Stage Door Reviews of
Theatre Aquarius 1996/97 Season

 Mainstage Series

Stage Write Series

Steel Magnolias
by Robert Harling
Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, October 23 to November 9, 1996
A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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Laughter through tears is my favourite emotion," says Truvy, owner of Truvy’s Hair Salon in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, where Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias is set in this wonderfully endearing study of love and friendship, Southern-style, the second offering in Theatre Aquarius’ 24th season. This warm and witty celebration of friendship follows the relationships of six women who meet regularly at Truvy’s to exchange news and gossip, replete with hilarious repartee and more than a few acerbic verbal collisions. Helped by her eager assistant, Annelle, the outspoken, wise-cracking Truvy dispenses shampoos and free advice to Ouiser, the town’s rich curmudgeon; Clairee, an eccentric millionairess; M’Lynn, the local social leader; and her daughter, Shelby, the prettiest girl in town. It is Shelby’s story that is played out in Steel Magnolias and how, after her marriage to a "good ol’ boy," decides to have a baby—a decision that may cost her life. As her mother is torn between love and anger, their four loyal friends support them with humour and unfailing grace.

Director Jeannette Lambermont has assembled a strong cast of women to bring this story to life. Poured into Lycra, Ellen-Ray Hennessy plays Truvy in a brash and exuberant style throughout, while Karen Glave’s Annelle evolves from mousy apprentice through born-again Christian and ultimately to a confidant beautician and trusted friend in the circle of women. M’Lynn is played by Barbara Gordon, maternal and dignified, whose final scene reflecting the tragedy of her daughter’s death was stirring and compelling. As daughter Shelby, Sharon Bernbaum, makes her Aquarius debut in a role that showcases her considerable talents. Aquarius regular Marion Gilsenan (whom we last enjoyed as Madame Armfeldt in the Grand/Canadian Stage co-production of A Little Night Music) is Clairee, always ready with a quick retort. Veteran actor/director/teacher Terry Tweed portrays crusty Ouiser, bringing snarls and laughs to every scene, despite losing a few of the best lines to mis-timing: Slow down, Terry—every line is a gem in this brilliant play.

Erin Haid’s set and costume designs were particularly effective, with Truvy’s Hair Salon set amid a lattice of magnolia blossoms.

Steel Magnolias opened off-Broadway in 1987 and spawned the big screen version with Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts. Playwright Robert Harling was born in Louisiana and is the founder and editor of House and Garden Magazine, and whose latest hit is The First Wives Club. He based Steel Magnolias on events from his personal life
-----Theatre Aquarius plays in the Irving Zucker Theatre of the du Maurier Centre, 190 King William Street, Hamilton, a beautiful facility with large stage, wide seats, ample leg room, and excellent acoustics, allowing the performers to work without mikes.

Steel Magnolias opened October 23 and plays nightly at 8 p.m.(except Sundays) until November 9. Tickets begin as low as $21 and are available by calling the Theatre Aquarius Box Office at (905)522-7529, toll free 1-800-465-7529. Full of life and brimming with laughter, this play and its characters are touching, funny and marvelously amiable company in good times and bad. Come and join them and see for yourself!

The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, December 4 to 24, 1996
A Stage Door Review by Jim Lingerfelt and Roger Kershaw
(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

We’re off to see The Wizard

This week marks the Christmas season openings of two stage adaptations of famous books/movies, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (at London’s The Grand) and Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius production of L. Frank Baum’s timeless children’s tale, The Wizard of Oz. It is noble for producers to adapt classic movie versions to the stage and director/choreographer Max Reimer’s effort succeeds, for the most part, where Michael Shamata’s Great Expectations fails. Both directors, however, are to be applauded for trying.

Reimer has undertaken a huge task staging John Kane’s adaptation of the movie. The Wizard of Oz is not just a film, but a historic piece of art. Arguably the most famous children’s film of all time, this symbol of brilliant movie making has many famous scenes that are almost impossible to transfer to a confined stage. Judy Garland’s Dorothy, Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow, and Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West—these amazing performances are the standard by which all others are judged. Reimer has assembled an impressive cast of actors and designers but, as with most other past interpretations, the ghosts of its illustrious predecessors doom it to pallid comparison. This is not to say the production is without merit or that it fails to entertain the young audiences for which it is intended.

