Friday, 1 July 2016

Rebellion and Redemption offer uniquely entertaining theatre

A Breath of Kings Rebellion
Richard 11 and Henry 1V, Part 1
A Breath of Kings Redemption
Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V
Stratford Festival 2016
Tom Patterson Theatre
Written by William Shakespeare
Conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey
Directed by Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha
Approximate running time: Three hours for each production (with two intervals of 20 minutes each)
June 22-September 24
Toll-free: 1.800.567.1600

Reviewed by Geoff Dale

STRATFORD – With Macbeth a critical and popular success Graham Abbey has treated audiences to another exhilarating Shakespearean experience with his powerful, thought-provoking A Breath of Kings Rebellion and Breath of Kings Redemption.

With Rebellion he incorporates the major elements of Richard 11 and Henry IV, Part One. Meanwhile, Redemption ambitiously presents the key aspects of Henry IVPart Two and Henry V. The resulting two three-hour productions utilize the considerable skills of 20+ actors tackling 70+ roles – a truly daunting task.

Graham Abbey is pictured as King Henry 1V in A Breath of Kings Rebellion. (David Hou Photography)

At the risk of sounding a tad coy, A Breath of Kings, both parts, are breathtaking for the most part. Admittedly the required editing and cutting of portions of the original text does translate into some loss of scenes and even character developments. Yet despite this, what is showcased is an exquisite, sometimes sweeping narrative that highlights the finest stage talents to be found anywhere. Continuity never suffers.

In addition to Abbey’s vision is the bonus of the skillful team of co-directors Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha, whose staging abilities are highlighted magnificently in the Tom Patterson Theatre’s audience- friendly in-the-round scenario.

As in past efforts Tom Rooney demonstrates yet again why he is acknowledged as both a dramatic and comic actor with unmatched skills. His Richard 11, not the standard view, is a deep inner exploration of a tormented regal authority, beset with the woes of uniting and/or dividing his moments of enlightened rule with self-obsessed indulgence.

Returning in Redemption he lightens the proceedings with his wondrous portrayal of foolish buddy of Falstaff’s Justice Shallow while providing yet another more serious role – dressed in the tattered garb of the deceased Richard – the narratively essential Chorus.

Geraint Wyn Davies offers up a first-rate acting class, stealing scene after scene with his over-the-top comic buffoon Sir John Falstaff and latterly with his awe-inspiring presentation of the stalwart Welsh officer Captain Fluellen.

Araya Mengesha as King Henry V with members of the company in A Breath of Kings Redemption.
 (David Hou Photography)

Araya Mengesha is solid as the youthful undisciplined prince Hal who grows steadily into the more regal Henry V who exceeds expectations as the newly crowned serious-minded king.

While the productions call on the full company to tackle a seemingly exhaustive variety of roles, special note should be made of the contributions of six gifted female actors who take on both male and female roles, a novel but highly successful gender neutral approach to the two plays.

Irene Poole is a standout on all counts but particularly shines as the King’s loyal supporter Sir Walter Blunt. Carly Street, tackling multiple characters with ease, is a rousing delight as the militant ready-for-action at any costs Scottish Earl of Douglas and Kate Henning is a delightful Mistress Quickly, the welcoming hostess of the Boor’s Head.

Remarkably Abbey hasn’t worn himself too thin with his writing, directorial and conceptual duties, strutting about as a finely etched Henry Bolingbroke, King Henry 1V – a remarkable achievement for the talented actor, proving that one can indeed wear many diverse theatrical hats with great aplomb.

Other highlights including stirring battles staged and choreographed by John Stead; the cold steel duel between Hal and Hotspur; the stunning costuming by Yannik Larivee; the mesmerizing oft-times bleak and dark lighting courtesy of Kimberly Purtell and Anita Dehbonehie’s eye-catching set design.

The good news is neither purists nor theatre novices should feel obligated to furiously re-read the aforementioned Shakespearean’s works to appreciate Abbey’s efforts. Nor is there really any overriding necessity to seek out those missing scenes, characters and/or plots and subplots – few as they may be.

