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| Waiting for the Parade | The Importance of Being Earnest |Pal Joey|
| The Tinker's Wedding |Cymbeline |King John | Henry VIII | The Human Voice & The Elephant Song |
| The Swanne, Part 3: Queen Victoria (The Seduction of Nemesis)|
Floyd Collins
| Waiting for Godot |

Some reviews of 2004

Others found here

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Waiting for Godot

by Samuel Beckett, directed by Albert Schultz
Soulpepper, Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto
June 17-July 1 and August 20-Sept. 24, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Long Wait"

Soulpepper completes its cycle of Samuel Beckett’s full-length plays with his most famous, “Waiting for Godot”. Compared to the company’s productions of “Endgame” in 1999 and “Happy Days” last year, this production is not a great success. One cause is director Albert Schultz’s overly reverential approach to the text that slows what little action there is to a snail’s pace. Another is the fatal miscasting of Jordan Pettle as Estragon opposite William Hutt’s Vladimir. The interaction of Vladimir and Estragon drives the play and when one of the two doesn’t spark, a play that symbolically goes nowhere dramatically go nowhere, too.

To have Vladimir played by an older man and Estragon by a younger is an interesting idea as if the two were father and son or, in this case, perhaps grandfather and grandson. Yet, if that is the idea it’s one that Schultz never explores. He has the two interact, as they do in the text, as if they were just old friends, nothing more. Beckett presents different generations on stage in “Endgame”, but the point in “Godot” that the four characters should be as similar as possible with Pozzo and Lucky as a kind of distorted image of the relationship of Vladimir and Estragon.

This is precisely where the Soulpepper production falls down. Rather than four similar characters roaming John Thompson’s barren, post-apocalyptic landscape, we have four completely dissimilar characters with completely different acting styles. The central idea of Vladimir and Estragon as two halves of one person, the mind and the body, and of Pozzo and Lucky as their warped reflections is almost completely lost. And with that loss is the dynamic between characters and the two groups of characters that makes the play work.

Schultz has Hutt and Pettle play Vladimir and Estragon in a highly realistic way unlike the overt theatricality of Joseph Ziegler and Oliver Dennis as Pozzo and Lucky. Like the great British actors, Hutt acts primarily with his voice. You will likely never hear Beckett’s fragmentary prose sound more like poetry than you will when you hear Hutt speak it. He makes one of Vladimir’s longer speeches sound like an except of “King Lear”: “To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not.” And indeed, when Hutt is playing you can see why some critics have likened the work to Beckett’s take on the scenes in the heath between Lear and the Fool. It is a magnificent and insightful performance.

Sadly, it occurs in a vacuum. Pettle’s best work has been in modern, realistic plays like “Zadie’s Shoes”, where his imprecise diction and tendency to speak too rapidly are more at home. Here, where every one of the few words count, these habits are disastrous. Pettle often fails even to accent the most important word in a phrase. He, thus, is no match for Hutt. What should be a dynamic dialogue becomes more of a monologue by Hutt interrupted by often unintelligible remarks from Pettle.

The appearance of Pozzo and Lucky should suggest that, if we think Vladimir and Estragon have it bad, there is always something worse. Didi and Gogo may be friends who bicker but Pozzo and Lucky are master and slave. Strangely, Schultz brings out much more detail in these two than he does in Vladimir and Estragon. Ziegler seems to be working too hard to make Pozzo a big character, yet the more theatrical he is the less intimidating his character becomes. This is a Pozzo who is more a buffoon than the tyrant he should be. This leave Oliver Dennis to give the most authentically Beckettian performance of the evening inseparably combining the realistic and artificial, the comic and pathetic. His single speech when Lucky “thinks” is a masterful portrayal of the mechanism of the mind in decay.

If Pozzo and Lucky are to reflect Vladimir and Estragon they should bear some resemblance to them. Oddly enough, designer Camellia Koo has clad Pozzo in a spotlessly clean riding outfit. If this is a post-apocalyptic world, how has he alone managed to keep this outfit looking new when all around him are in rags. Other production have shown that Pozzo can be more frightening if dressed like the others, thus making his domineering attitude all the more bizarre.

Schultz has taken a reverential approach to the text seeking out its pathos more than its comedy, when ideally both should be indisseverable. To do this Schultz stretches out some of Beckett’s many “pauses” to the point where the show comes to a complete halt as if the cast were waiting for a freight train to pass. Rather than tragic, the action seems merely enervated and dull. There is so little momentum by the end of Act 1, a newcomer to the play could easily imagine the show was over. One only has to think of Brian Bedford’s production at Stratford in 1996 that emphasized the vaudeville and music-hall background to the routines of all four characters, to realize that “Godot” can be as hilarious as it is tragic and can stand a quicker pace without loss of its serious intent.

In some ways Schultz has taken the “waiting” of the title too literally. After all, the play is not so much about waiting and doing nothing as it is about all the various things we do to entertain ourselves while we are waiting. Despite the performances of Hutt and Dennis, you might well find yourself relieved when Henry Ziegler as the Boy finally appears to say that Mr. Godot is not coming. Then you’ll know you won’t have much longer to wait for the show to end.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Floyd Collins

by Adam Guettel & Tina Landau, directed by Eda Holmes
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
August 26-October 9, 2004

by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Great Staging of a Brilliant Musical"

“Floyd Collins” is a brilliant new musical given an absolutely gripping production at the Shaw Festival. This is one of those wonderful instances when every element of the production from the performances themselves to the set, costumes and lighting comes together to create an overwhelming experience.

The 1996 musical is based on the true story of Kentucky spelunker Floyd Collins, who searched various caves around his home in Barren County hoping to find another cave system like Mammoth Caves and make his fortune by turning it into a tourist attraction. Instead, on January 3, 1925, while Floyd was exploring Sand Cave he found himself trapped in a tight hole 150 feet underground. Skeets Miller, diminutive cub reporter for a Louisville newspaper, heard of the story and was the only one small enough to squeeze through to Floyd where he interviewed him. His dispatches, later winning Miller a Pulitzer Prize, were syndicated nationwide and the publicity soon generated the first media circus of the 20th century with people camping out awaiting Floyd’s rescue.

