Sunday, July 1, 2012


(Seana McKenna in "The Matchmaker")

No, it's not called the “Sanford” Festival. Several weeks ago at the Tony Awards, famed actor Ben Vereen, introducing a performance by Best Revival of a Musical nominee, "Jesus Christ Superstar," referred to the production's birthplace, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as the “Sanford Festival.” Ouch.

The Festival, now in its sixtieth year, is widely heralded as “North America’s Leading Classical Theatre” and has featured, on its stages, the likes of Christopher Plummer, Brian Dennehy, Maggie Smith, and William Shatner for many years. Not to mention, the popular Canadian television series, “Slings and Arrows,” is not-so-subtly based on Stratford. But the Ontario summer festival still remains just outside the periphery of many seasoned American theatregoers, like the incomparable Mr. Vereen.

However, if you know Broadway, you know Stratford. Three years ago, I saw an unassuming, yet pitch-perfect production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” directed by and starring festival favorite, Brian Bedford, at their downtown Avon Theatre. Two years later, I returned to that same production, remounted by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway. And it was later nominated for three Tony Awards. The same goes for the recent aforementioned revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Though it didn’t hit the ground running on Broadway in quite the same way as it did in Ontario last summer, it was nonetheless nominated for two Tonys. 

Despite Stratford's newly revived international exposure and ample opportunity for smug egotism, the idyllic little town is as humble and hospitable as ever, with the community's warm, welcoming vibe hurdling onto their four stages. Their season, a trifle safe and including one too many musicals for my taste, contains a number of gems and one unmissible show worth making the brisk eight-hour jaunt from Chicago for. I had the pleasure of departing my usual Chi-town beat and escaping up to Ontario for three plays and three musicals over a single brisk weekend: Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance," Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker," "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown," "42nd Street,"  and Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," and "Much Ado About Nothing." 
Strike up, pipers!

"The Matchmaker"

When putting on a production of Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker," encouraging audiences against anticipating glitzy song and dance is staggeringly difficult, for the 'Our Town' scribe's play is actually the source material for the better known "Hello, Dolly!"  Jerry Herman's toe-tapping musical adaptation has certainly lived a more notoriously lavish lifestyle than its original, but as is evident in the Stratford Festival's jubilant new production of "The Matchmaker'" the latter has lead a far more fulfilling life.

Admittedly my expectations for "The Matchmaker" were low-to-middling. Buried somewhere deep in my subconscious were predispositions against empty smiles and vaudevillian positivity, and having  been solely familiar with "Hello, Dolly!", I readied myself for the worst. Such worries were needless. Wilder's play is as perceptive and socially conscious as it is delightful, and the cast's uniform ebullience sheds the play of any remnants of old-world stuffiness. In fact, the 1955 play is terrifically alive and unmistakably modern. 

The play, itself a revision of Wilder's earlier "The Merchant of Yonkers," closely matches up with the plot of "Hello, Dolly!" Dolly Levi (Seana McKenna), a meddler and a jill of all trades, gets her kicks by interfering in the love lives and monetary dealings of others. Predictably she falls in love with a man she plays matchmaker for, Horace Vandergelder (Tom McCamus), and follows him to New York City where he is to meet a nonexistent girl concocted by Dolly. The concurrent antics of Cornelius (Mike Shara) and Barnaby (Josh Epstein), two of Vandergelder's Yonkers employees, brighten up Santo Loquasto's sinister set. When Shara's endearingly blue-collar Cornelius' falls madly for Laura Condlln's fun and formidable Irene Molloy, the play finds a grounded center. Wilder has strung all of these wacky scenes together with calm direct address monologues filled with humor and his signature pathos.      

Director Chris Abraham has lent the classic comedy an decadent air of farce, staging the chases, fights, and hidings with an easy, natural precision. Though the first scene of exposition lags somewhat, as so many opening scenes are wont to do, the play runs at a sprint from its second scene in Irene Molloy's hat shop onward. Particularly hysterical is a calamitous dinner scene in which Miss Molloy, her assistant Minnie (Andrea Runge), Barnaby, and Cornelius, discreetly eat in the same restaurant as Dolly and Horace. When a waiter played by Victor Dolhai sees his best bottle of champagne swiped from its bucket, the play is at its hilarious peak.

A unique pleasure in viewing a selection of plays in repertory is experiencing the unbelievable malleability of actors. Many in the cast of "The Matchmaker" are spread across the diverse field of Wilder, Shakespeare, and Sophokles, alternating performances each day, sometimes more than once. McKenna will play Clytymnestra laster this season in Sophokles' "Elektra" - another manipulator, but without a sympathetic bone in her body. Tom McCamus is already doing double-duty, here, as Vandergelder and as Iachimo in "Cymbeline." McCamus woodsy, aloof performance as Vandergelder is virtually indistinguishable from his equally spectacular Iachimo. Truthfully I had no idea he was the same actor until I sat down to write this. 

"The Pirates of Penzance"

At 133 years young, the English duo Gilbert and Sullivan’s tuneful operetta "The Pirates of Penzance" can still be as fantastically funny as it was during its premiere at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City in 1879. But it takes a mighty keen understanding of Victorian circumstances and frivolity to properly translate it for a 2012 audience. Stratford’s new production at the Avon Theatre, directed by Ethan McSweeney, suffers from poorly communicated ideas, with the actors who pursue modern attitudes in major contrast to the actors taking a more classical approach. That perplexing contrast thickly coats the entire production. 

