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Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: What the Kids Said


Middle: Sara Farb as Lucy, Andre Morin as Edmund, Ruby Joy as Susan,
Gareth Potter as Peter, with members of the company. Photo by David Hou.
The Lion,The Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis; Adapted by Adrian Mitchell
Directed by Tim Carrol
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk (set), Dana Osborne (costumes), Kevin Fraser (lighting), Todd Charlton (sound), John Stead (fights), Brad Peterson (projections)
Featuring Sara Farb, Ruby Joy, Tom McCamus, Yanna MacIntosh, Andre Morin, Gareth Potter

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the latest Schulich Children’s Theatre series to hit Stratford’s stages. Marketed at families and elementary schools, it seems only fair to ask the kids themselves what they think of the show. I caught up with Katie (10), Nolan (6), Abigail (8) and Thomas (5-ish) at intermission to see how they were liking the show. None of the children polled had read the books nor seen the Narnia movies beforehand, and for most, it was their first trip to the Stratford Festival.

RG: So, what do you like about the show so far?

Katie-the-articulate: I liked the part where they think Lucy is lying – I like how they reacted to the truth. I’d see this again, and I’d come back to the theatre. I’d like to read the book now too.

Katie’s mom: We have the set…

Katie-the-suddenly-delighted: We do?!? (My librarian heart gives a little leap of joy as I move on to Nolan, who is sitting backwards in his seat.)

Sara Farb as Lucy. Photo by David Hou.
RG: Hi Nolan, um… are you liking the show?

Nolan: (sliding sideways off the booster seat) No, it’s too long.

RG: Oh dear… Are you looking forward to the second half at all?

Nolan: (slipping further onto the floor) After this we’re going home.

RG: ...um... What about the lion, Aslan? Are you looking forward to that?

Nolan: (pops back up, briefly) Yeah!

RG: Will you ever come back to the theatre, do you think?

Nolan: No. (perches upside down in seat)

RG: Oh... What about if there were swords and battles? Would you come back then? Because I think there might be swords coming up in the second part…

Nolan: (looking at me sideways) Yeah! (Goes back to acrobatic theatre-seat--sitting)
Tom McCamus and Colin Simmons as Aslan (hidden) and
Gareth Potter as Peter. Photo by David Hou
Moving onto siblings Abigail and Thomas.

RG: Are you enjoying the show?

Abigail-the-enthusiastic: Yes!

Thomas: (silence. Shyness has struck.)

RG: What about it do you like? Do you have a favourite character?

Abigail: Ummm…. The wolf.

RG: The wolf? The bad wolf? (Maugrim, played by Brad Hodder) Any particular reason why you like him?

Abigail: I like animals. He looks like a cat.

RG: Um…

Abigail’s Gramma*: That’s going to make the costume department feel good!

RG:  Ok…   And Thomas? What about you?

Thomas-the-shy: ….

Abigail: He likes cats too. (Much discussion about decorating with cat pictures follows)

RG: So are you looking forward to seeing Aslan the Lion in the second part?

Abigail: Yes! We’ve seen theatre before.

RG: Excellent! Can I catch up with you after the show for your final thoughts?

Abigail: Yes!

Thomas: ….

Andre Morin as Edmund, Yanna MacIntosh as the White Witch, with
members of the company. Photo by David Hou.
It is important to remember for families bringing small children to this show that it is quite long, can be very “talky”, and there is a lot of inaction between super-exciting bits. The adaptation by Adrian Mitchell contains some jokes that will hit the adult audience squarely in the funny-bone, but only after they’ve gone whizzing over the heads of the younger playgoers, and Aslan doesn’t appear until after intermission (although it is a very grand entrance, to be sure). There are two battle-scenes (with swords) but they are near the end of the play, so just be prepared to fight or accommodate the fidgets.  (Likewise, adults unaccompanied by children to this show should just accept it as part of the experience, and enjoy the acrobatic side-show, if present.)

The production is thoroughly magical, with a small musical score (by Shaun Davey) that will thrill the Celtic-blooded; the charming puppets, costumes and prop-costumes that must have had those departments working overtime (Maugrim really does look more canid than feline – in armour, no less); and the set provides a framing device to delight literature-lovers - books are everywhere, reminding the audience at every step that this is a story.   The words of the novel adorn snow-covered trees, the scene-scape projections, and even Aslan himself. The steps are made of books, the mansion’s columns are books, the thrones of kings and queens are made of books. It’s a librarian’s dream.

