A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Des McAnuff
Featuring Bruce Dow, Stephen Ouimette, Cliff Saunders, Michael Nadajewski, Chilina Kennedy and Dan Chameroy
The Story: In a bid for freedom, and against his master’s wishes, the slave Pseudolus tries to unite his master’s son Hero with Philia, a virgin courtesan who has been sold to the warrior Miles Gloriosus. When the master returns early, Philia mistakes him for the captain, who mistakes her for a flirty new maid. Pseudolus enlists fellow slave Hysterium to assist in duping the masters, the captain and the owner of the courtesans but when he is arrested he is only saved by an old man’s family secret.
If the plot described above sounds suspiciously like a 1960’s sitcom, it’s because the names behind it – Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart – worked on some television’s biggies back in the day, most notably, “M*A*S*H”. Full of pratfalls, mistaken identities, sight gags, scantily-clad women and cross-dressing men, this production does its pedigree proud. Indeed, the stage curtain reveals exactly what to expect before it even rises.
Director Des McAnuff is more at home with this kind of show, a contemporary musical comedy on the proscenium stage, and he certainly proves it with his staging. Not a single opportunity for laugh is missed – it is nearly vaudevillian that way - and only a person with no measurable sense of humour will find anything to dislike about this comedy. In fact, if you suspect you do not have a sense of humour, you can skip both the play and the rest of this review.
Even the set and costumes (designed by John Arnone and Dana Osborne), are in on the wink-wink-nudge-nudging. The bright sets with moving pieces, and costumes befitting each character’s name – wait until you see the courtesans Vibrata and Gymnasia – both help make this show an all-encompassing laugh-in.
Of course, the actors have a part in this too. As the slave Pseudolus, Bruce Dow’s chipmunk’s grin and impeccably–timed antics (not to mention his powerhouse singing) has the audience grinning back for the entire show. He is very well-matched by Stephen Ouimette who nearly steals a few scenes as the dead-pan Hysterium. It is a wonder the two have not performed together before now.
The romantic lead Hero is played by Mike Nadajewski, whose naïve, earnest and starry-eyed lover is a hoot, while Chilina Kennedy does a complete one-eighty from her West Side Story role (Maria). As Philia, she fuses Marilyn Monroe with Chrissy Snow (Three’s Company), and if there is a sudden resurgence in ‘dumb-blonde’ jokes, we will be able to blame it on Ms. Kennedy’s perfect portrayal of this dim-witted character.
Making a later – and quite spectacular - entrance as the captain Miles Gloriosus, Dan Chameroy pays tribute to William Shatner and every other self-involved male-hero stereotype, and Cliff Saunders is utterly cringe-worthy as the cowardly and slimily sycophantic Marcus Lycus, keeper of the lovely courtesans.
There are many other memorable performances, but the three Proteans are a special treat. Jordan Bell, Stephen Cota and Julius Sermonia interact with and support all the other “named” characters, and these three garner a belly-laugh nearly every time they appear in their various guises.
In a nutshell, this play has no soliloquies, no moral, not one iota of seriousness and requires no thinking at all from its audience. It may be considered a low-brow comedy by some, but by Zeus, it is the best-performed low-brow comedy you will see anywhere, provided by a stack of talent both on and behind the stage.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until November 1.
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