McSweeney has staged a genial, however rigidly conceived rendition of the century-old classic, that while flittingly fanciful, falls short of the work’s enormous comedic potential.  The production is unquestionably Victorian in aesthetic and performance. Its costumes by Paul Tazewell are lavish, exquisitely ornate, and period perfect. The new orchestrations by Michael Starobin, though injecting the sprightly sound with a seafaring brogue, imbue a slow-paced  stuffiness on the zippy music.  A comely period framing device begins and ends the play backstage as actors are preparing to go onstage to perform "Pirates" on the nineteenth century English stage. However, the polite frame ushers in a production more amiable than uproarious.

"Penzance" is a logical accompaniment to a festival of Shakespeare plays, as many productions at Stratford and other festivals over the years have proven. Gilbert and Sullivan's wordiness can be tackled with ease by most classical actors, and the silly plot is closely related to Shakespeare's own frenetic comedies. The young Frederic (Kyle Blair), having just turned twenty-one, turns away from his Piratic upbringing and the Pirate King (Sean Arbuckle), only to fall in love with the sweetly innocent Mabel (Amy Wallis), the daughter of a modern Major General (C. David Johnson). The lovers struggles amidst a tug-of-far betwixt the dimwitted, prissy pirates and the equally daft imperialist parliamentarians instigate a coyly delivered conversation on hereditary privilege and ineffective governance. But, if you don't catch even a lick of that, the play is always great fun. 

Sullivan's music will be immediately familiar, even to those who have never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. "Modern Major General" and "With Cat-Like Tread" have been twisted and parodied so many times that the originals have become less famous than their derivations. Here, the songs are adequately sung by the large cast, but the orchestrations' missing energy undermines their exciting power. "With Cat-Like Tread" is an easy show stopper, but in McSweeney's production it's just a means to an end.     

Kyle Blair inflates the role of Frederic from blandly attractive ingenue to a charismatic leading man, usurping the usual audience favoritism from the Pirate King and Major General. Blair effortlessly expatiates W.S. Gilbert's verbose lyrics, and makes every single word bright, crisp, and clear. Not the same can be said for every member of the cast. C. David Johnson slurs the Major General's text in a drunkenly ambivalent manner that comes across as a misguidedly purposeful choice. Sean Arbuckle as the Pirate King seems to be emulating the "Pirates of The Caribbean," but with great trepidation. Though "Penzance" is very much a man's operetta, the female roles of Mabel (Amy Wallis) and Ruth (Gabrielle Jones) carry as much jokey heft. Wallis and Jones, however, largely let the boys have their fun and play their roles in a most straightforward manner.   

The show's finale at Stratford was rather odd, indeed, harkening back to the farcical chases of Feydeau and Benny Hill in a slapsticky game of catch with a fuse-lit bomb. The bomb comically explodes, Jones returns to the stage, this time as an unscripted Deux ex Machina in the form of Queen Victoria, and the play resolves. Those few pushed elements of ridiculousness undermine the carefully crafted absurdity of the piece, and leave the audience largely scratching their heads in the operetta's actual finale. 

"You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown"

I've managed to avoid "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" for the whole of my theatre-going life. Not purposefully however, so I suppose Chuck was actually avoiding me like he does that little red-headed girl. The Charles Shultz comic strip musical revue is a staple of community theatres and high schools everwhere, and I can understand why. The show's condensed scenic infrastructure and the familiar, well-loved cartoon characters make it seemingly ideal for small companies looking to gain an audience foothold. Which is why I was so surprised to see it on the well-established Stratford Festival's season. 

Though I have a potent distaste for the musical itself, Stratford's production is reasonably strong, held together by an energetic, young cast with an unrefined earnestness and spirit.  I imagine that, in its premiere Off-Broadway in 1967, there must have been some inherent novelty in satirizing relevant characters in pop culture. But young people no longer grow up with Charlie, Snoopy, and Lucy; they watch Dora, Spongebob, and a stoner flick called Yo Gabba Gabba.  

Donna Feore's new production, though well staged and choreographed by the director-choreographer, is a victim of Clark Gesner's weak script and forgettable score (with additional contributions by Andrew Lippa and Michael Mayer). The musical is a series of scenes, mimicking the comic strip, which depict baseball games, new philosophies, choir practice, and the air born Red Baron. The comic book visual design is echoed in Michael Gianfrancesco's set, which, though colorful, looks like it was cobbled together. The major design focus becomes Kimberly Purtell's nifty videos and Dana Osborne's contemporary-looking costumes. 

Feore's cast works tightly as an ensemble with the most lively individual performances being given by Amy Wallis as the precocious Sally and Kevin Yee as blanket-loving Linus. Ken James Stewart plays that good man, Charlie Brown, and though Chuck's role is super muddled in the musical, Stewart's meekness lends some much needed heart to the character and to the play.

I was somewhat perturbed by the musicalization of the comic strip. What once was a subtly presented musing on the trials and tribulations of adolescence, is onstage, a mean-spirited celebration of bullies. Doesn't sound like family fare, right? The characters are all equally likable, which makes their cruelest actions all the more disturbing. And after two hours of treating each other contemptibly, the musical ends on a story-be-damned, message-laden song loftily titled "Happiness." The only lesson I could discern from the musical was that our actions have no consequences, only laugh-tracks.  -Johnny Oleksinski

Part Two will include reviews of "Cymbeline," "42nd Street," and "Much Ado About Nothing." The Stratford Festival runs through late October in Stratford, Ontario. For more information visit