The verdict – six hours of enticing, often enthralling and dare we utter it yet again breathtaking theatre highlighting the versatility of innovative actor/director Abbey. Complemented by Stratford’s fine acting and technical companies the two productions richly deserve **** out of four stars. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Some bright stars with A Little Night Music

Cutline: Sara Farb shines as Petra in A Little Night Music (David Hou Photography)

A Little Night Music

Stratford Festival 2016

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night

Directed by Gary Griffin

Music direction by Franklin Brasz

Approximate running time: two hours and 45 minutes (with one 20-minute interval)

June 21-October 23

Toll-free: 1.800.567.1600

Reviewed by Geoff Dale

For the moment try to divorce yourself from the grim reality that Judy Collins recorded Stephen

Sondheim’s sombre Send in the Clowns back in 1975, reducing it for many to the status of tired

old chestnut over the 41 years.

Now focus on the present day revitalization of that musically complex song in the Stratford

Festival’s energetic 2016 presentation of A Little Night Music, a rather lengthy production

featuring, as would be expected, some theatrical nuggets from this company.

For those not acquainted with the origins of the work, it was inspired by Swedish filmmaker

Ingmar Bergman’s lighthearted romance from 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night, a movie that

literally put the writer/director on the cinematic world map, won for best poetic humour and

snagged a nomination for best film at the Palme d’Or at Cannes the next year.

Please, no need to adjust your glasses, the mention of Bergman and lighthearted romance in the

same sentence was indeed no mistake, just not the norm for the acclaimed director/writer. While

he trotted out some dark classics like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, he did have a gift

– though not often used – for humour.

Sondheim then added large sprinkling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other works and

voila A Little Night Music – his tasty skewering of the institution of marriage – was born.

Apologies for the cliché but the rest is history.

Set in 1900 Sweden, the lengthy act one, crying out at times for some editing, demonstrated that

not everyone in the Stratford Festival cast possesses the acknowledged vocal skills of the

production’s nominal star Cynthia Dale, who as Countess Charlotte Malcolm showcases her

considerable talent both as a top flight singer and an adept stage comic actor able to swiftly toss

about one-liners with great ease.

That minor shortfall is to be expected. So musical director Franklin Brasz counters by making

great usage of the elegantly dressed five-member Greek chorus (Sean Arbuckle, Barbara Fulton,

Ayrin Mackie, Stephen Patterson and Jennifer Rider-Shaw) that periodically interjects itself into

the proceedings to guide the audience through the essentials of the storyline.

Meanwhile, the graceful opening waltz highlights the swift exchange of romantic partners in a

sort of choreographic musical chairs, enhanced by the glorious offerings of 19 carefully selected

musicians – largely piano, woodwinds and strings – conducted by Brasz.

Some have suggested over the years that the composer’s preference for the ¾ time signature (the

waltz) is his clever way of stressing that the number three is incompatible – or at least should be

– in the marriage arrangement. Hence the actors are generally divided into awkward trio

arrangements, complemented by the score.

The prime example of the shaky state of marriage here is provided by middle-aged lawyer

Fredrik Egerman’s strange marriage – more of a mid-life crisis – to his virginal 18-year- old

trophy wife Anne (Alexis Gordon). An oddly quirky marital union without any hint of carnal

activity for 11 months, the joke becomes tired before too long, thankfully breaking away into

various threesomes.

Much more amusing and deftly handled by the principles are the ill-fated romances surrounding

fading but still glamorous/sexually active star Desiree Armfeldt (the superb vocalist/actress

Yanna McIntosh), her lovesick suitor and former lover Fredrik along with her current beau

Count Carl-Magnus Magnum, shamelessly and openly cheating on his wife the Countess in a

hysterically funny buffoonish manner by Juan Chioran.

As the cloddish self-consumed military man Chioran, a standout in A Chorus Line, is an

unexpected treasure, parading about the stage in a marvelously awkward fashion that conjures up

the vision of a stylistic physical comedic marriage of John Cleese (ala Basil Fawlty) and Richard

McMillan, the scene-stealing actor well-remembered by Stratford audiences for his roles in

numerous Gilbert and Sullivan productions of the ‘80s.

Meanwhile McIntosh’s heartfelt treatment of Send in the Clowns is truly a well-deserved show

stopper that firmly places the number back in proper context as a soul-searching personal

reflection on past romantic glories, losses and mistakes.

While there are considerable moments in the show’s almost three-hour duration to choose

favorite moments, actors, scenes and even those that don’t quite make the mark, one standout

throughout is unquestionably the tireless Sara Farb (also appearing as Lucy in The Lion, the

Witch and the Wardrobe) as the feisty/worldly Petra, maid and close friend of Anne.

