Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Three Mainstage Shows Provide Great Theatre at Shaw Festival 2007

With the month of August drawing to a close, let's conclude our look at the offerings this season at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake with three big shows at the Festival Theatre:

Mack And Mabel, with book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman; revised by Francine Pascal (Festival Theatre until October 28th):
This Jerry Herman musical opened on Broadway in 1974, starring Bernadette Peters and Robert Preston. It received eight Tony nominations that year, but only ran for sixty-six performances. A revised book by Francine Pascal accompanied the British premiere in 1995, and this is the version we see this season at the Shaw Festival, the first full production of the musical in Canada. This is a real challenge to stage, as the story of Mack Sennett is not all hearts and flowers, as it were. He was pretty rough around the edges, to say the least, and the show doesn't attempt to hide that fact. In the pivotal role as the cigar-chomping moviemaker, Benedict Campbell is onstage almost the entire time, dominating the storyline from beginning to end - I suspect Mack Sennett would be pleased about that. Campbell is gruff, funny, touching and at times you even feel sorry for him; it is hard to love someone who can be as nasty as Sennett was but Campbell manages to tug at our heartstrings for awhile, at least. His love interest cum star vehicle around which most of his comedies are written is Mabel Normand, played with great flair by Glynis Ranney. She reaches the heights of stardom and the depths of depression during her time with Mack, and after seeing the musical it is easy to see why. Getting anything remotely resembling commitment from Sennett is akin to trying to nail Jell-O to a wall, as epitomized in the only memorable song from the score, I Won't Send Roses. The supporting cast is very good, all buzzing around Sennett at his command like bees around the hive. He may be nasty, but he's their meal ticket and they know it. Look for standout performances by Jeff Madden as Frank, Neil Barclay as Fatty Arbuckle and Peter Millard in dual roles as Swain and William Desmond Taylor, the oily character who entices Mabel away from Mack's studio to make 'real movies'. Overall, Mack and Mabel is a clever but ultimately sad show - in the end, you feel for both of them and can't help but conclude they deserved each other. If nothing else, it will make you want to read more about Sennett and his era, and I am sure the old filmmaker would be pleased about that.

Hotel Peccadillo, based on the play L'Hotel du Libre-Echange by Georges Feydeau and Maurice Desvallieres, adapted by Morris Panych (Festival Theatre to October 7th):
Certainly one of the more uproarious offerings at the Shaw Festival this season, Hotel Peccadillo is a fun and fast-paced French farce, but not at the furious pace we have grown accustomed to with British farce, such as the memorable One for the Pot starring Heath Lamberts years ago. Still, you have to keep your eyes on the action, as there is a lot of opening and closing of doors and running back and forth on the simple but creative set. The receding hallway in the hotel scenes with several doors running along both sides is clever, if at first a bit disconcerting. There is not much of a plot to worry about here, but suffice it to say the cast holds everything together with great style, and director Morris Panych gives them plenty to work with. In a nutshell, several characters move from the office of Dr. Pinglet, played by Patrick Galligan, to a little hotel, all seeking sexual liasons with a partner they shouldn't be with. The ensuing mayhem is documented onstage with clever commentary by Lorne Kennedy, who walks through the play as the author Feydeau, providing a calm respite while the actors search for their heart's desire. Several standout performances here, including a very sexy Goldie Semple as the wife of Dr. Pinglet, who is chasing afterMadame Paillardin, the wife of one of his patients. Galligan as Pinglet is having the time of his life here, even spending a good part of the play in heels! Some may consider Hotel Peccadillo a little low brow, but if you check your commen sense at the door on the way in, you should have a good time with this one.

Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw (Festival Theatre to October 27th):
Shaw Festival Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell provides a wonderful staging of this Shaw classic, performed twice before at the Festival. The staging is very clean and unadorned, but everything that is needed is there - nothing more. There are several strong peformances in the cast, including Norman Browning as the Archbishop of Rheims, which I found took some getting used to; Peter Krantz as Chaplain John de Stogumber; and Ric Reid as Robert de Baudricourt and The Inquisitor. The weakest performance, I found, was Harry Judge as the Dauphin - I don't see the attraction to such a weak individual. In the title role, Tara Rosling gives a very believable performance, and an audible gasp goes up from the audience when the sentence is handed down - how could they be so cruel to such a good soul? I still remember the Christopher Newton production in 1981 with Nora McLellan as Joan - what a magnificent production it was! But this one ranks right up there with a Joan you can't help but feel for, and a timeless story we should revisit often.

So that's it for the Shaw Festival this season. Just to recap with my four-star ratings for each production this season, which appear on my website wwwfinemusic.ca:

A Month In The Country ***
The Philanderer ***
The Cassilis Engagement ***
Tristan **
Summer and Smoke ***
The Kiltartan Comedies **
The Circle ****
Mack And Mabel ***
Hotel Peccadillo ***
Saint Joan ***

Next month, we'll travel to Stratford and check out some of the productions offered at this year's Stratford Festival.

Mike Saunders
August 28, 2007.

