Stage Door Reviews of
London's The Grand Theatre 1995-1996 Season

  • Later Life
  • Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
  • Dracula
  • If We Are Women
  • Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)
  • A Little Night Music


Later Life
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
October 3 - 21, 1995
A Stage Door review by Jim Lingerfelt

From the moment you arrive at The Grand Theatre in London you know something is different. A new artistic director, Michael Shamata, has plastered his name all over everything in a way that Martha Henry never did, nor needed to. Henry was, is, the essence of theatrical style and grace and talent, familiar to all for her decades of unexcelled accomplishments in London, Stratford, and beyond. Shamata is, to most of us, completely unknown and remarkably young. But he is not shy about his name. The is "Michael Shamata's Season" and his name is nearly as large as the theatre's itself on every piece of literature.
-----So, already prepared to pooh-pooh this vainglorious ego, I trundled off to London to see the opening number, the Canadian première of A. R. Gurney's Later Life. I left ninety minutes later saying, "Bravo! Michael Shamata."
----- Maybe it's not all Shamata. He has assembled a class act of actors and supporting crew to ensure every aspect is perfection. But there is a noticeable change, and I like it. And the buck stops someplace.
----- For one, upon entering the auditorium you are surprised by the lack of Muzak. No pointless jazz or forties soundtrack scratching away over the din of conversation that normally precedes the opening curtain. Instead, you are left to anticipate, consider, observe what is visible of the set-in short, to enjoy another aspect of live theatre that the glowing box in your living room doesn't provide. When the music does start, it signals the opening, and the hush that accompanies it is delicious.
----- This evening's hush was broken by aahhs, and then applause, as an appreciative audience gazed at a twinkling galaxy of stars glowing on the stage. Then, projected against a scrim in front of this romantic night sky, in an effect borrowed from the movies, were the opening credits: "The Grand Theatre ... proudly presents ... Goldie Semple ... Gary Reineke ... Tanja Jacobs ... John Jarvis ... in A. R. Gurney's... Later Life." (No, Shamata's name was not there.) It's an effect he's used before, in Theatre New Brunswick, but I've not seen it on a SWOntario stage.
----- The scrim lifts and Robert Thomson's lighting and John Thompson's set take over. The stars are still there: it is a summer night in Boston, on a balcony overlooking the harbour. Faintly (so beautifully faintly...no artificial fog horns here) you can hear a ship in the night. The stage has been artfully, perfectly, set for what proves to be a play deserving no less.
----- Semple and Reineke play two characters who, after a brief encounter thirty years ago, meet again at a cocktail party, and consider this second chance on a romance that didn't happen. Their conversation is constantly interrupted by a stream of bizarre characters, ten of them, played by Jacobs and Jarvis, in a bittersweet, and witty, comedy. Semple is, as always, semply wonderful. Her character is caught in a marriage that won't give up, and a life that has been filled with unhappiness and yearning. Reineke's is born and bred in Boston aristocracy, so carefully controlled that he bows when someone cuts in line. He plays the role so carefully, and with such restraint that he is often hard to hear, which makes his rare unfettered outbursts ("I just want to be free to fart!") all the more effective.
----- Jacobs and Jarvis are perfect in each of their many and varied roles, bringing comic relief at every entrance, and rounds of applause at every exit.
----- A truly great start to what looks like a great season. Later Life plays till October 21. Call The Grand for tickets, at 1-800-265-1593.
----- Later Life is a co-production with Citidel Theatre in Edmonton, where, if you missed it in London, you can still catch it, from October 29 to November 19. Almost worth the trip!
-----

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Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
October 31 to November 18, 1995
A Stage Door review by Jim Lingerfelt

