Monday, July 30, 2012

Two musical tales at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

A couple of the early-season openings at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival that are expected to do quite well this season are two of the musical offerings, and since I have seen both of these already, let's look at them and see what they have to offer.

Stratford as a rich history of producing inventive, witty updates to the classic Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas from over a century ago; many of us who have been going to Stratford for some time will remember with affection Brian McDonald's popular productions at the Avon Theatre in the late 80s and  early 90s.  Back then it all seemed very new to many audience-goers, catching a production of The Gondoliers or The Mikado or H.H.S. Pinafore with clever new lyrics and dialogue reflecting the social and political climate of the day here in Canada, often delivered in the patented 'patter-songs' by Stratford veteran Richard McMillan.

That was then and now is now.  Now, we have a new version of The Pirates of Penzance, or, The Slave of Duty, directed on the Avon stage by Ethan McSweeny.  McSweeny confesses in his programme notes this is his first foray into Gilbert & Sullivan, and he has decided we don't need to embellish them so much as uncover and exploit what is already present in both text and score, which are already quite witty.  True enough, but perhaps he doesn't go quite far enough in this new production, and the result is a rather lacklustre affair not sure what it wants to be:  a G&S comic opera or a live stage version of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Oh sure, there are some clever touches with the set design and the Victorian-era backstage cues in front of the curtain rather than behind, but this show just appears too silly at times, lacking the style and grace  and indeed a lot of the wit of the McDonald-era shows of many years ago.  There is one nod to updating the script in the famous patter-song I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General, sung with gusto in this production by C. David Johnson.  In the usual G&S encore of the piece, they poke some fun at Stratford Artistic Directors past and present, ending up with a big picture of - who else? - Des McAnuff.  Sources tell me the original idea for the number was scaled back somewhat during previews but perhaps they went far enough with it as we see it now and that conclusion was wisely arrived at early on in the preview run.

Other performances worth noting are Sean Arbuckle as Thomas the Pirate King, Kyle Blair as his indentured apprentice, Frederic, and Gabrielle Jones as Frederic's nursemaid, Ruth.  Also worthy of note is a very sweet performance by Amy Wallis as Mabel, the apple of Frederic's eye, and Steve Ross as Sergeant of the Police.

This Pirates of Penzance won't be remembered as their best production of this season, although it is fun.  But there are better offerings this season, both musical and otherwise, so unless you are a die-hard G&S fan, look elsewhere at Stratford this year.  It rates a two out of four stars and continues at the Avon Theatre until October 28th.

Meantime, over on the Festival stage, one of the big-budget productions this season Stratford is pinning its hopes on is the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic, 42nd Street, continuing until October 28th as well.  Director Gary Griffin and choreographer Alex Sanchez team up with designer Debra Hanson to produce a lavish, sparkly production evoking the glory years of Hollywood musicals.  The finale of Act  One, for example, has the cast in gold and silver outfits singing "We're In the Money" with all the glitz and glamour of days past.  It ultimately proves to be the show-stopping number of the production, and there is another full act to go at that point.  But for me, the finale to the second act seemed almost anti-climactic after that big show-stopper at the end of Act One.  Sure, there was lots to like in the Second Act, but it doesn't quite reach the heights you are expecting after everything you've seen up to that point.

Musically, the show can't be faulted, save for the Shuffle Off to Buffalo number in the Second Act, which just didn't work for me.  Otherwise, this production is first rate.  If nothing else, it shows younger audience members what Hollywood did best during their glory years and gives older audience members a wonderful opportunity to relive those years which, while not perfect, had a lot of good memories tied to them.

The cast is exceptional here, as it should be for a marquee musical at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.  Kyle Blair again shows up in a musical, this time as Billy Lawlor, and he is great.  The so-called great impresario, Julian Marsh, who is staging this big show, is played by Sean Arbuckle with just the right amount of ice in his veins but ultimately, a big heart to go along with it.  Other supporting cast members  with good turns are Steve Ross as Abner Dillon and Naomi Costain as Annie "Anytime" Reilley.

But the two female stars of the show, each battling it out for the audience's affections, are crowd favourite Cynthia Dale returning to Stratford to play Dorothy Brock, the "big name" in this show within a show, and young upstart Peggy Sawyer, wanting to break into the chorus and ending up the star of the show, played by Jennifer Rider-Shaw.  Jennifer has appeared in many Stratford musicals in the past, including Evita and last season's Jesus Christ Superstar.  But here she gets to let loose and tap her way into audience members' hearts with a fabulous performance.  It's a funny thing, but I was less enthused about Cynthia's return after seeing the show than about Jennifer's show-stopping performance.  Cynthia is great, but this perhaps is not the best vehicle to signal her return to the Stratford musical scene, as she really doesn't get to do the big dance numbers this time; those go to Jennifer.  A calculated risk on her part?  Perhaps...