As for those actors inhabiting this enchanting land? The critic feels there wasn’t a lot of room to stretch as an actor in most of these parts; the fangirl feels like they were having a lot of fun (except perhaps for Yanna MacIntosh who the critic feels wasn’t comfortable embracing the sinister melodrama that is the White Witch). Both critic and fangirl generally prefer Tim Carrol’s Peter Pan from 2010 for sheer theatrical joy.  But I’m not sure either the critic or the fangirl get a say here, so after the show I caught up with Abigail and Thomas-the-shy for further impressions.
Gareth Potter as Peter and Brad Hodder as Maugrim, with members
of the company. Photo by David Hou.
RG: Hi Abigail and Thomas, how did you like the show overall?

Thomas-the-still-shy: ….

Abigail: I have a new favourite character!

RG: Really? Which one? (Fully expecting it to be Aslan, the very imposing lion)

Abigail-the-cat-enthusiast: The jaguar guy! Because he’s a CAT!

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (and all its cats) continue at the Avon Theatre until November 5th. Go with the family, suspend your disbelief, and just enjoy the spectacle.


*I apologize if this lovely lady was not Gramma; I completely forgot to ask for her name amidst the discussion of cats.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

All My Sons: The Heavy Hitter of the Season

Joe Ziegler as Joe Keller.
Photo by David Hou

All MySons, by Arthur Miller
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk (set), Dana Osborne (costumes), Louise Guinard (lighting), Todd Charlton (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Joe Zeigler, Lucy Peacock, Tim Campbell

It seems appropriate to use a baseball metaphor to describe a play about the all-American dream… even if that dream is based on a lie.

Miller’s play examines the cost and subsequent worth of the American Dream, an examination just as relevant today as they it was when it was written in 1947. America, still high on itself for winning yet another war, wasn’t interested in examining the price of winning – but Miller was.  Not on the grand scale but on the minute, day-to-day scale of regular Joes – in this case, one Joe Keller.

A businessman during the war and a good ol’ boy afterward, Joe made a business decision that cost 21 pilots their lives and sends his partner to jail. In business they call this ‘acceptable losses’ even though it is revealed as fraud; Joe says he ‘did it for his family’ so they could continue living the American Dream.

Truth will out, as the poet said.  As the play unfolds and the characters are all revealed to be living in pretended ignorant bliss or outright denial, they are caught in the churning vortex of consequence which inevitably tears them all apart. In the case of Martha Henry’s production which opened June 2, the audience is likely to feel as shattered as the characters they watch.

Lucy Peacock as Kate.
Photo by David Hou
Blame, judgement, ethics, guilt, the true nature of courage… all come to bear in this masterful play, ably directed and superbly acted. Martha Henry has directed a very moving, yet not devastating piece, not the way one would expect from a play containing all these themes, still so timely, still so significant in a Wiki-leak, Panama Papers age. With a play like this, one would expect an audience in tears or even roused to anger – they’ll still want a stiff drink after seeing it, but perhaps not tissues. I for one, wanted just a bit more.

Ms Henry did, however, assemble an exceptionally fine cast for her play. Lucy Peacock gets better and better, year after year. Here, she gives Kate the essence of a frightened but determined, intelligent woman, and she keeps audiences guessing at Kate’s true thoughts for nearly the entire play.  Ms. Peacock is a true force of nature in this role.

Actor Joe Ziegler gives the character of Joe Keller a certain flavour of shiftiness, but this Joe Keller comes across as a little too white collar, and a little too confident for a man who is supposed to have little education and a sense of ‘wonder in many commonly known things’ (as described in the play).  Mr. Ziegler’s bearing is a little too upright in portraying Keller-the-fraud, but this gives Keller-the-haunted a significant boost in impact.

The others are just as strong and it is gratifying to see some of them come to the fore – Sarah Afful, EB Smith and Michael Blake in particular; while some newer faces – Jessica B Hill, Lanise Antoine Shelley and Roderigo Beilfuss – all give character depictions that promise a bright future on Festival stages.