Just looking over the cast and crew list you know this will be a great production. There were no disappointments. The Grand's production of Tennessee William's Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is one to see: a collection of some of Canada's greatest actors and finest technicians bringing new excitement to a timeless classic.
-----The tall, expansive stage was filled with another of Shaw Festival-regular Peter Hartwell's masterpieces. Imaginative, yet real, the type of southern plantation bedroom we could dream of having, while realizing it is larger than most of our houses. Another Shavian, Kevin LaMotte, is also here; you may remember my extolling his lighting effects at the Shaw's summer production of Petrified Forest. He has brought his magic to The Grand to recreate a sweltering, golden summer heat (a welcome respite from the swirling winter outside). One example of his unique touch: a slowly rotating shadow across the set for only a few seconds of the opening scene-a large tropical ceiling fan suggested, but not seen, and then fading away without further distraction.
-----Seana McKenna (the actress in Stratford's Macbeth, and so much more) is Maggie, the cat, in a performance that earns, at once, a slap in the face and a standing ovation. Her turned-off, tuned-out husband, Brick, is played by Stuart Hughes (Shaw's Silver King, et al), accused by Maggie, and everyone else, of allowing a strong male friendship go too far. Burl Ives, or rather Big Daddy, is Stratford veteran Douglas Campbell, who, discovering that he is not dying of cancer as he suspected, celebrates his 65th birthday by casting off the "mendacity" that has plagued his life, including long-suffering Big Mamma (Marion Gilsenan), the meddlesome pest that "though I bedded her for 40 years, regular as a piston, I never could stand her." Big Daddy's open disgust is also directed at his only other son, Goober (Ric Reid), his fertile wife Mae (Michelle Fisk) and their growing litter of no-neck monsters, as they are locked in a battle for an inheritance as big as the South itself.
-----Williams' play opened in 1955 and, like most creative works, has a debatable autobiographical twist, as Williams struggled most of his life with his own sexuality. The movie classic was considerably modified to suit the "sensibilities" of the times, and the community theatre production we last saw at Kincardine was similarly adjusted. The Grand's production is no-words barred: just as Tennessee Williams wanted it told. And a much richer production for it.
-----Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, directed by Miles Potter, runs until November 18. Tickets are $22 to $46. Call (519) 672-9030, toll-free 1-800-265-1593 or toll-free from Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania at 1-800-567-5194, or visit The Grand's Box Office, 471 Richmond Street, London, Ontario.

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Dracula
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
December 5 to December 30, 1995
A Stage Door review by Jim Lingerfelt

Somehow it seems terribly inappropriate, even macabre, to designate Bram Stoker's Dracula as The Grand Theatre's annual family Christmas production. Although The Grand defends their choice as a story of good triumphing over evil, it's not the heart-warming conversion of a Scrooge we are accustomed to this time of year. A vision of Christmas Past is not to be confused with a stake through the heart.
-----Okay, so I'm a traditionalist. Let's put that aside and look at the play without the Season.
-----This completely new version of the Bram Stoker classic first published just under a hundred years ago has been adapted for stage by The Grand's artistic director, Michael Shamata (who naturally is also the production's director), and Paula Wing, a Sarnia native. The unheralded star of the show is John Ferguson, set and costume designer. He has created, with starkly minimalist props, a portentous and menacing series of scenes in Transylvania and England, as the Master of the Night stalks his victims. Each rapid change brings one or more flys slicing into place with the sharpness of a guillotine, while floor props motor onto centre stage with the determination of automatons possessed with demonic purpose. The black and white theme extends into the costumes, recalling the woodcuts of Jack the Ripper's London.
-----Against the backdrop of precision set changes, the action itself is uneven. Actors rush on to deliver their lines breathlessly (it is, after all, a melodrama) in scenes, some of which last mere seconds while others drag for over 20 minutes. Shamata also effectively overlays scenes, playing, for example, a courtship in an English garden in the foreground, while a distraught Mina paces in a Bulgarian nunnery upstage. Voice-over narration, from diaries and ships' logs, keep the often disjointed process flowing toward its foregone conclusion.
-----While some (notably Francis Ford Coppola) have interpreted Stoker's tale as a timeless Gothic love story, Shamata's presents it more as Tales from the Crypt. The audience, however, seems unsure how to react. When Arthur Holmwood's desperate plea for help from Dr. Van Helsing is answered with "Ve must drive a stake through her heart and cut off her head!" the audience responds with laughter. Shamata's sense of mischief has inserted other anachronistic jibes into the script ("I am used to asylums," Mina assures Dr. Seward, "I used to teach school for four years."). Funny, yes. But appropriate?
-----The cast is headed by Christopher Marren and Victoria Adilman as the luckless lovers, Arthur and Lucy; Bruce Davies and Krista Jackson as the librarian Jonathan Harker and his wife Mina; Oliver Dennis and Lewis Gordon as the Dr Seward of the asylum and Dr Van Helsing of the occult; Robert Benson as inmate Renfield; and Stephen Russell as the titled character, Count Dracula.
-----Show time for this Christmas special, extended till December 30, has been advanced half an hour to accommodate all the little kiddies, so don't be late like we were: it's 7:30 p.m. With only one intermission, you'll be home early, but don't count on visions of sugarplums.
-----For tickets ($16 to $22), call (519) 672-9030, toll-free 1-800-265-1593 or toll-free from Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania at 1-800-567-5194. Or visit The Grand's Box Office, 471 Richmond Street, London, Ontario.

