Stage Door Reviews of
Royal Alexandra Theatre 1996/97 productions

Stage Door Reviews by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)


Jane Eyre
inspired by Charlotte Brontë, directed by John Caird

The Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
November 1996 to January 1997

A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
(Your reviews and comments are also welcome.Write us today! Please?)

 

Jane Eyre, a great evening that ultimately fails to score

What a month December has been! Two original large budget musicals begin in Toronto prior to opening on Broadway in the new year. The productions of the $11-million Ragtime and $6-million Jane Eyre have caused a media sensation spanning two continents and are proof positive of Toronto’s status as the third largest theatre market in the world. Both productions, in addition to those others already playing, will vie for your ticket dollar. An informed choice will avoid costly mistakes.
-----A musical is ultimately judged a success or failure on one factor—the music itself. The opening of Jane Eyre, the new Charlotte Brontë-inspired production now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, was delayed ten days to cut and fine tune the over-long production. This work is a formula musical in the style of Les Misérables, but unlike Les Miz, there is simply not enough good music in these songs and recitatives to sustain the story for a still-too-long three hours. Insipid and unhummable, Paul Gordon’s music is given some weighty redemption by orchestrator Larry Hochman. And John Caird’s direction coupled with the renowned John Napier’s magnificent design does offer some reward. However, a long term success it will not be, though one wouldn’t believe it judging by the standing ovation at the packed Monday night performance. One side note: Be on time. To ensure the curtain before 11 p.m. (and the overtime that actors and crew begin to earn after three hours), the music starts promptly at 8:01 (there is no overture, just a sung prologue), and even the single intermission seems shortened!
-----Caird invites you into Eyre’s turn-of-the-century era with some inventive techniques. Throughout the production, the cast, speaking as Jane, narrate her story from her birth until her reunification with Rochester. As a young orphan, Jane goes to live with her only known relative, Mrs Reed. She is unwelcome, cruelly treated and sent to Lowood, a bleak charity school, until she comes of age and offers her services at Thornfield Hall as a governess to Adele Varennes, young ward of the master of Thornfield, Edward Rochester. Jane and Rochester are quickly drawn to each other, however she begins to suspect that the house and its master harbour a dark secret. Jane falls in love with Rochester but learns he is to marry local socialite Blanche Ingram, and is devastated by the news. (Do we hear strains of "The hills are alive, with the Sound of Music" in the background? Alas, no, we do not.)
-----Act Two begins with Jane summoned from Thornfield to the bedside of the dying Mrs Reed where she learns that she has an uncle, John Eyre, who had been trying to find her. Jane returns to Thornfield to discover that the marriage of Rochester and Blanche Ingram has been set aside. Rochester declares his love for Jane and asks her to marry him. Her happiness is shattered on their wedding day when it is revealed that Rochester is already married to Bertha Mason, a hopeless lunatic locked in the attic of Thornfield. Jane abandons Thornfield in dismay. Days later, she is rescued, sick and starving, on the Yorkshire moors, by a young pastor, St John Rivers, and his sisters. As the Rivers family nurses Jane back to health. They inform Jane that she is heiress to the estate of her uncle John. Jane hears the voice of Rochester, calling her name on the wind. Fearing that something dreadful has happened, Jane hurries back to Thornfield. She finds the house a charred ruin, destroyed in a fire set by Bertha. Bertha has died in the blaze and Rochester, in attempting to rescue her, has been blinded. The two are re-united, never to part again.
-----This huge and triumphant story of love, renewal, redemption and hope requires proven talents to successfully transfer it to the stage. Director Caird is responsible for the book and additional lyrics, and what eloquent words he and Gordon have composed. If only the music could have given them life and done them justice. Instead of the bland musical recitatives, the words could have been spoken, thus strengthening the musical numbers that soon became boring and repetitive.
-----Set designer John Napier has stolen from himself, allowable considering this prodigious talent created the sets for Cats, Les Miz, and Sunset Blvd. The scrim with Jane Eyre images projected from front and back define the Les Miz-type formula before the show has even started. The magnificent Escheresque set of returning staircases reminiscent of Gothic manor houses and Napier’s devices are used to full effect. Characters move effortlessly and climatic scenes are, indeed, climactic but unfortunately not emotionally overwhelming. The set is awash in Chris Parry’s truly inspired lighting while Andreane Neofitou’s costumes evoke the grandeur of the era, save for Jane’s plain and colourless governess garb.
-----Design, story and cast are three successful features that define this production of Jane Eyre. Marla Shaffel’s wonderfully pure mezzo-soprano voice is in perfect counterpoint to her phenomenal acting. This Juilliard-trained actor becomes Jane Eyre, quickly winning audience sympathy for her character. The same cannot be said for Anthony Crivello who, as love interest Edward Rochester, paints a one dimensional portrait of the anti-hero and whose singing voice soars beautifully in one song, but yells in another. Cranking the volume does not turn banality into emotion. Shaffel’s delivery of the last word in the final act, "love," is an example of how it should be done as she crescendos with raw but controlled power, capping the evening with one of the few moments of sincere emotion, proving that she can do better than this music will allow.
-----Continuing in the vogue of the mega musicals, Mary Stout’s role of house mistress, Mrs Fairfax, is introduced as the inevitable comic relief, but succeeds only in ending boredom. Two of her three songs are amusingly entertaining and showcase her considerable talents, but the other actually irritates.
-----Several second tier company members are noteworthy for their contributions in the inventive surrealistic scenes. Brooks Almy as Mrs Reed, Sara Farb as Young Jane and Angela Lockett as Helen Burns soar during the death of Mrs Reed. Lockett sings Jane Eyre’s one musical highlight, the song Forgiveness, and this is reprised (as is everything) several times during the story. Other standout cast members are Don Richard as Lofield’s sanctimonious Lofield headmaster Mr Brocklehurst, Nell Balaban as sweet teacher Miss Temple, opera star Elizabeth DeGrazia as Blanche Ingram, and HCP’s own Annie, Sharai-Ann Ross-Laney.
-----We wanted to like Jane Eyre, and it does have many undeniably pleasing moments in its story, design, and acting, but the music flails and fails and ultimately encumbers the play.
-----For tickets, call 1-800-461-3333.