Joe Ziegler (foreground) as Joe Keller and Tim Campbell as
Chris Keller. Photo by David Hou.
However, the great standout performance of All My Sons is Tim Campbell as Chris Keller. Mr. Campbell brings all of Chris’s yearning, his earnestness and his anxiety just to the surface and leaves it there, simmering, until it finally erupts into complete devastation – this is a guy so desperate to believe the lie he actually comes across as truthful, so truthful that all the other characters use him as their moral barometer. In a heavy-hitting play, Mr. Campbell is the pinch-hitter, and he knocks it out of the park. 

In a season so far of triple "A" ball, Martha Henry’s production of All My Sons reminds us why the Stratford Festival is a major league player.  Catch this home run at the Tom Patterson Theatre where it continues in repertory until October 2.

Stratford Festival Announces 2017 Season

MEDIA RELEASE
28/16
2017 season will explore questions of identity to mark Canada 150

June 15, 2016… Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino is proud to announce the Stratford Festival’s 2017 season, an exploration of identity as Canada marks the 150th anniversary of its birth as a nation. 

“What ultimately determines who we are? Are our natures and actions shaped only by circumstance – or by some inner essence that we cannot deny to ourselves, however successfully we may conceal it from others?” asks Mr. Cimolino. “The 14 productions I’ve selected for 2017 will explore the many questions of identity – how do we prepare our face to the world, deal with our hidden desires or balance our self interests with the environment around us – ideas that we will delve further into through the events of the Forum.”

The season will span the history of Western drama from the ancient Greek classic Bakkhai to two new Canadian plays specially commissioned by the Festival. 

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Timon of Athens and the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, by his contemporaries Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, will be complemented by Molière’s 17th-century satire Tartuffe, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century comedy of manners The School for Scandal and Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, a comedy from the 20th century about the conflict between commerce and culture. 

“To direct three great and very different Shakespeare plays, I have turned to three exceptional directors who are also actors who excel at Shakespeare,” says Mr. Cimolino. “Scott Wentworth, who has directed Shakespeare across North America and showed such a sense of romanticism in his handling of Pericles last season, will direct Romeo and Juliet; the extraordinary Martha Henry, who played Viola early in her Stratford career, will direct Twelfth Night, a play for which she has such feeling; and Stephen Ouimette, one of our finest directors, will return to Timon of Athens, a play he directed brilliantly in 2004, bringing 13 more years of life experience to it now.

“Joining their ranks are the wonderfully imaginative Jillian Keiley, directing Bakkhai and exploring it from a female perspective; Jackie Maxwell – Shaw’s loss is Stratford’s gain – directing The Changeling, a piece she did expertly at the NAC in 1980, which she will re-visit with what I know will be an extraordinary cast; Chris Abraham, an intensely smart and funny director, taking on Tartuffe, arguably Molière’s greatest creation; and the multi-talented Donna Feore, who has thrilled audiences with her work on both plays and musicals, directing The Madwoman of Chaillot, a hilarious play that I find particularly apt as I follow the Bernie Sanders campaign.”

Mr. Cimolino will direct The School for Scandal himself. “In this age of blogging, tweeting and relentless self-promotion, we need this play more than ever before,” he says. 

Guys and Dolls, considered by many to be the perfect musical comedy, will unfold at the Festival Theatre, under the direction of Donna Feore. Sailing into the Avon, with director Lezlie Wade at the helm, is HMS Pinafore – one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular works and the writing duo’s first major success.
“Guys and Dolls – the greatest musical – requires equal strength in dance, song and acting; therefore Donna Feore, because of her balanced and vibrant approach to this dramatic form, is the ideal person to direct it,” says Mr. Cimolino.

“For HMS Pinafore, I am happy to have Lezlie Wade, one of the first participants in the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction, return to the Festival. She was and assistant and associate director on a number of major projects here, including Jesus Christ Superstar. And, of course, she is also a talented lyricist, who will really dig into this irrepressible musical.”

High-seas adventures continue at the Avon with Treasure Island, the Schulich Children’s Play, based on the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Mitchell Cushman will direct. “I am excited to see Mitchell tackle this play, injecting it with his buoyant spirit of invention,” says Mr. Cimolino. 

The Studio Theatre will present an all-Canadian season. “We have three generations of female Canadian playwrights joining us in this anniversary year,” says Mr. Cimolino. “Sharon Pollock, one of this country’s great pioneer female playwrights; Colleen Murphy, one of the most accomplished mid-career playwrights; and Kate Hennig, a remarkable emerging writer.” 

