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A Funny Thing Still Happens on the Way to the Forum

A review of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” by Dominic Wong. The drawing: Geoffrey Rush covers himself in laurel.

This is a guest post by my friend Dominic Wong, who came with his partner from Sydney to join the Rush to the Forum. Apart from his day job, Dominic is a trained singer, musician and choir director. My thanks to him for this expert review.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne till December 14.

“Don’t you love farce?” asked Sondheim in his best known song, Send in the Clowns. It’s clear from A Funny Thing that Sondheim always has. He made his Broadway debut in 1962 as with music and lyrics for the show in 1962, with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (MASH and Tootsie).

A Funny Thing is an archetypical farce with a convoluted plot, comic stereotypes, verbal wit and physical humour. Based on the Latin comedies of Plautus, the plot revolves around the efforts of the wily slave Pseudolus (Geoffrey Rush) to earn his freedom by helping his master Hero (Hugh Sheridan) win the love of the beautiful Philia (Christie Whelan-Browne), a courtesan in a neighbouring brothel, who was recently sold to the boastful general Miles Gloriosus (Adam Murphy).

The show won the 1963 Tony for Best Musical. Watching this revival 50 years later, it’s clear that Shevelove and Gelbart’s book is a classic, an airtight comedy still generating belly laughs. Sondheim’s score shows limited evidence of the complex and idiosyncratic musical voice he would go on to develop, but works nicely with the script: a playful, cartoonish score with beautifully trenchant lyrics. As his famous chorus goes:

Old situations,
New complications,
Nothing portentous or polite;
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

Directed by Simon Phillips, this glossy and exuberant production mostly hits the right notes. Pseudolus is the kind of role that gives comic actors plenty of scope to strut their stuff and play; Rush has great fun, singing with a characterful and secure baritone and getting wonderfully physical — all loose-limbed and rubber-faced. He is well matched by Mitchell Butel as Hysterium, an officious and neurotic slave. Suitably histrionic, Butel delivers admirably precise singing and comic timing. Hugh Sheridan plays the handsome Hero with grace and sings with nuance. It’s a solid and hard-working company of actors. Magda Szubanski, as dragon-lady Domina, Hero’s mum, has great presence but is a little wobbly as a singer.

The production looks great with its vibrant costumes and a picture book set by Gabriela Tylesova. But it also feels a little cramped — the farcical chases could have been a bit more inventive, eg, with action taking place in the distance or in a few more windows, galleys and platforms. Guy Simpson’s punchy orchestrations have been suitably geared towards a small ensemble dominated by brass and woodwind instruments, and musical director Mathew Frank provides taut support for the performers.

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