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A CurtainUp Review

Toronto Summer '98 (Part 1) By Joe Green

Topics Covered In This Report
Shaw Festival Review: A Foggy Day
Stratford Festival: Background
Stratford Festival Review: The Miracle Worker
Stratford Festival Review: Julius Caesar
Stratford Festival Review: Man of La Mancha
Stratford Festival Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Shaw Festival Review: A Foggy Day

The final production from the first half of the Shaw Festival's 1998 season is a posthumous premiere of a "new" Gershwin musical and carries the following credits: "words and music by George and Ira Gershwin, book by Norm Foster and John Mueller, based on the play A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Hay." Shades of Crazy for You in which Ken Ludwig took the Gershwins' Girl Crazy as the base line for his successful rewrite.

P.G. Wodehouse, best known as a novelist (he wrote some 75) and short story writer (over 379), also played a role in the development of American musical Theatre. He worked as lyricist or librettist on 32 musicals and stands as a beacon for his creation of works that initiated the notion of the "integrated musical" in which songs and script are balanced to tell a coherent story. After his 1919 novel A Damsel in Distress achieved great success and was made into a silent film a year later, Wodehouse collaborated with playwright Ian Hay and turned the novel into a play which opened in 1928 in London where it ran for over 200 performances.

And it came to pass that George Gershwin, who had read the novel and who may have served as the model for the novel's central character -- a successful young American songwriter working in London -- believed that it would serve as the basis for a musical comedy. Then, in the mid-1930s, RKO studio was trying to lure George and his lyricist brother Ira to write film scores for the rising star, Fred Astair. The studio purchased the rights to the novel as part of its incentive package for the Gershwins. A Damsel in Distress was released some two months after George Gershwin's death of a brain tumour in 1937 -- he never saw it.

A Foggy Day is directed by Kelly Robinson, currently director of creative development for Mirvish Productions in Toronto (he served as dramaturg for the still Broadway-bound musical version of Jane Eyre and as director of the recently opened Needfire, Canada's answer to Riverdance). With music direction by Christopher Donison (who leaves the Festival at the end of the season to pursue his career as composer), A Foggy Day features a panoply of Gershwin favourites including "Love Walked In", "Love Is Here To Stay" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It" as well as the title song.

Robinson and Donison have assembled a thoroughly enjoyable company who use the diminutive stage of the Festival's Royal George Theatre is great effect in Peter Hartwell's fluid settings. Jeffry Denman in his first Shaw Festival season makes a vibrant and charming Steve Riker, the "American in London" -- while not quite up to Astaire's work in the film, he acquits himself rather well in any event. And Stephanie McNamara's ingenue, Lady Jessica, makes an able partner. Not to be overlooked in this well balanced company is Nora McLellan's Billie Dore, the brassy American actress who ups the energy each time she appears.

En fin, A Foggy Day is a terrific evening (or afternoon) celebration on a little known Gershwin gem, most appropriate in this centennial year of George's birth.

Words and music by George and Ira Gershwin
Book by Norm Foster and John Mueller
Based on the play, A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Hay
Directed by Kelly Robinson
Choreography by William Orlowski
Set designed by Peter Hartwell
Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean
Lighting designed by Robert Thomson
Royal George Theatre at the Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
to November 1, 1998
Reviewed June 7, 1998

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Stratford Festival: Background

Founded in 1973 under the artistic direction of Sir Tyrone Guthrie in a tent on the banks of the Avon River in the Ontario town of Stratford, some 90 minutes drive from Toronto, the Stratford Festival has grown from its initial season of two plays (Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well) in a makeshift tent to the twelve production this season in a newly refurbished Festival Theatre which is one of three stages owned and operated by the Festival. Guthrie's leadership and vision, which set the tone for the entire enterprise, was followed by Michael Langham (56-67), Jean Gascon (68-74), Robin Phillips (75-80), John Hirsch (81-85), John Neville (86-89), David William (90-93) and Richard Monette currently in his fifth year.