Her vocal command and accompanying physical dexterity when performing the second-act The

Miller’s Son – laden with its numerous references to life, luck and love - is well worth the price

of admission and much more. Under the capable guidance of director Gary Griffin, Farb provides

the complete package of comedy and drama with shades of pathos – giving the production that

little extra bit of adrenaline necessary for a Sondheim classic.

An audience pleaser that nabs *** out of four stars.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Shakespeare’s brief fling keeps audience on its feet

Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.
Shakespeare in Love
Stratford Festival 2016
Avon Theatre
Written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Stage adaptation by Lee Hall
Directed by Declan Donnellan
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes (with one 20-minute interval)
May 30-October 23
There’s no question Shakespeare in Love is a pleasantly playful romp but after 18 years it’s still a shock to grasp the reality that the film walked away with seven Oscars including its best picture triumph over Steven Spielberg’s far superior Saving Private Ryan.
Almost two decades have since passed and here we are at the Stratford Festival awaiting the unveiling of writer Lee Hall’s long anticipated stage adaptation of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s original movie screenplay.
Like its cinematic predecessor the stage version is indeed pleasant and playful, full of merriment, cheeky innuendos, pratfalls and not-too subtle hints that the young bard was no stranger to writer’s block, borrowed furiously from others like the grand Christopher Marlowe and even a few hangers-on – all fiction of course.
Skillfully directed by Declan Donnellan, with a sharp eye for fast pacing and continuity, the play features a very likable Luke Humphrey as a lovesick but already married Will Shakespeare, pining for Shannon Taylor’s breezy Viola de Lesseps (arguably better suited to the role than the Oscar-winning Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who is initially more in love with the writings than the playwright.
While well-executed pratfalls, quick witticisms, bedroom escapades and perfunctory yet engagingly staged battles feature prominently in the lengthy production, the storyline often comes off as a tad predictable with the implausible mistaken identity device humorous but far from convincing. Viola’s alter ego Thomas Kent – the ploy used so she can make her stage debut in Elizabethan England’s all-male acting profession – is lengthy on cuteness.
Scene-stealing standouts include Brad Hodder’s outrageously uber-macho actor Ned Alleyn who is convinced that Mercutio is the real hero of Shakespeare’s yet-to-be completed Romeo and Juliet; Stephen Ouimette’s twitchy, wretchedly poor playwright and owner of the Rose Theatre; Saamer Usmani’s flashy, flamboyant Kit (Christopher) Marlowe; Karen Robinson’s loving Nurse; Sarah Orenstein’s Queen Elizabeth 1, who regally calls for more humour the next time around; Tom McCamus’ Fennyman walking off with the lion’s share of great one-liners and last but not least the cagy canine that grabs his/her share of the spotlight on more than one occasion.
Not great literature like that emanating from the pen of the great Shakespeare but nonetheless a satisfying night of good-natured fun and frivolity that brought the delighted actors back onstage for four rousing encores. ***1/2 stars out of five.
Geoff Dale is a Woodstock-based freelance writer.

