Having to cancel a RM200,000 production on the day it’s scheduled to open is not such a funny thing to happen, as Gardner & Wife can attest. Celebrity chef Redzuawan bin Ismail (better known as Chef Wan), who plays the wisecracking slave Pseudolus, reportedly burst into tears when he heard the tragic news.
Fortunately there was a last-minute reprieve from on high and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum was granted a performance licence, after having lost four days out of its 3-week run. But why this totally unexpected and unnecessary hiccup? When The Baltimore Waltz was denied a permit recently, the official reason given was its “unacceptable” scenes and dialogue. But surely this musical comedy from the early 1960s with music and lyrics by the illustrious Stephen Sondheim was inoffensive enough – except perhaps to neo-feminist sensibilities; and I’m pretty certain the problem wasn’t because women were portrayed as bimbos, floozies, and shrews; nor was it because men were shown up as nerds, wimps, pimps, lechers, pompous asses, eunuchs, deadheads and sleazeballs!
As it turned out, the screw-up was over work permits for London-based musical director Simon Gray and a few “foreign” members of the cast. How something as stupid as this could possibly happen is another of life’s eternal mysteries. This was a co-production involving Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (the National Arts Academy), the Malaysian Tourism Centre (which provided the venue), and Richard Gardner and Chae Lian (who two years ago joined the pantheon of famous theater couples like Joe and Faridah, and Krishen and Marion). Does the Malaysian bureaucracy actually enjoy shooting itself in the foot? Perhaps it wants to maintain a monopoly on the production of farces?
So much for the official melodrama preceding the musical melodrama. Theater has become an extremely high-risk enterprise in Malaysia with the government muscling in on the act at every turn like an unloved child desperate for attention. Is ministerial paranoia getting more acute? Or is it just an extreme case of constipation caused by homophobic anal retention?
I remember falling asleep while watching the movie version of Forum (oh, many decades ago), which featured top names like Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, and Michael Crawford. So I had no idea what to expect this time. Well, I didn’t nod off, but occasionally found it hard to applaud wholeheartedly, even though I rejoiced on behalf of the entire cast and crew that all their efforts hadn’t gone completely to waste.
The casting of Chef Wan as Pseudolus the freedom-loving slave was perhaps influenced by director Gardner’s fondness for inserting a bit of local flavor into all his adaptations of Broadway and West End hits. In this instance Chef Wan’s performance was reminiscent of the bangsawan tradition in Malay theatre of the Fifties and Sixties. Mostly, the irrepressible and impish Wan played himself. He didn’t score too well when it came to singing but the sheer force of his personality carried him through, despite his dubious diction. A natural performer, he quickly won the audience over with his practiced intimacy, although his rapid-fire asides in the vernacular confounded quite a few people (myself included, not just the Mat Sallehs). I suspect Gardner let Chef Wan spice up his Pseudolus with chili padi and sambal belacan to please the tastebuds of the TV chef’s local fan club.
Brian McIntyre, Reza Zainal Abidin, Lim Soon Heng, Edna Tan, and Fuad Tengku Ahmad turned in commendable performances as Erronius, Lycus, Senex, Domina, and Miles Gloriosus. Without their reassuring presence the production would have veered dangerously close to the reefs of disaster. The courtesans, played by Jodie LaRiviere, Joanna Saw, Krystle Chow, Farah Ashikin, and K’ma, were irresistibly vulgar but a bit too coy. The Proteans (doubling as slapstick soldiers and mincing cathouse eunuchs) would have been much funnier if only they had more stage experience; Llewellyn Marsh was the only one who passed muster, but only just.
As the arithmetically challenged virgin, Philia, Olivia Anne Goonting presented a winsome figure – but her singing voice was somewhat of a letdown. Jason Cheong’s Hero, a clueless, lovestruck scion of Senex and Domina, was a case of incongruous casting. He so resembled my computer techie friend, I was in a state of utter disbelief each time he spoke; but whenever he sang, he redeemed himself to a certain extent. I suppose a singing dentist is precisely the sort of character you’d find in a musical farce inspired by Plautus, the popular Roman playwright (circa 200 B.C.). But a Roman-style haircut might have helped.
I’m not sure what to make of Gani Abdul Karim’s take on Hysterium. He was at his best in drag, impersonating Philia’s corpse. His performance was highly energetic but lacked definition. Nonetheless, he has a talent for vaudeville, and he can sing.
The orchestra played admirably under the baton of Simon Gray, who conducted from his keyboard. Considering the intricacy and eccentricity of Sondheim’s score, it was a very accomplished performance and the most outstanding feature of the production.
Stephen Sondheim is a very clever fellow with a cynical view of love and marriage. His collaboration with librettists Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart produced a quirky madcap spoof on Broadway musicals and Hollywood romances. Forum is sort of like a high school skit written by college professors. Lots of fun if cast just right. The inclusion of expert laughmeisters like Afdlin Shauki, Harith Iskandar, and Patrick Teoh might have taken the production up a notch or two (but they were busy performing Actorlympics at another theatre).
I found myself entertained by the proceedings at Forum, but not entirely enthralled by the performances. Just as well I didn’t have to purchase a ticket. This might have turned out a much grouchier review.