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If We Are Women
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
January 9 to 27, 1996
A Stage Door review by Jim Lingerfelt

My three-word review: "A chick play." But the "chick" I was with at The Grand's current production of If We Are Women says it was one of the best plays she has ever seen, and clearly deserving of its many accolades.
-----If We Are Women was written by Saskatchewan-born playwright and author, Joanna McClelland Glass, premiering in 1993. The concept was born some thirty years earlier when Glass was living in Washington, DC, and, to help her through the birth of twins, her mother and mother-in-law arrived. "My mother-in-law was ... an American Jewish agnostic-intellectual," Glass writes. "My own mother was ... an illiterate Canadian woman whose parents had homesteaded on the prairie and lived in a sod house." Their overlapping visits, and the recollection of a Virginia Woolf line, "We think back through our mothers, if we are women," have given us one of the most successful and acclaimed plays in recent years.
-----On the deck of a Connecticut beach house, three generations of women come together, full of hope and dreams for the youngest among them. After the death of her artist-lover of 8 years, Jessica is consoled by her illiterate mother and her academic ex-mother-in-law. Adding tension to the evening is the failure of her 18-year-old daughter, Polly, to come home after a school dance. Polly has fallen in love with a drug-peddler, and is giving up her admission to Yale to join him on a farm in Colorado.
-----"A farm?!" her incredulous prairie grandmother cries. "A farm is something you get away from!" But while the three older women join forces to convince Polly of the folly of her heart, it is unlikely her hopes and dreams will benefit from their experience and advice.
-----In a beautifully crafted work, Glass has filled her story with, in the words of director Joseph Ziegler, "great humour, warmth, tears, confrontation, emotional blackmail, nagging, badgering and everything else that goes on in all of our families." It is also a smorgasbord of literary references and allusions as Jennifer and Rachel, her intellectual mother-in-law, banter and debate, often bewildering her own mother, Ruth. In one scene, Rachel identifies their neighbours for Ruth. The young, handsome one is Peter; his partner is a Jewish man, Mark. "I call them Sodom and Menorah."
-----Using the technique of frequent audience-asides, the characters quickly develop a rapport with the audience. Although there is plenty of opportunity for condescension, they maintain an engaging respect for each other, and while she cannot read a word, it is Ruth alone who supplies "SILAGE" to complete Rachel's New York Times crossword.
-----The disparate background of the women is illustrated succinctly in response to Polly's question, "What is the most important characteristic of a perfect marriage?" Mother Jennifer replies, "A soul-mate whose spirit travels in parallel lines." Grandmother Ruth is sure it is "a bank account in your own name," while Grandmother Rachel knows it is "a compatible Scrabble partner."
-----Rachel is delightfully and impishly portrayed by Rita Howell. Howell was also the original Rachel in the Canadian premiere of If We Are Women for Canadian Stage in 1994, and created the role of Lucy Maud Montgomery in Canadian Stage's The Wooden Hill last year. Howell's last appearance at The Grand was in 1985, in 'Night Mother.
-----Maralyn Ryan, who plays the prairie Ruth, is not as familiar here, with most of her experience in the west. We hope she remains a mainstay in Southwestern Ontario.
-----Playing mother Jessica and also debuting at The Grand is Jenny Munday, from the opposite coast.
-----Ann Bagley, the youngest cast member, is the most familiar to local audiences. Last seen at The Grand in 1991 in I Ain't Dead Yet, Bagley has performed for five seasons at The Shaw and also at Stratford.
-----If We Are Women will entertain "chicks" and anyone one else who ever had a mother, at The Grand until January 27. For tickets ($22 to $46) call 1-80-265-1593. In London, call 519/672-8800. Toll-free from Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania at 1-800-567-5194.

