The Passionate Playgoer

Two classics at the Stratford Festival about lust, desire and murder.

The Changeling

At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Set by Camellia Koo
Costumes by Judith Bowden
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound and composition by Debashis Sinha
Movement by Valerie Moore
Cast: Rodrigo Beilfuss
Tim Campbell
Ben Carlson
David Collings
Mikaela Davies
Ijeoma Emesowam
Jacklyn Francis
Jessica B. Hill
Zara Jestadt
Josh Johnston
Qasim Khan
Robert King
Josue Laboucane
Cyrus Lane
Mike Nadajewski
Gareth Potter
Michael Spencer Davis
Rylan Wilkie

A bracing, compelling production of and rip-roaring play.

The Story. The Changeling was written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley about 1622. It’s about lust, desire and murder. Director Jackie Maxwell has updated this to take place in Spain between 1936 and 1939 during the Spanish Civil War.

A nobleman named Alsemero has fallen in love with Beatrice-Joanna, and she with him. But her father has promised her to another man. Beatrice-Joanna is loved from afar by her father’s servant, De Flores. She knows he loves her but loathes him, first because he’s ugly, and second because she just hates him. But she ever resourceful and wanting what she wants, Beatrice-Joanna convinces De Flores to solve her problem, so De Flores kills the other guy. Beatrice-Joanna marries Alsemero, but of course De Flores wants payback.This is where things get messy.

The Production. The production works beautifully by updating it, because of course, name me a time in which lust, desire and murder aren’t timely. You have a time of uncertainty because of the Spanish Civil War and of Franco’s military presence. There is a scene in which a giant puppet figure of Franco, with his moving hands, walks through crowds on stage. Impressive. Characters in military uniforms wander around scene giving a sense of being watched.

It’s Spain so that sense of heat and heightened emotions are present as well. And there are enough weird things in real life where we know of people who coerce others into doing nasty things to get their way. It’s that whole thing of lust and passion and not thinking straight. It’s not just concerning Beatrice-Joanna. It also consumes De Flores. Under the best of times he is a clear-thinking opportunist. He is a hard-edged, bitter man. And when he gets Beatrice-Joanna to even look at him, let alone ask him to do this ‘little’ thing for her, he’s gung ho. Also the sex between them is powerful so Beatrice-Joanna is at once repelled but also enticed. I just love that panting helplessness between the two of them.

In Camellia Koo’s set here are four archways on steel rods across the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre. At first I think this might be problematic because often we are looking through the steel rods to see the characters on the other side of the stage. But in a way, that obstruction works for the secrecy and intrigue of the piece. Judith Bowden’s costumes are equally impressive. The men are in well-tailored suites often in light fabric as befitting a hot country. The dress for Beatrice-Joanna is form-fitting and flowing at the same time.

Jackie Maxwell has directed a production that is eerie in atmosphere and brimming with seething passion. The chemistry between De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna is that mix of revulsion and then a hopeless lust. Beatrice-Joanna is played by Mikaela Davies. She is confident, spoiled, seductive, coy and dangerous in her flirting. De Flores is played by Ben Carlson. This is a powerhouse actor. He is fastidious in the details of his character—De Flores is efficient, angry because of how he is treated by Beatrice-Joanna but hopelessly attracted to her against his better judgement. When they rage at each other, he is fairly bites off his words. The audience is just swept along with all this intrigue and bubbling emotions.

Comment. A terrific production that bubbles with intrigue, heightened emotions and the breathlessness of desire.


At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Euripides
Adapted by Anne Carson in a new translation.
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Designed by Shawn Kerwin
Lighting by Cimmeron Meyer
Composed by Veda Hille
Sound by Don Ellis
Intimacy choreographer, Tonia Sina
Cast: Graham Abbey
Sarah Afful
Nigel Bennett
Jasmine Chen
Laura Condlln
Rosemary Dunsmore
Mac Fyfe
Brad Hodder
Gordon S. Miller
Andre Morin
Lucy Peacock
E.B. Smith
Quelema Sparrow
Diana Tso
Bahia Watson

A production in which the director has obscured the play with her directorial excesses and not allowed the play to speak for itself.