The same story with names and location changed, served as the basis for the 1951 Billy Wilder movie “Ace in the Hole” (aka “The Big Carnival”). Tina Landau’s book for the musical avoids the pervasive cynicism of the movie. Instead, the musical focusses on the human drama of a man whose dreams of fame and rescuing his family from poverty bring him face to face with death. The musical looks at the effects of his plight on his family and friends and charts the course of how their hopes for his rescue fade the longer he is trapped and how they accommodate themselves to this reality. The musical does depict the rise of the media circus and the bullying of an overconfident engineer H.T. Carmichael who thinks his superior technology can rescue Collins and gain publicity for his company. But ultimately, the story is about Collins, his younger brother Homer and his sister Nellie, a former mental patient, and how they cope with the collapse of their dreams.

As befits the time and setting, Guettel’s music is tinged with bluegrass throughout. Though there is dialogue and there are separate numbers, Guettel’s musical language is so advanced that the effect is far more like a folk opera than a typical musical. The intricacy of the music and the beauty of Guettel’s word-setting will convince you that here, finally, is someone after Sondheim who has moved the musical genre forward.

The singing and acting of the entire cast blaze with commitment. Jay Turvey’s incandescent performance takes us with him through Floyd’s entire emotional arc from his joy in caving, his wonder at discovery, through his pain, attempts to cheer himself up and despair, to his accommodation with fate and his final ecstatic vision in “How Glory Goes”. Jeff Madden gives his best-ever performance as Homer, who alternates between anger and dread and attempts to distract Floyd from his loneliness and pain. The heartfelt singing of these two forms the show’s emotional core.

No less intense are Glynis Ranney as Nellie, who feels mystically connected to Floyd, and Jeff Lillico as Miller, whose joy at getting such a big story turns to guilt when he sees the gaudy results. Sharry Flett and Peter Millard, not usually associated with musicals, fit right in as Floyd’s worried stepmother and his stern, religious father. Douglas E. Hughes plays the engineer Carmichael as selfish and misguided but keeps him from being a simple villain. As three reporters Andrew Kushnir, Marcus Nance and Sam Strasfeld stop the show in “Is That Remarkable?” with their intricate three-part harmony, their precise, synchronous moves and crisp rapid-fire delivery.

At first, you might not think that the Court House Theatre was the best venue for this musical. But when Floyd discovers a large chamber in Sand Cave and the entire ceiling of the theatre lights up, you’ll suddenly feel as if you were in the cave with him. Indeed, director and choreographer Eda Holmes uses the entire theatre to draw the audience into the action with the stage at times representing a level surface in the valley made by the surrounding raked seats, at others the pit of the cave where Floyd is trapped.

William Schmuck’s ingenious set has the rocks above and below ground represented as cement-coloured stacks of bundled newspapers, thus cleverly suggesting both the media circus that surrounded the event and the reason why we know of it today. Kevin Lamotte lights the show in inventive ways rarely seen at the Court House. Besides the glittering cave ceiling, he gives us fireworks overhead, the bitter winter light above ground and shafts of light piercing the gloom below. Musical director Paul Sportelli draws soulful playing from an eight-man band including banjo and harmonica partially hidden upstage of the proscenium.

“Floyd Collins” is a long way from the frothy musical comedy with its kick-line of chorus girls. Shunning cheap laughs and cheap sentiment, “Floyd Collins” is that rarity, an authentically moving work of musical theatre. The Shaw’s totally involving staging makes this an experience you won’t want to miss.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Swanne, Part 3: Queen Victoria
(The Seduction of Nemesis)

by Peter Hinton, directed by Peter Hinton
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
August 19-September 26, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The Swanne Crashes"

The third part of Peter Hinton's ambitious "Swanne" trilogy, "Queen Victoria (The Seduction of Nemesis)", is a major let-down after its predecessor “Princess Charlotte (The Acts of Venus)”. Part 3 is solely concerned with following up the actions of Part 2 and tying up loose plot lines to such an extent that the themes so clearly developed in Part 2 are virtually abandoned. Hinton claims that each part of the trilogy can stand alone, but the evidence of Part 3 contradicts that. The only way people will feel the impact of the many meetings of long lost friends and reconciliations of enemies in Part 3 is if they have seen the previous two plays.

Part 3 is disappointing for many reasons. First of all, the none of the resolutions of the many plot lines is emotionally or intellectually intriguing enough to justify our having spent the more than nine hours of theatre it has taken to tell the story. Second, the conclusion to the trilogy which finds most of our favourite non-royal characters emigrating to Canada seem to trivialize the whole enterprise. Two and a half parts of the trilogy have focussed on the question of how people are to live amid the corruption and multiple inequities of 19th-century England. Rather than a satisfying solution from within, emigration from England is literally provides an escape from all the issues the play has raised besides naively suggesting that the New World is not as capable of corruption as the Old. Finally, if people were hoping that the meaning of this confusing three-part epic would be revealed, they will find that Hinton has abandoned the themes developed in Part 2. There prostitution became the metaphor that linked the worlds of the brothel, the court, the church and the theatre. In Part 3 Hinton shifts to a tired postmodern playfulness in which the trilogy we see, supposedly being written by Victoria, itself becomes one of the main subjects discussed. Victoria has to choose between her fiction, “The Swanne”, and the reality of governing. She therefore destroys “The Swanne”. The play we see that she has written thus somehow contains the scene of its own demise. Hinton thus retreats from the grand moral, ethical, historical stance he seemed to take in Parts 1 and 2 to a form of mirror-within-mirror game-playing that resolves nothing and seems to mock the effort we have expended in watching it.

Nevertheless, under Hinton as director the cast works as a finely tuned ensemble with many of the younger actors given a chance to shine. Principal among these is Lara Jean Chorostecki as Drina, later to become Queen Victoria. The concentration and intensity she brings to the role make us care about Victoria in a way that we did not in Parts 1 and 2. Seun Olagunju continues as the sensitive William, the black boy Victoria fancies as the rightful heir to the throne. His white friend and lover Jeremy, whom we thought had died in escaping from the orphanage in Part 1, turns out to have survived. In this role Jeffrey Wetsch shows a wide range of ability, comic and tragic, that finally make this character come alive.

Michelle Fisk, with her fine gift for comedy, makes the prostitute Button Undone Betty a real delight. Adrienne Gould, playing Dot Peabody who betrayed the brothel gang, presents a powerful study of a woman consumed by conscience. Tanja Jacobs takes on three roles--unrecognizable as the pilloried, cadaverous brothel madam Mother Needham, pert and comic as the Bedlam attendant Mrs. Thornful and haughtily menacing as Victoria’s mother, The Duchess of Kent. Margot Dionne is rivetting as the now-mad Prosperpine Voranguish, not seen since Part 1. Michelle Giroux makes the prostitute Mary Robinson, who helps Williams find his mother in Bedlam, much more of an aristocrat than Karen Robinson did in the role last year.

