We thought West Side Story was remarkably good (see the Emsworth review), but it turned out that the other musical at the Stratford Festival, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was even better. It has zillions of little comic touches; we can’t remember when we’ve ever seen a funnier show.
A Funny Thing is set back in the golden days of Rome. As in the pre-war American southern states, these were golden times mainly for the masters, not so much for the slaves. So perhaps we should feel guilty about laughing at the plight of Pseudolus (Bruce Dow) and Hysterium (Stephen Ouimette), the two slaves who are the stars of this show — but we don’t. They belong to the family of Senex (Randy Hughson), hen-pecked, love-starved husband of Domina (Deann deGruijter), and father of Hero (Mike Nadajewski).
The story begins when Domina drags Senex off to the countryside for a vacation, leaving Pseudolus in charge of their son Hero. Domina leaves strict instructions that the boy is to be kept away from the house next door, which is occupied by a bevy of scantily-clad young women who are for sale as courtesans.
Hero’s parents do not know, however, that he has already fallen in love with Philia (Chilina Kennedy), a virgin courtesan whom he has seen at her window next door. Desperate to meet her, Hero enlists the help of Pseudolus, who spots a chance to make a bid to be freed. The resourceful Pseudolus extracts a promise of freedom from Hero if Pseudolus can help Hero (in his parents’ absence) win Philia’s affections.
The lovers’ first meeting is a great success, as they agree and harmonize on the important point that Philia is “Lovely” (one of the show’s best songs). Their future together is cloudy, however, because Philia has already been sold to a Roman warrior, Miles Gloriosus (Dan Chameroy). Her owner, Marcus Lycus (Cliff Saunders), knows that it would be death to fail to deliver Philia when the sword-happy Miles Gloriosus calls.
The writers of the show, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, must have had a blast coming up with the names for the characters. In the show, Pseudolus is a talented liar and a schemer; his schemes invariably leave the effeminate Hysterium in a state of nervous distraction; Senex’s wife Domina is a sadistic tyrant; and the preening, muscle-bound Miles Gloriosus is hilariously high on himself.
This is not one of the many musicals whose plots are paper-thin; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum would be a marvelous farce if it had no music at all. And the writers (Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) had a lot of fun with words in this play. For instance, try saying “the house of Marcus Lycus” two or three times in a row, and you’ll get an idea why it’s so funny when Pseudolus says it. In fact, pretty much everything Bruce Dow says and does in this show will crack you up; he’s a wonderfully talented comedian. Still, the actor we enjoyed most was Stephen Ouimette as Hysterium, always on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Director Des McAnuff has arranged for more funny things to be done on stage at any given moment than anyone will ever see; you don’t dare pay too much attention to one side of the stage for fear of missing good stuff at the other. One of the best touches in this show are the “Proteans” — three acrobatic actors who appear as mimes and in various hysterically comic guises all through the show.
Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing. We certainly have heard a lot of Sondheim in the last six months: the Stratford Festival’s West Side Story (see our review), for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics; the Shaw Festival’s Sunday in the Park with George (music and lyrics) (see our review); Sweeney Todd (music and lyrics) at Rochester’s GeVa Theatre (see our review). But this is the Sondheim show we liked best.
Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:
The Scottish play, set in Africa! Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this post.
Classic French drama: Jean Racine’s Phèdre at this post.
Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)
The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)
The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)
The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)
The musical West Side Story (see this post)