A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Stratford Shakespeare Festival and Mirvish partner up for a Stephen Sondheim musical.
A year ago this past December, Mirvish announced it would be partnering with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to present its 2009 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Directed by Tony and Olivier Award winner Des McAnuff, also the Festival’s artistic director, Funny Thing is rooted in the comedies of ancient Roman playwright Plautus, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (who visited Toronto in December for an onstage discussion at the Princess of Wales Theatre).
Funny Thing is not such an odd choice for the Stratford Festival, it turns out – according to the director’s notes, Shakespeare’s earliest comedies draw influence from Plautus’s comedies.
For a comedy, however, Funny Thing just isn’t that funny. It's certainly meant to be – the musical is rife with slapstick, pratfalls, tricks of the eye, and set-up music that tells you loud and clear a comical scene is coming. But overall, the show goes for easy laughs – there were too many scenes of overweight men prancing around in short skirts and falling off chairs, and not enough memorable jokes.
The Stratford cast is obviously talented, and the show starts and ends strongly with the catchy “Comedy Tonight,” where the narrator, Pseudolus, momentarily distances himself from the plot to preview the audience on what they can expect this night at the theatre. Pseudolus (played by Sean Cullen the night I attended Bruce Dow takes over for other performances) is also one of the central characters: he’s a slave to the young Hero, who is madly in love with Philia, the beautiful, virginal girl next door (“next door” being a whorehouse), even though she’s promised to Captain Gloriosus. Pseudolus makes Hero a deal: he’ll win him the lovely Philia in exchange for his freedom.
Of course, complications ensue: neither Philia or Hero are the brightest, and there’s an amusing case of mistaken identity when Hero’s father returns home early and accidentally leads Philia to believe that he is her rightful husband-to-be.
The music throughout is fantastic, especially the lively, drawn-out “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” and an over-the-top, climactic funeral scene set to song. But many of the scenes don’t know when to quit, and the truly witty lines are few and far between. Maybe it just wasn’t to my taste, but A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum didn't elicit too many laughs still, the Stratford cast seemed to do as good a job as any with the material.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs until Jan. 16, 2010 at the Canon Theatre. For more information, visit www.mirvish.com.