A funny thing did happen on the way to the Forum.
White Rock Players Club has taken another welcome step outside of its comfort zone and the result is a nice, respectable version of a nice, bawdy musical comedy of Ancient Rome.
Judging by audience reaction at last Wednesday night’s performance, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is sure to provoke its share of guffaws and chuckles, particularly if your tastes run to door-slamming farce, crossed with extended burlesque skit.
Complete with a notably ambitious set by Andrea Olund, conscientious costuming and props by Pat McClean and Naomi Mitchell respectively, a strong, energetic ensemble directed with flair by Ryan Mooney, and keyboardist Shelley Eckstein’s hard-working three-piece band ironing out most of the kinks in a quirky score – Funny Thing provides a solid evening of entertainment for hometown playgoers.
And while comedy legends Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford and Nathan Lane have cast pretty long shadows over the material, the players, for the most part, do well inhabiting the property – even if, at times, they seem to be renters, rather than owning it outright.
Weakest links in the current production of the Stephen Sondheim-Burt Shevelove-Larry Gelbart hit are several plot-stalling situation songs. Undoubtedly clever lyrically, their restless, insubstantial melodies are rather hard to nail for all but the most expert performers. And though they’ve been passionately championed by musical theatre buffs, it’s little wonder that most of these were excised from the 1966 movie version – their charms evaporate quickly, inevitably superceded by Sondheim’s more memorable crowd-pleasers, like ‘Comedy Tonight’, ‘Lovely’ and “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid.’
TV technology-expert Steve Dotto (Dotto’s Data Cafe, et al.) makes the most of his bear-like presence and disarming, down-to-earth manner as wily slave Psdeudolous, and carries much of the show on his broad shoulders as narrator and principal miscreant. While Dotto soft-pedals Pseudolous’ cunning, you can still hear the wheels going around as he plots to exploit his young master’s unrequited love for virgin Philia to secure his own freedom.
There are also noteworthy show-carrying contributions from ‘Proteans’ 1 through 3 (Hunter Golden, Josh Fuller and James Walker), who take on all the smaller male supporting roles with versatility, seemingly able to transform from shrieking eunuchs to stalwart centurions in the blink of an eye.
Kudos, too, to an appealing chorus of courtesans from the house of procurer Marcus Lycus (Kirsten Stewart, Kait Busswood, Krystle Hadlow, Sarah Smith and Tanisha Beattie) who sing nicely and prove equally – and gamely – willing to hurl themselves into the spirit of the piece.
But it’s here that Funny Thing really shows its old-school origins – aside from individual physical attributes, there’s little in the writing to differentiate the largely interchangeable courtesans or give the actresses more to work with than burlesque-style objectification.
Subtleties of characterization, of course, are scarcely a feature of a show the authors originally intended as a vehicle for Phil Silvers (Broadway’s ‘Top Banana’ and TV’s ‘Sgt. Bilko’). And the main female roles, it must be said, are also caricatures – albeit well-executed ones.
Helen Volkow shows she understands the function of daunting Roman matron Domina, mistress of Pseudolous’ household, and plays her with admirable lack of restraint, while Rebekah MacEwan cheerfully embodies the air-headed Philia, resigned to her fate as purchased bride of Roman general Miles Gloriosus.
MacEwan’s welcome singing expertise prevails over Sondheim’s often-challenging note intervals, and she is well matched by Dann Wilhelm as Hero, Domina’s love-struck son. Their adeptness and maturity as musical comedy performers goes a long way to compensate for the fact that neither is quite the dewy adolescent indicated in this particular ingenue-juvenile pairing.
Veteran White Rock panto comic Ray Van Ieperen seems to be tailor-made for his role as twitchy senior slave Hysterium, outwitted at every turn by the devious Pseudolous (he reveals some good singing chops, too) and wrings the requisite laughs from a turn in drag. And Raymond Hatton capitalizes fully on his comedic opportunities as aging Roman senator Senex – henpecked husband of Domina – whose libido is re-awakened by the presence of Philia and the proximity of Lycus’ establishment.
Always-reliable comedy performer Pat McDermott plays the latter with an air of almost perpetual depravity well-suited to the role, and Matt Loop (a newcomer to the White Rock stage) wins his fair share of laughs lampooning heroic posturing as the vainglorious Gloriosus, while Dan Tribe, almost obliterated by white beard and wig, is endearing as the elderly, confused Erronius.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum runs until March 1 at Coast Capital Playhouse. For tickets and information, call 604-536-7535 or visit www.whiterockplayers.ca