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Stratford Festival Review: The Miracle Worker

This production of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker mark this author's first appearance at the Stratford Festival and seems to be part of management's popularization program (some critics have called it dumbing down) as greater dependence on box office revenues comes on the heels of diminishing public subvention -- the Festival's support from governments at all levels has fallen from 12% a decade ago to just 5% currently.

Be that as it may, this manipulative play as set on the conventional stage on the Avon Theatre works as it almost always does: a tear-jerker despite the viewer's attempt to see through the mechanics of the structure. The dramatization of the real-life story of Helen Keller's success in entering the world of human communication at the hands of Annie Sullivan is well known to theatre goers and film buffs alike (some may even remember its first incarnation as a television drama in 1957, two years before its 719 performance run on Broadway). Here it is has been directed by Jeannette Lambermont in her fifth Festival season and designed by Dany Lyne in her scenic design debut at Stratford.

The foolproofness of this piece is made even stronger by the two principal players: Cynthia Dale's Annie Sullivan and Trish Lindstrom's remarkable Helen. They form the centre of the drama which is also ably peopled by Barbara Fulton and Kevin Gudahl as Helen's caring but terribly misguided parents.

A three hanky production!

By William Gibson
Directed by Jeannette Lambermont
Set and costumes designed by Dany Lyne
Lighting designed by Louise Guinand
Avon Theatre at the Stratford Festival
Stratford, Ontario
to November 7, 1998
Reviewed June 11, 1998

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Stratford Festival Review: Julius Caesar

Portentious and ponderous, this is the Festival's fifth mounting of this high school syllabus play, directed by Douglas Campbell in his 23rd season at the Festival and designed by Martha Mann in her third season here (as a television designer, she has won numerous Gemini awards -- the Canadian Emmy -- including one for costume design for Glory Enough For All for which your humble reviewer served as Executive Producer and which was seen on PBS in the late 80s).

It is well enough performed by Tom McCamus as Brutus, Stephen Ouimette as Cassius (both of whom we will soon see in Stratford's Waiting for Godot which opens soon. Stephen Russell's Julius Caesar is also competent and Benedict Campbell (son of the director now in his seventh season and also playing Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons as Marcus Antonius rises marginally above that. The fault, I believe, lies not with the performers but rather with Campbell pere's approach to the piece which seems to be trying for the classical Greek tragic mode while losing the epic grandeur of the Elizabethan tone. Chorus-like attributes which might work well in Oedipus Rex here are close to pretentious and do little to heighten the sweeping drama of Shakespeare's Roman history.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Douglas Campbell
Set and costumes designed by Martha Mann
Lighting designed by John Munro
Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival
Stratford, Ontario
to November 7, 1998
Reviewed June 6, 1998

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Stratford Festival Review: Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha is the sole Broadway hit from librettist Dale Wasserman (remember the musical, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1957?... no?), from lyricist Joe Darion (remember Shinbone Alley?... no?) and from jingle composer Mitch Leigh ( And it has been the source of not inconsiderable income for the trio ever since it opened in 1965 and became the great hit of that season.

Placed on the epic stage of the Festival Theatre, one of the great American musicals of the 60s worked ... for the most part. New York director Susan Schulman used the Festival stage with great effectiveness, ably supported by Debra Hanson (who was head of design at Stratford for a number of years) in scenic design, Berthold Carrier (head of music since 1975!) as music director and especially Michael Lichtfield's exquisite lighting design. Considerably less effective was Peter McBoyle's sound work. Over miked and over amplified, it was too often impossible, especially in the ensemble numbers, to tell who was signing or fromwhere the sound emanated.

The two outstanding performances were rendered by Cynthia Dale (Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker) as Aldonza/Dulcinea and Bruce Dow as Sancho Panza, Quixote's wonderfully drawn man-servant. Ms. Dale, whose musical theatre experience is extensive and who is one of Canada's leading television actors, brings a terrific vitality and focus to the role of the kitchen slut who becomes the focus of Quixote's deluded gallantry . And Mr. Dow turns in a very credible and funny Sancho.