Other fine work comes from Diane D’Aquila, continuing in the role of the now-blind actress called “The Scarecrow”; Shane Carty as Victoria’s sympathetic uncle Leopold, to whom her play “The Swanne” is dedicated; and Donald Carrier and Leopold’s now-spurned lover Baron Stockmar.

Otherwise certain roles are marred by overemphatic delivery--Nicholas Van Burek as Bishop Shuddas, Robert King as Bedlam keeper Mr. Maddocks and rebel Arthur Thistlewood, and Thom Marriott as Fred Dobing, Jeremy’s father, whom we also assumed had disappeared. Brad Rudy does very well as St. John Voranguish, the primary villain of the trilogy, but he can’t summon quite the sense of depravity that Scott Wentworth did in the role last year.

Eo Sharp's set design is simpler this year with the clever twist in that the doors to Bedlam when opened reveal the interior of Kensington Palace. Carolyn M. Smith's costumes period costumes are once again impressive in clearly distinguishing the various layers of Victorian society from highest to lowest. Robert Thomson's lighting shows more variation than in Part 2, moving from the gloomy world of Bedlam and brothels to the warm glow that suffuses the ship carrying so many of the characters to Canada.

Dramaturge Paula Danckert had the daunting task of paring Hinton’s original five-part drama down to three. Now having seen the entire trilogy, I feel the work should have been pared down even further. Part 1 with its many needless time-shifts and numerous subplots and sub-subplots, made for a confusing and ultimately misleading introduction to the trilogy. Part 3, with its focus on what happens to all of the characters, even some like the Peabody family that we didn’t know we were supposed to care about, is a mass of plot no longer in service of a theme. Only in Part 2, which has the tightest structure, did both plot and the interlinking of themes come together.

There is a good--perhaps even great--play hidden in the tangled thicket that is the three-part “Swanne”. When that single “Swanne”, that one great play, can be freed from all the surrounding brambles that choke it, then we will finally have a work that justifies massive effort required to produce it.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Henry VIII

by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
August 21-October 29, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"Circumstantial Pomp”

Shakespeare’s late play “King Henry VIII”, written in 1613 with John Fletcher, has not been seen at Stratford since 1986. Then it was directed by Brian Rintoul and starred Leon Pownall in the title role with William Hutt as Cardinal Wolsey and Elizabeth Shepherd as Katherine of Aragon. Thanks to present director Richard Monette the show is rich in pageantry but because the key roles of Henry and Wolsey are miscast, it lacks the drama that made Rintoul’s production so exciting.

Written under the first Stuart king, James I, criticism of monarchs was not allowed while criticism of Catholicism was encouraged. Belying the play’s subtitle “All is True”, Shakespeare and Fletcher have the task of portraying Henry in the early years of his reign in a completely positive light. Thus we see blame for all misdeeds in the kingdom shifted onto Cardinal Wolsey, Henry chief advisor, who is portrayed as a sly Machiavellian who uses his power for personal gain.

The play is structured as a series of rotations of the wheel of fortune covering a period from 1521-1533. Three people fall from power--first the Duke of Buckingham, the most powerful noble in England, because of Wolsey’s enmity; then Henry’s queen of 20 years, Katherine of Aragon, because Wolsey emphasizes Henry’s sin of marrying his brother’s widow; and finally Wolsey himself when his chicanery is uncovered. The fourth fall, that of Thomas Cranmer, is immanent, but Henry, without Wolsey, is wiser than before and sees through the conspiracy himself to save Cramner and signal a break from Rome The play ends with the birth of Elizabeth to Anne Bullen (as Shakespeare spells it), the king now supposedly reconciled to having woman as heir and with Cranmer’s prophesy of her future greatness. (The play focusses solely on Henry’s first two wives.) The implication is that just as the mature Henry was able to halt the turning of the wheel of fortune through his will, Elizabeth will do the same for all of England and lead the realm to unparalleled prosperity.

If the play is to seem more than merely a propagandistic royal pageant, it is essential that the roles of Henry and Wolsey be cast from strength. Sadly, that is not the case. Slim and beardless, Graham Abbey is certainly not the Henry one pictures, but he does convey the sense of a boyish king (who, though, at 30 would have been thought middle-aged at the time) who could be unaware of the malice of his chief counselor. Abbey’s Henry does grow from innocence to strength, but he never fully conveys a sense of majesty and never gives Henry a very distinct personality.

Walter Borden, who is so good at playing kind men, is never able to find the scornful duplicity in Wolsey. In 1986 William Hutt showed how great a role this is in playing a evil man who cloaks his greed and lust for power with sanctimony. This is essential to emphasize Wolsey’s subtle villainy, otherwise Henry appears naive or foolish. Monette, however, doesn’t see this since his programme note claims “there is no villain” in the play. Borden rises to the demands of the role only when Wolsey falls from power. Then the tone of sincerity he has used throughout is finally right.

It is left, then, to Seana McKenna in the play’s third great role, Katherine of Aragon, to steal the show. McKenna shows her as a formidable woman able to dispute with Wolsey better than her husband yet ready to submit with suppressed resentment when he casts her off. Shakespeare’s sense of human drama overcomes his whitewashing of Henry in a powerful depiction of Katherine after Henry has married Anne. Here, not unlike the deposed Richard II, the former queen accedes to her fate, forgives her accusers and prays for the wellbeing of her children and servants. McKenna, clearly delineating Katherine’s fall from strength to infirmity, makes this the most moving scene of the play.

Raymond O’Neill, strong though more histrionic than McKenna, sets the tone early on as first the confident then the outraged Duke of Buckingham led off to execution. Brian Tree succeeds in making us care about the innocent, wrongly accused Thomas Cranmer. Steven Sutcliffe in his short appearance as the Bishop of Winchester, a would-be Wolsey, shows more duplicity than Borden could muster.

Other fine performances come from Stephen Russell (the Duke of Norfolk, Thom Allsion (the Duke of Suffolk), Barry MacGregor (the Lord Chamberlain) and Chick Reid (as Anne Bullen’s servant). Sara Topham does not quite catch the irony in Anne Bullen, who supposedly despises wealth but is courted by a king.

Monette has staged the play as a succession of impressive pageants and processions, secular and ecclesiastical. In this Ann Curtis’s gorgeous, highly detailed period costumes have a starring role all their own, glittering under Kevin Fraser’s sensitive lighting. Not all of Monette’s choices, though, make sense. Why the sword fighting demonstration for Anne Bullen? Why push Henry out on a metal horse only to pull him back? Most damaging is his interpretation of the periodic commentary of the First and Second Gentlemen played by Paul Hopkins and Riley Wilson. They are supposed to represent the views of the people in general, but Monette turns them into lisping, effeminate royal-watchers whose simultaneous oohs are meant to provoke laughter. The result is the two now only represent themselves and their affectation trivializes the events they describe.

