A funny thing, indeed
By GREG BURLIUK, THE WHIG-STANDARD
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum states its intentions clearly in the opening song, Comedy Tonight. They're out for yuks in this show and they'll spare no means in obtaining them, using lots of physical comedy, sly innuendos and darting on and off stage like mosquitos.
The Blue Canoe production now playing at the Rotunda Theatre at Queen's even adds another layer, pretending it's a dress rehearsal performance where things occasionally go wrong, and actors speak to an imaginary director in the audience.
That layer is hit-and-miss successful, but the overall production is very enjoyable, even if the music, by the illustrious Stephen Sondheim, is mostly forgettable, other than that opening song.
The plot is a sometimes ribald one taking place in ancient Rome. A slave named Pseudolus is constantly plotting his freedom. When he discovers his master's son, Hero, is in love with a virginal prostitute next door, he makes a deal with the young man -- if he secures the young woman, Hero will set him free. At first the situation seems ideal as his master, Senex, and mistress, Domina, go on a trip to the country, leaving the ineffectual slave Hysterium in charge. But within minutes, pandemonium reigns.
Pseudolus thinks he will merely get Hero to buy the young woman Philia from Marcus Lycus, who owns the house of ill repute. But it turns out Philia has already been purchased by a self-important Roman soldier named Miles Gloriosus. Senex returns home early and accidentally falls in lust with Philia. And on it goes.
The role of Pseudolus has been played over the years by a succession of comics starting with Zero Mostel, who originated the role but also including Phil Silvers, Nathan Lane, Sean Cullen at Stratford, and even Whoopi Goldberg. The role requires glibness, showiness, more than a little smart aleckiness and the ability to look like you're always thinking on your feet when people are panicking around you.
In this production, Tyler Check brings all that, plus he's a shameless mugger, which serves him well. He got off to an awkward start because the dress rehearsal angle had him fuming about things so that when he finally got around to leading the cast in Comedy Tonight it was almost an afterthought. The song deserves more attention than that. He also has to be careful not to face the wings of the stage too much because when he does his voice gets lost. However, if you've got a great Pseudolus, you've got a great show and Check insures that this production will be a winner.
Pseudolus' chief partner in tomfoolery is Hysterium, who unwittingly or unwillingly seems to always get dragged into his harebrained schemes. Playing Hysterium is Stephen Suepaul, a veteran of many Queen's productions and some-o ne I've found has always brought extra hilarity to a role, even the smallest one. Suepaul is a slight young man and in this role that's perfect, whether he's being clasped to the bosom of a bigger Domina, made to dress up like a woman and being chased on and off stage in that guise, or being threatened by all and everyone. He gives Check a run with his sly comedy and waving hands.
There's a lot to like in the rest of the cast too. The best singers are Katie Hinchcliffe as the dominating Domina, and Michael Hodgson as the arrogant and slightly-air headed Miles Gloriosus. Richard Albin is fun as the elderly, but horny Senex. And the ladies of the evening collectively are both sexy and funny.
The Rotunda Theatre started to get warm when I was there so I hope the weather stays cool for the next week or so. That's the only thing preventing audiences from having a most congenial time.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim.
Director: Michael Sheppard. Music director: Jonathan Michaels.
Set design: Kevin Tanner. Stage manger: Shelby Arnold.
A Blue Canoe production now playing at the Rotunda Theatre, Queen's Theological Building, until June 11, with performances from Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., plus matinees on June 4, 5 and 11 at 2 p.m. Cast
Pseudolus Tyler Check Hysterium Steven Suepaul Hero Nick Denis Philia Maddi McKay Miles Gloriosus Michael Hodgson
Senex Richard Albin Rating: * * * (out of five)