This review also appeared online here at The Beat Magazine

Monday, 6 June 2016

As You Like It down home on the Rock

Robin Hutton as Hymen with members of the company in As You Like It. Photography by David Hou.
As You Like It
Stratford Festival 2016
Avon Theatre
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Adrian Mitchell
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 56 minutes (with one 20-minute interval)
June 2-October 22
Upon learning imaginative director Jillian Keiley would be tackling the bard’s As You Like It, more than a few pertinent questions sprung to mind, fueled by the troubling notion of whether Newfoundland culture could be successfully married with Shakespearean literature.
To delay you good readers no longer, a one-word answer – yes. True there were some scattered quibbles about incorporating into the theatrical mix the sometimes raucous Newfoundland kitchen party motif, with a few even suggesting it made the stage a tad overcrowded.
Others pondered the pre-performance issuance of curiously designed grab-bags filled with such delights as nightly lit stars, branches, hand fans, clothespins, sonnets, party hats and wedding floral arrangements – all intended to include the seated as willing or amusingly unwilling participants in the boisterous on-stage activity. Some volunteers, with the aid of a little perfunctory dance training earlier in the week, became part of the final wedding party.
Consider Keiley’s words and none of this should come as a surprise – even to that small but persistent band of curmudgeonly unwavering Shakespeare purists/academics. “One of the signatures of Newfoundland culture is that it is not performative but participatory,” she says.
The simple reality is culture on that isolated island in the North Atlantic does not end when one makes way for day-to-day life. Outside of the business world, the two joyously meet regularly on stage, at home and yes even occasionally on the job.
After all, in Elizabethan times Shakespeare’s works were hardly the exclusive rights of the rich and privileged. They weren’t then and shouldn’t be now.
Certainly Queen Elizabeth 1 (Bess) was intrigued and royally enthralled by the Bard. Yet most of those standing for hours-on-end through rain, sleet and sunshine in the open air were largely from the lower echelons, the poor folk with aching feet eager to catch his infamously thinly-veiled vulgarities, naughtiness in the boudoirs, cheeky tunes and bold bloody battle scenes, as well as his wit and wisdom.
In this particularly audacious adaptation of As You Like It, the intermingling of a wide range of Newfoundland and English accents offers up a truer picture of the sounds of the Elizabethan age. The chance-taking director, an enthusiastic cast of actors and onstage musicians, including button accordionist Keelan Purchase from Back Home are most for the part on-target for a devilishly clever peak at the past.
Keiley, the National Arts Centre’s artistic director and a returning Stratford Festival director (proving her mettle with Alice Through The Looking Glass and The Diary of Anne Frank) admittedly takes some huge chances this time around. The 16th Century European forest becomes the mostly rural Newfoundland of the 1980s with a nod to urban life in the first act.
The gamble was worth the risk, particularly for those even remotely familiar with the once Dominion of Newfoundland that Joey Smallwood dragged somewhat reluctantly into the Canadian federation in 1949.
Then there were others, like your humble critic, who actually lived there throughout the 1980s and, without coercion, became immersed in the increasingly vibrant and wonderfully adventurous culture.
With much less reliance upon those social demeaning Newfie jokes (save for their own self-effacing observations) during that decade, mainland Canadians, those south of the 49th parallel and even some throughout the European continent began seriously taking note of an arts community that both welled the rich past and reached into the future.
Keiley and company cleverly instill much of the flavour of a time that featured the glorious Celtic rock sounds of Noel Dinn’s Figgy Duff and The Wonderful Grand Band, a part folk/rock/traditional music ensemble led by the late Ron Hynes and bolstered by the comic genious of Greg Malone and the late Tommy Sexton.
Small wonder one of the opening night’s audience was theatre/film and TV actor Bob Joy, an early member of the theatrical troupe CODCO (Cod Company) founded in 1973 and later making its way to CBC-TV in the latter part of the ‘80s. Some of that ground-breaking company’s self-deprecating humour makes its way into Keiley’s production.
Taking numerous liberties with the original work, the director replaces royalty with oil barons while the aforementioned kitchen parties are hosted by rural folk and fishermen (women) who generously mix Shakespearean verbiage with colourful local expressions like “Hold on to my dingy”, transported presumably from the Rock by fisher-folks’ nets.
Festival veteran and a fine singer Robin Hutton tackles the role of the god of marriage Hymen with gusto, mischievously playing about with the audience prior to and throughout the production as the vocal leader of a folk/rock ensemble. Great Big Sea member Bob Hallett provides lively original compositions to the festivities.
Newfoundland humour and an unapologetically daring, more-open approach to the arts is in evidence from the moment audience members enter the lobby, stopping in wonder, grabbing those loot bags filled with nickel-and-dime store props. A simple gesture that makes them part of the production, not merely onlookers with an obligation to applaud, cheer, hoot and holler.
For all the theatrical radicalism on display, it’s more than a tad unfair to ignore some wonderful performances by the company: Cyrus Lane’s big haired and suitably heroic Orlando; John Kirkpatrick’s older brother Oliver with his initial nasty turn and later evangelical reformation; Newfoundland actress Petrina Bromley making a fine Festival debut as Rosalind and Scott Wentworth’s sinister Duke Frederick, whose bizarre blonde wig threatened to challenge the veteran actor for the spotlight.
At the end of nearly three hours of musical and theatric madness and mayhem, a standing ovation was unquestionably in order but did everyone there really grasp what they had just witnessed? It’s not a simple matter of just throwing kudos to actors, directors and musicians. One also has to credit fight director John Stead for staging a wild wrestling match that would make The Rock (the wrestler not the province), John Cena and WWE head honcho Vince McMahon green with envy.
On a personal note, my only real substantive complaint was with the contents of my grab bag. Although a vegetarian for nearly six years, my disappointment was profound as I searched in vain for scrunchins, lobster bits and cod tongues/cheeks. Perhaps, I’ll munch on the like whilst I amuse myself with an episode of Wonderful Grand Band tomfoolery, hidden in our vault of eclectic DVDs.
Filled with eye-popping gender-bender characters that offer more than a dash of Boy George and splash of other ‘80s icons along the way, wildly over-the-top performances, saucy asides, foot-stomping music and a lighthearted suggestion from Keiley to embrace both Shakespeare and Newfoundland equally with open arms, As You Like It may be a departure from the norm but what a night! ««««1/2 out of five stars
Geoff Dale is a Woodstock-based freelance writer.
This review was originally posted online here at The Beat Magazine

