Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Two hits and a miss at the Shaw Festival

It has been a busy few days as the summer music festival season continues throughout parts of Ontario; just this past weekend I was up in Elora for the next-to-last performance for the Elora Festival's 30th anniversary season. The Sicilian Jazz Project was the headliner on Saturday evening, with the group formed a few years ago by Michael Occhipinti taking to the stage at the Gambrel Barn. The performance was certainly worthy of a larger audience; however, probably the smallest crowd for the festival at the Gambrel Barn turned out for the show. That's a pity, as we heard some pretty interesting music-making by some pretty inventive individuals. For me, the highlight actually came Sunday morning when I attended the Choral Mattins at St. John's Anglican Church in Elora, and a sort of thank you performance by the Elora Festival Singers directed by Noel Edison. I jumped at the chance to see the choir in a more 'natural' setting, and I was not disappointed. What a wonderful group of voices and what a lovely church! The icing on the cake was a very humourous and loving serman from Anglican Bishop Ralph Spence. A thoroughly delightful weekend!

Now, on to the business of the day: some more reviews of plays currently onstage at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and I think we can title this one "Two hits and a miss"...

First up, we have 'Born Yesterday', opening at the Festival Theatre in May and continuing until November 1st. So far this season, this is the runaway hit, as well it should be. Director Gina Wilkinson handles things with just the right touch of humour; her cast respond with some exceptional performances. The play, by Garson Kanin, is the first of his works to be presented at the Shaw Festival, and after this one I suspect it won't be the last. Kanin began writing the play at the end of the Second World War to show his disgust of what he witnessed in Washington, what with lobbyists, big dealers and influence peddlars. Oddly enough, the play became even more popular following the Watergate scandal in the early 70's.

The art-deco set, depicting a ritzy hotel lobby, is just spectacular. The costumes are equally so. But the performances are what bring this story to life, and we have some dandy performances here. Thom Marriott, now a Shaw regular after several seasons at Stratford, is the likeable but nasty thug Harry Brock, who is used to buying his influence in Washington from the likes of Senator Norval Hedges, played by Lorne Kennedy. Marriott gives a performance that truly makes Brock larger than life, which is exactly what's needed for the play. His lady, Billie Dawn, is expertly played by Deborah Hay, first as a ditzy airhead but later, as she is 'schooled' by Paul Verrall, played by Gray Powell, she comes into her own as she realizes what Harry is really up to. You find yourself rooting for her at the end as she basically gives Harry what he deserves.
Born Yesterday continues to November 1st at the Festival Theatre and is a highly-recommended three out of four stars.

Next up, also at the Festival Theatre until October 11th, is Bernard Shaw's 'The Devil's Disciple', written at the peak of his powers in 1897. Certainly, this is one of his better plays, and he gives the actors lots of meat to sink their collective teeth into. Director Tadeusz Bradecki offers some nice touches here, and the simple set is large enough to fill the large space at the Festival Theatre without overwhelming us. Very nicely done.

Once again, we have some very strong performances here, including Donna Belleville as Mrs. Timothy Dudgeon; Lucy Campbell as Essie; Jonathan Widdifield as Christy Dudgeon and Fiona Byrne as Judith Anderson. She is married to the Reverend Anthony Anderson, played by Peter Krantz, who I think is a little miscast here, and who falls for Richard Dudgeon, the black sheep of the family. Not at first, mind you, but only after British soldiers find him visiting with Judith and rather than cause problems for her, he gallantly surrenders to the soldiers who think they have the Reverend. Hard to believe they could be so easily deceived, but such is life, and theatre, I suppose. As Richard Dudgeon, Evan Buliung puts in a spirited and believable performance and proves to be quite engaging. One could see how Judith Anderson could be drawn to him in spite of his earlier reputation within the community. One of my favourite characters is General John Burgoyne, played with great affection by Jim Mezon.

Overall, a very strong show and one of the better offerings at the Shaw Festival this year. It rates a strong three out of four stars, and continues at the Festival Theatre until October 11th.

The final offering we'll look at this week is the musical 'Sunday in the Park with George', with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. It plays at the smaller Royal George Theatre until November 1st.

Director Alisa Palmer marshalls a pretty talented cast here and does what she can, but overall, the musical just seems to fall flat, with a story line that appears pretty trying at times and characters you can't really feel a whole lot for here. Still, it is beautifully staged and well performed; it just doesn't seem to really come together. Sunday in the Park with George tells the story of two Georges, actually, two artists one hundred years apart. One George is based on the famous 19th century impressionist painter Georges Seurat; the other George is a completely fictional character, a 20th century installation artist and inventor and the great-grandson of Seurat.

Sunday in the Park with George dates from 1984, and although it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, it appears to be a little dated, moreso than other Sondheim offerings we have enjoyed in the last couple of years at Shaw and elsewhere. Indeed, last season's 'A Little Night Music', about a decade older than this musical, seems a much richer musical score and more likeable characters. Some of the better performances here include the happy return of Steven Sutcliffe to Shaw in the title role of George; Julie Martell as Dot and Marie; Sharry Flett as the Old Lady and Blair Daniels, and Jay Turvey as Jules and Bob Greenberg.

This will be a challenging musical for many people accustomed to lighter musical fare, so it won't appeal to everyone, but if you want a real challenge it might just be for you. I give it a two out of four stars. Sunday in the Park with George continues until November 1st at the Royal George Theatre.

August 5th, 2009.

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