The Story. A story about lust, desire and murder, sort of a theme with these two plays. Bakkhai was written by Euripides about 2500 years ago and adapted by Anne Carson giving it a contemporary feel to it.

Pentheus is the King of Thebes. He’s upset that many of the women of the city have come under the spell of Dionysus, the god of wine, sexual liberation and hedonism. The women have left the confines of their homes and husbands to follow the ways of Dionysus. Pentheus declares war on such behaviour. He even criticizes Dionysus and questions if he is a god or not.

Dionysus tricks Pentheus into dressing as a woman and spying on this group of women in the forest, just so he can get a good idea of the kind of behaviour to which he is objecting. Dionysus gets the last laugh. The women in the forest see a stranger looking at them (never mind in drag and a lousy wig) and they attack him and rip him to shreds, not knowing it was Pentheus. This was particularly brutal because one of the women ripping him to shreds was his own mother Agave. The message is clear: don’t mess with the gods or they will get you.

The Production. You would think that with all this heightened emotion in the play, the production would have captured it. But alas, no.

It’s directed by Jillian Keiley. When she is creating her own productions of original plays created with her own company, Artistic Fraud, she’s terrific. I think of such wonderful work as Oil and Water and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, as beautiful examples of this cohesive effort. She has created a structured way of moving, involving lights, sound, music, sets and sound etc. to work for the whole idea of the show.

But when a story already exists as Bakkhai does along with As You Like It, last year at Stratford and The Diary of Anne Frank, the year before that, then her structured techniques and ‘concept’ don’t work, try as she does to force them on the story. That’s what we have here.

Shawn Kerwin’s evocative set design, which could be the suggestion of genitalia, and her free-flowing costumes for the women and Dionysius, and a suit for Pentheus work nicely.

Cimmeron Meyer’s lighting is initially impressive and atmospheric. I say ‘initially’ impressive because then the lighting seems to take on a life of its own. The Bakkhai (Chorus) are flashed with dazzling light, then dappled with it so that the Bakkhai as people are unrecognizable. The lighting effect seems to be all here, and not illuminating the Bakkhai for us to see them.

Veda Hille has composed an almost pop-music sounding score for the Bakkhai with lots of percussion and throbbing sounds. One of the many problems is that with all that ambient sound the words the Bakkhai sing are often unintelligible. Considering the Bakkhai comment on the play and their words are important, not being able to actually hear them is not a good thing.

There’s so much swaying and writhing of the Bakkhai to form pretty images it often doesn’t serve the story. Interestingly when a character is on stage alone with only the words to say, this is when Jillian Keiley cannot upstage the scene with visual stuff or cluttered sound. It’s almost as if the actors are left to their own devices and this is where the production shines because this is a cast of accomplished actors.

E.B. Smith as the Herdsman is quite emotional describing seeing the women on a mountain. Gordon S. Miller as Pentheus is hot-headed and short-tempered but easily seduced by Dionysus. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. Tonia Sina is listed as an Intimacy choreographer to help in ‘creating’ orgasms. Pity no one from this production saw John Neumeier’s erotic production of A Streetcar Named Desire for the National Ballet. Mr. Neumeier is known simply as a choreographer.

Mac Fyfe as Dionysus is sensual, seductive and almost androgynous which makes him even more mysterious. Also stellar is Lucy Peacock as Agave, certainly when she rushes on, in a frenzy with the head of her dead son (Pentheus), and she isn’t aware it’s him.

Agave arrives with his head in a dark plastic bag she just seems to have found on the way down the mountain of hedonism. She pulls out the head, seemingly wrapped is some blond curly stuff. It certainly does not look like the wig that Pentheus wore to spy on the women so confusion is justified. Surely when his head was ripped off the wig would have come off too. That whole thing seems a bit silly.