Emphasizing the children’s appeal, set designer Jonathan Porter has created a "Li’l Abner" cartoonland of one dimensional flats that, when placed together, engender three dimensional scenes. As in the movie, the opening and closing Kansas scenes are monotone, and becoming full colour in Munchkinland. However, whereas the effect in the 1939 Technicolor movie was (and remains) absolutely stunning, Porter’s transformation is somewhat bland, even with help from Paul Mathiesen’s lighting. This changeover starts with the cyclone, a dramatic and child-pleasing scene with swirling lights, thunderstorm effects, and an assortment of both real and imagined phosphorescent characters floating past the ever-upward spiraling house and heroine. This black-light scene is a cross between the Famous People Players and Twister.

Porter is also responsible for the excellent costumes, which also move from shades of brown to brilliant primary colours in Oz. Dorothy’s dress, brown gingham in Kansas for example, becomes blue checked in Oz. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, all were perfect movie imitations, and delighted the children. The wardrobe excellence was not confined to the central characters, with each tiny Munchkin, the resplendent Glinda, and every other Oz resident, both good and evil, beautifully costumed. One inventive move: the Wicked Witch of the West, clad not in traditional witch’s attire, but in stylish mid-length knickers.

A significant challenge in movie-to-stage adaptations is the recreation of memorable moments of screen magic. How will Dorothy magically acquire the ruby slippers? How can the Wicked Witch threaten to set fire to the Scarecrow? And will she melt into a puddle of inert wickedness as she does in the film? Reimer passes the test every time with inventive and effective devices that retain the magic. However, the terrifying flying Winkies from the film do not transfer well to stage and are rendered into more comic characters—a different, but still entertaining, effect.

Reimer has recognized the benefits of engaging a top-notch cast and, taking advantage of the off-season has assembled a smorgasborg of Shaw and Stratford talents, both on the stage and in the pit. He, unfortunately, apparently failed to recognize the specific talents of several cast members, including Danny Austin and Cara Hunter, the incomparable dance team from both The Music Man (1996) and The Boy Friend (1995) in Stratford. While Hunter does capture the lead role as Dorothy, it is as a singer, not dancer. She has a lot to live up to and, while not trying to impersonate the incomparable, does an admirable job. Her rather tremulous voice never quite allows the potential of Arlen and Harburg’s classic songs to unfold. Worse, Austin is concealed as a Crow or a Winkie in a outright waste of his prodigious talent. Reimer is no Tommy Tune. His choreographic devices are limited to two kicks and a spin and renders each of his productions a pinchbeck of Oklahoma!.

Ian Simpson, Jeff Hyslop and Douglas Chamberlain sing and dance their way into the children’s hearts as the Tin Woodsman, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, although once again the director fails to capitalize on the recognized talents of the award-winning Hyslop (the touring Phantom). Karen Wood plays Aunt Em and Glinda (the good witch) with delightful innocence, and Stage Door Award-nominee Karen K. Edissi plays Dorothy’s nemeses, Miss Gultch and the Wicked Witch with nasty abandon. Lou Zamprogna has the title role, but the scene stealers from start to finish are the Munchkins, 23 of ‘em, and Miss Choswie as Toto. Miss C is clearly one of the best trained animals on stage today: she never missed a cue, followed Dorothy devotedly, kept out from under the dancers’ feet, and charmed children and adults alike with her antics.

Technical excellence is accorded by Musical Director Stephen Woodjetts and Sound Designer Michael Stewart.

A final verdict from Keith, our 9-year old companion and fellow reviewer: "I liked the twister best and the Lion and the lights." This production will delight children and adults alike. The Wizard of Oz plays till Christmas Eve at the Irving Zucker Theatre in the Du Maurier Ltd. Centre at 190 King William Street in Hamilton. For tickets ($17 to $46), call the box office at 1-800-465-7529.

Jupiter in July
by Norm Foster
Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, January 8 to 25, 1997
A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

What a difference a play makes. Norm Foster's new work, Jupiter in July, now playing at Hamilton's Theatre Aquarius, totally eclipses his previous aberration Opening Night. This new work reaffirms our faith in Foster's talent and his position as Canada's preeminent comic playwright.

