Saturday, August 15, 2015

Light Up the Sky lights up the Shaw Festival

We made our final trip to the Shaw Festival last weekend, and although the evening was fun, it wasn't particularly memorable.  We were at the Festival Theatre for Moss Hart's 1948 comedy, Light Up the Sky, which is essentially a love letter to all that is great - and not-so-great - about live theatre.

Just before I get into the details on the play, there was some other news out of Shaw this week, and it was big news indeed.  After much deliberation, it was announced by Board of Governors Chair Andy Pringle the next Artistic Director will be Tim Carroll, who will replace Jackie Maxwell at the end of the 2016 season.

I will have more on the announcement and the 2016 season details soon in this space, but now, back to the play at hand, which received quite a number of hands - clapping that is - at the performance we attended last weekend.

Light Up the Sky premiered at the Royale Theatre (now the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre) in November of 1948 and ran for over 200 performances.  There have been several revivals both in Canada and the United States since then, including a 1987 production produced by Hart's son Christopher, starring Peter Falk, among others.  Would love to have seen that production!

This is the first time the play has been produced at Shaw, although it made sense to bring Light Up the Sky to Shaw since they have produced a number of Hart's collaborations with George S. Kaufman here over the years, including The Man Who Came to Dinner in 2001, You Can't Take It With You in 1999 and Once in a Lifetime in both 1988 and 1989.

But Moss Hart on his own is not quite the same.  It has been said Hart wanted to prove he could produce hits on his own without the help of Kaufman, "the great collaborator", and while that may have been true in 1948, it is somewhat less so in 2015.

Director Blair Williams takes an all-star cast and collectively they do their level best to make this play funny and relevant for today's audiences, but all too often it comes off as corny and at times even vulgar.

That's not to say the cast is not stellar.  With but few exceptions they are.  It's the play that tends to drag them down.

Oh, there are clever touches, such as how the scene is set at the start of Acts One and Three, with the stage scrim depicting the different rooms at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel in Boston where the action takes place.  And with several cast members portraying multiple roles the cast appears much larger than it is.

But the play falls flat at times when the action just doesn't seem believable.  Like, who really decides to revise a play at 4 am after opening night anyways?  Just a thought...

The story involves a young aspiring playwright, Peter Sloan, who just finished his very first play and it is being bankrolled by bombastic producer Sidney Black and his abrasive wife Frances to the tune of $300,000 - that's 1948 dollars, by the way.  The opening night in Boston is viewed as the first step towards opening on Broadway, of course, and hopes are high the play will sail through out of town tryouts and take Broadway by storm in short order.

Everyone involved is hugs and kisses and isn't this all grand in Act One.  All agree the play is wonderful and this young former truck driver-turned playwright from Wisconsin has a great future.  Act Two, immediately following the opening night fiasco, shows the same cast members displaying  their true colours as they proceed to dump on the hapless playwright for writing a bomb of a play.

It isn't until Act Three following the intermission the play really hits its stride, taking place at 3:30 the next morning, Shriners Convention in full swing elsewhere in the hotel and cast members still up and wringing their collective hands.  Sloan the playwright has decided to leave town on the next flight and forget about playwriting altogether, while the early reviews pour in praising the new production to the heavens.  The cast realize they have some serious fence-mending to do, but first they have to find Sloan.

The logistics of finding the playwright at the Boston airport and getting him back to the hotel happens pretty darn quick, and is just not realistic.  But then, not much else about this play is, either.

All of the action takes place in the luxurious suite of show star Irene Livingston, played way over the top by one of Shaw's best young actresses, Claire Jullien.  Her husband, a mouse of a man named Tyler Rayburn, is played by Kelly Wong.

The rest of the cast also pretty much present caricatures of what should be believable characters, and the play suffers as a result.  Beyond Jullien, the worst offender has to be Steven Sutcliffe as play director Carleton Fitzgerald, whose tag-line to almost everything is that he wants to cry.  It is barely funny once; several times over it loses its appeal very quickly.

Charlie Gallant's Sloan is okay; Thom Marriott's Sidney Black is suitably bombastic; his wife Frances, played by Kelli Fox, is borderline vulgar.  Fiona Byrne as assistant Miss Lowell is merely okay, and Shawn Wright as the monied and naive Shriner William Gallagher puts in a memorable performance in Act Three.

The real stars are Laurie Paton as Irene Livingston's wise mother Stella, who gets a lot of the best lines of the night, and Graeme Somerville in one of his better roles as the wise elder statesman of playwrights, Owen Turner.  Their roles are far more balanced and come off as real people rather than dated caricatures.

The play presents this cast of characters falling apart and then coming together at the end for the good of the play they are presenting this night in Boston.  It should be funny, uplifting and memorable.  Unfortunately, this play is only sometimes funny, and that thanks to the strength of the cast assembled here.

Just funny enough will be enough for some, as evidenced by those who gave the performance we attended a standing ovation, but for those wanting a more meaningful and memorable night of theatre at Shaw, there are far better examples out there this season.

Light Up the Sky runs at the Festival Theatre until October 11th, and rates only two out of four stars.

Have a great weekend!

August 15th, 2015.

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