“King Henry VIII” is the fourth Shakespearean rarity on this year’s playbill along with “Timon of Athens”, “Cymbeline” and “King John”. “Henry VIII”, like “Cymbeline” hasn’t been seen at the Festival for 18 years. What these rarities have demonstrated is that these plays are filled with choice roles and scenes and should not suffer such neglect. “Timon”, potentially the most difficult to bring off because of its extreme cynicism, has proven the most exciting of the four because it is well cast and well directed. Flaws in casting, not flaws in the plays, have made the other three less successful. Their rarity makes all four recommendable, but let’s hope in future that strong acting in all roles, not simply the plays’ rarity, will be the main reason audiences should rush to see them.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Human Voice

by Jean Cocteau, directed by Jim Warren

The Elephant Song

by Nicolas Billon, directed by Jim Warren
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
August 21-September 26, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Lovely Voice, Silly Song"

The double-bill that has opened at the Studio Theatre pairs Jean Cocteau’s “The Human Voice”, a classic of its kind, with a brand-new Canadian work, “The Elephant Song”, by Nicolas Billon. While the Cocteau is a great success, especially in the new translation by John Murrell, the Billon is unconvincing and derivative.

“The Human Voice” (“La Voix humaine”) is one of the first plays to demonstrate that new technologies of communication do not necessarily improve the quality of communication. For 45 minutes we watch the play’s sole character the Woman (“Elle” in the original) converse over a party line with the man who has just dumped her after a five-year relationship. The ex-lover phones to arrange the return of his love letters and gloves, but for the Woman, this is her last chance to feel some connection to the man she still loves. Sue LePage’s stylish set shows a modish bedroom in complete disarray giving the lie to the Woman’s frequent assurances that she is “strong”. She attempts to convince the man on the other end that she is as matter-of-fact about their break-up as he is, but the unpacked love-letters, the unburnt sketches, the towels in a basin of water all demonstrate that for her the loss of her beloved is a tragedy. The telephone may provide the means of communication, but it also allows both sides to lie about themselves more easily. We see the contradiction between what the Woman says and what we see, but we also learn that the man is not at home but phoning from a restaurant, obviously not at all as destroyed as the Woman.

Metaphorically, Cocteau suggests that all human beings are essentially isolated from each other and that all communication is also a type of acting. When the Woman twines the telephone cord around her neck to feel the man’s voice surround her, Cocteau suggests that loss of love is an intimation of death.

Lally Cadeau gives a superb performance full of nuance and the Woman’s awareness of the various level of irony of her situation. She clearly shows how the Woman’s pretense of being “strong” becomes ever more difficult to maintain as she realizes how soon she will never hear her beloved’s voice again. The performance does not leave you shattered as much as convince you how truthfully the event has been depicted.

Murrell’s new translation aids this naturalism as does Jim Warren’s direction that makes use of the entire stage area. Louise Guinand‘s lighting subtly varies with the moods of the Woman, appropriately leaving her isolated in a fading pool of light at the end.

If only “The Human Voice” were presented as a lunch-time show with a separate admission, I could heartily recommend it. Unfortunately, it is paired with a substandard work that I cannot recommend. “The Elephant Song” is Ottawa-born Nicolas Billon’s first play and his inexperience is all too evident. Not only is this psychiatrist-patient drama highly derivative--a sort of “Equus” with elephants with a definite tinge of “Blue/Orange”--but it is based on a series of improbabilities that make it impossible to take seriously.

Dr. Lawrence has suddenly disappeared from a psychiatric hospital without giving word to anyone. Dr. Greenberg, the head of the hospital, and nurse Peterson are worried and Greenberg wants to question a resident patient Michael Aleen, who was the last one to see Dr. Lawrence. Aleen, however, seems only interested in questions about elephants.

The entire action including the surprise denouement depend on Dr. Greenberg’s never once glancing at Aleen’s file which lies in view on Lawrence’s desk. The idea that a doctor would interview another doctor’s patient, especially one who is known to be difficult, without first reviewing that patient’s file is ludicrous. Yet, only through this lapse can Billon’s drama occur since he wants to work towards Aleen himself telling his rather far-fetched life story. And Billon does want that trick ending. Billon seems to have done research on elephants but none on psychiatric protocol. This is a hospital where a nurse introduces a patient to a doctor with the phrase “He likes to play games”, a diagnosis she should never say in front of the patient. Here, too, Dr. Greenberg allows Aleen to give a personal message to Dr. Lawrence over the phone. But then, this is a hospital where the standards are so lax that when Aleen gave Dr. Lawrence nude photos of himself and declared he was in love with him, Dr. Lawrence did not immediately report it to Dr. Greenberg and transfer Aleen to another doctor. Not only that, given Aleen’s age of 23 and the passive nature of his “crime”, it’s doubtful he would be in an institution at all.

Jim Warren’s urgent direction and the fine performances from the cast do not hide the script’s numerous inconsistencies, but rather make them all the more glaring. Stephen Ouimette focusses on Greenberg’s growing frustration and Maria Vacratsis adds a nice sense of ambiguity to Peterson‘s attentions to Aleen. As Aleen, Mac Fyfe shifts between twitchy mental obsession and fairly normal if sometimes emotional rationality. He makes clear that Mac’s game-playing is motivated by a yearning for attention, but that is not sufficient to convince us Aleen’s insane. The best part of the show is Barbara Dunn-Prosser’s lovely though unnecessary rendition of “Il mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”.

Billon’s writing sounds awkward and unnatural as if it were a poor translation from another language. Given its combination of unoriginality and internal flaws, it’s a mystery how the play made it through various workshops to the stage. It is sad that “The Human Voice” should be yoked to Billon’s play since few people will be willing to spend $52.00-$59.48 to see only half of a double bill no matter how good that half is.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

King John

by William Shakespeare, directed Antoni Cimolino
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
August 20-September 24, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"Women, Not Men, Make History Gripping"

Stratford hasn’t seen a production of Shakespeare history play “King John” since 1993. Then the late and much-missed Nicholas Pennell played the John and Stephen Ouimette the Bastard under the direction of Robin Phillips. Now Ouimette plays John and Jonathan Goad the Bastard under the direction of Stratford Executive Manager Antoni Cimolino. Needless to say, Cimolino directing only his fifth production at Stratford is no Robin Phillips. And as for the great Nicholas Pennell, no actor has since appeared at Stratford who matches his range, clarity in speaking verse and degree of subtlety in acting especially playing inwardly tortured characters. Unlike Phillips who created a production that was emotionally gripping from beginning to end, Cimolino seems to have thought only half way through the play allowing the rest to slip into tedium.

