A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A-Funny-Thing-Happened-on-the-Way-to-the-Forum-1-photo-by-Jodi-HutchinsonGo back in time a couple of millennia to the amphitheatres of Ancient Rome and you’ll find nothing unusual about a same-sex cast – male actors played the female parts. A woman’s place, it appears, wasn’t on the stage. Men conveyed what women were, amongst a plethora of dominating behaviours, and continued to do so for centuries.

In Watch This Inc’s latest production of Stephen Sondheim’s raucous 1962 Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – let’s just say Forum for short – one particular idea stands out as pure gold.

Especially given that the work is based on stock characters, mad coincidences and mistaken identities derived from the comedies of Roman playwright, Plautus. Since we’re there, you know how the saying goes, “When in Rome… !”

And so, just to balance the books, Artistic director Melanie Hillman’s world first reimagined production featuring an all-female-identifying cast couldn’t feel more apt. The mix of women playing men, women playing men playing women and women simply playing women add spice to the gender politics and imbedded bawdiness on show. Why didn’t Sondheim think of that? Well, perhaps, that needed a woman.

A-Funny-Thing-Happened-on-the-Way-to-the-Forum-3-photo-by-Jodi-HutchinsonHillman’s cast is such an assortment of shape, size, faces and athleticism that each of the ensemble’s idiosyncratic roles are catered for and, overall, carried off successfully. It really isn’t difficult surrendering to Hillman’s idea.

Besides, the laughs are plentiful as women get to convey what men are as they see it. And it isn’t always pretty. That’s the best part amongst the puns and misogynistic tropes that cross the line but get through without collateral damage. Or am I way out of touch with ever-updated contemporary attitudes?

Creator of both music and libretto, Sondheim’s bouncy, brilliantly witty and infectiously melodic score marches along energetically from the moment Roman slave Pseudolus (Charmaine Gorman) introduces the audience to a night of comedy – a play centring on three houses in a less fashionable Roman street.

Key to the twisting story is the attraction between neighbours Hero (Milo Hartill), the son of the Roman senator Senex (Cathy Woodhouse) and his manipulative wife Domina (Sophie Weiss), and the young virgin Philia (Mel O’Brien), a newly arrived courtesan in the house of Marcus Lycus (Sarahlouise Younger) and who is contracted to marry Miles Gloriosus (Luisa Scrofani).

Pseudolus, a slave of Senex, devises a plan to bring the sweethearts together in order to secure freedom from slavery – conversely aware and comically telling us freedom costs – while drawing in the assistance of the manic chief slave, Hysterium (Jacqui Hoy).

In the meantime, from the third house, the elderly Erronius (Judith Roberts) continues to search for his two young infants kidnapped 20 years earlier while Kristie Nguy ironically and nimbly slaves to multiple courtesan and ensemble roles, including as Miles Gloriosus’ amusing keyboard-playing and prancing messenger.

Taking the driver’s seat ebulliently and capably as an endearing Pseudolus, Gorman leads out the company in the catchy Comedy Tonight tune and steers ahead in secure voice and well-timed delivery.

Bursting at the seams with wild sexual energy, O’Brien’s brainless Philia is a hoot as she is shifted from place to place to avoid discovery in Senex’s house. O’Brien is well-matched by Hartill’s ardent and comic, apparent gender-fluid Hero and, amongst solid performances from the entire cast, the petite Scrofani makes a notably imposing display of masculine bravado as Miles Gloriosus, a captain in the Roman army.

While the text rolls off the tongue with clarity in songs delivered entertainingly and buoyantly, when Weiss takes the limelight for That Dirty Old Man, as her lithe and elegant Domina complains about her husband, the level is impressively raised.

A-Funny-Thing-Happened-on-the-Way-to-the-Forum-2-photo-by-Jodi-HutchinsonAt times, the cheesiness comes on a little too strong and entrances and exits suffer from a number of rough edges in Hillman’s otherwise vibrant direction and Sophie Loughran’s corny choreography. Act 2’s chaotic chase scene as everyone clogs the stage is a tangled mess that could be better resolved but Hillman delivers a podium finish.

Sarah Tulloch’s set design achieves much in its use of numerous Roman columns and the spaces they evoke, creating a temple of sorts to the theatre Pseudolus invites us into. Roll-about statues of goddesses are the ornamental icing on the cake, replacing the courtesan roles of Tintinabula, Vibrata, Geminae and Gymnasia and subverting the beauty pageant industry in the process.

Jemima Johnston’s colourful costumes are a tad slapdash and yet play to the alluded to unfashionable Roman neighbourhood but stage pictures aren’t given enough theatrical lighting ingredients to maximise effects.

Commandeering a small split band to the rear, musical director Trevor Jones keeps the score galloping confidently while attentively supporting the cast with wobbling trumpet work the only area that should improve while the season continues.

In all, Forum is great value for great fun and just might get one contemplating home help once the hilarity of the jaunty Everybody Ought to Have a Maid sticks to the ears. Or might that be too difficult a pill to swallow for some?

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Sunday 10 September 2023
Season continues to 24 September 2023
Bookings: www.chapeloffchapel.com.au

For more information, visit: www.watchthis.net.au for details.

Images: Sarahlouise Younger, Jacqui Hoy, Charmaine Gorman and Cathy Woodhouse | Charmaine Gorman, Jacqui Hoy, Milo Hartill and Mel O’Brien | Charmaine Gorman, Luisa Scrofani and Kristie Nguy | all photos by Jodi Hutchinson

Review: Paul Selar