Over 10 years ago, I managed to catch a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Led by Geoffrey Rush as Pseudolus, I recall having a fun time, but by no means could I remember any of the plot. So, when I heard that Watch This was bringing this Tony Award winning Sondheim classic to Chapel Off Chapel, I was curious. And in a brilliant twist, this production has an all-female cast.
Starring Charmaine Gorman as Pseudolus, a slave to a young Hero, portrayed by Milo Hartill, seeks to buy his freedom. The only two that can provide such freedom are Hero’s parents, Senex and Domina, portrayed by Cathy Woodhouse and Sophie Weiss respectively. Living next door to the house of Marcus Lycus, Sarahlouise Younger, Hero falls in love with courtesan Philia, played by Mel O’Brien. With Hero’s parents away, Pseudolus strikes a deal with Hero to set him and Philia up together but there are other things at play that are set to ruin their master plan.
The production opened with a beautiful overture played by the small group of musicians at the back of the stage. Gorman entered the stage with an opening monologue, and as the opening number begins, so does the comedy. Ironically titled, ‘Comedy Tonight’, Gorman hits positions on the stage and the spotlights are in a completely different position. Gorman is eventually joined by the entire company, including Sophie Weiss, Luisa Scrofani and Kristie Nguy who are not only members of the cast, but also double as musicians!
Even though this show is a comedy and the whole company bring the laughs every chance they get, there are also some beautiful songs and moments. I mean, it’s a Stephen Sondheim musical after all! There is bound to be some stunning numbers. It’s not long before we get the first taste of this with the second number as Milo Hartill sung a stunning rendition of ‘Love, I Hear’. It is always a pleasure to see Hartill perform but this is the first time I have seen them in a gender flipped role which was a lot of fun witness yet also felt raw and sincere.
One of the many highlight performances in this production was from none other than Kristie Nguy in the multi-character role as each of the Courtesans during ‘The House of Marcus Lycus’. Donning a different sash for each of the different courtesans, Nguy flawlessly executed each of the varied personas. Nguy even became a twin, dancing around the stage with a mirror. Each time Nguy returned to the stage, I was both super excited and curious to see who she would be next. With such fantastic facial expressions and natural comic timing, it is hard to tell this is only her second professional role.
The comedy really kicked it into overdrive when we were introduced to Mel O’Brien’s Philia. O’Brien is utterly hilarious as the young and innocent virgin bride, Philia. I was in absolute hysterics the moment she stepped on the stage, batting her eyelids, pressing her lips, and swaying her body side to side. The moment that Hartill and O’Brien kissed even had me keeling over in laughter. Not only is O’Brien a natural comic, but she also has the vocal chops to match and the pair have excellent chemistry together.
Shoutouts to Jacqueline Hoy as Hysterium, Cathy Woodhouse’s Senex, Sophie Weiss’ Dominia, and Luisa Scrofani as the army captain Miles Gloriosus, all fantastic in their respective roles. And I cannot forget the legendary Judith Roberts as Erronius. Some say, she is still doing laps around the Chapel theatre. Just see the show and you’ll see what I mean.
Honestly, the whole company are great. With their supreme vocal talents and their individual brilliant physical comedy styles, their powers have artfully combined to match the chaos of the show. But the more I paid attention to the plot, the more disturbed I felt. It made me wonder why a story like this is still around in 2023.
The story is essentially about a young virgin, clearly underage, that lives in a whore house and has been sold to a captain of the army. Effectively, sex trafficking and slavery. A topic that should well and truly stay in the past where it belongs. However, in some form of sweet poetic justice, the all-female cast have turned this production into an absolute laugh fest that somewhat ironically highlights the laughable nature of the story.
Melanie Hillman as Director and Co-Artistic Director, given the extremely outdated plot, has done a fantastic job with what they had to work with. Along with Dean Drieberg as Co-Artistic Director, Trevor Jones as Musical Director, and Choreographer Sophie Loughran, the whole team have leaned more into the comedy side of this show and have managed produced something special.
It is undeniable that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is at the end of its life. However, I am thankful I got to experience an extremely talented all-female cast that have made the most out of what they must work with. I had a lot fun and laughed for most of the duration of the role. While it did spark a moral battle in my head that I am still grappling with, it is still funny, though clearly not quite right. Either way, it was great alone to see these wonderful actors kill it on stage, and overall I am still glad I had the chance to see this production.
Watch This’ production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is now on at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel until Sunday the 24th of September.
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Photography by Jodi Hutchinson.