Anyway, people will love this show and it will pack them in for the duration of the run at the Festival Theatre through to October 28th.  I don't think it is the best musical they have ever done, but it is darn entertaining nonetheless.  42nd Street rates a strong three out of four stars.

July 30th, 2012.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Stratford announces 2013 Playbill this week

Here we are, barely at the half-way mark of the 2012 season in Stratford, and the 2013 season has been announced by incoming Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino earlier this week.  That's the way it is, of course, as they have to plan ahead and get everyone confirmed early so they can spend the winter months doing the actual preparations, including set and costume design, and so on.

I like what Antoni is suggesting for his first season, not only on stage but off.  There will be two new initiatives focusing on innovation and exploration next season:  Forum and Laboratory.  Forum will be an interactive program of talks, discussions, music and dance as well as other events offering a diverse range of perspectives and will invite debate of the season's themes.  The audiences will be invited to participate in a lively exchange of ideas, according to Cimolino, although specific details as to how that will play out have not been disclosed yet.

Laboratory, on the other hand, is according to Cimolino, "for the artist what the Forum is for the audience."  The Laboratory will enable playwrights to work on a grander scale, emulating the scope of the classics, Cimolino says.  It will also provide opportunities to experiment with existing works.  Essentially, he says, "the Laboratory will be a workshop but also a enable us to work with artists from other countries and to form partnerships with other disciplines.  It will encourage innovative approaches to the great classical texts, so we can find new ways of telling these familiar stories."

There is a third goal Cimolino has for the Festival and that is to establish the Festival and indeed the city of Stratford as "an unrivalled spiritual, emotional and intellectual retreat.  Tyrone Guthrie, our first Artistic Director, conceived of Stratford as a place removed from a major metropolis where you could lay aside for a moment the demands of daily life and give yourself time to enjoy, to think and to feel - and then go home refreshed, restored and inspired."  This suggests to me they are aiming to perhaps, if not duplicate, to take inspiration from the summer Chatauqua series of music and lecture events down in New York State.  It is not that far-fetched an idea, really, and the more opportunities to bring people to Stratford and to keep them there, the better.  So we'll see how this plays out in the coming years as well.

Now, on to the playbill for the 2013 season.  The Festival Theatre will open the season with Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, directed by Tim Carroll, who directed 2010's popular Peter Pan.  Donna Feore, who this season handled directing and choreography duties for the family show, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, will be handling the same duties for the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof.  Her last effort on the Festival stage was Oklahoma! a few seasons back.  It was a popular show, but not one of my personal favourites as I recall.  Also on the Festival stage will be Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, always a tricky vehicle given the content, directed by Antoni Cimolino and featuring Brian Bedford as Shylock.  Finally, The Three Musketeers by Peter Raby, adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, will be directed by Miles Potter, who has enjoyed great success at Stratford in the past with productions of Richard III, Medea and Orpheus Descending.

On the Avon stage, Brian Bedford will direct the Noel Coward comedy Blithe Spirit, the story of ghostly visitations from the "other side"; Chris Abraham will return to direct Shakespeare's Othello at the Avon Theatre.  Abraham directs this season's very successful The Matchmaker on the Festival stage, of course.  Finally, outgoing Artistic Director Des McAnuff returns next season to direct The Who's Tommy, long rumoured to be performed at Stratford during McAnuff's tenure but likely delayed until he had time to actually stage it properly once his administrative duties were done at Stratford.  Des co-wrote The Who's Tommy with Pete Townshend and he won a Tony Award as Best Director in 1993.  After last season's Jesus Christ Superstar, this will be a much-anticipated show next season for sure.

The Tom Patterson Theatre will feature another Shakespeare play, Measure for Measure, directed by Martha Henry, who last directed at Stratford with 2009's Three Sisters by Chekhov.  Samuel Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot will also be presented on the Patterson stage, directed by Jennifer Tarver, who last directed the 2008 production of Krapp's Last Tape featuring Brian Dennehy.  Dennehy returns  next season to play Pozzo in Waiting for Godot; he will also play Talbot in Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart, directed by Antoni Cimolino.

Meantime, the Studio Theatre will host John Murrell's Taking Shakespeare, directed by Diana Leblanc,  and features Martha Henry as the Prof, a role written expressly for her.  Also at the Studio Theatre, Dean Gabourie will directed the world premiere of Judith Thompson's The Thrill, a Festival commission.  Gabourie this season is directing the premiere of Daniel MacIvor's The Best Brothers.