TA's world premiere production of Jupiter in July is a May-December romantic comedy, billed as a Norm Foster first. A morality play, or, head versus heart, finds protagonist Donald Springer at fifty-one years of age, and married, on a passionate collision course with a woman half his age. Director Christopher McHarge steers Donald, his wife and his young friend through this gentle story with sensitivity and humour. Brilliantly written and well-acted, this marvelous production is filled with sophisticated comedy and tasteful attention to moral details. Scaringly real, Donald must follow his heart or conscience and deal with the consequences. Allowing a once-in-a-lifetime love to slip away is a conundrum in which many married men find themselves. Ultimately, fate dictates Donald's decision. Foster weaves the moral and spiritual dilemmas with an element of humour creating an irresistible and sparkling mix.

Springer is played by Jerry Franken in a natural and unmannered style that perfectly compliments the character. His superb delivery and realistic style evoke complete sympathy from the audience. His sad wife Joanne is portrayed by the talented Elva Mai Hoover. Hoover instills a melancholia into the character of one who feels she is waiting to die. A case of heartburn six months ago becomes, in her mind at least, a heart attack and the comedic possibilities are fully realized as she goes from bedridden to confrontational.

Megan Francis plays Heddy Athens, the nubile gardener and friend of Donald. Francis sparkles as the strong-willed woman who befriends Donald in the public gardens. Her delivery was irritating, almost hollering, at first, but she soon settled into a rhythm next to the experienced Franken.

Supporting the main trio was Joel Kaiser in a dual star turn as Heddy's boyfriend Alan, and apartment manager Martin Coy. As Coy, his delivery of many funny lines had the audience in raptures of laughter. Hume Baugh completes the talented cast as son Keane Springer, 24-year old astronomer son of Donald and Joanne. His scenes, though short, were memorable, especially his comparison to that once in a lifetime opportunity to grasp true love, with the comet whose imminent collision to the planet Jupiter he is eagerly anticipating.

Technical credits go to Douglas Paraschuk for costumes and for set design, which was a virtual garden replete with flower beds, trees, pathways, and, on a rise at stage center, the bedroom/kitchen of the Springer home. This was one of the most inventive sets we have seen for a long time. The set was awash in Jeff Collin's gentle lighting.

Jupiter in July is a meteoric effort by Foster whose wit and style will delight audiences. It's playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton until January 25. Phone 1-800-6-465-PLAY for tickets.

Ain't Misbehavin'
Based on an idea of Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby Jr.
Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, March 19 to April 5, 1997
A Stage Door Review by Jim Lingerfelt and Roger Kershaw
(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

The joint's jumpin' with the music of Fats Waller

The mainstage of the du Maurier Ltd Centre bursts into life with the sights, sounds, soul and swing of Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin', directed by Aquarius' managing artistic director, Max Reimer.

Thomas "Fats" Waller's appetites and talents were large and inexhaustible. His friend and teacher, James P. Johnson, once said, "Some little people have music in them, but Fats, he was all music, and you know how big he was." Fats was 5'10-1/2" and weighed 285 pounds.

Thomas Wright Waller grew up in the exciting musical atmosphere of New York's Harlem in the teens and '20s. His parents were deeply religious and Fats started out playing the organ in the Abyssinian Baptist Church, studying classical piano technique and working with Harlem stride-piano masters. Soon he was accompanying silent pictures and making his reputation at parties. He began to soar, collaborating with lyricist Andy Razaf, a recording contract, his own band, films, overseas tours and Carnegie Hall. He was as generous as he was overindulging, until the party that was Fats Waller's life ended in 1943.

An outrageously prodigious comic and musical talent, Fats Waller continues to live through a cast that struts, strums and sings the songs he wrote or recorded in a career that ranged from the uptown clubs and downtown Tin Pan Alley to the concert stage in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

For this, the closing production of his first season at Aquarius, Reimer has assembled a talented cast to honour the talent that was Waller. Both Denese Matthews and Jenni Burke return to Aquarius after their 1994 performances in Little Shop of Horrors (Jenni is also a familiar talent for us from Drayton's Big River [1995] and She Loves Me [1996]). Rudy Webb, Denis Simpson and Arlene Duncan make their Aquarian debuts here. They are joined on stage by a musical combo: Joe Sealy (piano), Ernie Porthouse (drums) and Lionel Williams (bass).

