Every once in a while a theatre does something so remarkable, so ambitious, so wonderful that you can forgive them every disappointment you might have held before. After a season that grew from bad to embarrassing last year and ended in the (voluntary) replacement of its artistic director, the Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend has opened its 25th Anniversary Season with Annie,directed and choreographed by that same artistic director, Max Reimer, and HCP is restored to its rightful position as Ontario’s premier stage for popular musicals.
-----Annie was written by Thomas Meeham (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics), and premiered in 1976, hitting Broadway the following year and garnering seven Tonys, and a dozen other prestigious awards. It hit London in 1978 and then the silver screen in 1982 (where it flopped, but at least preserves the great music including the now-classic Tomorrow). It is based on the Harold Gray comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, which ran through the Depression from 1924 until his death in 1968, featuring the irrepressibly optimistic orphan with the blank saucer eyes and her dog, Sandy, rescued from poverty by billionaire "Daddy" Warbucks and now consort and confidant of presidents and kingpins.
-----The HCP production is perfect in nearly every detail. The large cast of probably more than 40 (hard to count that many for the final curtain call) and two dogs was complemented with a six-piece orchestra, probably the largest group of performers assembled on and about that stage. The piece is a proven crowd-pleaser, or it wouldn’t have been selected in the first place, but whereas some previous attempts at mixing a large troupe of local amateurs and children with a small corps of professionals have been less than satisfactory, this group meshed perfectly. Grade 5 student Sharai-Ann Ross-Laney carried the title role and although her voice was nasally rasping it was strong, clear, distinctively unique and perfectly suited for the character. Her stage presence was also perfect, commanding attention and irresistibly coquettish, as she connived and charmed her way through virtually every scene without break, and without flaw, finishing even stronger than she began. A difficult role for the best of ’em, and Sharai-Ann is certainly among the best of ’em.
-----In the "Carol Burnett" role of Miss Hannigan, orphanage matron, is Mary Pitt. Here was a performance I couldn’t get enough of. I fell for Mary’s unencumbered style as Jack’s Mother, for which she received a Dora nomination in the Canadian Stage production of Into The Woods. Back again to HCP despite the My Fair Lady debacle in which she also appeared, she positively ignites this production with her energy and broad comic style.
-----Also starring, and all deserving of that distinction, are Jan Filips (Oliver Warbucks), Doug MacIntyre (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Shane MacPherson and Bernadette Taylor (Rooster and his moll, Lily St. Regis), and, as I mentioned, three dozen more. The set design was another of resident designer Robert J. Ivey’s masterpieces, with broad New York cityscapes, and creative interiors of the drab orphanage, Warbuck’s expansive mansion and the Oval Office. Most impressive: the gradually growing night-lights of Broadway as Warbucks takes Annie out for her first night on the town. Set changes were frequent and swift, always a sure way to keep younger audiences involved.
-----Speaking of the younger audience, let’s ask our nine-year-old critic and seat companion, Keith, what he thought: "It was great!" Best parts, Keith? "The President, and the dog." Though we each pick our own favourite parts, I gotta admit, the transformation of wheel-chair-bound FDR and eight liveried servants into a circling Santa-and-His-Reindeer scene was one of the best, Keith.
-----Congratulations, Max, on a splendid production. May you have many more such successes in your new post at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton. And, readers, act fast as there are only a few more performances of Annie, until June 29. Call 1-800-706-6665 today (from the 519 area code), or 1-519-238-6000.
The Hound of the Baskervilles playing at Grand Bend
laying at Huron Country
Playhouse in Grand
Bend from July 16 to 27, The Hound of the Baskervilles was adapted by Tim Kelly from the classic thriller of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and directed by Max Reimer, helming his last production there as he leaves to become the new managing artistic director of Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius. Arguably the best known of all the Sherlock Holmes tales, this mysterious detective story combines elements of the supernatural and a Gothic atmosphere in a lonely moors setting.
-----The setting was, indeed, the star of the show at HCP’s recent production. Using the same design team that scored a hit with Annie, Robert J. Ivey recreated a baronial English manor house setting, Julie McGill designed the 1905 costumes and Simon Day set the mood of the moors with his richly evocative lighting.
-----Sherlock Holmes is played by Stephen Russell a familiar face at the Playhouse. Watching him I began to realize how Jeremy Brett must have felt, suffering under the shadow of Basil Rathbone, in his first few scenes as the deerstalkered detective. It took Russell a full act to get comfortable with the pompous mantle of his character...or did it take me a full act to get Jeremy Brett out of my expectations?