What isn’t silly is Lucy Peacock’s gripping, emotional performance. When she is forced to strip off her flowing robes and put on her confining girdle and then her form-fitting tight clothing she was used to wearing she then becomes a woman again confined to a rigid code (smart touch by Jillian Keiley here and Shawn Kerwin). Her grief at what she’s done is heart-squeezing.

Good acting aside, this production is a disappointment.

Comment. A clue to the initial problem lies in Jillian Keiley’s program note. She says that she thought Bakkhai was a feminist tract and forced this concept on the production, until Anne Carson told her that was not the case. Keiley then changed her idea to something else and said she tried to ‘force’ that concept on the production and that failed. Then she decided to let the play speak for itself and all sorts of themes appeared! What an idea: “When in doubt, read the play for the clues, information, instructions about what it’s about!” But then there is Keiley’s need to ‘force’ all the other stuff on the production.

It seems that Jillian Keiley is so intent on forcing her concept on a play that she can’t see it won’t/can’t support the concept. If you don’t trust the material to speak for itself (with mindful direction) then you shouldn’t direct the play. Frustrating.

The Changeling plays at the Stratford Festival until Sept. 23.

Bakkhai plays at the Stratford Festival also until Sept. 23.


At the Famous Spiegeltent, David Pecaut Square, Toronto, Ont.

Note: Because of my theatre schedule and openings at the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, I am only able to see four Luminato events. Here are reviews of two of them.

Leanne Simpson

From the program: “Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a renowned Mitch Saagiig Nishnaabeg artist, musician poet and writer, who has been widely recognized as one of the most compelling indigenous voices of her generation.”

She was introduced as simply Leanne Simpson, not using her middle name. She spoke or sang 10 poems/songs which celebrate or remember nature, a wonderful old tree, the return of salmon to the area where she lives (Peterborough, Ont.) ice fishing, missing indigenous women, stolen canoes and healing a child, hurt by racism.

For the most part Simpson recited her poems. Often they were accompanied by the excellent musicianship of Cris Derksen on cello and vocals, Ansley Simpson on guitar and vocals and Nick Ferrio on guitar and vocals. Occasionally the poems were transformed into song with Leanne Simpson and her sister Ansley beautifully harmonizing.

Leanne Simpson is a compelling, haunting performer. When she is reciting her dense, textured poems she recites them in a soft voice, with her eyes closed and a crease of concern between her eyes. The poems are usually short. The only time she opens her eyes is after the poem, to acknowledge the applause.

While her voice is soft, her quiet rage is pointed. She represents a people who settled the land and then were overcome by colonialism, the ruin of nature and air etc. by those that usurped those indigenous people. When she speaks of a person who is mean, cruel and stupid it’s always with a mention of their skin colour and the colour is always white. She sent a poem to a musician to musicalize and when it was returned as a dance she lamented, “Ahhh white man” until he told her and realized that it was a celebration she missed. When her daughter is traumatized by a racist slur it’s noted that the cretin (my word) who said it was white.

Leanne Simpson is quiet and powerful.

This was her last show.

Ghost Rings

Written and directed by Tina Satter.
Music composed by Chris Giarmo and Erin Markey
Set by Parker Lutz
Lighting by Chris Kuhl
Puppet Design by Amanda Villalobos
Costume Design by Enver Chakartash

From the program: “An energetic pop concert meets contemporary drama, from the critically-acclaimed, Obie Award-winning theatre ensemble, Half Straddle, Ghost Rings follows a narrative of friendship and family told with a mix of deadpan magical realism and a thoroughly feminist worldview. Playwright and performer Tina Satter, songwriters and performers Chris Giarmo and Erin Markey and performer Kristen Sieh offer an unusual, tender, and harrowingly funny melodic performance that contrasts the romantic memories of two friends with Satter’s real-life relationship to her estranged sister.”

