Saturday, December 29, 2012


The musical play or burlesque, A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, came out when I was a Classics major at Canterbury University, New Zealand. My Latin professor played me the original cast recording, and we were delighted by its clever parody of Plautus and Terence and its tuneful, humorous songs.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to see this cleverly crafted piece on a good number of occasions, and with some fine performers: some deliciously witty, others in the dumbed-down end of the pier style (oh! Frankie Howerd!), but the fine, tight libretto always floats to the top, the small cast and one-set lay out keep things equally tight and bright, and you can always bet that, whichever way you like your Forum, it will be a good merry evening out.

I saw the show last night at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, and was enchanted by it all over again. Which isn’t to say the entire production met with my favour: it is perhaps even fair to say that the bits the audience laughed the loudest and longest at were my least favourite moments. But they obviously have piers with appreciative ends in Melbourne, Vic.

The accoutrements of the evening were all in fine style: the scenery was classic, the orchestra was musical and as loud as is apparently necessary for modern ipodded ears, the costumes were mostly aptly silly cum burlesque – I particularly liked Domina’s ship-prow hairdo – with only Pseudolus’s grubby rigout off-beam …

The songs were as delightful as ever, but the libretto had suffered (how dared they!) from some alterations and interpolations which went so far off the end of the pier that they should have drowned. Which is what I should have liked to do to the perpetrators. But I gather Mr Sondheim has passed by in person, so I imagine he must have approved. Mr Gelbart might have had other ideas. The audience howled with laughter at the bits of ‘ad lib’. I didn’t.

And the players? Well, we had a bit of everything. From several performances which I would rate as the best portrayals I have ever seen of these characters, to one which I would rate as the least good.

Forum has several large – and one very large (and, thus, no need to be larger) – roles. But the smaller parts are grand, and a skilled actor can scene- (and show-) steal in a small part. This happened last night. While others were shouting, gabbling, camping, shrieking, Bob Hornery tiptoed on in the little role of Old Erronius and showed just what can be done by an clever actor with a quiet, gentle well-timed twinkle, a comic look, a word, a line. He quite won everybody and we applauded his every entrance. Wonderful!

Another who didn’t succumb (mostly) to the penchant for the pier was Adam Murphy as the Miles Gloriosus. It is a part which demands an impressive physique and an impressive bass-baritone voice (Ah! Leon Greene!). This fellow has plenty of both, and carried the role off splendidly.

The semi-straight juvenile parts of Philia and Hero can easily fade into the middle-ground behind the feverish comedy of the evening, but not here. Philia (Christie Whelan) towering blondely and deliciously over her boyishly amazed Hero (Hugh Sheridan), like an Ulla from Crete, sang and acted quite beautifully, and put ‘the virgin’ right back where she belongs at the centre of the action. Another of my ‘best evers’.

The Senex (Shane Bourne) looked fine, sang and danced enjoyably, and – apart from a bit of music-hall foolery – acted most convincingly and appealingly in a mixture of English, American and Australian. Magda Szubanski as his wife looked wonderfully voracious and gave her one number in a zingy kind of cabaret routine which seemed a bit out of the show's style. The role of the brothel keeper Marcus Lycus is a tricky one for me. I can never forget Fred Evans, 30 years ago, stealing the show in the part in London (Australian Fred! Where are you?). But tonight he was made sufficiently oily and amusing in a rather different style by Gerry Connolly.

Which leaves us with the two principal roles of the piece, Pseudolus  (Geoffrey Rush) – the classic naughty meddling slave of Classical drama – and Hysterium (Mitchel Butel), his -- everybody's -- trembling fall guy and straight man.
Straight is perhaps the wrong word to use in connection with this pair. I don’t know if it was the actors’ idea or the director’s to play the two roles as frenetic, ultra-camp, wrist-flapping, shrieking, talk-so-loud-and-fast-you-cant-understand clowns. Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Kenneth Connor … they were clowns, yes, in these roles, but with what subtlety the two latter had their nervous breakdowns, with what winsome tact, Mostel put his dubious propositions and machinated his plots.