So, all told an interesting season as Cimolino's maiden voyage as Artistic Director; there will be 12 productions next season, down two from this season's 14 productions.  Now, let the planning begin!

July 21st, 2012.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A banner year at the Shaw Festival

Even though last year was the 50th Anniversary season of the Shaw Festival, and as good as it was, it seems the real celebrations are underway this season in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  For the most part, Shaw has rattled off a string of critical and audience winners so far this season, and we have more to go in August!  A couple of fine examples in my Shaw reviews this week, including the big musical and a Shaw sleeper for you.

After last season's critical and financial success with My Fair Lady, everyone wondered what this year would bring when Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell took a bit of a risk and programmed Ragtime as the big musical this season.  As good a musical as it was, and is, Ragtime has not been a runaway success since it premiered in Toronto in 1996.  It did well enough, to be sure, and went on to Los Angeles and finally Broadway, collecting 13 Tony nominations in 1998, winning for Best Score, Book and Orchestrations.  But My Fair Lady it wasn't.  So it was a bit of a gamble this season for Shaw, following last season's financial losses.

All fears were put to rest early on in the previews of Ragtime as audiences knew they were on to something special.  Indeed it is!  This production of Ragtime could easily travel elsewhere once it is done in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and do quite well.  I doubt that will happen, though, so we'll celebrate the success right here in Niagara as people come from far and near to catch the show.

With a book by Terrence McNally and music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime looks at turn-of-the-20th-century North America and the racial and economic hardships America was going through at the time.  It was the industrial age, but not everyone was benefitting from it, and blacks especially were not seen in the best light back then to put it mildly.  It is hard for some younger audience members to believe people could be so bigoted 100 years ago, but thankfully things have improved considerably and society as a whole, in spite of what some may think, is much more tolerant today than a century ago.

This big, expansive musical features great sets and costumes and a great orchestra in the pit all supporting an all-star cast that includes Thom Allison as Coalhouse Walker Jr., who is driven to the edge by unthinking idiots who have no tolerance for blacks.  He is joined by the love of his life, Sarah, played by Alana Hibbert, and together they make a fine couple as they look to the future with their young son.  But forces of society are not kind to them in Ragtime, making it all but impossible for them to imagine their dream would become a reality in this century with the election of the first African-American President in November, 2008.

The supporting cast is just as good here:  Benedict Campbell as Father and Patty Jamieson as Mother are both effective; Kate Hennig is quite interesting as the social activist Emma Goldman; and Jay Turvey is very good as Tateh, himself seeking a better life for him and his family in America.

For some, they will see just one show at Shaw this season.  If they choose Ragtime since it is a musical, they might find they are in for more than they bargained for, but will certainly not leave the Festival Theatre disappointed.  It is a great show and rates a strong four out of four stars.  Ragtime continues until October 14th, but I would not be surprised if it is extended to the end of October before the season is out.

At the other end of the theatrical spectrum, the intimate setting of the Court House Theatre is home to one of two Shaw plays this season:  The Millionairess, which the Festival has produced every ten years or so, beginning in 1965.  I didn't see the first two productions in 1965 and 1977, but I remember vividly the 1991 and 2001 productions, and this new edition stands with those as great interpretations of   Shaw's lighthearted play.

In The Millionairess, Shaw checks his preaching at the door to simply deliver a good story and basically provide a great vehicle for a strong female character to steal the show.  In this new production, director Blair Williams chose Nicole Underhay to steamroll through the title role as Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, the wealthy but not quite wealthy enough heiress who is searching for her male soulmate.  Her first husband, Alastair Fitzfassenden, played with great panache by Martin Happer, has had enough of her tactics and takes up with Polly, a much milder female played sweetly by Robin Evan Willis.  Epifania, for her part, thinks she has found what she is looking for in Adrian Blenderbland, played by Steven Sutcliffe, but he ends up on the wrong end of her temper and ultimately ends up on crutches for the second act, bandaged to within an inch of his life.

Into all this mayhem comes another male, The Doctor, played by Kevin Hanchard, and she meets her match.  Do they all live happily ever after?  Well, if you don't know the story I won't give it away here, but suffice it to say the road to happiness, such as it is, is littered with many laughs in this Shavian romp.

The whole production moves at a relatively good clip, given the fact it is a Shaw play, after all, and the exceptional sets and costumes, all colour-coordinated to each scene, no less, do much to make the show a winner.  The only quibble I have with the production is the overtly 'money' songs playing while you enter the theatre prior to the performance.  They are a bit too contemporary for this show, I think, and pretty predictable.  Maybe it's just me, but I am getting tired of hearing Pink Floyd's 'Money' for example.

