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Review: A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To The Forum – Chapel Off Chapel

Review By Darcy Rock

Watch This celebrates an all female-identifying cast in their latest installment of the lesser known Sondheim production, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962). Speaking to a 'post #Metoo world,' director Melanie Hillman takes an antithetical approach to the outdated sex-farce genre, exploring how the sexist tropes, misogynistic humour and gender roles play out for audiences in 2023. Retaining the original script from the book written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, the production proves entertaining but polite and as a first-time viewer of this musical I found it enjoyable but lacking a boldness in it's interpretation that may have deemed it exceptional.

Presented in Prahran’s charming albeit cosy Chapel off Chapel, the venue accommodates the size of the production while the vibrancy of the cast bursts beyond it’s intimacy; never feeling restricted or getting in the way of itself. While the set remains mostly static, other than the occasional repositioning of Roman sculptures to execute specific gags, the movement is dependent on the performers to drive the energy. Hidden behind the stage are the small four-piece band led by musical director Trevor Jones who effortlessly flow through all 15 musical numbers and are spotted through side mirrors. The costume design of Jemima Johnston is generally successful, with an all female-identifying cast it proves integral in communicating each character’s gender and their relationship to class and status. At times it is confused, the male tunics flow like dresses and the hair and makeup aren’t necessarily masculinised. It leaves the production in a predicament that seems intentional; bending these gender roles and expectations are something that gives the dialogue different meaning but can also be distracting.

Starring Charmaine Gorman as the Roman slave Pseudolus, the show centres around his schemes to freedom as he struggles to win over dim-witted courtesan Philia, played by Mel O’Brien, for his master Hero, played by Milo Hartill. Pseudolus’ plans go south (of course) as disguises, long-lost children and blackmail complicate his original intentions. Gorman seems to ease through the role, playing it safe but not to detriment and while there were highlights; Domina’s (Sophie Weiss) flawless performance of That Dirty Old Man, Philia’s (Mel O’Brien) most vacant and delightfully humourous facial expressions, what stood out most was the cast’s unity. There were moments for each to relish in but none overshadowed or drew attention from each individual’s talent and performance.

Reflecting on my first-time experience with the musical, I was impressed by the comedic potential of the production, especially in it’s intricate humour and inclusion of every comedic device imaginable – slapstick, innuendo, etc – to elicit a laugh. The performers were so obviously talented and experiences, their voices refined and their cohesion as a cast understated. And while all the jokes didn’t land, at times due to delivery, timing or getting lost in amongst others, there were certainly enough to grant this production a success. The show may be lacking for those looking for a bold, memorable or passionate take on the classic but the jest and silliness of it all left me beaming amongst the laughing audience. It is certainly a Sondheim production I would seek out in future, however those more familiar with the production may be left wanting more.

Image Supplied


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