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Family fun in the magical snowy world of Narnia

Members of the company in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Photography by David Hou.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Stratford Festival 2016
Avon Theatre
Written by C.S. Lewis
Adapted by Adrian Mitchell
Directed by Tim Carroll
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes (with one 20-minute interval)
June 2-October 23
In an age where success in film and other entertainment venues is driven by computer generated imagery (CPI) overkill, returning to the stage for The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is sheer escapist delight – not just for the youngsters but those still young-at-heart.
While it’s true the Narnia saga has been translated into box office blockbusters laden with reliance upon the aforementioned CPI, the Adrian Mitchell dramatization of this C.W. Lewis work offers proof positive that the artistry of innovative and eye-popping images of puppetry is very much alive in theatre.
Director Tim Carroll does a nifty job of bringing the production to life in grand style but it is the mastery of movement and puppetry director Alexis Milligan that ultimately transports a fairly standard children’s tale from reality into the surrealistic realm of magic, allegory (Christian and otherwise) and the child-like wonder of embracing the unknown.
In a perpetually winter-world inhabited by a remarkably wide range of astonishing creatures of all shapes, sizes and colours, Milligan triumphs with such awe-inspiring figures as the majestic lion simply known as Asian (voiced by the venerable Tom McCamus, also on board as the eccentric Professor Kirk) who returns to Narnia.
Lacking the violence and sheer brutality dished out by such current fare as HBO’s more-adult Game of Thrones, this gentler epic tale of good versus bad revels in swashbuckling scenes of doing battle with the evil White Witch (deliciously played by a suitably nasty Yanna McIntosh), dispensing the wicked overlord in bloodless fashion.
So what is the fuss all about?
Journey back to a time when Nazi air-raids during the Second World War put the good folk of Great Britain in grave peril, forcing adults to evacuate children like the four Pevensie youngsters Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy from homes in London to take shelter in country habitats. Featuring a landscape of books towering to the skies above, this particular one is the domain of the odd Professor Digorty Kirk (McCamus).
As well as owning a seemingly endless supply of literary works scattered with great abandon throughout the cavernous estate, he possesses a singular wardrobe which one day unexpectedly becomes a vehicle of transport for young Lucy (Sara Farb) who finds herself in Narnia, land of perpetual snow but no Christmas, ruled tyrannically by the White Witch.
The key right now is to studiously avoid trotting out any dreaded spoiler alerts, a dastardly deed that could well put said critic in league with the aforementioned witch.
Suffice it to say the four eventually embark on a journey together where they meet such notable denizens as the Giant Rumblebuffin (played with height defying humour by Sean Arbuckle) and the happy damn-inhabiting couple of Mr. Beaver (Steve Ross with the longest tail imaginable) and Mrs. Beaver (Barbara Fulton).
As the energetic quartet of brother and sisters, Sara Farb (Lucy), Ruby Joy (Susan), Andre Morin (Edmund) and Gareth Potter (Peter) are well cast, offering up the prerequisite helpings of youthful wide-eyed wonderment with great enthusiasm.
So for an evening of family-fun just add to the mix the witch’s motley crew of henchmen/animals; marvelous scenic contributions from set designer Douglas Paraschuk; the imaginative work of projection director Brad Peterson; handiwork from innovative costume designer Dana Osborne; comic-book battles courtesy of fight director John Stead; magic consultant David Ben and a handful of hummable tunes arranged by Claudio Vena. «««« out of five stars.
Geoff Dale is a Woodstock-based freelance writer.