Other than that, it is a fine show and well worth your time; The Millionairess runs at the Court House Theatre until October 6th and rates an equally strong four out of four stars.

July 17th, 2012.f

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summer Music Season is upon us!

It is that time of year when those seeking great music in summer venues in Ontario are revelling in musical riches.  There are several music festivals both large and small, near and further away from Niagara, so let's take a look at what's going on the next month or so if you want to escape the heat and enjoy some great music.

The Rotary Shell at Charles Daley Park in Lincoln, just down the QEW from St. Catharines, started their annual Sunset Music Series last week, with all performances beginning at 7 pm and running through to about 8:30 pm.  This is a great, family-friendly free event, with food vendors on site at very affordable prices, and all you have to do is bring yourselves and chairs and blankets.  With Lake Ontario as the backdrop on a warm summer evening, this is an ideal spot to enjoy some great music.  All performances are on Tuesday evenings, by the way, and range from bluegrass to latin jazz to The Lincoln Concert Band.  Full event details are available at

Music Niagara is set to launch their 14th season Friday evening, which of course is July 13th, in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Artistic Director Atis Bankas has put-together a series of concerts related to the War of 1812, of course, including Tchaikovsky's familiar 1812 Overture at Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre on Sunday evening, July 29th.  There is lots more planned, of course, with the opening night concert featuring young Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear playing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.  The closing concert on August 11th will feature a Haydn Spectacular, featuring Haydn's Mass for Troubled Times.  Also featured during the festival will be the world-famous Trinity College Cambridge Choir, performing this Saturday night at St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  This is truly one of the finest music festivals around, and it is all right in our own backyard.  For more information and to book tickets, call 905-468-2172 or go to

The other music festival I love to attend is the Elora Festival in Elora, just north-west of Guelph.  It also gets underway tomorrow night, July 13th and runs through to August 5th at several venues around town.  Featured highlights this year include The Barra MacNeils this Saturday night, July 14th at the Gambrel Barn, and Britten's The Company of Heaven Sunday afternoon at St. John's Church.  The Trinity College Cambridge Choir stops in Elora Sunday afternoon as well, at 4 pm at the Gambrel Barn.  There is lots more planned, including the performance I am looking forward to attending, A Summer's Evening on Broadway with the Elora Festival Singers and soloists, conducted by Noel Edison, also at the Gambrel Barn on Saturday evening, August 4th.

One of the real pleasures of visiting Elora is to stay overnight after the performance and explore the town the following day, which Sophie and I have done the past several years.  There are plenty of local Bed & Breakfasts available, and all reasonably priced, too.  One thing I always try to do on the Sunday morning is to attend the Sunday Service at St. John's Church at 11 am.  It is a lovely opportunity to hear the Elora Festival Singers in their natural setting singing a lot of sacred music of the Anglican Church.  Best of all, it is free, but space is limited so get there early if you plan to go any Sunday morning during the Festival.

For more information or to order tickets, call the box office at 1-888-747-7550 or go to

Already underway and as popular as always is the Brott Music Festival in Hamilton and area, celebrating 25 years of extraordinary music-making.  I find it hard to believe they have been going that long, but then I remember going to performances at this festival 20 years ago and it was already a major summer attraction.  Maestro Boris Brott has assembled a wide variety of musical events right through to August 16th, with some of the remaining highlights including the Rousing Russians concert this Saturday night, July 14th at the McIntyre Performing Arts Centre at Mohawk College and the High Tea   Organ Recital at St. Christopher's Anglican Church in Burlington on July 22nd at 3 pm.  That concert features Matthew Jones on recorder and Jan Overduin on organ.  There is also a number of jazz concerts planned as well, including Alex Pangman and the Alleycats performing at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington July 27th at 7:30 pm.

Brott, always the showman, knows how to programme a music festival and this year will be no different.  If you have not already done so, you can book tickets by going to

Finally, the Stratford Summer Music Festival is set to get underway this Sunday, July 16th in Stratford, of course, running for six weeks until August 26th.  This is one festival I have yet to get to, but hopefully this year I can fit it into my schedule while in Stratford for theatre over the course of the summer.  Featured performers this year include the Summer Music debut of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra on Saturday, August 18th, and the concert version of Two Pianos, Four Hands with Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt on Sunday, July 22nd.  There will also be performances with young Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki again this year, and he is one to watch in classical music circles.

Performances take place throughout Stratford, and tickets are available by calling 1-866-288-4313 or by going to

I will be posting all of these and many other summer events on my website's Calendar page shortly, and you can find that by going to

Enjoy the music!