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Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
February 6 to 24, 1996
A Stage Door review by Jim Lingerfelt

The Grand Theatre is currently presenting Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) on their main stage until February 24. In a kind of Shakespeare-meets-Lewis Carroll farce, Constance Ledbelly, a tenure-hungry assistant professor at Queens, trashed by an unrequited love for her professor-mentor, falls through her wastebasket into a topsy-turvy world of Shakespeare characters.


-----Frustrated also by years of failed attempts at translating an ancient document she is determined will reveal the true source of Shakespeare's classics, Constance dreams of setting the story straight. If only Othello had been shown the evil in Iago, if only Tybalt had been told that Romeo was his cousin-in-law, then these non-inevitable "tragedies" could have been the divine "comedies" the original Author had intended before Shakespeare adapted them for the Elizabethan stage.
-----Landing first in Cyprus, Constance is just in time to reveal Iago's treachery to the jealous Moor, and be recognized as a goddess of truth and valour sent by the "Queens" to join the battle against injustice, etc., etc. Lady Desdemona is revealed not as the gentle object of Othello's passion, but as a railing Valkyrie eager to carry the sword of feminism into the fray.
-----Mousy Constance, threatened by the bold and lusty Maid of Venice, retreats through her whirling wastebasket only to light a few leagues north, in fair Verona, where Tybalt and Mercutio are engaged in swordplay. Just as Romeo steps between them (and a split-second before Tybalt's blade is destined to pierce Mercutio's side), Constance pushes Romeo to the ground, averting the blade, and the tragedy. Mistaken for a boy, "Constantine" explains to Tybalt that Romeo has wed his cousin, and they are now of a united house. Meanwhile an enraptured Romeo becomes aroused by the Greek youth, and forsakes his still-warm marriage bed and rapidly cooling mate. Juliet, for her part, repents her early marriage to the boy-groom, seeks a new love, and also zeros in on Constantine. Constance, in an effort to avert her unwelcome advances, reveals herself to be a woman, but this only increases Juliet's eager anticipation of "the forbidden love." And dashing Desdemona makes three.
-----Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) was the first solo-authored play by Toronto-based actor/writer Ann-Marie MacDonald, premiering eight years ago. It has won the Governor General's Award, The Chalmers Award and The Canadian Authors' Association Award, and has been produced across North America and currently in Kobe, Japan, in Japanese.
----- It's an academic comedy, filled with references, quotations and parodies of Shakespeare's works, feminism, and academe, much of which flew over my head, but all of which was great sport. The cast is headed by Nancy Palk who is never off stage in the taxing role of Constance. Palk last appeared at The Grand as Myra Arundel in Hayfever. Five other actors have been assembled by director Jackie Maxwell to play the remaining dozen or so characters: Elizabeth Brown is Desdemona, Mercutio, et al; Benedict Campbell is Othello, the cad professor, and Juliet's nurse; Jonathan Crombie is Romeo, Iago, and Yorik's ghost; and Stephanie Morgenstern is Juliet, et al. The Escher-esque set of double-back stairways to nowhere was designed by Sue LePage.
-----Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) plays until February 24. For tickets ($22 to $46) call The Grand in London at (519) 672-9030, toll-free 1-800-265-1593 or toll-free from Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania at 1-800-567-5194. Or visit The Grand's Box Office, 471 Richmond Street, London, Ontario.
-----While you're calling, order tickets as well for Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, running from March 5 to March 30. This, the musical with the only singable Sondheim tune: Send In The Clowns, is the story of four pairs of Swedish lovers, "part farce, part Mozart and all romance."