In your dreams.

This is an incomprehensible, self-indulgent, drivelling mess. Never mind ‘deadpan’, how about bored and condescending. There is nothing magical or real about this. Initially it sounds intriguing when a spandex-clad Tina Satter talks about her sister, but then veers off to tell us of her band and how she taught herself the drums. (Keep practicing, please). There is a droning conversation between an owl (I think) puppet and a doe puppet. One of the singers tells the other she’s pregnant and the baby is hers (meaning the other singer). I’m thinking, ‘transexual?” Then I see it. Is this a penis I see before me, I think, as I look at the heavily designed tights of one of the singers? At the crotch and up the short area above it is a penis in the design of the tights. Hmm.

No matter. This show makes no sense. The sound often drowns out the lyrics. That the singers don’t enunciate doesn’t help.

By the time the show ends we don’t’ really care about the estrangement of the sisters.

Ghost Rings also plays June 21 and 22.


At the Imperial Theatre, New York City.

Music, lyrics, book and orchestrations by Dave Malloy
Adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Music direction by Or Matias
Set by Mimi Lien
Costumes by Paloma Young
Lighting by Bradley King
Sound by Nicholas Pope
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Cast: Brittain Ashford
Gelsey Bell
Nicholas Belton
Dené Benton
Nick Choksi
Amber Gray
Josh Grobin
Grace McLean
Paul Pinto
Lucas Steel

I never wanted to leave a show at intermission as much as I wanted to leave this one. But didn’t.

The Story. Even though the show is a slice of “War and Peace”, it’s still dense. The program gives us an idea of who is married to whom and who loves whom and who is unhappy (most of them, it is after all written by Tolstoy).

Natasha is a sweet, blushing young woman engaged to Andrey, who is off fighting in the Napoleonic War. Pierre, mournful, unhappy, is married to cold, imperious Hélène, which would explain why he is unhappy. Anatole is a slick womanizer who is the brother of Hélène. Anatole also has designs on sweet, blushing Natasha and she has a hard time saying no to him. Sonya is Natasha’s cousin and confidant. Mary is Andrey’s sister and none too happy with sweet, blushing Natasha. And they all sing about it in Dave Malloy’s clever lyrics

The Production. Set designer, Mimi Lien has transformed the large Imperial Theatre into a space of ramps, walk-ways and staircases, and made the stage unrecognizable because of the many and various people sitting there in many and various seating arrangements.

The wonderful director Rachel Chavkin has directed this epic over the course of its life in a tiny space, a tent (I believe) and now the huge Imperial. The cast charge up the aisles, over the ramps, down and up the stairs and on walkways in front of sections of the audience. I would not call that immersive as the audience sits in place while the cast does all the moving.

There is a cheeky introduction that says that because it’s Tolstoy it’s very complicated and all the info is in your program (which would mean you would have to flip through it during the show, which I don’t think is a good idea). Each character is introduced in his/her own spotlight. This can get complicated so they do repeat it about once. I think I got lost at Mary.

It is a great swirl of activity. Rachel Chavkin keeps the momentum of the movement whizzing at a great speed. There is a breathlessness to it. I got one of the boxes of perogies or whatever that was they gave us?

It’s almost all sung and Dave Malloy’s lyrics are so clever. It’s the ‘music’ that kills me. Each song is introduced by a lilting melody. Then when the song starts it’s all just so much recitative—the narrative filler in opera between arias. There is not one melody that I can hang on to, not one song I want to hear again. The result is that I want to go screaming into the night at intermission. Bombarded by cleverness but not melody. I don’t’ mean I want to hum anything. God knows Sondheim makes it difficult in his own way, but by God he DOES have melodies that are right for the characters. And Mr. Malloy does not. Twittering is what it sounds like. No thank you.

