The Boardmore Theatre offers a full scale musical production every second year and what makes every one of them fun for their audiences is the obvious enjoyment their large cast takes in performing them.
This year’s show, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, has that “give it our all” gusto, well-suited to their material.
The plot elements–conniving slave, clueless Romans, dazzling courtesans, lovelorn young folk–borrow heavily from ancient Roman farce (mostly Plautus borrowing from earlier Greek playwrights—there are hills younger than some of these jokes) overladen with a certain Borscht-belt wink-wink nudge-nudge comedy from book writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and some slyly witty, self-aware songs by Stephen Sondheim. Since the show was brought to Broadway in the early 1960’s during the time of the civil rights movement, there are some musical nods to the aspiration of freedom. If it had come along a couple years later when the Women’s Liberation Movement was gaining ground, maybe the courtesans would have had a chorus number about forming a union.
Director Bruce Cathcart, along with his musical director Barb Stetter, is an expert hand at staging large cast musicals and he had a hugely talented and enthusiastic cast, and while there were many moments of comedic and musical brilliance throughout the opening night performance, the show felt like it hadn’t quite found its legs. Farce depends on pacing and the first night felt like everybody was still finding their rhythm. With more confidence in their grasp of their material (which I am positive they have) and their own performances, I think the show will quickly find its footing (perhaps by the second performance) and go from strength to strength for the rest of its run.
Matt Campbell gave a sly performance as Pseudolus who intends to scheme his way to freedom. Campbell’s Pseudolus is an oily charmer. Campbell has a warm, crooner’s voice that is especially effective in the mock-anthem “Free”.
He has the perfect foil in Sam White as Hysterium, supposedly Psuedolus’ overseer but actually his unwilling dupe in his schemes. White brings his signature high energy to his prone-to-panic character and did an excellent job of Hysterium’s signature tune, “I’m Calm”.
Ian Green, as Senex, the father of Pseudolus’s owner, brought a delightfully smarmy grace to his character and shared a lovely moment of naughtiness with Campbell singing “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”.
Robert Bailey was a strong presence of great comedy as Miles Gloriosus, a Roman captain whose name does not capture his character’s high regard of himself, equal parts pomposity and brutality (but that’s a Roman for you).
Cameron Jones as Lycus, the bordello owner, gave an excellent physical and high energy performance and brought a matter of fact-ness to his role as a slave merchant which did a lot to dispel the inherent creepiness of his character.
Carol Ann MacDougall had a lot of fun as Domina, Senex’s commanding wife (and with a name like that how could she not be?), and her interaction with Green was pure comedic gold.
Ron Williams had a smaller role as Erronius, the near-sighted neighbour still searching for his lost kids, but from the audience’s reaction, one could tell they welcomed his performance every time he arrived on stage.
Illya Kierkosz, as Hero, Pseudolus’ owner, and Margaret MacPherson, as Philia, Hero’s beloved and one of Lycus’ virginal vendables, had a nice chemistry together. Kierkosz brought an earnestness to his young lover that was sweet and MacPherson assayed every single of her character’s comedic potential. She also did a stand out rendition of “I’m Lovely”, a song about her character’s awareness of her (limited) function in the universe without actually making it to any kind of self-awareness. (Campbell and a cross-dressing White–don’t ask–got some of the biggest laughs of the evening parodying this song later in the action of the play.)
The large chorus, too numerous to mention, did very fine ensemble work as soldiers, sailors, various male and female Roman citizens, and eunuchs (I hope there were no Method actors in that last group). I particularly liked the enchanting, provocative, and well-choreographed (by Cynthia Vokey) dance of the Lycus’ courtesans.
Cathcart, as director, plays to his performers’ strengths and talents. He is an expert at moving a large cast around the stage in ways that never make it look cluttered. He paced his action cleanly and swiftly; there were no lulls and every performance was enthusiastic and that communicated to the audience’s enjoyment. The more intimate scenes had that same energy and precision and gleefulness that makes a farce work. His set design, simply designed but smartly serviceable to the action of the play, was a lovely evocation of the ancient theatrical Roman venue that Plautus would have instantly recognized.
The technical side of the production was smoothly handled in all departments (although Domina’s microphone had an unfortunate tendency to cut in and out undermining her performance).
At their curtain call, the cast, director, and stage crew were rewarded by their audience with a standing ovation.
Forum, in the end, is a show proud of not having a moral (even though one of the tunes coyly says there’s always a moral); it just wants to entertain. This production more than exceeds this important goal.
A Funny Thing Happened on The Way To the Forum is running at the Boardmore Theatre, Cape Breton University Campus, every night this week at 7 pm nightly until Saturday, February 28, and has its final performance on Sunday, March 1, at 2 pm. Friday’s performance has a post-show “Talk Back” session when the cast and crew take questions from the audience.
Tickets are $15 for general seating and $10 for students and seniors. For more information, visit www.cbu.ca/boardmore/