This review was origninally posted online here at The Beat Magazine
This review 

Friday, 3 June 2016

All My Sons a riveting thoughtful production

Joseph Ziegler as Joe Keller in All My Sons. Photography by David Hou.
All My Sons
Stratford Festival 2016
Tom Patterson Theatre
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Martha Henry
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes (with intervals of 10 and 15 minutes)
May 30-September 25
 It may take much of the play before the real meaning of All My Sons is finally revealed but director Martha Henry ensures us her thought-provoking, nicely paced adaptation of the Arthur Miller classic is time very well spent.
With a stellar cast headed by Lucy Peacock and Joseph Ziegler in the lead roles and the theatre’s wonderfully restructured in-the-round arrangement, the production is both a visual and conceptual treat. In the case of the latter, the audience gains a completely new vantage point of the family’s back door/patio area.
Essentially the space becomes literally and figuratively a bridge to the garden where personal evaluations, life-changing revelations and ultimate truths are trotted out into the open air. On the surface it may represent a quaint family comfort – particularly in the past – but the moment lighting strikes the tree planted as a memorial to a son lost in the war, it becomes the place where lives fall apart.
It should be noted the soundscape design was the work of respected sound designer Todd Charlton who died early in the year, shortly after completing the project, and to whom the production is dedicated. With the majority of the action taking place in the past, it is ironically the only spot where any events – specifically the destruction of the tree – occur.
Superficially the play – based on a true story – appears relatively straightforward, based on the failings of a flawed individual. Miller was also influenced by Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, from which he took the idea of two business partners – one forced to take moral and legal responsibility for the other.
In All My Sons, plain-talking sixty-year-old Joe Keller, an under-educated but successful businessman, has been living a lie for more than three years. Exonerated after charges were levied against him for knowingly shipping damaged aircraft engine cylinder heads that resulted in the death of 21 young pilots, he avoided jail time by blaming partner and former neighbour Steve Deever, who is still imprisoned.
His wife Kate, while never openly admitting it, knows Joe is guilty but lives in denial while futilely mourning their older son Larry, who has been missing-in-action for three years and presumed dead. She refuses to accept reality.
While a thoughtful examination of dysfunctional characters on a personal level, on a broader scale playwright Arthur Miller painstakingly dissects the woes of a war-weary society, one that appears to equate success with unapologetic fiscal greed, monetary-driven expediency and a crass disregard for human life. Joe is the poster child of the American Dream gone tragically wrong.
The latter critique resulted in the left-leaning Miller being called to appear before Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare 1950s when hysterical U.S. government officials were conveniently discovering Communists – real or imagined – behind every cupboard door.
A slow-simmering tale, the introductory first act offers more background information and cursory glances of the characters’ more public personas before giving way to the more volatile second and third chapters. Henry expertly guides her actors through their paces, coaxing well-crafted performances from all.
Ziegler, engaging his son Chris in exchanges of fake jabs, hooks and crosses in playful outdoor boxing matchups before succumbing to the ugly reality of his life, is brilliant. A supposedly well-liked man, whose secret appears nonetheless well-known by so-called neighbourhood friends, he is the convoluted symbol of Miller’s failed American Dream.

Lucy Peacock as Kate Keller in All My Sons. Photography by David Hou.
A portrait of self-perpetuated pretense, Peacock’s Kate is a sight-to-behold – a masterful display of a soul being torn apart from within. One moment the epitome of suburban charm, grace and outward happiness, the troubled wife dissolves into gut-wrenching shrieks of despair and then, within the blink of an eye, back again to the more acceptable but unreal sense of domesticity.
Chris Keller, the 32-year-old son who has survived the war, is the moral compass of the play. Tim Campbell has a field day as an intensely philosophical man, always eager to please but deeply troubled by the fact that life goes on as normal, as if World War 11 had never happened. Part one of his character’s troubles occurs when he invites his brother’s fiancĂ© Ann Deever to the Keller house to propose to her.
His plan stumbles because of his mother’s assertion that Larry will someday return. The second part is when he learns the devastating truth of his father’s heartless actions, those from the man he once idolized.
The solid company also features Sarah Afful’s intriguing, clear thinking Ann Deever; Michael Blake as her older brother George, a New York lawyer returning to stop her marriage to Chris, thus becoming a catalyst that helps destroys the Keller family; E.B. Smith as the successful but frustrated doctor Jim Bayliss; Lanise Antoine Shelley’s delightfully volatile but often secretive Sue, wife of the doctor with Rodrigo Belifuss and Jessica B. Hill rounding out the cast as the Lubeys, the whimsical horoscope drawing Frank and George’s one-time love interest but now thoroughly domesticated Lydia.
A tip of the hat to Maxwell Croft-Fraser and Brandon Scheidler as alternate Berts and Tommys.
Credit Henry for boldly introducing both the Deevers and Bayliss family as black members of what might have been considered in those days to be a purely white middle class American community. The end result is affording great actors like Afful and Blake (both standouts as the Macduff family in Macbeth), Smith and Shelley the opportunity to showcase their considerable skills as versatile actors – regardless of colour.
Wonderful package of entertainment - ««««1/2 out of five stars.
Geoff Dale is a Woodstock-based freelance writer.
This review originally appeared online here at The Beat Magazine