Monday, August 20, 2007

More Reviews from the Shaw Festival 2007

This month, we'll continue our look at the current crop of offerings at the Shaw Festival this season. I've now seen all the productions this season, so we'll finish the month with reviews this week and next:

Tristan, with book, music and lyrics by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey (Court House Theatre until October 6th):
This is the world premiere of a new work by Shaw Festival music director Paul Sportelli and actor/lyricist Jay Turvey, adapted from the story "Tristan" by Thomas Mann. Tristan is directed by Eda Holmes. It has been highly anticipated as the final offering at the Shaw Festival this season, and it is an ambitious piece. Having said that, I found the production a disappointment, particularly in the first act, which seemed exceedingly dull for the most part. On the whole, Tristan is a very sweet piece, charming in a way, but ultimately unsatisfying. The second act manages to take flight and that picks up the pace somewhat, but not enough to save the day. The story takes place at a sanatorium in the German Alps in 1903, when the well-to-do with health problems would go to recuperate from whatever supposedly ails them. Some are hypochondriacs, while some have legitimate illnesses. None, it seems, want to leave the plush environment that includes five meals a day (including two breakfasts!) and walks along with other recreational activities. No wonder one guest, Vladimir Brodyagin, played by Peter Millard, proudly proclaims he has been there 'recovering' for four-and-a-half years, and might be able to leave in another nine months! One can only imagine what all this coddling cost them back then. Enter this situation Gabrielle Kloterjahn, played sweetly by Glynis Ranney, accompanied by her overbearing husband, successful businessman Heinrich, played with authority by Mark Uhre. Wouldn't you know it, no sooner does Mr. Kloterjahn leave than his wife catches the eye and fancy of writer Detlev Spinell, played by Jeff Madden. It is never clear why he is there; at the outset it is mentioned he is not there out of need; why then is he there? Anyway, their mutual attraction is never allowed to fully catch fire, as Gabrielle's tuberculosis advances after she vigorously plays the piano for Spinell. On paper, it is a story with potential; in this production, it somehow falls flat. There are some solid performances and the staging is clever, but if you go to only one or two shows at Shaw this season, I would take a pass on Tristan.

The Kiltartan Comedies by Lady Augusta Gregory (Court House Theatre until October 6):
This is the annual lunchtime theatre offering at Shaw this season; usually it is a brief, one-act play or a couple of even shorter playlets strung together over an hour and usually they prove to be uproariously funny. This, unfortunately, is not the case this year. The Kiltartan Comedies is made up of two short works by Lady Augusta Gregory, directed by Michelle Chevrier. Both set in rural Ireland, the characters range from interesting to banal, with the major exception being Mary Haney as Mrs Tarpey in the second play, Spreading the News. As always, Haney imbues her characters with great colour and spirit, and she almost singlehandedly lifts the play off the page. The rest of the cast labours admirably, but with little comic effect. The main impediment here is the thick Irish brogues, which are challenging to listen to much less speak. The Kiltartan Comedies have their moments, but overall, left me wanting. Go for a nice lunch instead.

Summer And Smoke by Tennessee Williams (Royal George Theatre until October 27th):
Over the years, the Stratford Festival has mastered the art of presenting Tennessee Williams' stage masterpieces; this season, the Shaw Festival has tried their hand at it, with generally positive but mixed results. Summer And Smoke dates from 1947 and a film version premiered in 1961. Here, a fine, upstanding minister's daughter, Alma Winemiller, played outstandingly by Nicole Underhay, is wooed by John Buchanan, Jr., a young doctor who lives life on the edge. Jeff Meadows presents Buchanan as a suitably complex character, as he progresses from a sexually charged, hard-drinking womanizer to a responsible member of society by the end of the play. In that same time-frame, however, Alma manages to loosen her inhibitions and becomes more agreeable to a bit of a summertime fling. Ah, but it's too late! Alma's parents are an interesting pair, beautifully played by Peter Hutt and Sharry Flett. Flett is particularly effective as a wife slowly losing her reason; Hutt is sensitive as her long suffering husband. This production by Neil Munro is perfectly suited to the small Royal George stage, and is very atmospheric with beautiful sets. The first act might be a little hard to get into, but once you do, the characters make the journey worthwhile.

The Circle by Somerset Maugham (Royal George Theatre until October 28th):
Another winner at the Shaw Festival this year, directed by Neil Munro. The Circle deals with the timeless subject of love lost, love found...and so on. British M.P. Arnold Champion-Cheney has everything going for him - successful political career, prominent position in society, and a loving wife. But is she? Elizabeth Champion-Cheney wants more out of life and seems to find it in young, virile Edward Luton, played with great style by Gray Powell. But does she risk her - and her husband's - standing in society for what she hopes will be true love? Added to this complex scenario is Arnold's father, Clive, played with classic wit by David Schurmann. He happens to pay a visit at the same time his former wife visits with the man she left Clive for! Thus completes the circle...which continues to turn through this 1921 play that does not appear at all dated. It is stylish, beautifully presented with a great set and very good ensemble work by the cast. It's the little details that make this play so satisfying - right down to Aarnold's constant re-positioning of a chair onstage throughout the play - hilarious! As the husband and wayward wife team, David Jansen and Moya O'Connell put in fine performances. This is one play you won't want to miss at Shaw this season!

Mike Saunders
August 20th, 2007.