-----Comfortable immediately with his role as Holmes’ companion and biographer, Dr Watson, was Desmond Ellis (also returning to the Playhouse). His delivery, pacing and attitude were convincing and natural, and at many times helped to conceal the awkward and halting delivery of several other, newer cast members on the stage.
-----Characters unique to the Hounds story include Sir Henry (Simon Joynes), heir to the Baskerville estate and curse, all huffery and puffery but nobody cared; his reluctant serving staff Mr and Mrs Barrymore (Nicholas Rice and Mary Pitt) and Perkins (Mar˙ke Hendrikse); and neighbours, sweethearts and villains Jack and Kathy Stapleton (Robin Blake and Leisa Way), Lady Agatha Mortimer (Paula J. Caplan) and Laura Lyons (Anna-Louise Richardson).
-----As a suspense thriller, Kelly’s adaptation is missing only two elements: suspense and thrills. Holmes’ legendary powers of deduction were engaged immediately in the opening minutes of the first scene, as he quickly recapped Lady Agatha’s irrelevant activities, whereabouts, and companion for the preceding three hours, based solely on an examination of the bottom five inches of an abandoned walking stick. After that, the magic faded, and eventually the mystery was resolved without the clear deductive reasoning we expect from Holmes.
-----Ivey’s set, however, retained its magnificent elegance throughout.
Acclaimed as "the happiest show in town," Me And My Girl, the grand old musical of 1937, has been a hit in London, England, on Broadway, and now it’s on stage at Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend. Me And My Girl was unveiled in London’s West End in December 1937, when war clouds were forming on the continent and the British needed some form of escapist entertainment. It became the longest running musical of the 1930s and its biggest wartime hit. It was revived in 1984 and won several major awards including Best Musical of the Year.
-----The plot is simple: The late Viscount Hareford had a youthful, unfortunate marriage—and kept discreetly out of sight was a son and heir. The Hareford Hall set are despondent when it’s learned the family solicitor has traced the legitimate heir, Bill Snibson, living in London's colourful Lambeth district. Good-natured mayhem follows the Cockney invasion of Hareford Hall.
-----The cast of 31 is lead by Shawn Wright, as Bill Snibson. Wright has a pleasant but not powerful voice and an excellent sense of comic timing, his somewhat economical interpretation of the role perhaps the result of his care not to overdo the Cockney accent. HCP regular and growing talent Leisa Way plays girlfriend Sally Smith in a sweetly ingenuous manner. Her now stronger mezzo-soprano voice however, is muddied by an annoyingly thick vibrato in her middle register. Maria, Duchess of Dene, is portrayed by veteran Marilyn Alex, with pure British noblesse oblige, and stumbling badly over her lines a number of times during the first act. By contrast, David Hughes as Maria’s suitor, Sir John Tremayne, stumbles intentionally several times in a superb drunk scene. Local favourite David Talbot plays family lawyer Herbert Parchester. His several scene-stealing dances are both hysterical and well-executed.
-----The major players are supported by HCP regulars: the talented Jennifer Copping as gold digger, Lady Jaqueline Carstone; Robin Blake as The Hon. Gerald Bolingbroke; Mary Pitt, wasted in the small roles of Lady Battersby/Mrs. Brown; Derek Keurvorst as the butler; and Barbara Fulton as Mrs. Worthington-Worthington.
-----The set design is another of resident designer Robert Ivey’s: the inside-outside Hareford Hall set is a visual delight, however, the Hareford Arms looks more like a lumberjack camp than a British pub. Julie McGill’s costumes are beautiful and well detailed and in stunning colours. The production’s only weak link is choreographer Glen Kotyk and dance captain Janet Kelly’s dance corps, which lacked the crisp precision required to properly execute several interludes, including some clever tap numbers.
-----In all, the production was another in a series of pleasant surprises this season at HCP. Director (and HCP’s new artistic director) Brian McKay is to be congratulated for staging such a superb production of this wonderfully tuneful, side-splitting musical comedy. Me and My Girl appeals to all ages. Children in the audience were delighted, as was our seat-mate, Meg, a senior who had recently seen the play in the West End and compared them favourably.
-----Don't miss out on 'the happiest show in town,' playing till August 31. Order your tickets today by calling the box office at 1-800-706-6668. A fitting conclusion to a celebratory season.
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.