The Festival has commissioned Colleen Murphy to write The Breathing Hole, an epic allegory to mark Canada’s Sesquicentennial, to be directed by Reneltta Arluk. This 500-year saga follows a polar bear from its birth in an Inuit community at the time of First Contact, through a startling encounter with the Franklin Expedition, to a profoundly moving conclusion: a meeting with a 21st-century cruise ship navigating the Northwest Passage in a world now ravaged by climate change. 

“This is one of the most ambitious and unique pieces of writing I have seen in years,” says Mr. Cimolino. “Each of the three acts breathtakingly captures a snapshot of this country’s development. We are very fortunate to have an extraordinarily gifted leader for this project, director Reneltta Arluk.”

A second commission is Kate Hennig’s The Virgin Trial. In her continued re-imagining of the Tudor queens, Ms Hennig has crafted an edge-of-your-seat thriller that sees the young Elizabeth navigate the court intrigues that would deny her the throne. “This is the eagerly anticipated companion to The Last Wife, which was a runaway hit last season,” says Mr. Cimolino. “Once again, Alan Dilworth will direct, bringing a deft hand to the second part of what will soon be a trilogy.” The Last Wife was extended several times during the 2015 season and was sold out for its entire run at the Studio Theatre.

Rounding out the Studio season is Sharon Pollock’s The Komagata Maru Incident. Written in 1976, Ms Pollock’s work was the first play to explore the racist immigration policies that led to the denial of entry to hundreds of emigrants, most of whom were Sikhs, from the British Raj when the Komagata Maru arrived at the Vancouver port in 1914. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology for the incident last month. “Director Keira Loughran, who has been a leader in the creation of new work in Canada, will work with Sharon Pollock to reimagine this piece –  integrating and reflecting the diverse community of Vancouver then, and Canadian theatre now – which will bring even greater insight into this remarkable play,” says Mr. Cimolino.

“In the year of Canada 150 it is important that we not only celebrate but also reflect on what it is to be Canadian. I think these beautiful and powerful plays will help us to re-examine our identity as a nation, and ourselves as individuals.”
Tickets for the 2017 season go on sale to Members of the Stratford Festival beginning November 26, and to the public on Friday, January 6 (online) and Saturday, January 7 (by phone).

FESTIVAL THEATRE
Romeo and Juliet 
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Scott Wentworth

Guys and Dolls 
A musical fable of Broadway
Based on a story and characters of Damon Runyon
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling
Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore

Twelfth Night
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Martha Henry

Tartuffe 
By Molière
Directed by Chris Abraham

AVON THEATRE
Treasure Island
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Directed by Mitchell Cushman

HMS Pinafore
Book and Lyrics by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Lezlie Wade
Choreographed by Kerry Gage

The School for Scandal
By Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Antoni Cimolino

TOM PATTERSON THEATRE
Timon of Athens
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Stephen Ouimette

The Changeling
By Thomas Middleton
Directed by Jackie Maxwell

Bakkhai
By Euripides
A new version by Anne Carson
Directed by Jillian Keiley

The Madwoman of Chaillot
By Jean Giraudoux
Directed by Donna Feore

STUDIO THEATRE
The Virgin Trial
World Première
By Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth

The Breathing Hole
World Première
By Colleen Murphy
Directed by Reneltta Arluk

The Komagata Maru Incident
By Sharon Pollock
Directed by Keira Loughran

The 2016 season runs until November 5, featuring Macbeth, As You Like It, A Chorus Line, Shakespeare in Love, A Little Night Music, All My Sons, Breath of Kings, John Gabriel Borkman, The Hypochondriac, The Aeneid, Bunny and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 1.800.567.1600.
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Monday, 13 June 2016