Solo numbers are sung, danced and acted with style and panache. Jenni Burke's comedic talent is immediately apparent (Honeysuckle Rose), although her voice did not soar to the greatness we have heard in it before. Perhaps she was feeling a bit under the weather on this, the night after opening. Meanwhile, Arlene Duncan's voice consistently did meet the varying demands of Waller's music (Squeeze Me). Denese Matthews' mezzo voice was better in solo (Keepin' Out of Mischief Now) than in chorus. The two male cast members brought out the comic Harlem mood in several numbers, including Rudy Webb's Your Feet's Too Big and Denis Simpson's audience-participation The Reefer Song. While in chorus the group's tuning was sometimes less than perfect (with Simpson's flat tenor often clashing with Matthews' sharp soprano), this did not detract from the overall enjoyment of the show. Suitably, the finale was the highlight of the performance, as it chained together some of the most popular, and enduring, songs of the day: I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter; Two Sleepy People, I've Got My Fingers Crossed; I Can't Give You Anything But Love, It's a Sin to Tell a Lie; Honeysuckle Rose and the title song, Ain't Misbehavin'.

Douglas Paraschuk creates a 1920's Harlem nightspot on the du Maurier mainstage (although we can't help thinking the audience might have been more responsive had the production utilized the cabaret setting of the Studio stage) and the costumes of the era.

For a toe-tappin' great evening, call Theatre Aquarius today. Tickets are $21 to $46 and the program plays Monday to Saturday evenings till April 5, with matinees on Saturdays. Call 1-800-465-7529.

Lovin', Lyin' and Leavin'
by Robert More
Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, March 25 to April 3, 1997
A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

Theatre Aquarius' stellar 24th season slips into a black hole with a newly re-written production of Robert More's Lovin', Lyin' and Leavin'. Part of The Stage Write series, the play is produced in The Studio Theatre, the more intimate space of the du Maurier Ltd. Centre. At the matinee we attended, an audience of about 100 gathered around the cabaret tables, their silver hair and quiet demeanor suggesting they might prefer a Hank Williams (Sr.) revival to the trendy sounds of New Country.

This production of Lovin', Lyin' and Leavin' (surely there's a joke in there somewhere), directed by TA veteran Christopher McHarge, features the music of over 20 top Canadian artists including Shania Twain, The Rankin Family, Michelle Wright, Prairie Oyster and Jann Arden, as it tells its story of a high-powered singing star wannabe, Cassandra Michaels, and a hot young guitarist, Johnny Reckless, in a roller coaster romance that is on-again, off-again and on-again. The question is—will they find true love in the end? The answer is—does anyone care?

The narrator, loser-in-love Sally Jane Jones, tells the tale of Cass and Johnny, all the while singing mournful songs of her own unrequited love for Johnny. It's hard to tell whether the script gets in the way of the music, or the reverse, as playwright More subjects his audience to a lounge-rated country music concert masquerading as a play. Be sure you love country music before venturing to this production. While the music is, if New Country is your taste, fairly good, the spoken scenes among the three central characters are inane and embarrassing.

The cast and musicians are all appearing for the first time at Theatre Aquarius. While Carol Sperandeo (Cassandra Michaels) is all sex and movement as she lures Johnny into her life, it is her singing voice that is the star of the show. Unfortunately, she delivers an unpaid bill of goods, clearly out of tune in the upper and lower registers. Don Moore plays stud musician Johnny Reckless as a second-tier country lounge singer. His lyrical tenor voice is strong but contrasts sharply with a mannered and stilted acting style. Jennifer Foster is Sally Jane Jones, an actor as well as a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. From her, especially, we'd rather have had more singing and less talking. Three band members support the singing trio. Marc Atkinson (drums/Russell), John Kenny (keyboards/guitar/ Jesse), and Colin Stewart (band leader/bass/Steve) shine as instrumentalists, but casting them as characters in the play is a mistake. Professional musicians do not transpose into professional actors.

Playwright Robert More is also an actor, director and puppeteer. He began his acting career in the early 1970s as a member of the Stratford Festival and has gone on to act and direct at theatres across the country. Since 1986 he has been writing seriously and has had more than 40 professional productions of his plays, including the popular Dads in Bondage. At present, More is artistic director of the Lighthouse Festival in Port Dover.

Love is the great universal story and today no music chronicles that story with more metaphors than New Country. Tickets ($17 to $24) for Lovin', Lyin' And Leavin' are available by calling the Theatre Aquarius Box Office at (905) 522-7529, toll free 1-800-465-7529 or in person at the du Maurier Ltd. Centre, 190 King William Street, Hamilton.

Disclaimer: Nothing here is "official." Everything is a composite of media releases, information supplied by or procured from the theatres by direct or devious means, or downright personal opinion. If you don't like what you see, blame us, not the fine folks in the theatres of Southwestern Ontario.

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