A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumLeft – Christie Whelan and Hugh Sheridan. Cover – Geoffrey Rush and Gerry Connolly. Photos – Jeff Busby

If you were to throw any more heavy-weight theatre talent onto Her Majesty's stage at the moment it may well collapse.

Saturday night saw the opening of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum the much anticipated Sondheim musical sans the much anticipated Stephen Sondheim, who injured himself and was unable to travel for the opening. When he does arrive he will surely be very happy with what he sees.

Producer John Frost and director Simon Phillips have assembled a fabulous cast for this production. Led by Geoffrey Rush, the stellar line-up includes Mitchell Butel, Shane Bourne, Gerry Connelly, Christie Whelan-Browne, Hugh Sheridan and Magda Szubanski, who lead this troupe with all the joy and campery you could wish for.

Forum was the first time Stephen Sondheim had written both music and lyrics for a Broadway musical and it debuted there in 1962. Inspired by the farces of ancient Roman playwright Plautus, and written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (of MASH fame) this thoroughly entertaining vaudevillian musical tells the story of the slave Pseudolus as he schemes and scams his way to freedom from his master Hero, by helping him woo the beautiful girl next door.

As a low-brow farce, Forum contains all the necessary elements: disguised characters, puns, mistaken identity, interwoven sub plots and men in drag. While these classic elements can be like old friends to fans of the genre, they require deft direction and excellent physical and comic timing to remain fresh for an audience. Director Simon Phillips understands how and why the genre works and never allows the show to sink into a leery Benny-Hill style tits and bums sketch. Pace is all important and the one liners come thick and fast, zinging around the stage with such rapidity that you barely have time to think about them, which is sometimes a good thing. Stephen Sondheim's score is pleasant and hummable (and deceptively tricky) but the songs tend to slow the action down and it requires hard work from the cast to crank it back into top gear. But they always do. And the bawdy romp continues unabated.

This vaudeville style genre requires skilful acting to pull off and the main cast tackle it with varying degrees of success.

Geoffrey Rush gives a master class in comedy performance as Pseudolus. He brings as much craft to this performance as he would to any more serious work. All lanky, loose-limbed and loveable he cavorts around the stage with gusto (not one of the characters), and though not really a singer, he can hold a tune well enough. Engagement, timing and confidence always get his songs over the line, particularly the iconic opening number 'Comedy Tonight'.

Mitchell Butel would make the old vaudevillians proud as Pseuodolus' anxious colleague Hysterium. Butel recognizes that in this style of show, more is more and boy does he give it! His unpredictable physical comedy is inspired, beautifully timed and hilarious. The latter also perfectly describes his Cleopatra style wig which sometimes has a life of its own.

Shane Bourne, as the lecherous Senex, is more laconic than his cast mates and his enthusiasm seems to wane even further when required to sing and dance. But thankfully he refrains from turning his character into a dirty old man. He has some terrific one-liners but his Australian accent jars a bit and there are times when he appears to have no discernible engagement with what he's doing.

Gerry Connelly puts in a solid performance and is mellifluous of voice and suitably slimy as brothel owner Marcus Lycus. Hugh Sheridan is an appealing Hero with a charming sense of comedy and a gorgeous if somewhat too modern voice. Adam Murphy shows lovely vocal strength and great comic dexterity as Miles Gloriosus and Bob Hornery is endearing in his cameo as Erroneous.

The women in this show get a bit of a raw deal. They are either dumb and vacuous, sex objects or harridans. Despite this, Christie Whelan-Browne gives a pitch perfect performance as the dim-witted beauty Philia while Magda Szubanski as Senex's battleaxe wife Domina makes a meal of her comic moments. Her breaking of character and unspontaneous 'cracking up' however is inappropriate here and does a disservice to all.

Some of Sondheim's tunes are quite challenging for the non singers in the cast. It can be quite uncomfortable for an audience to watch character and confidence drain out of an actor as they attempt something that is a bit beyond them.

But this is definitely not an issue for the ensemble who is in fine voice.

The courtesans of the ensemble are clad in designer Gabriela Tylesova's stunning, scanty costumes and perform Andrew Hallsworth's choreography with sexy aplomb, if that's possible. The bizarre proteans (Troy Sussman, Brent Hill and Rohan Browne) lurch about the stage like a cross between crazed gorillas and ET. All give brilliant support and contribute significantly to the beautifully organized chaos.

Mathew Frank's big and brassy band sit atop Gabriella Tyselova's marvelous set blasting out both original and tweaked arrangements of the score and overseeing the action like imperious Roman gods.

It's a pleasure to see this marvelous and shameless romp on the Melbourne stage and the opening night audience showed their appreciation with a standing ovation. For those who remember the Tivoli days or even theatre restaurant in the 80's ('Roman Scandals', 'Nero's Fiddle', 'Dirty Dicks' anyone?), Forum is a brilliant ride (though you don't get to hail the beef) but it is just as entertaining for the uninitiated.

For the final curtain-call, Simon Phillips joined the cast on stage to pay tribute to theatre publicist and friend to many in the house, Suzie Howie who died earlier in the week.

Forum is a side splittingly, butt-clenchingly funny night at the theatre. Don't miss this one.

Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart | Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Director Simon Phillips

Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre | 219 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Dates: 19 Oct - Sun 25 Nov, 2012
Bookings: ticketek.com.au

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