Stratford Festival mourns the death of acclaimed designer Desmond Heeley


Desmond Heeley in a fitting with actress Jan Wood
and cutter Margaret Lamb. Photo by David Street.
MEDIA RELEASE  27/16
Monday, June 13, 2016…  It is with the heaviest of hearts that once again the Festival must share news of the passing of a beloved member of the theatre family. Designer Desmond Heeley died Friday night in New York City, at the age of 85.
“Desmond played a formative role with the Festival second only to that of our founding designer, his friend and mentor Tanya Moiseiwitsch,” says Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. “Throughout a stellar international career that ranged from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to La Scala in Milan, from The Old Vic to Broadway, he treated the Stratford Festival above all as his true artistic home.”
Mr. Heeley began his career at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he worked with Peter Brook on productions including Titus Andronicus with Sir Laurence Olivier. He was soon designing for opera and ballet, as well as for theatre, including the original productions of Loot by Joe Orton, Gentle Jack by Robert Bolt, featuring Dame Edith Evans, and Carving a Stone by Graham Greene, starring Sir Ralph Richardson.
It was a working relationship with former Stratford Festival Artistic Director Michael Langham, established in Stratford-upon-Avon, that brought Mr. Heeley to Canada, where, in addition to the Stratford Festival he also designed for the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company.
Mr. Heeley designed nearly 40 productions for the Festival, beginning with the 1957 production of Hamlet, starring Christopher Plummer, which opened the newly constructed Festival Theatre (a later Hamlet he designed for the National Theatre, starred Peter O’Toole). A cascade of acclaimed work followed at Stratford, including Cyrano de Bergerac (1962), The Duchess of Malfi (1971), Amadeus (1995 and 1996), London Assurance (2006), and Camelot (1997). 
His last production for the Festival was in 2009, The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by and starring Brian Bedford. The production subsequently transferred to New York’s Roundabout Theatre, winning Mr. Heeley a Tony Award for best costume design. This was his third Tony. In 1968 he had become the first person ever to win both the scenic- and costume-design Tonys for the same production: the Broadway première of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
The whole Stratford Festival loved him as much as he loved it – and none more so than the artisans with whom he worked side by side, helping them translate his impressionistic design sketches into physical reality. He was a master not only of his art but of his craft as well. Wherever he worked in the world, he shared his unique and inspired design techniques with generations of grateful and adoring theatre artists.
A particularly stunning aspect of 2009’s The Importance of Being Earnest served to illustrate his amazing spirit of invention particularly well. The set featured a massive “crystal” chandelier that only on very close inspection revealed itself to be made of plastic wine glasses, picnic cutlery and packing tape. 
“This was a defining quality of Desmond’s genius: his talent for – as he himself put it – ‘making dross look like gold,’” said Mr. Cimolino. “Our world is a poorer, sadder and less beautiful place without him.”
The Festival extends deepest sympathy to all of Mr. Heeley’s many friends in Stratford and around the world.
This season’s production of The Hypochondriac will be dedicated to his memory.

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Festival extends Macbeth, All My Sons, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe


MEDIA RELEASE  26/16

After a dazzling opening week, Stratford extends 3 productions, adds 2 weeks to season
June 10, 2016… After a hugely successful opening week, the Stratford Festival is delighted to announce it is extending three productions: Macbeth, All My Sons and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
“I’m delighted that our opening week productions have been met with such a positive response. Demand for our tickets has surged and in many cases we are struggling to meet that demand,” says Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, who directed Macbeth. “I want to thank our artists for their beautiful work and our Festival audiences for their loyalty and support.”
“The season has been selling extremely well,” says Executive Director Anita Gaffney, “and it has been so rewarding to see such a variety of genres meeting with such lively reaction. The three productions we are extending today are perfect examples of our range of offerings – a Shakespeare tragedy, a modern classic and a family adventure.”
Macbeth was described by J. Kelly Nestruck in The Globe and Mail as “the first truly satisfying large-scale Macbeth I’ve ever seen – taut, thrilling and terrifying.” In the Toronto Star, Carly Maga called it “a bold and brutal take on the Scottish king’s tragic tale.”
Featuring Ian Lake in the title role, Macbeth will play for an additional two weeks, from Monday, October 24, to Saturday, November 5, with performances as follows:
             Monday, October 24, at 2 p.m.
             Thursday, October 27, at 8 p.m.
             Friday, October 28, at 2 p.m.
             Saturday, October 29, at 8 p.m.
             Tuesday, November 1, at 2 p.m.
             Wednesday, November 2, at 2 p.m.
             Thursday, November 3, at 2 p.m.
             Thursday, November 3, at 8 p.m.
             Saturday, November 5, at 2 p.m.
All My Sons, directed by Martha Henry, was called “dazzling” (National Post) and “a spellbinding production across the board” (Globe and Mail). The production, featuring Lucy Peacock and Joseph Ziegler, will run for an additional week, as follows:
             Thursday, September 29, at 2 p.m.
             Friday, September 30, at 2 p.m.
             Saturday, October 1, at 8 p.m.
             Sunday, October 2, at 2 p.m. 
“Go and be dazzled,” the London Free Press said of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a “magical production” (Toronto Star) directed by Tim Carroll, featuring Sara Farb, Ruby Joy, André Morin and Gareth Potter. This family classic had already been extended to October 29, and will now run until November 5, with new performances on the following dates:
             Tuesday, November 1, at 2 p.m.
             Wednesday, November 2, at 2 p.m.
             Thursday, November 3, at 2 p.m.
             Saturday, November 5, at 2 p.m. 
Tickets for all of these additional performances go on sale to Members of the Stratford Festival on Saturday, June 11, and to the public on Monday, June 13.
Production support for Macbeth is generously provided by Jane Peterson Burfield & family, by Barbara & John Schubert, by the Tremain Family, and by Chip & Barbara Vallis.
Production support for All My Sons is generously provided by Larry Enkin & family in memory of Sharon Enkin, by Dr. Desta Leavine in memory of Pauline Leavine, by Esther & Sam Sarick in honour of Martha Henry and by Jack Whiteside. The sponsor for the 2016 season of the Tom Patterson Theatre is BMO Financial Group.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the 2016 Schulich Children’s play.
The 2016 season runs until November 5, featuring Macbeth, As You Like It, A Chorus Line, Shakespeare in Love, A Little Night Music, All My Sons, Breath of Kings, John Gabriel Borkman, The Hypochondriac, The Aeneid, Bunny and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 1.800.567.1600.
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Sunday, 12 June 2016

A Chorus Line: Needs Deeper Roots

Company of A Chorus Line. Photo by David Hou
Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Co-Choreographed by Bob Avian
Original Broadway production produced by The New York Shakespeare Festival, Joseph Papp, producer, in association with Plum Productions, Inc.
Director and Choreographer Donna Feore; Musical Director Laura Burton
Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco, Michael Walton (lights), Peter McBoyle (sound)
Featuring Dana Tietzen, Cynthia Smithers, Matt Alfano

The following statement is tantamount to sacrilege in the theatre community: I think A Chorus Line may have passed its expiration date.

In the 1970’s the character’s life stories were poignant and shocking, but in 2016 they do not resonate with the same weight.  What is relevant – a dancer’s short professional life span and how hard it is to make it in the biz – certainly can be transmuted to 2016. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time dedicated to this theme, and so the “truth and integrity” of their 1970s lives seems almost self-indulgent. In 2016 we are just as concerned with truth, but the catch-phrase is “truth and accountability”.

Who should be held accountable for letting such an “iconic piece of theatre” go stale? Not the director, Donna Feore, who, by all accounts, had to do cartwheels for permission simply to adjust the choreography to suit a rounded stage. No, the truth and integrity of A Chorus Line is up to those owners who had her jumping through hoops. Within the text a character laments that “Broadway is dying”… which is ironic in a show that won’t leave behind references to Jill St. Who?  Anyone in the biz may feel a strong connection to this show, but modern audiences are not likely to feel an emotional tug at all beyond that of nostalgia.
Company of A Chorus Line. Photo by David Hou
That. Being. Said.  The music and dancing in Ms. Feore’s production is first-rate. The orchestra led by Laura Burton is in high gear from the first note to the last, and the entire ensemble of dancers shimmy and shake their groove thing all over the bare stage – it must be hard for a for a bunch of top-notch dancers to purposely fall behind a beat or out of sync, as some dancers must inevitably do in auditions. However, their choreography is, unfortunately, stuck in the 1970s, and by today’s hip-hop Hamiltonian standards (or even to those set in Ms. Feore’s own Crazy for You two years ago), the strutting comes off as oddly flat.

The actors’ singing is fair to excellent. Some sound problems the night I saw it may have been at fault, but several voices sounded shrill while others were overpowered by the orchestra. One exception is Cynthia Smithers who came closest to knocking it out of the park with both Nothing and What I Did for Love, set up rather beautifully by Dana Tietzen’s earlier duologue as Cassie.