July 12th, 2012.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Stratford Shakespeare Festival offers variety this season

There is no question there is plenty of variety at the 60th-anniversary season of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival; there literally is something for everyone as I discovered after spending a few days this past week in Stratford again catching some more shows.  Let's look at another couple of offerings and see what's interesting this year.

Earlier this season it was announced present Artistic Director, Des McAnuff would be leaving at the end of this season, and his successor was chosen from within this time:  General Director Antoni Cimolino will become Artistic Director for the 61st season next year.  Overall I think it's a good choice, as I have enjoyed Antoni's acting and directing talents for several seasons now, and the fact he is General Director now in no way suggests he is not of an artistic background as well.  In fact, going back over the years I could safely suggest his track record as a director is pretty steady.

So it is again with the opening in May of Shakespeare's late romance, Cymbeline, on the Tom Patterson    stage.  I have seen this play a couple of times before, most notably when Robin Phillips returned to Stratford many years ago to direct it after leaving the Artistic Directorship himself some years earlier.

Cimolino has wisely chosen not taken this Shakespeare play out of context; it is basically set in the period in which it was written, so everything falls into place nicely here.  The limited use of special effects further enhances the production as you are concentrating on the play itself and how it is presented rather than a lot of extra window dressing.  Credit goes to set designer Scott Penner and costume designer Carolyn M. Smith for designing such a simple yet effective and evocative production. Cimolino directs with a clear vision of what he wants and in the process gets some very fine performances out of a cast that includes Tom McCamus as the scheming Iachimo and Geraint Wyn-Davies in the title role.

Davies is suitably regal as the wrong-headed king, who undergoes a major transformation as the play progresses and becomes a much more compassionate soul as he realizes his daughter Innogen, played very touchingly by Cara Ricketts, really did marry for love in spite of the fact she went against his wishes.  Yanna McIntosh is the Queen, who has married Cymbeline to further her own agenda and plays the part with a decidedly nasty demeanour appropriate for a scheming person.  As her son, Cloten, Mike Shara comes off as a bit too much of and idiot and a dolt. leaving one to wonder why parents - royal or otherwise - can't always see how socially inept their offspring really are.  Ah, but therein lies the rub, as Cymbeline banishes Innogen's husband, Posthumus into exile because Innogen was meant to marry the dolt Cloten.

The other standouts in the cast are Peter Hutt as Doctor Cornelius, Brian Tree in a meaty role as Pisanio, Postumus' servant sent to kill Innogen when her husband suspects she has been unfaithful to him while in exile at the hands of Iachimo, who places a bet with Posthumus he can bed the latter's wife with little or no effort.  As Iachimo, Tom McCamus presents a powerfully subtle scene as he attempts to   fool Postumus into thinking he had his way with Innogen; he then undergoes a transformation of his own at the end of the play when his life is spared and all is explained.

The play also features a spectacular sequence when Jupiter arrives on the back of a giant eagle; no mean feat on the stage at the Tom Patterson Theatre, and a fight sequence that works for the most part but left this reporter scratching his head by the end of it over some of the movements used.  No matter, the play is a winner, and rates a strong three out of four starts.  Cymbeline continues until September 30th.

Also onstage until August is an unusual presentation by VideoCabaret at the newly-opened Annex in the small Studio Theatre behind the Avon Theatre (got all that?) titled The War of 1812:  The History of the Village of the Small Huts:  1812-15.  Playwright Michael Hollingsworth directs along with Associate Director Deanne Taylor a series of short vignettes part of a larger body of work that is really a comedy of manners, satirizing Canada's various colonial periods.  Here, of course, we concentrate on The War of 1812 and who in fact won the war.

This is a really different theatre experience that won't be for everyone, but the audience at the performance I attended on July 4th was very receptive and in fact, the small Annex space was full to the rafters for the performance.  Although the play is well researched and written and the eight performers are all first-rate, I personally found the whole thing wore a little thin by midway through the second act, and in fact it could have been a little shorter than it was and not lost much impact at all.

The eight performers each play several characters each, of both genders, all in white face with gaudy costumes and facial expressions more caricature than anything else.  The humour is delivered with biting wit and razor-sharp timing, as scenes change quickly with very few props to go along with the performers.

All the VideoCabaret performers are great, but especially Richard Clarkin as General Isaac Bock, and Linda Prystawska as Dolly Madison and Laura Secord.

The War of 1812 might not quell the debate of who actually won the war, but you'll have fun debating the issue with this show, which runs to August 12th and rates three out of four stars.

July 7th, 2012.