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A Little Night Music
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
March 5 to March 30, 1996
A Stage Door review by Jim Lingerfelt

Seldom does a play have that nearly indescribable sensation of being "an event." You recognize it when you see Phantom or Les Miz ... something that, no matter how much you enjoyed He Won't Come In From The Barn, you know it's just not in the same league. It happened for me with Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music now playing in London's The Grand Theatre, co-produced with Canadian Stage Company.


-----Sondheim is perhaps the most respected contemporary composer of stage musicals, with his name attached to collaborations on West Side Story (with Bernstein's music) and Gypsy (with Styne's music) and solo accomplishments including Sweeney Todd, Into The Woods, Assassins, and Passion. His lyrics are pure genius, reminiscent of the perfect, overlapping intricacy and excitement of Celtic illumination. His melodies are among the most difficult to interpret (explaining why they are so favoured by Barbra Streisand), and seldom leave you humming them as you exit the theatre. The song regarded even by Sondheim as his only hit, Send In The Clowns, is the centrepiece of A Little Night Music.
-----The book was written by Hugh Wheeler, the first of several collaborations with Sondheim, including Sweeney Todd. The production premiered on Broadway in 1973, scooping six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Music and Lyrics.
-----The story is a farce, a romantic comedy, or a drama, depending on where you are at the moment. Fredrik Egerman, a middle-aged attorney, has taken as his second wife a giddy 18-year-old Anne, who after eleven months of marriage, remains a virgin. Fredrik has the patience of Job, but eventually turns to an old flame, the stage star Desirée Armfeldt, only to be discovered there by Desirée's current paramour, Count Carl-Magnus, a man with the vanity of a "peacock and the brain of a pea"-and an extremely jealous nature. Recognizing the attorney hastily garbed in the Count's own dressing gown, the Count rushes home to his wife Charlotte, instructing her to tell her girlhood friend, Anne, of her husband's infidelity.
-----Desirée's daughter, Fredrika (?!), has been living with her grandmother, Madame Armfeldt, the wise and very wealthy beneficiary of several well-placed romantic liaisons, ostensibly to protect her from the bad influence of her mother's lifestyle.
-----Other characters on John Ferguson's turntable set include Fredrik's son, Henrik, himself no older than his stepmother, and finding his attraction to her a distraction from his religious calling; Petra, Anne Egerman's lusty maid and confidante; and Frid, Madame Armfeldt's manservant. A chorus of actors come and go across the set, lending a classical distinction to the play, and more opportunity to enjoy Sondheim's intricate harmonies and dazzling lyrics.
-----Patricia Collins is Desirée Armfeldt. Despite a bio that, though illustrious (including eight seasons as Stratford and currently starring in The Rez on CBC), has few singing roles, Collins does an admirably throaty interpretation of the Clowns. Benedict Campbell is back at the Grand, continuing from his role in Desdemona last month, now as the patient though frustrated Fredrik. His wife, Anne, is delightfully portrayed by Kristin Gauthier, fresh, naïve and irresistible in a role that could easily be distorted if not destroyed by a lesser talent.
-----The Count is Bruce Clayton in his first appearance at The Grand, and Mary Ellen Mahoney (fresh from Crazy For You) is his wife. "Big Mama" Marion Gilsenan is back, now as the articulate, aristocratic Madame Armfeldt, reminiscent of the grand-dame, mentor-aunt in Gigi. Her ingenuous protégée and granddaughter is played by Marÿke Hendrikse, who most recently played Jenny in the Aspects of Love U.S. National Tour, which may explain why I was also frequently reminded of that play.
-----Trish O'Brien (Petra), John Ullyat (Henrik), Howard Jackson (Frid) and a chorus of Kristine Anderson, Gisèle Fredette, Mark Nykoluk, Steve Ross, Jennifer Simser, Regan Thiel and Jay Turvey complete the large and talented cast. The play is directed by Michael Shamata.
-----A Little Night Music has been held over until March 30. For ticket information, please visit The Grand Theatre Box Office at 471 Richmond Street or call 519-672-8800. Toll-free at 1-800-265-1593. Toll-free from Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania at 1-800-567-5194.

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