King John is best known as the man who was king during the time of Robin Hood while Richard Lionheart was away at the Crusades and as the king who in 1215 signed the Magna Carta. Neither Robin Hood nor the Magna Carta feature in Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare’s interest in King John (1167-1216) is the same as his later interest in Henry IV--as a king who reigns by might, not right, and is conscious of his tenuous position from the very start. In Act 1, Scene 1 when John asserts his right to rule to the French Ambassador, John’s Mother Eleanor tells him, “[It is] Your strong possession much more than your right, Or else it must go wrong with you and me; So much my conscience whispers in your ear ….” From that point until the end the drama of the play is John’s attempt to maintain “strong possession” even as he senses oncoming doom due to the illegitimacy of his rule. Phillips knew this and Pennell turned the role into a masterful study of an insecure ruler being slowly consumed from within by a guilty conscience. Cimolino seems to be unaware of this aspect of the play and shows John stricken with conscience only near the very end. As a result Ouimette’s John is wooden and undercharacterized and becomes one of the least interesting characters of the play.

Parallel to John is Philip Faulconbridge, the bastard son of Lady Faulconbridge and Richard Lionheart. Just as illegitimate ruler John descends from “borrowed majesty” to evil and disgrace, illegitimate son Philip ascends from rank cynicism about all institutions to idealism and nobility of purpose. This change of character in king and bastard is what drives the play and should hold our interest to the end. Unfortunately, Cimolino hasn’t seen this which makes his production’s last hour so flat. As the Bastard, Jonathan Goad does change by the end of the play but portrays his character as merely flippant, not incisively cynical, and does not mark the stages in his change of mentality. Cimolino is content to make him merely the “comic relief” without seeing his greater import. Goad, who speaks verse so rapidly it might as well be prose, continually fails to emphasis the important themes in his speeches. In the worst instance he throws away the key speech on “commodity” which should have resonance not just in the play but in our own time where money and politics are so intertwined.

Instead of focussing on the parallel of John and the Bastard, Cimolino frames the play as a story about mothers and sons. The play begins with spotlights on the three central mother-son pairs. There is Eleanor of Aquitaine whose youngest son is King John. As subtly played by Martha Henry she is the scheming power behind the throne, so strong she makes her son look weak by comparison. Then there is Constance, wife of one of John’s elder brothers and mother of the young Arthur, the rightful heir to the throne. Diane D’Aquila’s magnificently fierce performance, moving from barely suppressed rage to near madness is the most powerful in the production. Grade 6 student Aiden Shipley is moving as the innocent Arthur especially in the wrenching scene with his would-be executioner Hubert. The third pair is Lally Cadeau, who makes the most of her small role as Lady Faulconbridge, mother to Philip the Bastard and Robert, played as a comic geek by Stephen Gartner.

The fourth strong female role is that of Lady Blanche, who is married off to Lewis, the Dauphin of France, to broker a temporary peace between the two countries and to destroy Arthur’s claim to the throne. Keira Loughran is memorable, demurely falling in love with her arranged bridegroom, then outraged when it’s clear that politics not love are foremost in his mind. Dion Johnstone plays Lewis as a smooth talker, ready to say whatever the occasion demands.

While it is good to note the three mother-son relationships, the problem with emphasizing them is that all the women disappear from the action before Act 4 where Cimolino places the interval. Since he has not thought through the John-Bastard parallel, the action rapidly falls off in interest.

What helps save the last two acts is the powerful performance of Tom McCamus as Hubert, who like Buckingham in “Richard III”, is loyal to a tyrant only to be spurned later. McCamus’s intensity and ability to portray inner conflict make the scene when Hubert tries to blind the young Arthur highpoint of the second half of the play. Other fine performances come from Bernard Hopkins as an imperious Machiavellian Cardinal Pandulph, Peter Donaldson as an unusually formidable King of France, Ron Kennell as a foppish Duke of Austria and Ali Alnoor Kara as the young Henry III overwhelmed by events.

Santo Loquasto’s steel and girder set places the action in the late Victorian period and conjures up the horrors of war in the early machine age. His handsomely severe costumes make the differences of the French and English quite clear as well and the distinctions of rank and class. As befits a dark play set in this period Robert Thomson’s lighting conjures up the soot and murk of cities, prisons and battlefields and helps create a sense of doom that envelops all the characters.

Anyone who saw Phillips’ 1993 production should feel no great need to see Cimolino’s. Nevertheless, “King John” comes around very seldom at Stratford. This is only its fourth production here. Those who fear they may never see the play again will not want to miss this chance. And fans of Martha Henry, Diane D’Aquila and Tom McCamus will certainly not be disappointed.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome


by William Shakespeare, directed David Latham
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
July 15-September 26, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"Hidden Gem Reveals Cast’s Flaws"

The Stratford Festival’s current production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” is only the third in the Festival’s history. Previous productions were in 1986 and 1970. It’s hard to fathom why such a fascinating play should receive such neglect when a demonstrably lesser play like “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” has been produced twice as often. While the current production is not ideal, it presents the play clearly enough that any Shakespeare-lover would do well to see it rather than risk waiting another 18 years for the chance.

“Cymbeline” is one of Shakespeare’s late plays identified by Northrop Frye as “romances”, a category that includes “Pericles”, “The Winter’s Tale”, “The Tempest” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen”. In these Shakespeare returned to an earlier form of storytelling much like the fairy-tale that goes beyond tragedy and comedy to include the miraculous. The themes include reconciliation, the healing power of time and the nature of storytelling itself.

“Cymbeline” is an excellent example since its plot allows Shakespeare to revisit elements of some of his best-known tragedies and to look at them from another point of view. Cymbeline, a legendary king of England living supposedly during the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), has had his two sons stolen from him not to be found. His one remaining child Imogen has secretly married a commoner, Posthumus Leonatus, whom Cymbeline banishes from the kingdom. Posthumus goes to Rome, where he meets a cynical gentleman named Iachimo, who believes no woman can be faithful to her husband and claims he can go to England and come back with proof he has slept with Imogen. Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s second wife, Imogen’s evil stepmother, convinces Cymbeline not to pay tribute to Rome, thus bringing the two countries to war, and keeps urging her own son Cloten to woo Imogen as she plots to win the crown.

