It wasn’t always a toga party for the actors on the stage in ancient Rome. They would be booed and pelted with rotten fruit if the audience was unimpressed or uproariously drunk- a far messier fate than any theatre review, no matter how scathing. To insure the future of his supper, Roman playwright Platus, on whose farces A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum was constructed, strove to pepper his plays with “something for everyone” to keep his audiences entertained. The actors in Hart House’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum have nothing to fear- there will be no rotten fruit hurtling their way.
The 1962 production of the musical with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart won two Tony Awards in 1962 and with recent revivals and a film starring Zero Mostel it has proven to be a continual financial success. At Hart House, the seamless direction by Graham Maxwell and gigantic, bawdy, outrageously funny performances by several crucial actors prove that this company won’t lean on the crutch of witty dialogue and catchy tunes provided by Sondheim, Shevelove and Gelbart, but is determined to claim their production as unmistakably unique.
It is difficult to comment on Graham Maxwell’s direction of this show as his choices seem so natural and effortless that they fade into the background, drawing no attention to themselves. This is a feat in the midst of a show laden with mammoth production numbers, endless exits and entrances and every clichéd stage convention an audience has ever seen. Wrapped in the comfortable cloak of comic traditions dating back centuries, Maxwell’s vision is fresh, energized and pokes fun of each convention it alludes to. Inspired by the idea of touring various acts to dozens of cities in a very short time, Maxwell’s show feels like a well-rehearsed Vaudeville set with dancing girls, cross dressers, romantic ballads, an ingénue, a eunuch, musicians, clowns, melodrama, and a singing, dancing, body builder with a particularly large sword, entering and exiting in a rapid whirlwind of laughter.
The sword wielding Miles Gloriosus has a body which would make a Spartan feel inferior, however it is clear that Matt Selby was not cast based solely on physicality. He is delightfully charming as the self-obsessed soldier with sharp comic timing, strong vocals and a sense to remain outrageously funny never excessively overdone. Marcus Lycus, the cross dressing courtesan, is played with poise by Greg Finney. The choice to cast Finney in the role suits the production and the vision of Vaudeville with perfection and adds another layer of complexity to a character who buys and sells the bodies of young girls. Mixing brazen with vulnerable, Finney is constantly hilarious and his conviction and courage will urge you to stand up and cheer. Another strong performance is Leonard Elias as Hysterium, whose gentle charm and deliberate character choices shine in the mold of Jack MacFarland wound too tight.
It is, however, Cory Doran as Pseudolus who really steals the show. Heaping with charisma with a twinkle in his eye, Doran is as naively charming and hilarious as I’m sure Nathan Lane and Mike Myers were before being corrupted by Hollywood. From his flawless vocals and comic timing, to his bawdy physical humor, Doran fills the audience with the confidence that he is able to do anything while still remaining delightful enough to get away with it. In his extremely capable hands the show flies by in a flash of wonder and fun and the audience is willing to forgive a few wonky harmonies and some trips over Sondheim’s slippery lyrics.
All in all, for a break from the ‘hysterium’ of the first month of classes take a break for comedic relief and go see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum playing at the Hart House Theatre Wednesday to Saturday until September 29th. Call 416-978-8674 for details.