Thursday, 2 June 2016

A Chorus Line brings glamour, glitter and pure sweat to the Festival

A Chorus Line
Stratford Festival 2016
Festival Theatre
Written by Michael Bennett
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes (with no intervals)
May 31 -October 23
You catch the first glimpse of dancers lining up for their big shot at the gold ring as the chords to the opening I hope I Get It ring through the packed Festival Theatre. Then it starts without warning – thunderous applause and raucous cheers of encouragement greeting the perfectly lined cast of A Chorus Line.
Somewhere behind the curtain director/choreographer Donna Feore must have been wringing her hands in glee, possibly even silently singing I Can Do That to herself under her breath. It took only a few seconds to grasp her brilliantly realized vision of Michael Bennett’s ambiguous/multi-layered musical was about to be a hit at the Stratford Festival.
Forty-one years ago the audacious Bennett, aided by some of Marvin Hamlisch’s most adventurous music and Edward Kleban’s often spicy adult-flavoured (for the times) lyrics, unveiled what was considered by many to be a revolutionary Broadway musical.
With unabashed candor it looked unapologetically at individual dancers looking for yet another shot to continue their physically and emotionally demanding careers, not as stars but simply parts of a highly regimented chorus line.
As the formidable musical director Zach (played with a wonderful mix of authority and compassion by Juan Chioran) and his assistant Larry (Stephen Cota) whittle down the hopefuls to the final female/men pairings, those revealing singular revelations begin through dance and song.
While the final line of dancers will be a tightly knit unit, what is revealed are personalized tales – tinged with comedy and drama – of past dysfunctional family lives, fear of failure, discovering and dealing with one’s sexuality and grasping the reality for one young woman that success in the business more often relies on two particular physical female attributes (natural or bought) than sheer talent. The latter is relayed through the brilliantly funny Dance: Ten Looks: Three, cheekily performed by Julia McLellan’s delightful Val.
Feore proves an accomplished master of uniting the many diverse elements of the work – from lively, oft times soulful presentations of tunes based on characters’ personal realities to energetic, pulsating dance numbers both physically demanding and emotionally draining and those aggressively pursued fantasies transporting these dreamers from scenes of domestic insecurities to wonders of the almost mythological world of ballet and beyond.
Dayna Tietzen captures the angst-ridden veteran Cassie, let down by both time and director/one-time lover Zach. He tells matter-of-factly that she is too good for the chorus, while the youngest dance hopeful Mark (Colton Curtis) coyly details his first wet dream and the 4’10” dynamo Connie (an exuberant Genny Sermonia) bemoans her lack of height.
Tormented heroines fill the stage while a male hoofer eyes the potential of being the screen’s next Troy Donahue. Others are simply exhausted by the prospect of never-ending chorus line tryouts offering meagre security in packages of months or at best years, ultimately fearing their futures.
The paradoxical reality weighs heavy on all the tortured souls – success means trading in their individuality for the glorious, glittery transformation into well-oiled anonymity.
Singling out particular performances for individual praise is an unwelcomed and difficult task for any self-respecting critic or audience member for that matter. There is no top nor bottom to the Stratford company – an almost picture perfect ensemble of singers/dancers trotting out gut-wrenching, crowd-pleasing performances in tireless fashion for more than two hours without break.
It’s been slightly more than four decades since A Chorus Line shocked, startled and delighted audiences in New York and throughout the world. Thanks to Feore, a top-notch cast and technical crew, the Stratford product of 2016 has lost none of the original lustre nor power along the way. The music remains vibrant, dramatic and comedic elements mix comfortably and multi-dimensional characters abound.
Another hugely successful Stratford musical and a classic entry for the still young 2016 festival season that earns ««««« out of five stars.
Geoff  Dale is a Woodstock-based freelance writer.

This review originally appeared online here at The Beat Magazine.