where breaking the fourth wall can work, and this cast definitely knows it.
The comic parents Senex and his wife Domina (Elaine Lewis) constitute a sly visual joke (Arden tall and dour, Lewis regal and emphatic). Lewis doesn’t have a lot of time onstage, since her departure to visit distant family opens the way for shenanigans; but she opens Act II with a barrel-house lament about her husband, That Dirty Old Man, done in exceedingly fine voice and cadence.
Essenhigh as Hero (who’s not really a hero at all, but rather a moonstruck adolescent) and Philia (Rosalind Killpack) as the object of his (and his father’s and of the soldier’s) affections are necessary cogs to spin the plot along, for Hero promises Pseudolus his freedom but only if Hero can obtain the damsel. The youngsters’ duo (I’m/She’s) Lovely is both a love song and a self-love song, suggesting sweetly what fools these mortals be.
Whilst there are elements of predictability, even the most obvious of gags result in amusement, namely Robin Kelly’s fleeting cameos as the doddery and poor-sighted Erronius and Phil Hatch’s excellent depiction of the vociferous Miles Gloriosus. The tour de force of Act I though is, happily, Everybody Ought To Have a Maid. The men perform this number with their tongues firmly in their cheeks and I could not stop laughing.
The production team for A Funny Thing offers a revitalised and well-crafted humorous escape. Sheila Arden has directed the piece perfectly to fit such a small stage and clearly cast the show with everyone’s strengths fully in the forefront of her mind. Also, while the choreography from Caroline Essenhigh was not technically complex, it fit the piece and the space beautifully and really did show only the best of each of the actors talents and abilities. Finally we have the band. Now, as this is my first time at the Broadway Studio, I have no idea where the band was hiding, but boy did they make a delightful sound! Expertly directed by Paul Harrison, the band offered up the Sondheim score with all of its complexity and nuance to an eager audience with much aplomb.
To conclude, I would just like to say that this company deserves to perform this show on a much bigger stage. They have the raw talent and charisma to fill a 1000+ seater West End house with joy, naughtiness and merriment. I look forward to their next offering with sheer delight.