A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is vaudeville at its finest

Culture Theatre

Boasting that it has “something for everyone,” Blue Bridge’s production of the 1962 play delivers music, metatheatre, and mirth

Photo provided by Blue Bridge Theatre

Contorted courtesans, Oedipal battles, and star-crossed lovers clamour together under the spotlight this August in Blue Bridge Repertory’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Struck with an all-consuming passion, young Roman citizen Hero promises his slave Pseudolus her freedom if she can successfully matchmake him and Philia, the virgin next door. Of course, there’s a catch: Philia is a courtesan, and she’s already been sold.

Originally aired on Broadway in 1962, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart’s Tony-award-winning musical comedy remains a metatheatrical romp. In the spirit of Roman playwright Plautus’s farces, the play satirizes classical theatre tropes, wringing comedic pandemonium from cases of mistaken identity and mortal folly. Director Kevin McKendrick’s revival of the vaudevillian musical is a welcome change of pace.

Leading the performance, stage veteran Britt Small breathes new life into the untamable Pseudolus, who is both slyly opportunistic and desperately out of her depth. Beside her is the household’s obsequious “slave-in-chief,” Hysterium (Damon Calderwood), whose pained expressions and barely composed scurrying make for superb slapstick. In contrast, Gabriel MacDonald’s Captain Miles Gloriosus swaggers and bellows his way to the centre of attention, singing in a bombastic baritone that demands mirth.

Blue Bridge’s showing of A Funny Thing is missing a few characters — three of Lycus’s exotic courtesans are absent, and the all-purpose Proteans, slated to fill every unnamed role in the original script, have been reduced to one (the versatile Sean Baker). However, these cuts work to the performance’s advantage, as Blue Bridge’s modest stage can only accommodate a handful of actors. The show’s chaotic climax, which culminates in a perfectly choreographed Freleng door gag, depends wholly on there being just enough space.

Brian Ball’s set, consisting of three sparsely appointed homes whose only distinguishing features are their second-floor curtains, leaves something to be desired. But what these interchangeable structures lack in form, they make up for in function, causing many of the play’s hilarious mishaps and mirroring its oft-mistaken characters. The players use every bit of offstage space to the fullest, too: Pseudolus’s bumbling up the aisles and Protean’s marching around front stage break the barrier between stage and audience.

Broken immersion is no cause for concern here, though — this is a play that embraces the metatheatrical with a stagey wink and a violent nudge. The opening speech is delivered by the aptly (and facetiously) named Prologus, and frequent nods, even callouts, to the audience are in abundance. Indeed, the play is so dedicated to metatheatre that it often satires its own farce, as, for example, when Hero and Philia’s song “Lovely” is reprised by the decidedly unlovely Hysterium and a reluctant Pseudolus to great comedic effect.

Despite the play deriving much of its comedy from typecast characters (every name is either emblematic of its holder’s character or heavily ironic), many of those onstage change clothes, roles, and genders throughout. Much like the metamorphic Greek god Proteus, the cast is infinitely changeable, and while only one character bears the name Protean in this performance, nearly all of them are protean. If you’re looking for a lightly modernized musical classic that’s lost none of its edge, see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will be playing at the Roxy Theatre through August 11. To purchase tickets and learn more about Blue Bridge’s upcoming productions, visit http://bluebridgetheatre.ca/.