Echoes of “King Lear” and “Othello” swirl through the action and, when Imogen dons male attire to escape the court, of “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It”. As if to emphasize theme of storytelling, director David Latham creates a larger role for the actor playing the First Gentleman. The text of the play begins with a typical conversation between a First and Second Gentleman to tell us the background to the story. Latham has omitted the Second Gentleman, thus transforming the First Gentleman into a kind of narrator or author-figure, like Gower in “Pericles”. Latham then places him on stage through much of the action as if he were the author watching his work unfold. In the guises of Jupiter and later the Soothsayer, his appearance suggests direct authorial intervention.

To support this, designer Victoria Wallace has created an allegorical tapestry visible through the action that depicts the cryptic message Jupiter gives Posthumus that explains how the work will end. Latham’s and Wallace’s approach to the work highlights its sophistication as a narrative about narratives and makes a good case that “Cymbeline” does not deserve its neglect.

If only Latham’s sophisticated approach were matched by the acting, this “Cymbeline” would be a major triumph. Unfortunately, while the older generation of actors dig deep into the text, the younger generation seem unable sometimes even to communicate its surface meaning.

James Blendick as Cymbeline, Martha Henry as his Queen and Bernard Hopkins as Posthumus servant Pisanio all give especially fine performances. Blendick’s wrath at Imogen easily reminds us of Lear’s against Cordelia and the deep emotion he conjures up in the final scene of revelations and reconciliations is the greatest single factor in giving the whole production a sense of emotional depth. Henry seems to revel in the chance to play a character who is wholly evil, masking her villainy under smiles and caresses. She creates the kind of character you love to hate with such imaginative detail, you wish Shakespeare had managed to include her in the second half of the play. Hopkins is excellent as the faithful servant who serve as our emotional touchstone through the action. The clarity of his delivery makes up for the sometimes garbled delivery of his juniors and helps in large measure in making the story clear. In smaller roles Stephen Russell is the crusty “mountaineer” Belarius and Ian Deakin is Cornelius, a good doctor who has seen through the Queen’s deception.

The younger generation suffers by comparison with these actors by often failing to rise to the challenges of their roles. Claire Jullien is fine when Imogen is called on to be plucky or care-worn, but can’t summon the great emotion required when she parts from and is later reunited with Posthumus or when she is threatened with death from an old friend. Dan Chameroy is a well-spoken Posthumus but can’t clearly portray his character’s bafflement when confronted with Iachimo’s proofs of Imogen’s faithlessness. Dion Johnstone plays Iachimo as merely a carefree gambler not the embodiment of evil he is supposed to be. In 1986 Colm Feore’s appearance in the bedroom scene of Act 2 was absolutely chilling, whereas Johnstone seems only a prankster. There is more humour to be found in the character of Cloten than Ron Kennell brings out. Stephen Gartner and Gordon S. Miller are fine as Guiderius and Aviragus as long they are enthusiastic youths, but they fail utterly to bring any feeling to their great lament for the dead (and best-known lines of the play), “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun.” Kyle Blair speaks clearly enough as the First Gentleman/Narrator and Soothsayer but hardly conjures up a sense of majesty as Jupiter.

Victoria Wallace’s costumes suggest the medieval period through cloaks and shawls without actually being period costumes. Given that the set is usually bare in this production, Michael J. Whitfield’s lighting is instrumental in creating atmosphere and, more than the acting, makes the scene of ghosts and Jupiter’s appearance magical.

Even if the acting is not of a uniformly high calibre, Latham’s production makes clear that “Cymbeline” is an intriguing commentary on Shakespeare’s other works as well as a fascinating play in its own right. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 18 years to enjoys its riches.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Tinker’s Wedding

by J.M. Synge, directed by Micheline Chevrier
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 3-September 5, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"McLellan Makes This Wedding Sing"

The Shaw Festival’s first lunchtime play of the season is a seldom-performed one-act comedy by John Millington Synge, author of that masterpiece of Irish drama “The Playboy of the Western World” seen at the Shaw in 1996. While the play deals with the larger issue of the conflict of nature and civilization, the most immediate impression it makes is as a rather rude anti-clerical satire.

The show’s chief joy is character of Mary Byrne, one of many strong, vital women who inhabit Irish drama. Mary is the mother of the itinerant tinker Michael whose wife in all but name is Sarah Casey. Sarah wants the priest of the nearby village to marry her and Michael so they will be respectable, but the priest wants to charge them a fee for this higher than they can afford. Mary sees no need for her son to married, especially if is costs money. Thereupon a physical and verbal battle ensues between the “pagan” tinkers and the priest on the value, if any, of religion and the priesthood to common people at all.

Nora McLellan’s performance as Mary is hilarious and unforgettable. Mary is inebriated throughout the show and McLellan, made-up to look like a flea-infested hag, wonderfully catches all of Mary’s varying states of consciousness from blissful exuberance to sudden meanness, sodden wiliness and uncontrolled rage. She’s like a female Falstaff without the pretence to grandeur.

William Vickers plays her nemesis the priest. Smug, sanctimonious and bigoted, he represents the clergy as its worst, wearing his fine vestments as armour and using his words as weapons, futile though they are again a force of nature like Mary Byrne. David Leyshon plays Michael as a sullen man who keeps to himself but has an inner anger that can suddenly burst out when prodded. As Sarah Casey, Trish Lindstrom, looking wild and animal-like, starts out rather too big, leaving her little room for the larger emotional scenes later on.

Micheline Chevrier has directed the piece with an admirable sense of rising tension that explodes into the all-out brawl at the end. Deeter Schurig has created costumes for the tinkers that look so lived-in that you can easily imagine they smell as bad as the priest says they do. Schurig’s set design suggests both the naturalistic and symbolic at once. In a nice touch a hanging bowl we might have thought represented the moon is taken down and revealed as merely a bowl, though it is Sarah Casey, so affected by the moon, who takes it down. Peter Debreceni’s dim light settings create an atmosphere both natural and mysterious.

