A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Randy Hughson and Cliff Saunders
Randy Hughson and Cliff Saunders

Book by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Des McAnuff
Choreographed by Wayne Cilento
Musical direction by Franklin Brasz
NOTE:  I reviewed the Stratford Shakespeare Festival Production, Avon Theatre, Stratford, June 20 to November 1, 2009.
This show is being re-staged at the Canon Theatre, Toronto by Mirvish Productions, December 15, 2010 to January 16, 2011.
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Weighty Decisions Will Just Have to Wait

From the minute the Proteans’ heads pop up between the curtains, you know you are in for a funny show.  Physical comedy and farcical situations are the hallmarks of Stratford’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which opened Saturday at the Avon Theatre.

If you are a fan of the kind of comedy found on 1960’s television, then you’ll love this production.  From the Three Stooges smacking each other, to Dick VanDyke tripping over the footstool, or Carol Burnett’s crazy faces to Tim Conway’s deadpan looks – this production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum offers the best in the style of those old favourites.

First produced on Broadway in 1962, this musical comedy has all the elements of a farce – slamming doors, mistaken identities, white lies that turn into big fibs, and men dressing as women.  When the Stephen Sondheim score is added, it’s great entertainment.

Bruce Dow is Pseudolus, a Roman Slave who will do anything to gain his freedom.  Dow’s wonderful singing voice and comedic skill make him a natural for the part.  His expressive face under the Roman bangs of his bowl-shaped haircut causes laughter to ripple through the audience when he simply bats his eyelashes.  He plays the part cute and cuddly, a far cry from the frightening Emcee he played in last year’s Cabaret.  But like the Emcee, all eyes are on him when Dow is on the stage.  Dow plays a very energetic Pseudolus and you know you’re in for fun as soon as he sings the opening number “Comedy Tonight”.

The Proteans, played by Jordan Bell, Stephen Cota and Julius Sermonia, are hilarious from start to finish.   The three play a variety of roles – slaves, Roman soldiers, guards, and even eunuchs reminiscent of Saturday Night Live’s Coneheads.  These three young men are going to be constantly bruised from all the slapstick.  Sermonia was repeatedly tripped and pushed into the orchestra pit, only to climb out and be shoved around again.  There are tumbles and pratfalls throughout the show.   And if the three of them aren’t funny enough, they have extra dummies of themselves to add to the hilarity.

Stephen Ouimette is excellent as Hysterium, the slave left in charge while the owners are away.  Ouimette’s deadpan comedy reminded me of the great Tim Conway.  The look on his face as Domina pulls out fistfuls of his hair is priceless.

The young lovers, Hero and Philia, are played wonderfully by Mike Nadajewski and Chilina Kennedy.  Both have amazing singing voices and a penchant for comedy.  Kennedy’s wide-eyed dumb blonde is perfect, and Nadajewski’s innocence is delightful.

The costumes are colourful with plenty of glitz.  The courtesans’ alluring outfits are accentuated by their amazing dance moves.

The set is great fun in itself – the nudes carved on the pillars light up strategically, while the arms move on other carvings, and even the gargoyles sing along.

If you enjoy farcical comedy, Forum offers it at its best.  Just be sure to order your tickets early and get seats close enough to the stage to see all the facial expressions – I don’t think it would be as much fun if you couldn’t see the expression these actors put into the show.  As the opening number tells us, it’s comedy tonight, and weighty decisions will just have to wait.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues at the Avon Theatre, Stratford until November 1.  For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-567-1600 or check www.stratfordshakespearefestival.ca.

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