Sunday, August 30, 2009

Three more shows to see at the Stratford Festival

Well, even though I am still feeling I'm slow on the uptake following my surgery earlier this month, I am ever so gently getting back to my routine, which includes, of course, catching up on the reviews from Stratford and Shaw. We'll look at three shows at Stratford today, and later this week we'll look at some more from Shaw.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM - Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim - Avon Theatre to November 1st (4 out of 4 stars)
I knew pretty much what to expect going in with this show, as Artistic Director Des McAnuff handles directorial duties here, and the original Broadway production and subsequent movie version were both huge hits. This Stratford production proves the show has not lost any of its lustre over the years, and is basically a madcap romp with particularly witty music and lyrics, although only one song has survived to this day, the show opener "Comedy Tonight". The set design by John Arnone is quite clever and effective; McAnuff's directing is a little over the top at times, a la Richard Monette, but it seems to fit the spirit of the show.

The characters, of course, are very broadly drawn, with lots of good performances here, including Bruce Dow in the central role of Pseudolus, slave to Hero, who wants nothing more than his freedom and will do almost anything to get it. Other cast members turning in fine performances are Randy Hughson as Senex, a citizen of Rome, Deann deGruijter as Domina, his wife, and Stephen Ouimette in a wonderfully comic role as Hysterium, their slave. As Hero, Mike Nadajewski is quite good, and his love interest, the virgin Philia, is played with great style by Chilina Kennedy.

Most people are familiar with the story, of course: a comic send-up of ancient Rome and Pseudolus the slave guides us through several plot twists and turns in order to bring Hero and Philia together and ultimately gain his freedom. This is not high drama in the least, but another example of Stephen Sondheim's witty and articulate musical craftsmanship, which has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance lately. Go see this show, and check all logic at the door!

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST - Oscar Wilde - Avon Theatre to October 30th (Three out of four stars)
Described as"The Mozart of English Comedy" by director Brian Bedford in his program notes, and with good reason. There is a delightful lightness to the text and unrelenting energy, as Bedford puts it, much like Mozart displayed in his music. Bedford as director and star is a lot of work, but he pulls it off admirably, supported by a very strong cast.

Robert Persichini gets the ball rolling as a very deadpan Lane, the butler. Mike Shara of St. Catharines is having a fine year at Stratford, this time playing the central role of Algernon Moncrieff, who is in love with Cecily Cardew, ward of his friend Jack Worthing. He also has an imaginary friend, "Bunbury", who is always sick and in need of Algernon's attentions whenever a social obligation comes up Algernon would rather avoid. As Worthing, Ben Carlson is every bit a match for Shara's Algernon; Andrea Runge makes a nice Cecily; and Sara Topham is very good as Jack's interest, Gwendolen Fairfax. Stephen Oiumette puts in a good comic turn as Rev. Canon Chasuble, but all attention centres on Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell as she tries to gain control of all the shenanigans going on around her.

This is a very stylish, beautifully staged production, courtesy of Desmond Heeley, although I can't imagine doing a really bad production of the play. Oh, anything is possible, to be sure, but with this cast, success is almost assured. If you want to see just one show at Stratford aside from Shakespeare, this is the one to see.

EVER YOURS, OSCAR - Compiled by Peter Wylde, from the letters of Oscar Wilde - Tom Patterson Theatre to August 29th (Four out of four stars)
Unfortunately this show is now closed, and my apologies for not getting the review out there sooner, but for those who saw this show, ideally as a companion-piece to The Importance of Being Earnest, it was a performance not to be missed. Bedford alone on stage, with nothing but a podium and a small table to hold his water, and 90 minutes of letters Wilde wrote over the years, each providing insight into the world of Oscar Wilde, warts and all. We travel from his witty writings about English society of the day to the troubling personal life he tried to hide, ultimately proving to be his undoing. Afterwards, the letters showing Wilde's concerns for the less fortunate children he saw were particularly poignant.

Brian Bedford really does this material justice, and presents it with much love, care, and reserve. The capacity audience at the performance I attended knew what to expect, and they were not disappointed. If you missed the show this season, as it had a limited run, more's the pity. It was a rare gem at the Stratford Festival this year.

August 30th, 2009.

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