Heartily sick of talking about critics. Let’s get back to the theatre. I’ve been looking through the great steaming piles of reviews I haven’t posted. This one’s still on for a few weeks, and it’s a hoot. Website (complete with amusing onstage antics) here.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Book: Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim, John Frost & ors, Her Majesty’s Theatre, From Oct 27.
There’s a lot riding on this star-studded production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. If these artists can’t pull it off, chances are no one in Australia can. Luckily for us, it’s a hilarious Roman triumph you should rush to see.
Based on the low comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus, the early Sondheim musical adopts the antic stylings of musical hall and vaudeville. It writhes with camp humour, bad puns, physical clowning, ludicrous situational comedy, and chorus girls with not much on.
Director Simon Phillips is in his element with camp musical comedy, though his singular achievement here is to deliver a production that channels the heyday of Australian vaudeville – the Tivoli Circuit and Mo McCackie – and even the variety television of Graham Kennedy, the man who did most to end that era. It’s both edifying and wildly entertaining to see these cultural memories remain alive in the minds of our finest comedians, and that Broadway musicals can be sung in Aussie accents without sounding strained or parochial.
And the design – Gabriela Tylesova’s brilliant, cartoonish costuming; a set that has the orchestra perched above three Roman villas – looks fabulous.
But Geoffrey Rush is the big draw-card as the wily slave Pseudolus. I’d travel interstate to see Rush in a Zero Mostel role – it’s perfect casting – and he binds the show together in a performance that twinkles from eye to toe with avuncular presence, mischievous cunning and nimble (if knobble-kneed) physical humour.
He is not primarily a singer, Rush, but he can hold a tune. If his more demanding songs are rough around the edges, as with the comedians in the cast, you’re inclined to be generous because he’s so damned funny.
Shane Bourne as a sleazy Roman patrician can nudge and wink using just his teeth, and jaunts through Everybody Ought to Have a Maid to rapturous applause; Magda Szubanski as his domineering wife had us cackling with delight at her incestuous smirks and elocutionary affectations. Gerry Connolly’s slimy brothel-owner cowers and connives with villainous glee and his spectacular coop of courtesans makes the Kama Sutra look tame.
The cast is balanced by musical theatre performers who can really sing. Hugh Sheridan’s moon-eyed juvenile lead oozes boyish sex appeal and his voice is a revelation, pure and strong and mellow through challenging duets. Opposite him, Christie Whelan-Browne’s vacuous blonde virgin looks and sounds stunning. No one does ditzy humour better.
Mitchell Butel is on song, too, and weaves a manic web of anxious camp that proves a great foil for Rush. Adam Murphy’s vain soldier is a forceful mock-heroic lampoon, and even a shambling cameo from Bob Hornery charms with its daffiness.
Featuring winning performances from some of our best-known performers, A Funny Thing … is a comic romp Melbourne won’t soon forget.