Do you have a review or opinion to share?
Send us your reviews or stories about theatre in SWOntario, and we'll see they get posted. 

And speaking of sharing, here's a comment we received from You:

I saw Jane Eyre at the Royal Alex on New Year's Eve. It was fantastic!!! I loved it, but Les Mis is still the best! The only problem is that they have not, as of yet, recorded a soundtrack. This disappoints me because I can no longer hum the great musical score! I forget it! Apparently they are waiting until it opens on Broadway, but what about us?!?
- "K"

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The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams, directed by Neil Munro
The Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
March 25 to May 3, 1997

A Stage Door Review by Jim Lingerfelt and Roger Kershaw
Your reviews and comments are also welcome.Write us today! Please?

 

This Menagerie lacks animal magnetism

His first dramatic success, Tennessee Williams' autobiographical memory play, The Glass Menagerie, opened in 1945 and has remained his signature piece. The region's third mounting this season of the Wingfield/Williams family drama now on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, proves that he who waits, loses out. Real-life mother and son celebrities, Shirley Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland, play Tennessee Williams' immortal mother and son, assisted by Kathryn Greenwood and David Storch. Inviting comparison with the two previous southern Ontario productions, this fragile Menagerie has the star power but lacks the emotional forces to supplant Diana Leblanc's benchmark production at Tarragon. As we said in our Tarragon review, "This dream team's collective effort is doubtless the production to see this season." Now that we have come from the Royal Alex where we saw Neil Munro's touring co-production with the National Arts Centre, our opinion still stands.

Tangled in a web of memory and fantasy, the play tells the story of Amanda Wingfield, a faded Southern belle whom Tolstoy described as "clinging frantically to another time and place," reliving her own youth as she dreams of a better life for her children: her daughter Laura, painfully shy and crippled by a childhood illness, as fragile as the glass animals in her cherished collection; and her son Tom, "a poet who worked in a warehouse," struggling to escape the suffocating bonds of his family and a dead-end job. When Tom invites a friend over for supper, the prospect of a "gentleman caller" gives Amanda new hope for Laura's future.