That’s not to say the deeply-low comic style cannot work – Hysterium had some very funny moments indeed as the fake Philia – but BOTH the principal characters, working the same style, ALL of the time. Rather exhausting. Relentless. And both giving the evening little variety, and the opportunity to a clever quiet performer to provide the contrast and steal the show.

And then .. Oh, well, maybe I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t find stage portrayal of vomiting, defacating, various degrees of simulated sex (accompanied by childish ad libs) etcetera to be funny. They’re usually covering lacks elsewhere. I guess that's my problem.

But hey, I had otherwise a good night. And if I go home remembering especially the skills of Erronius, Philia and the Miles Gloriosus, the bubbling band, the pretty girls, the always hilarious Proteans, the best of Gelbart’s lines and the merriest of Sondheim’s songs, that’s my choice. From the reaction of the audience around me, others will go home delighted with the pantomime antics and music-hall jokes and the ‘live’ performances of local TV and film players … and why not?

It all depends what kind of ‘Comedy Tonight’ you prefer. 'Something for everyone....!'

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Yes-vember, or PGB in NZ

November .. or Yes-vember as my positively-thinking buddy, Montmorensy, calls it – has been quite a month. And it’s not over yet …!

The first of the month was relatively sane. We packed my Anna de Gerolstein off to Motukarara Murray to become a racehorse, I did a broadcast to Australia … But the second? Now, these days, invalid that I pass for, I only do one thing a day. If I have an event in the daytime, I don’t go out at night. And vice versa. Not so, on Friday 2nd November 2012.

Up in the morning and out to Rangiora for my acupuncture session, then after lunch a visit from some of the students from NASDA with whom I revelled several hours before they drove me to the big city for the celebration of dear friend, Richard Marrett’s, half century of birth-years. This festivity meant I couldn’t watch -- so much is one day! -- our little Livia degerolstein running at Melton Park, Victoria. Riccarton Function Rooms don’t show trots! But Richard looked up the race on his magical phone-machine and … she had won!

Was the day over? Oh no! When the party came to an end at midnight, I was driven to Christchurch International Airport where, at 1am, Berlin buddy Paul Graham Brown was hitting New Zealand. Thank goodness for North Canterbury Shuttles, who limo-ed us to Gerolstein … where at 2am we cracked a bottle to celebrate Paul’s first foot on New Zealand soil ... and Livia’s eighth win.

Recovery made (for both of us – I was ‘jetlagged’ too!), Paul started out on his ‘holiday’. We worked out a magic combination of jaunts, work and relaxation: he drove Red Ted to Kaikoura, to Akaroa, to Hokitika, Reefton and Nelson ... we had a day at the Rangiora Races, a dinner with our closest friends and, most importantly, we paid a visit to NASDA. Well, you don’t have a musical-theatre celebrity in town and not introduce him to the students of that excellent academy!  The previous month they had had Elaine Paige. A hard act to follow? Not at all. Ask the kids!

Richard and Paul interview-chatted, the students asked a million questions about being a writer, and musicals in Germany, Paul sang a couple of his numbers … and then I announced the ‘Paul Graham Brown Prize’, for competition among the students, singing the works of the maestro. And a graduation barbecue at Gerolstein for all the graduating students …

And in between, there were relaxing sunny twilights – after all the horses were in bed – on the Gerolstein verandah, mid the peacocks ... and some relaxing not-so-sunny twilights (well, it’s only spring) curled in front of the telly, supping bubbly, dining on Wendy’s sausage casserole, roast lamb, or home-made pavlova…
Well, we didn’t want to let him go home saying he hadn’t experienced New Zealand!

Two weeks – it seemed like so much longer. And so much less. And now Paul is back in Berlin … but a little of him remains. We had only one foal this year. The little son of my beautiful Elena de Gerolstein. He has been christened ‘Mr B’ and his racing name will be Dynamite Paul, in honour of our guest.
Mr Brown … meet Mr Brown.

There’s still a week left of Yes-vember. What else can happen … phewwwwww!