Synge’s play was published in 1907 but not performed at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre until 1971 because of its controversial priest-baiting. We can see it now as a tightly written exploration of themes Synge would later develop in greater detail elsewhere but anchored by a great central character. With Nora McLellan as that character you won’t want to miss it.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Waiting for the Parade

by John Murrell, directed by Linda Moore
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
June 19-October 9, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"A Slight Play Well Acted"

The Shaw Festival’s expanded mandate now allows it to produce not only plays written during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950) but also modern plays set during that period. Last year and this new Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell has used the new mandate to add more Canadian content to the Festival with two Canadian plays each year. One unintended but unavoidable effect it that one tends to compare the new plays with those of the period and not always to the advantage of the Canadian plays no matter how highly acclaimed they might once have been. Last year some plays like Sharon Pollack’s “Blood Relations” withstand the comparison. Others, like Michel Marc Bouchard’s “The Coronation Voyage” look weak, simplistic and melodramatic compared with “Misalliance” or Three Sisters” with which it played in repertory on the Festival stage.

John Murrell’s 1977 Chalmers Award-winning play “Waiting for the Parade” falls into the second category. It’s a slight but well-crafted work about five women in Calgary waiting from 1939 to 1945 for their men to return after World War II and shows their varied responses to the stress of loneliness and uncertainty. Sadly, it comes off as relentlessly middle-brow, always happy to spell out rather than imply what it means. The play doesn’t really escape the banality it describes.

One only has to think of it in comparison with J.M. Barrie’s “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals” from 1917 that played at the Royal George in 2002 to realize how much more Barrie accomplished in a play on the same theme. In half the time as Murrell’s, Barrie’s play covers the same range of responses more deftly and achieves a greater emotional impact and a more piquant sense of irony. Murrell’s mixture of some laughs, some sadness, some songs, some dances and lots of period detail seems afraid to explore fully the implications of the topics he raises with characters about as idealized as Barrie’s. Murrell’s pattern of showing the women alternately being brave and breaking down until they come to know themselves better seems trite. After all, there are people who never come to know themselves and who never bond with others. But they don’t happen to live world of Murrell’s play that tries rather too hard to show its characters in a positive light.

The primary reason to see “Waiting for the Parade” is the excellent, finely detailed performances of the cast. All five actors bring out more complexity in their roles than the one or two character traits Murrell gives them. Kelli Fox gives a typically strong performance as Catherine, a factory worker whose loneliness tempts her into an affair while her husband is away. She is vibrant and unapologetic about her needs. Fox emphasizes her fierce love of life. Donna Belleville plays Margaret, a dour woman with strict, old-fashioned ideas, whose world is turned upside-down by absence to two sons and the new attitudes of those around her. Many will recognize people they know in Belleville’s highly realistic portrayal.

Jenny L. Wright is Eve, a movie-loving schoolteacher whose husband is too old to go to war. Of the five she is the most upset by the daily news and comes to rebel against a cause that demands so much slaughter. Unfortunately, Murrell trivializes her rebellion by emphasizing her obsession for movie stars involved in the conflict. Laurie Paton displays a passion barely held in check as Marta, the daughter of German immigrants, whose father has been interned as an “enemy sympathizer”. The parallel between this and the present Bush administration’s internment of “enemy combatants” makes the play uncannily relevant. It's too bad then that Murrell uses the incident primarily as a means of ridding Marta of her father-worship and increasing her awareness of her Canadian identity. Helen Taylor plays the role of Janet, an officious do-gooder and event-organizer with spot-on accuracy. She radiates smugness and a self-pride that withstands the worse insults the others give her. Yet, rather than having Janet remain a parody of patriotism and home-front spirit, Murrell is compelled to explain her efforts with a clichéd personal tragedy to make sure that all five women elicit our sympathy by triumphing in adversity.

Linda Moore’s direction is efficient more than imaginative and allows the action to meander rather than injecting it with a strong forward momentum. William Schmuck’s outline of a set provides its own commentary on the action by placing a bed in the highest position on stage. His period costumes are delightfully detailed. Andrea Lundy’s lighting is essential in establishing mood and in distinguishing characters in monologue from characters in “real” interaction.

It’s part of growing up to realize that some things once considered masterpieces are really just good rather than great. John Murrell’s “Waiting for the Parade” turns out to be not so much a trenchant statement about war or feminism as a fine vehicle for the talents of five female actors. That’s how it comes across in the Shaw production and that alone is what makes it worth seeing.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde, directed by Christopher Newton
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 7-December 4, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The Importance of Being Funny"

Until now the Shaw Festival has never produced Oscar Wilde’s most famous play. It has produced four other Wildes but never “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Directed by former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton in the jewel-box setting of the Royal George Theatre and with a cast attuned to so many other plays of the period, this “Earnest” would seem on spec to have credentials about as perfect as one could hope for in Canada. Yet, something has gone terribly wrong when more than half of its humour of this pinnacle of scintillating comedy has gone missing.

Newton’s production gives the bizarre impression that the entire cast is having an off day. How could Newton, who made such hits of such obscure plays as St. John Hankin’s “The Return of the Prodigal”, fail to make one of the greatest comedies in English work on stage? The characters are lacklustre. Everyone’s timing is off, the rhythm of scene after scene is misjudged and the work has not been paced properly to build to a climax. Classic lines are thrown away one after the other, delivered so rapidly they don’t register or evoke mirth.

My guess is that Newton has been tripped up by his own intelligence. He has decided to approach “Earnest” as if it were not the familiar play it is. After all, lines we now consider classic would not have been so at the work’s premiere in 1895. He seems to have taken the same approach to Wilde as he would to Shaw where so much of the difficulty is in making Shaw’s complex prose seem natural and his talking heads seem like real people. He is keen in creating personalities for Wilde’s characters. Gwendolen does seem like an uptight city girl, Cecily like a healthy lass brought up in the country. From Gwendolen’s brusque behaviour in Act 2, Newton makes clear that she will in time turn into her mother as has been predicted. People don’t naturally speak in Wildean epigrams, so Newton does not have them do so.

The problem is that treating “Earnest” as a realistic comedy is like treating a Fabergé egg as a dairy product. The play is consciously artificial and the characters are no more realistic than the satirical types in the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas that so heavily influence the plot. The style Newton has cultivated in the actors simply doesn’t match the content. As Gwendolen says in Act 3, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” Later, Lady Bracknell says that we live “in an age of surfaces”. Wilde satirizes the superficiality of his contemporaries by making his characters as superficial as possible.

Given this wrong-headed directorial approach, some actors fare better than others. Evan Buliung as an awkward but sincere Worthing and Fiona Byrne as a flighty Gwendolen with a core of steel are best able to make their characters seem realistic while still mining the full humour of phrase and situation that Wilde has provided. Close to their approach is Bernard Behrens as an amorous Reverend Chasuble.

