Any Steven Sondheim production presents challenges to both audiences and players. For those on stage, maintaining the balance between camp, slapstick and witty one-liners is inevitably the most challenging obstacle, while the over-the-top, almost pantomime, musical numbers are probably suitable for only the most dedicated theatre fans. Refreshingly, the intercollegiate production currently on show at the Seymour Centre is an hilarious, brilliantly performed spectacle of ridiculous proportions.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opens with a number clearly outlining their premise: “tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!”. Following the drama between the three Roman houses of Lycus, Senex and Erronius, a slave named Pseudolus attempts to buy her freedom by ensuring the son of Senex, Hero, is united with his criminally stupid yet beautiful object of desire, a virgin named Philia. Having already been promised to the fearsomely self-absorbed Captain Miles Gloriosus, an intricate plan of deceit concocted by Pseudolus involving a fake funeral honoring a cross-dressing slave, a nonexistent plague from Crete and an unconvincing soothsayer, serves to confuse even the most well-informed Roman prostitute.
The absolute, stand-out favourite of the night was the portrayal of Hysterium, a gibbering slave of the house of Senex who enjoys wearing a dress and struggles to suppress his anxiety, which inevitably broils over in his uproarious solo number, “I’m Calm”. Oliver Harris, as Hysterium, had the crowd laughing throughout the night and his comic timing was trumped only by that of Victoria Zerbst, who plays the meddling lead, Pseudolus. Adapted from the original, whereupon Pseudolus is a man, Zerbst manages the false bravado and improvised insanity of Pseudolus’ plans with aplomb as she breaks the fourth wall to share a sly look, or address individual audience members with her impressive musical numbers.
Any mention of the stand-outs of the night cannot disregard the performances of Zach Beavon-Collin as Senex and William Yaxley as Marcus Lycus, who both manage to remain consistently creepy yet undeniably deliver the best one-liners. In comedy, timing is everything, and while the dialogue was largely faultless, some aspects of the stage direction were noticeably messy and unnecessarily lengthy. Following the fake funeral in the second act, Psedolous’ plans begin to unravel and a confusing Benny Hill chase scene takes place that is awkwardly timed and serves to lose the comic tension that was so well developed.
Likely caused by housing a company of around 30 actors on a small stage, the directors can easily be forgiven, as the short musical interlude is a welcome break from the incessant quippy banter. Kudos must be given to the musical director, Owen Elsey, and the orchestra as they flawlessly pull off the Broadway, big band numbers with limited space and musicians.
As the second intercollegiate production following on from the success of Sweeney Todd, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a comical spectacle that will not fail to entertain. It is currently showing from 14-17th May, at the Seymour Centre in the Reginald Theatre. Tickets are $15 for ACCESS card holders, $18 for students and $22 for adults.