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Find entertainment in singing and clowning 

Yes, it's our leading classical theater company, but the openings at Stratford Festival also include lighter fare: two major musicals, an updated Shakespeare comedy, and a silly sex farce.

          Michael Stewart & Jerry Herman's Hello Dolly stars Lucy Peacock and Peter Donaldson, last year's Lady Macbeth and Timon of Athens, in a brassy comic musical. Peacock's small voice is barely adequate, but she brings glamour and charm to matchmaker Dolly Levi. Dolly's interfering manipulations actually become appealing behavior, and Peacock delivers Dolly's delicious addresses to her late husband affectingly.

          Donaldson's bossy, penny-pinching merchant Horace Vandergelder is so well sung and invested with wry comic personality that what can be a stereotype emerges as a genuine character who finally makes the whole happy ending work.

          Unlike their previous Stratford successes, director Susan H. Schulman's and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld's work is disappointing. Schulman directs on autopilot, giving several attractive performers little else to do but play the characters' obvious outlines. Laird Mackintosh, who demonstrated charisma and a gorgeous voice in three previous Stratford musicals, unaccountably plays the comic-romantic lead Cornelius Hackl mechanically, like a robotic chorus boy. The waiters all do split-leaps and turns showily, but Lichtefeld's cliche choreography is without character or dramatic purpose.

          Patrick Clark's designs are bright and colorful; Kevin Fraser's lighting lends drama where the direction doesn't; and Berthold Carriere's musical direction makes the music sound better than it is. The cast of versatile actors performs very well indeed. It's a fun show, but not one of Stratford's best.

          I've a reversed reaction to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods at Stratford. I understand the show's appeal but don't much like it, especially Act 2, which I think tiresome. But those who love this musical will be amazed at how originally director Peter Hinton and designer Dany Lyne have reconceived it visually and how engagingly the cast presents it. I admit I got caught up in it much of the time.

          Peter Donaldson is authoritative as the Narrator and Mysterious Man. Dayna Tekatch is a nervously animated Cinderella, Kyle Blair is a fairly frantic Jack (of beanstalk fame), and Bruce Dow (unnoticeable as Stanley in Dolly) steals his scenes as the Baker. Here they all show up as memorable characters who move well and sing wonderfully. So do virtually all the cast, most notably Susan Gilmour as the Witch, Amy Walsh as Rapunzel, and Thom Allison as both Cinderella's Prince and Red Ridinghood's Wolf.

          Lyne's bizarre decor includes huge blood-red and black leaves overhead, one tall red leaf-shaped thing, and a white gown for Rapunzel whose skirt of maybe 14 feet is her tower, which the witch --- who looks like a griffin made of green, red, and gold vegetables --- climbs up, holding onto Rapunzel's blonde hair (I'd say 18 to 20 feet long). Grungy realism it's not, but it keeps you watching. Robert Thomson's lighting is stunning. Berthold Carriere's musical direction is ideal, as always.

          Antoni Cimolino's revival of Shakespeare's As You Like It is practically a musical. The comedy is full of songs, and Cimolino had the inspired idea to ask Canadian superstars Barenaked Ladies to compose and arrange music for them. Cimolino matches the Ladies' folksy musical style with designs set in 1960s style for the rebellious outcasts in the Forest of Arden.

          Since the funky, free-flowing costumes, clear plastic umbrellas overhead for the forest, and plastic ladders serving as trees and as palace furniture are all created by Santo Loquasto, a master of gorgeous designs, their simplicity and lack of showy opulence must be intentional. But I miss elegant show-off trappings for the finale's weddings. The comedy ends with multiple weddings because it is all about coupling, love, and sexual role-playing.

          Rosalind, originally played by a boy in Shakespeare's theater, is a girl who pretends to be a boy pretending to be a girl; and the actor has to display all those changing levels of role-playing. Unfortunately, this beautifully wrought production has a far too little-girlish Rosalind, whose shrieks, squeals, and chirps have nothing to do with the poetic music of her dialogue. Otherwise, the comedy is a well-cast treat of accomplished actors performing with great skill and appeal.

          Noel Coward's Fallen Angels is directed by Brian Bedford, a master actor, director, and friend of Coward's and an authority on Coward's style. It is designed by Susan Benson and lit by Michael J. Whitfield; they are perhaps my favorite set and costume designer and lighting designer at Stratford. And its cast includes Seanna McKenna, Keith Dinicol, Joyce Campion, and Lucy Peacock, all familiar stars at Stratford. So I thought I knew what to expect: a very sophisticated comedy of manners played with suave comic stylishness in a great-looking production.

          Well, it's a really silly play, thin and without substance. Two overprivileged English wives hear that a Frenchman they each had a fling with before marrying is coming to visit. They fantasize about dallying with him, get hopelessly drunk, embarrass each other and their husbands, and wind up laughing about it all when their debonair friend finally shows up. That's it. Benson's set is a knockout, but the women's outfits start out coquettishly overdone and get comically disordered.

          Joyce Campion is hilarious as the far-too-knowing maid. Keith Dinicol and David Kirby play the husbands with polished restraint, and Maurice Duclos is offbeat and funny as the overly charming French former suitor. But Seanna McKenna and Lucy Peacock ham it up in their drunk scene and even later, building in exaggerated comedy to show just how far over the top an expert comic actress can go without losing control, perfect timing, or glamour.

          You won't be awestruck by the wit or stylishness. But Fallen Angels is very funny and an unchallenging good time in the theater.


>You should go if

you're looking for the lighter side of a theater festival of "great playwrights" --- comedy, musicals, clowning, and farce.

Stratford Festival of Canada, Stratford, Ontario: Hello Dolly, at the Festival Theatre to November 6; Into the Woods, at the Avon Theatre to October 30; As You Like It, at the Festival Theatre to October 30; Fallen Angels at the Avon Theatreto October 29. $23.65 to $114.39 ($18.85 to $91.16 US dollars). "Play On" tickets (aged under 30) $20 Canadian ($15.94 US dollars). 800-567-1600, www.stratfordfestival.ca


Memorial note

Those us who knew Tom Patterson will miss him. A kind, modest man, he alone imagined and then planned, worked, and fought to create the Stratford Festival. Tom died at 84 in Toronto on February 24. Stratford has the theater and an island named for him, but Tom's monument is beyond most men's dreams, the finest theater center in this hemisphere.

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