On the other hand, David Leyshon’s Algernon comes off more as a pompous twit than a cynical prankster and he seems to throw away more good lines any of the others. Goldie Semple’s Lady Bracknell is severe but hardly the frightening “gorgon” as she is described. Brigitte Robinson never seems prudish enough to bring out the full humour in Miss Prism. Diana Donnelly’s robust Cecily seems far too commonsensical to be the unbridled fantasist Wilde portrays.

The abstraction of Judith Bowden’s sets suits the artificiality of the play, but following Newton’s lead, her costumes aim for prettiness and historical accuracy, even for Lady Bracknell, rather than the satirical exaggeration they invite. Similarly, Jeff Logue’s lighting confines itself to naturalistic effects.

Those who have never seen the play before will probably still enjoy the Shaw production. Anyone, however, who has seen Robin Phillips’ famous Stratford production of 1975 (revived in 1976 and 1979) with William Hutt as Lady Bracknell or Derek Goldby’s 1990 CanStage production with Simon Bradbury and Brent Carver as Algernon and Jack, will know how riotous funny “Earnest” can be. As it is the Shaw’s production of Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” is only fitfully amusing and a disappointing conclusion to its series Wilde’s plays.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Pal Joey

by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, directed by Alisa Palmer
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 28-October 30, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Bewitched, Not Bothered or Bewildered"

Richard Rodgers’ collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein II are so familiar--“South Pacific”, “Carousel”, “The King and I”, “The Sound of Music”--it is good to see a major theatre company like the Shaw Festival revive one of Rodgers’ ventures with his regular pre-Hammerstein collaborator, Lorenz Hart. The Shaw Festival gives “Pal Joey” (1940), their final work together, a super production with a top-notch cast that helps sail over the holes in the plot.

“Pal Joey” is important in the history of the American musical because of its deviations from the genre’s standard form. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story where getting into show business does not solve the title character’s problems. It is not a boy-gets-girl love story but is rather about an older woman who snares a younger man and then drops him when he proves inconvenient. Years before Sondheim it is a musical with no truly likeable characters. And, as Andrea Most’s useful programme note makes clear, it is a musical that points to the aspects of deception and wish-fulfillment in musical theatre more than celebrating the genre.

Add to this Rodgers’ highly varied score and Hart’s naughtily witty lyrics and you have a fascinating musical. The inescapable problem, however, is the book by John O’Hara. Three-fourths of the story move along well. We meet inveterate liar and womanizer Joey Evans, a New Yorker trying to make a new start in Chicago as a nightclub emcee. His chutzpah attracts the attention of wealthy, married society queen Vera Simpson, who takes Joey on as her lover and sets him up in his own club. Joey settles in with her despite having met Linda English, a nice but naïve “good” girl who likes him. The show would be much more satisfying if O’Hara had allowed the internal dynamics of this triangle to work itself out on its own. Unfortunately, he feels it necessary to introduce a con-man, Ludlow Lowell, who convinces Joey he needs him as his agent. That Joey falls for this when he already has his own club and a patron makes no sense. Then with aid of chorus girl Gladys Bumps, who has previously shown no malice, Lowell arranges a complex three-way blackmail scheme. The fact that it fails as soon as it’s set in motion makes one wonder why O’Hara thought the plot device a good idea.

There’s no way to smooth over this flurry of unnecessary plot developments except by presenting the show with as much verve as possible. And that’s exactly what the Shaw Festival cast does. Adam Brazier, best known as the creator of the hunky love-interest Sky in the Toronto “Mamma Mia!”, is an ideal choice as Joey. His good looks and fine voice make Joey believable as someone who has coasted through life on his charm. Brazier also captures an underlying innocence in this seemingly amoral character, essential if the audience is to have any interest in him or his story.

Laurie Paton is smashing as Vera Simpson. Her powerful, seductive voice with looks to match make one wonder why she has appeared in so few musicals. The lucky few who saw her as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” at the Grand Theatre in 1998, are in for an even bigger treat here. She delivers the show’s biggest hit, “Bewitched” with power and nuance, fully alive to the mixture of pleasure and irony of Vera’s situation. As Vera should, Paton commands the stage whenever she appears.

In contrast, Shannon McCaig goes perhaps too far in making Linda meek and mousy. Given her clear voice and the passion she brings to the show’s other well-known hit “I Could Write a Book”, she should show us earlier on that Linda is as plucky as she is humble. Neil Barclay does his best to make the unbelievable character of Ludlow Lowell work on stage. He’s so funny and slick you almost forget he is the villain of the piece. Jenny L. Wright creates such a positive impression as the lead chorus girl Gladys Bumps, it’s very hard to credit her character’s sudden turn to crime. Wright’s all-out rendition of “That Terrible Rainbow” is the first number of the evening to bring down the house.

In smaller roles Patty Jamieson does a spectacular turn as the gossip columnist Melba Snyder, who without motivation, launches into hilarious strip-tease song “Zip”. Mark Harapiak is a hoot as the vapid tenor Louis in the send-up of 1930s production numbers, “The Flower Garden of My Heart”. Lorne Kennedy is suitably tough but wise as the club-owner Mike Spears.

Alisa Palmer’s direction is smart and unfussy and effortless conjures up realistic interactions among the characters. Her attempt to animate the overture on stage doesn’t work and she finds no way to make the Lowell plot less artificial. But she wisely reinstates Joey’s final song “I’m Talking to My Pal”, cut during the Boston tryout, that puts the emphasis back on Joey who has so little to sing in Act 2. To have the curtain fall on Joey gazing at the handkerchief he lent Linda creates a nice sense of ambiguity at the close.

William Schmuck’s sets are both simple and clever and perfectly complemented by Andrea Lundy’s inventive lighting. His everyday costumes get the period just right and his gowns for Vera make Paton look fabulous. Yet he reserves his greatest flights of imagination for the many nightclub set-pieces. The silver lamé tunics and head-dresses, especially Wright’s, for “That Terrible Rainbow” seems straight from a Busby Berkeley musical. He outdoes himself later with the hilariously over-the-top flower outfits complete with trellises for “The Flower Garden of My Heart”. And his multiple breakaway costume for Jamieson in “Zip” is a masterpiece in itself.

Amy Wright’s choreography also gets the period right with a frothy mix of showdancing, ballroom and tap that turn lesser numbers like “Happy Hunting Horn”, featuring the acrobatic Sam Strasfeld, and “Do It the Hard Way“ into high-energy showstoppers.

Palmer’s direction doesn’t bring the show to that magic state of feeling like more than a sum of its parts, but those parts are so good that theatre-goers will be bowled over by the display of talent on stage. Let’s hope the Shaw delves into more from Rodgers and Hart in the future.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome


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