It’s a familiar yet different production of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum awaiting audiences at Chapel off Chapel.
All the cast of this reimagined production of Stephen Sondheim’s witty and irreverent Broadway musical farce are female-identifying.
Presented by Watch This, Australia’s first and only Sondheim repertory company, the move is in line with the company’s philosophy of programming pieces that speak to the social environment of the day. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is seen as reflecting the post #MeToo movement.
While the cast may be different to the norm, the script of the musical which combines the 2000-year-old comedies of Roman playwright, Plautus, with classic vaudeville, remains the same.
As director Melanie Hillman explains: “We haven’t changed a word of the script, but simply reframed what these words might mean.”
Considered one of the funniest musicals ever written, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is set on a street in ancient Rome in front of three adjacent houses.
There’s the brothel of Marcus Lycus (Sarahlouise Younger) whose courtesans include Philia (Mel O’Brien), a none-too bright, virginal beauty.
Next door is the house belonging to Senex (Cathy Woodhouse), his wife Domina (Sophie Weiss), their son Hero (Milo Hartill), the household slave Hysterium (Jacqui Hoy) and Hero’s slave Pseudolus (Charmaine Gorman).
Finally, there’s the house of Erronius (Judith Roberts) who continually bemoans the unsolved kidnapping long ago of his son and daughter.
The clever, resourceful and often scheming Pseudolus is desperate to obtain his freedom. When he discovers Hero is in love with Philia he offers to help him woo her. If successful Hero promises Pseudolus he will free him.
Chaos and comedy ensue as Pseudolus comes up with numerous hare-brained schemes to deal with numerous complications, resulting in ever changing situations. These situations include Hero’s aging, lecherous father also having his eye on Philia. And the ultimate complication – Marcus Lycus has already sold Philia to Miles Gloriosus (Luisa Scrofani), a soldier who is about to return to Rome.
While it takes a while to adapt to male roles being played by females there’s no doubting the acting, musical talent and comic timing of the cast. Leading the way are Gorman who is a most energetic and enthusiastic Pseudolus and O’Brien who is very funny as naïve Philia. Also worthy of praise is the very hard-working Kristie Nguy who plays numerous characters.
According to Hillman one of the challenges in putting the production together was “resurrecting a beautifully written piece of theatre with outdated attitudes and tropes of female characters whilst maintaining its artistic integrity, to allow our diverse audience to make up their own minds, find their own stories in what is, fundamentally, a humanist piece”.
She added: “Could we maintain the heightened style and humour of farce, preserve Sondheim’s genius and alleviate the sexualising and demonising of the female characters simply by changing the gender of the actors?
“By casting all female-identifying performers we hope to explore the gender tropes, the misogynistic humour and the outdated genre of sex-farce (that’s a real term) whilst maintaining the wit and acuity of the original piece.”
While audiences will make up their own minds if Hillman has been successful in her aims, there’s much to enjoy in this production thanks to the cast’s enthusiastic and enjoyable presentation of the fast-paced humorous musical.
*Photo credit: Jodi Hutchinson
Jenny Burns attended the opening night of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as a guest of the production company.
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