Unfortunately, Juan Chioran in the title role fails to reach the vocal level that is demanded by the score. Perhaps a severe tightness of throat was only present at the performance that I saw... perhaps not. Although he has had considerable musical theatre experience, he may not possess the instrument necessary to reach the impossible dream.

Written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Susan H. Schulman
Set and costumes designed by Debra Hanson
Lighting designed by Kevin Fraser
Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival
Stratford, Ontario
to November 8, 1998
Reviewed July 1, 1998

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Stratford Festival Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Yet another Much Ado. But this time with a delicious twist. Instead of traditionally casting the feisty roles of Beatrice and Benedick with conventional ingenue and romantic lead, director Richard Monette (in his fifth year as the Festival's artistic director) has chosen to see these two ironical individualists as mature and almost aging bantering wooers (Brian Bedford as Benedick and Martha Henry as Beatrice -- both well into their fifties!).

We may well recall the youthful exuberance of Kenneth Brannaugh and Emma Thompson in the award-winning film. Ontario Stratford old-timers will also remember the 1977 production which also featured Ms. Henry as Beatrice -- although she was twenty-one years younger! They may also recollect the 1987 production which featured director Monette as Benedick as well as the more recent 1991 version (also directed by Mr. Monette) which featured Mr. Bedford in the show stealing role of Dogberry, chief constable of the town.

This current reading is not the first to cast older actors as the bickering suitors. David Garrick played Benedick until he retired in 1776 at the age of 59, while Helen Faucit played Beatrice over a period of 43 years from the age of 19 to 62. Indeed, Faucit at 19 was matched against a 61 year old Charles Kemble. But these readings were not rooted -- as this one is -- in an interpretation of a balanced association.

This productions explores the war between two determined bachelors informed by mature opinions, long ingrained habits and witticisms honed by years of jolly opposition. The play's final scenes with the now reconciled lovers reading each other's poetry through sight correcting spectacles (don't we all need them now?) brings a warmth and understanding that younger antagonists -- including the wonderful Brannaugh/Thompson pairing -- could never deliver.

That Mr. Bedford as Benedick comes off more fully realized than his partner, Ms. Henry, is, truth be told, more due to Shakespeare's writing for his male leads than to any imbalance of these two seasoned and highly talented actors. The scene in which Benedick "overhears" Leonato, the Price and Claudio set him up by allowing how much in love with him is the lady Beatrice is one that will live long in memory -- certainly longer than the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1996/97 production (directed by Michael Boyd and left unreviewed by this writer because he felt it unworthy of notice) in which the scene saw Alex Jennings' Benedick awkwardly hanging in a tree. Mr. Bedford's reactions to the "laying it on" by his three friends is priceless. And just as successful is William Hutt's Leonato getting progressively more inebriated as the fun goes on.

Less successful is the opposite scene in which Beatrice "overhears" her cousin, Hero, together with Margaret and Ursula, speak of Benedick's "undying love for Beatrice." Wonderful actress though she is, Ms. Henry is just not given by the Bard Benedick's opportunity for reaction.

Infused with song, dance and low comedy in the characters of the Watch, this Much Ado plays well on the Avon stage and should charm New York Shakespeare lovers when it hits the stage at New York's City Center in November (along with Mr. monette's production of Moliere's classic comedy, The Miser, featuring Mr. Hutt as Harpagon, the title character, and Ms. Henry as the scheming Frosine) as part of the week-long Big Apple celebration of Canadian culture and technology.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Monette
Set designed by Guido Tondino
Costumes designed by Ann Curtis
Lighting designed by Michael J. Whitfield
Avon Theatre at the Stratford Festival
Stratford, Ontario
to November 6, 1998
in New York's City Center in late November
Reviewed June 6, 1998

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Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report and Other Toronto Reports
The Shaw Festival
The Stratford (Ontario) Festival
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