Shirley Douglas, one of Canada's foremost actresses, is currently starring as May Bailey in the hit CBC TV series Wind At My Back. Unfortunately, Douglas plays Amanda as Big Mama from the wrong Williams play, eliciting no sympathy for her desperate situation. This is a poignant drama, but Munro seems to have directed Douglas to go for the laughs. An example is Amanda's magazine renewal telephone solicitations, the finale of which should have been a redemptive cry but instead was a hearty laugh.

Kiefer Sutherland, the son of Shirley Douglas and actor Donald Sutherland, has made his name largely in film, from his first major role in The Bay Boy (1984) through some 30 movies including such popular and critical successes as Flatliners, A Few Good Men, and Stand By Me. Together, Douglas and Sutherland promise a unique chemistry of mother and son that should make this an exceptional production. While there are a few good moments, we are more often disappointed. What should have been a fiery encounter between them in the first act, leaving the audience squirming in their seats, was little more than a mild exchange of cross words. One wonders if Kiefer is scared to act up in front of Mommy?

While Sutherland's performance lacks the single-minded inner turmoil necessary for this role, Kathryn Greenwood's Laura lacks the simple-minded waif appeal we expect. Coincidentally, Ms Greenwood and Shirley Douglas also portray daughter and mother (Grace and May Bailey) in Wind At My Back. David Storch comes to The Glass Menagerie directly from his role as Joe Pitt in the hit run of Angels in America at Toronto's Canadian Stage Company. As the "Gentleman Caller," he tries to encourage Laura to shed her inferiority complex with self-help motivational prattle, a kiss and a dance, but ultimately destroys her when he admits to being engaged to another.

A technical trio of Shaw Festival veterans is responsible for set, lighting and direction. Cameron Porteous' piston-powered Alice-in-Wonderland set, while technically and visually ingenious, was entirely inappropriate to the claustrophobic "two-by-four situation" of the play. One wonders if Porteous read the script at all. "One crack and the key falls through it," curses Tom as his fumbled key tinkles through an open grate(?!). The second act opens in this Depression-era apartment extravagantly redecorated didn't Williams' script simply call for a new antimacassar, lamp and rug? Fresh from lighting The Grand Theatre's production of the same play, the extraordinarily talented Kevin Lamotte casts his brilliance on this version. An example of his genius: Laura's backward retreat from dawn's advancing sunbeams. One complaint: the final scene, when Tom's spectral walk through the darkened apartment, carrying a flashlight, looks more like a burglar than a narrator. Why didn't director Neil Munro allow Lamotte to do his magic here?

Costumes, both representative of the 1940s and of the lost era of Amanda's debutante days, are designed by François Barbeau, recipient of a 1996 Governor General's Award.

Money, power, international authority and celebrity status do not guarantee the best results. For the paragon, see Tarragon, a triumph of design, direction and acting.

Meanwhile the Royal version runs from March 25 until May 3, Monday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $75. Performances at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto. Tickets are now available in person at the theatre box office or by calling TicketKing at (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

Do you have a review or opinion to share?
Send us your reviews or stories about theatre in SWOntario, and we'll see they get posted.

Speaking of which, here's what You are saying:
I recently saw both Toronto productions of The Glass Menagerie. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. The Tarragon production with Martha Henry was shattering, surely what the playwright intended? Kiefer and mom Shirley never quite get into top gear.
Keep up the good work.
Sincerely,
Mrs S. Hare
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Jolson, The Musical
Adapted by Francis Essex and Rob Bettinson
The Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
June to October, 1997

A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
(Your reviews and comments are also welcome.Write us today! Please?)

 

Run a million miles to Jolson
because "You ain't seen nothin' yet"

When Jolson, The Musical opened in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre June 17 it had garnered an Olivier Award-winning London pedigree and unanimous critical acclaim. We echo the universal opinion of this extraordinary show. Stupendously entertaining, Jolson stars British musical theatre sensation Brian Conley who is Al Jolson. So realistic is the interpretation (warts and all) that from the time the curtain rises until the instant and thunderous standing ovation you are transported back to Broadway of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. The effect is incredible. Great acting, wonderful music, inventive sets, and glitzy costumes...this show about "The World's Greatest Entertainer" has it all.

