Three cheers to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for staging its first production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in this year of economic discontent. From the maestro-in-the-pit wig gag to the zesty reprise of “Comedy Tonight” the humour fires on all cylinders and the woes of the “real” world are merrily forgotten as we roll along the hilarious trail of Roman life 200 BC.
For his first pit assignment, conductor and Stratford newcomer Franklin Brasz keeps the orchestra in time and step with the stage—just the slightest vagaries of pitch get in the way of a perfectly acceptable outcome. Here’s to a steady stream of future engagements.
From his opening number, Bruce Dow immediately proves the wisdom of being cast as Pseudolus (the wise-cracking, quick-thinking slave who’d love to become a ground-breaker by winning his freedom from the aptly named Hero—Mike Nadajewski, who also shines in song, dance and dialogue as the young man smitten with a virgin). Dow largely (pun intended) carries the show yet has the experience and wisdom to know exactly when to tone his antics down a notch and let his colleagues shine.
But before the full company takes their cue to parade before the patrons, Dow and his trio of Proteans have the theatre in a manic uproar. With more than a passing homage to The Three Stooges, director Des McAnuff and choreographer Wayne Cilento put together a series of sight gags and slapstick comedy that has no off button. Having witnessed Curly, Larry and Moe lo these many years back at the CNE, your reporter has first-person knowledge and appreciation of the unbridled joy and potential danger of yuks based on split-second timing. Kudos to Julius Sermonia who demonstrates time and time again that he is not just an infectious smile. His swinging-ladder routine is spot on and frequent flyer status through the trap door (perhaps once too often—always risky when a laugh is virtually guaranteed) are constant delights. Colleagues Jordan Bell and Stephen Cota are equally fearless as pregnant eunuchs or Keystone Cops—all of them ready to flash their brilliant blue boxers at the drop of an asp.
As Marcus Lycus, the proprietor of a house of female-flesh for sale or hire, Cliff Saunders brings just the right mix of lechery, greed and cowardice to convince. His bevy of babes flaunt their wares with gusto (notably Lindsay Croxall as the dominatrix, Gymnasia) but amongst their full-service number is the aforementioned virgin, Philia. In this two-song (“Lovely” and the “Echo Song”—both with Nadajewski) role, Chilina Kennedy successfully mines the dumb-blonde character and strikes gold and mirth with every utterance. This sort of Goldie Hawn/Betty White mix will keep audiences howling with glee for decades.
Next door to the courtesans dwell Hero’s parents. Senex (Randy Hughson) is the long-suffering husband who hopes to sow his last oat while his domineering wife visits a near-organless, 104-year-old mother. In her only song, “That Dirty Old Man,” Deann deGruijter sails through Stephen Sondheim’s delicious lyrics even as she nearly crushes Hysterium—Stephen Ouimette, the odd couple’s chief slave—to death. This number becomes one of several showstoppers due to the marvellous visual and body chemistry employed by Ouimette as his mistress takes out her suspicions of Senex’s infidelity on the other man in her life who most certainly “live[s] to grovel.” Not long after, the Stratford veteran brings the house down in the reprise of “Lovely,” where, thanks to yet another of Pseudolus’ skin-saving schemes, the loyal servant slips into a low-cut gown and miraculously morphs from the bitterly shamed servant to a vrai femme fatale. With such a talented troupe, McAnuff can busy himself with the legions of minute, atmosphere-building details (from a gushing fountain in the pit to truly electrifying boobs to a four-legged man and a death-defying dummy) and let his zany company spark off the visual banquet of hilarity with their own comic skills.
Not least amongst those is Dan Chameroy’s deliciously campy portrayal of Miles Gloriosus whose courage and leadership abilities are only outstripped by his divine looks—just ask him. Bringing this ego with an unwieldy chariot, er, down to earth is the brilliant affliction with an acute case (one storey!) of acrophobia.
Real laughs in such large proportions don’t come along nearly often enough. A trip to this Forum can cure anyone’s blues, where not even a dreaded body mic caught in the fabric of Dow’s tunic could detract much from the magical mayhem that is the hallmark of this show. JWR