Similarly, the acting is also fair to excellent. Accents came and went, and there was often little subtlety in performances; one of the Festival’s leaders in subtlety, Juan Chioran (Zach), is kept oddly separate from the rest of the cast, so all emotional connection to him is lost. The exception is Cassie; Ms. Tietzen manages, in both text and in dance, to convey both her character’s joy and desperation to keep her dream alive. Although the choreography doesn’t do her any favours, this above all sold the overarching message of the show – dancers do what they do for love.
Company of A Chorus Line. Photo by David Hou
A lovely message, to be sure, but for this reviewer it isn’t sufficient. The show just doesn’t have roots deep enough to create a powerful connection.

A Chorus Line continues until October 30 at the Festival Theatre.


Sunday, 5 June 2016

In Love with Shakespeare in Love


Luke Humphrey, centre, as Will Shakespeare
surrounded by company members. Photo by David Hou.
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall
by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions and Sonia Friedman Productions
Directed by Declan Donnellan
Designed by Nick Ormerod, Kevin Fraser(lighting) and Peter McBoyle (sound)
Featuring Luke Humphrey, Shannon Taylor

As a reviewer it is a pleasure when a production becomes so enjoyable it is not necessary to take notes. Such is the case with the North American premiere of Shakespeare in Love which opened last night at the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre.

Those who have seen the Oscar-winning film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, know the story; a young William Shakespeare is facing a bad case of writer's block when along comes a young, theatre and poetry-obsessed noblewoman, Viola de Lesseps. Viola disguises herself as a boy to audition for the males-only troupe, and Will discovers his new muse. Alas and alack, Viola is married off to a boorish nobleman and Shakespeare continues to write in her memory.

That's the story in a nutshell but filling out the plot are a whole lot of theatrical and bedroom hijinks starring an immense cast of characters; both hijinks and characters will no doubt seem familiar to those with even a basic knowledge of the Shakespeare canon. Viola has a nurse who becomes immortalized as Juliet's nurse; Chancellor Tilney bears a striking resemblance to Malvolio, and the writers cleverly clip soundbytes from Shakespeare's real plays for dialogue, situational comedy and plot development.

Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare
and Stephen Ouimette as Henslowe.
Photo by David Hou
The cast (more than 20 of them if you count the dog) does a fine job of keeping plot and dialogue crisp, funny and flowing, with much scene-chewing from the entire cast; this is perfectly appropriate in a romantic play which at times approaches farce (Michael Frayn's Noises Off! comes to mind). It is hard to say which actor pulls off the over-acting the best, although arguably Tom McCamus has the best lines as Fennyman, and Sarah Orenstein the largest presence as Queen Elizabeth.

The two leads come the closest to toning down the melodrama; both Luke Humphrey (Will Shakespeare) and Shannon Taylor (Viola) play their parts with an enthusiasm bordering on euphoria but it seems natural for them to do so - their characters are in the throes of a passionate, short-lived love-affair, after all.

Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps.
Photo by David Hou.
All that being said, it must be pointed out that this show is backed by Disney. Yes, that Disney, and it is quite obvious that the notorious Disney product-control is in full swing, as the set, costumes, wigs, are identical to the show that opened in the West End of London in 2014-15. That is not altogether surprising, except that it appears that even the actors' movements and delivery are micro-managed, which leads one to wonder how much personality and discovery the actors were allowed in rehearsals, how much of their craft they were allowed to practice. They are the best of the best - one hopes the performances we see in this show are in some way a tribute to their profession. Indeed, it would be ironic if the Stratford actors had less latitude than those of Shakespeare's troupe they portray.

This is the question of a theatre-geek, of course, and does nothing to diminish Ms. Taylor's radiance as Viola or Stephen Ouimette's comical timing as the nervous Henshawe. Most audience members who see this show will not be disappointed in the least - it is funny, well-built (really, that set is marvellous), romantic, and a true love-letter to Shakespeare and theatre. In fact, this theatre-geek is likely to see it again, just for the fun of it.

Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps and Luke Humphrey as
Will Shakespeare. Photo by David Hou.
Shakespeare in Love continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 16; future forecast for this crowd-pleaser predicts an extension in Stratford with the possibility of a transfer to New York.

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