Saturday, June 18, 2011

Stratford Festival scores with two magnificent musicals this summer

It's that time again; time to start reviewing performances at both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals for the summer season.  I look forward to this every year, as theatre is one of my great loves and as I discovered earlier this year, I'm closing in on 30 years of attending shows at both festivals, so I've seen more than a few.

Last weekend I made my first pilgrimage to Stratford for the season, and this weekend I visit Shaw for the first time this season.  So, let's take a look at the first two shows at Stratford so far, which happen to be the big musical offerings this season.

A lot of people have been anticipating the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, and with good reason.  This was a landmark show when it first appeared in 1970, a couple of years after Hair, and together they really paved the way for the later rock musicals like Tommy.  Oddly with Jesus Christ Superstar, the stage musical was an outgrowth of the original album, so it should come as no surprise there is really no book to speak of here, except, of course, The Bible, which provided the story on which the musical is based.  The story, as you probably are aware, deals with the last seven days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

If you have seen J.C. Superstar before, you know there is absolutely no spoken dialogue at all; it is a musical in its purest form.  All of which means you find yourself awash in song after song for almost two hours, many of which have become standard popular music repertoire.  This is, to be perfectly honest, a welcome change from some later A.L. Webber shows, which seem to present one or maybe two great songs and the rest is largely forgettable.  That's why I have never been a fan of the musical Cats, for example, although I know I am in the minority there.

Who hasn't, over the past 40 years, heard songs like "Everything's Alright", "Herod's Song" and of course, "I Don't Know How to Love Him".  Now, it is nice to hear them all in their original context within the show; and for the record, they all sound just as good today as they did 40 years ago.

This new Stratford production, directed by Artistic Director Des McAnuff, is a spectacular show.  It holds surprises at almost every turn, with many clever touches that never go over the line.  However, unlike Stratford's earlier production of Evita, this new show doesn't rely as heavily on those 'spectacle' aspects to wow the audience; the music and the story themselves more than handle that part, thank you very much.

The cast is impressive:  Paul Nolan appears as Jesus Christ, and Josh Young as an acerbic Judas Iscariot, who betrays Christ.  Young is a huge presence on stage, almost overshowing Nolan in the title role.  Chilina Kennedy makes a dynamic Mary Magdalene, and Brent Carver is wonderful to watch as Pontius Pilate.  But special mention goes to the irrepressible Bruce Dow, who makes the most of his time on stage as King Herod, albeit a slightly over-the-top King at times.

Jesus Christ Superstar will thrill many and offend almost no-one, which shows how far we have come in forty years.  Many will feel as comfortable with this show as they do pulling on a familiar old pair of jeans.  It plays at the Avon Theatre until October 29th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Now, once you get over the wailing guitars and soaring harmonies of Jesus Christ Superstar, you can head down to the Festival Theatre, as I did on Sunday afternoon, for the even bigger musical spectacle this year, Lerner & Loewe's classic Camelot, directed by Gary Griffin.  Lots of money was invested in this show, and it does show, as the sets and costumes are almost always spectacular, yet never overdone.  Griffin's direction never goes over the edge and keeps everyone in line for an enjoyable and substantial musical experience.

Everyone who knows the musical will remember that original production from 1960 that introduced the world to a dashing young singer with a fabulous stage presence, Robert Goulet, as Lancelot.  In this new production, the role goes to Jonathan Winsby, who although doesn't possess quite the good looks of Goulet years ago, certainly makes up for it with a great voice and commanding stage presence.  His love interest, of course, and Guenevere, played by Kaylee Harwood, who possesses a wonderfully sweet and strong voice and as such, makes quite the impression on stage.

As King Arthur, Geraint Wyn Davies presents the legendary character with a good deal of humility and humour, and his heartbreak when he finds out about Lancelot and Guenevere appears genuine.  Other strong performances in the cast include Dan Chameroy as Sir Dinadan and Mike Nadajewski as the appropriately-named Mordred.  It is great to see Lucy Peacock, however briefly, as Morgan le Fey, and Bruce Dow as Squire Dap.  But special mention must go to Brent Carver, who imbues the duel roles of Merlyn and King Pellinore with a great deal of colour and humour.  He is always a pleasure to watch.

Camelot is an ageless musical that just seems to get better with age, and this new Stratford production does it full justice.  It continues at the Festival Theatre until October 30th and rates, again, a strong three out of four stars.  Overall, I would give Camelot the edge for guaranteed crowd-pleaser status this year, but both productions will do well and fill a lot of seats this season at the Stratford Festival.  You can't go wrong with either one!

Incidentally, while you can pick up soundtracks to both shows at the Theatre Store, you can order them locally through my website, A Web of Fine Music, which you can find at

June 18th, 2011.

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