Al Jolson's legendary rags to riches story has been chronicled on film, TV and record. He was one of the biggest box office draws this century and, ironically, visited the Royal Alex eight times in his career. Born Asa Yoelson in 1897 to Lithuanian immigrant parents, he ran away from home in New York at age eleven to seek his fortune in show business, and died aged 50 while entertaining U.S. troops during the Korean War. His abrasive and egomaniacal personality didn't win him many friends (he tells yet-to-be discovered composer George Gershwin "Don't give up your day job"), but his audiences loved him and he lived for the adulation of his fans.

Jolson is a nostalgia-filled extravaganza featuring the 42 original London cast, including star Brian Conley. Adapted by Francis Essex and Rob Bettinson from a biography by Michael Freedland, and mounted by producer Paul Elliott, director Rob Bettinson and arranger and musical supervisor Paul Jury - the same team behind the blockbuster Buddy. Music is the focus of Jolson and it's there aplenty, but the show is enjoyable without a love of his music or style. Jolson's adult life, his marriages, and his triumphs are presented in words and song climaxing in a thrillingly real reenactment of his Radio City Music Hall shows. Hummable numbers such as I'm Sitting on Top of the World, Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goodbye, Swanee, California Here I Come, I Only Have Eyes for You, Baby Face, Sonny Boy, Carolina in the Morning and of course, My Mammy are all presented.

Earlier numbers are done in blackface, about which director Bettison has said "It isn't really an issue. It's historical fact...You've got to have it." He is absolutely right is his decision. Racist insult or theatrical invention, the device was one of Jolson's trademarks and no biography would be complete without it.

We are Jolson's audience in this show, a clever device allowing Conley to interact with us, and we with him, joining him in song and kibitz, thoroughly enchanted just as audiences must have been 60 years ago. Characters cry out from the back of the Royal Alex, while cast members appear in the aisles and loges to help tell the story, and keep the audience involved. The main stage is used as Jolson's centrestage and backstage and the effect is magical. Designer Robert Jones and Lighting Designer Jenny Cane construct fabulous scenes in a gilded restaurant, huge star-spangled (how many stars on those flags?) golden eagle, penthouse apartment, a Second World War GI concert backstage, and the art deco stage of Radio City, that blend together effortlessly to create a slick package. Combine these design elements with Tudor Davies's effective choreography and you have an unbeatable show.

Jolson details the star's turbulent marriages, concentrating on his relationship with tap dancing sensation Ruby Keeler (Sally Ann Triplett), whom he married in 1928. Triplett, who possesses a marvelous voice (I'm Just Wild about Harry) and tap talent provides strong support to Conley. Jolson confidante and agent, Louis Epstein is wonderfully played by British TV star John Bennett. Other cast members include John Conroy as Frankie Holmes, Jolson's dresser.

Jolson recreates a glamorous era in show business through the life and times of one of the brightest stars Broadway ever knew, and the songs he made world-famous. It delivers a memorable toe-tapping time. Don't miss it! Jolson: The Musical plays at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, in Toronto, until September, 1997. Performances are Monday to Saturday at 8:00 pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 pm. Tickets ($25 - $89) available in person at The Royal Alex Box Office or by calling TicketKing at (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333. HELD OVER TILL OCTOBER 25, 1997

Do you have a review or opinion to share?
Send us your reviews or stories about theatre in SWOntario, and we'll see they get posted.

Speaking of which: Here's some of You talking back to StageDoor:

My husband and I think that this show is one of the best we have seen. We really enjoyed it and plan on seeing it again before it leaves.
-- Joyce G.

Having just arrived back from a vacation in London, my husband and I both agree that this was one of the best mplays we've seen in a long time. The three hours just flew by so mesmurized were we by the entire musical.
-- Y.N.H.

It's fabulous..and Brian Conley is amazing... Saw it once, but going again...
-- D. White

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