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'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' still brings the funny, but not as much

Sean Cullen hams it up as Pseudolus

2.5 out of 4 stars

A funny thing happened on the way to Toronto - to Stratford's production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Funny peculiar, that is.

Back in the 1,080-seat Avon Theatre at the 2009 Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Des McAnuff's zany, zippy production of Stephen Sondheim's funniest musical had audiences chuckling away whether Bruce Dow or Seán Cullen was playing the central character, clever slave Pseudolus. (Cullen replaced Dow partway through the run.)

Remounted in the twice-as-big Canon Theatre by Mirvish Productions, the Stratford production - which alternates between Dow and Cullen in the lead role - certainly retains many morsels of hilarity, but what was once a juicy bunch of grapes has now shrivelled down to a box of raisins. The "Comedy tonight!" promised in the opening number grinds to a halt about halfway through the first act during an oddly robotic rendition of Everybody Ought to Have a Maid before the show goes through a brutally long stretch of aimless Roman roaming in search of a laugh.

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Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's script for this 1962 musical draws it characters and plot from the plays of Plautus, the ancient Roman father of farce.

Pseudolus will gain his freedom if he manages to help his master Hero (Mike Nadajewski) elope with a courtesan named Philia (Chilina Kennedy). The obstacles standing in his way include: Hero's parents, henpecked Senex (Randy Hughson) and the shrill Domina (Deann deGuijter); Marcus Lycus (Cliff Saunders), the buyer and seller of flesh who owns Philia; and Miles Gloriosus (Dan Chameroy), the conceited warrior who has bought her. Alternatingly helping and hindering Pseudolus is nervous slave-in-chief Hysterium, played by Shaw Festival regular Stephen Sutcliffe replacing Stephen Ouimette, who is otherwise occupied in Broadway's La Bête.

Which of Cullen and Dow is the most suitable of the Pseudoli? Well, they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Cullen, who I saw on Saturday night, is a unrepentant mugger, which makes the low-comedy material manna from heaven for him. His "death" scene - where he feigns suicide to avoid being executed by Glorious - is a virtuoso solo.

But Dow, whose deepened performance I saw on Sunday, better appreciates that all the tomfoolery in Forum will only sustain us if we care about Pseudolus's quest for freedom.

In contrast, the gag-addicted Cullen's yearning only really registers when he lays his eyes on a courtesan named Gymnasia (Lindsay Croxall), who is dressed like Blondie in bondage in Dana Osborne's playful costumes.

Dow doesn't have as hungry a gaze for Gymnasia, but he does have superior chemistry with Sutcliffe's Hysterium which is, ultimately, the much more important relationship here. Watching Sutcliffe play off the two actors in the sharp second act, there's a world of difference.

The fine comic romance - lovely and LOL-filled - between Nadajewski's Hero and Kennedy's Philia has transferred well to the Canon, while Saunders's performance as Lycus is now a much snugger fit - perhaps the Avon was just too small to contain his big pimpin'.

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The comic quality of the rest, however, has declined or fallen. There is an excess of forced physical slapstick - whether Hero awkwardly snorting like a pig in Love I Hear; Dan Chameroy unnecessarily adding pratfalls into every entrance and exit of his Shatnerian Miles Gloriosus; or Sutcliffe's Hysterium doing yoga in a toga during I'm Calm and, later, being beaten at random during Domina's song, That Dirty Old Man. In moments like these, McAnuff's production is trying to be funny and just ends up being trying.

Whether the director is pushing his shtick in attempt to fill the larger theatre or it has just calcified from over-repetition is unclear. I'm sure part of it, for me, was simply the diminishing returns of seeing the same jokes for a third and fourth time. But the audience was noticeably quieter in Toronto, despite there being twice as many of them. Based on crowd response, however, Dow was the more popular of the Pseudoli.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

  • Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart
  • Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
  • Directed by Des McAnuff
  • Starring Sean Cullen/Bruce Dow
  • At the Canon Theatre in Toronto

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs until Jan. 16.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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