As sweet, blushing Natasha, Denée Benton has charm and a sense of innocence. As Anatole, Lucas Steele uses business for days. He plays it to the hilt with his shock of white/blond hair, his affected body language, his sashaying around the stage like a lothario. Pierre is played by the always mournful-looking Josh Groban. He has a full beard, longish hair, permanently knit-eyebrows to convey his unhappiness in his marriage and he sings about it all with a full throated baritone.

Comment. I applauded politely when it was over and then, scurried into the fresh air of the night, took a deep breath and was thankful that if I was lucky, I would never, ever have to see or hear this show again.

Presented by about a trillion producers.

Opened: Nov. 14, 2016.
Closes: open ended.
Running Time: 3 hours approx. It’s Tolstoy, sort of.

War Paint

At the Nederlander Theatre, New York City.

Book by Doug Wright
Inspired by “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead and “The Powder and the Glory” by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman.
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli
Set by David Korins
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Lighting by Kenneth Posner
Sound by Brian Ronan
Cast: John Dossett
Christine Ebersole
Patti LuPone
Douglas Sills
With a ‘chorus’ of 16.

>Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden are at the top of their game at the beginning of the show and at the end, with precious little information in the middle of how they got there. Power house performances by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole.

The Story. Helena Rubinstein was a Polish Jew who lived in Australia, London and finally New York. She created her own cosmetics and built her company into an empire, making her one of the richest women in the Unites States.

Elizabeth Arden was born in Ontario but eventually moved to New York to work. She was named Florence Nightengale Graham and changed her name for business purposes to Elizabeth Arden. She too built her own cosmetics company and gave tips on how to apply make-up etc. She too became very rich. Rubinstein and Arden were arch rivals but never actually met.

The Production. David Korins’ set is spare but rich looking. Both ladies sit at ornate and neat desks. Behind them are shelves with productions, illuminated in neon light. Elizabeth Arden’s colour was pink so everything seems to be pink.

Catherine Zuber’s costumes are lush, elegant, haute couture. Those for Helena Rubinstein look over the top with oodles of jewellery on fingers, wrists, around the neck and on lapels. And the shiny wig of tightly coiled hair is stunning. Everything about ‘the look’ makes a statement and Catherine Zuber knows how to make a statement. Elizabeth Arden is beautifully dressed as well. And both women wear hats with style.

Director Michael Greif is careful to stage this so that the two cosmetic icons just miss bumping into each other at restaurants etc. And when they are in their own worlds they still seem to be crossing into and out of the other’s space.

But I was stunned at the clunky staging of their entrances, especially Elizabeth Arden. Various customers of Elizabeth Arden’s make their entrances through a moveable red door, usually stage left.

(I remember that iconic red door at Elizabeth Arden’s on Fifth Ave. I recall watching the doorman opening the door for women going into the store. But he also seemed to know when a woman was about to leave because he just miraculously opened the door and there was the customer, leaving.)

In any case Ms Arden’s arrival is announced in a series of calls to the store to alert the staff of the boss’s arrival: “She’s just turned from 63rd Street.” “She’s a few streets away”, etc. I keep looking at the red door stage left because the focus seems to be there. Then miraculously Elizabeth Arden appears, over there, stage right, at the top of a small staircase. Great applause from the multitudes. Total confusion from me. She’s at the top of the stairs in her street clothes—still wearing her hat, gloves and outer garments. Did she fly in from a window on the second floor because that’s the only explanation that would have her UP on the TOP of a small staircase? Exhale.

There is a build up to the entrance of Helena Rubinstein and there she is on a short gangplank getting off a ship that has brought her to New York. Great fanfare and well deserved. Patti LuPone plays Helena Rubinstein.

The music by Scott Frankel and the lyrics by Michael Korie (both created the score for Grey Gardens) are nondescript to me. The first song, “Best Face Forward” does set up the whole notion of the show—about makeup, pretence, glamour etc. But one song makes me crazy. Beside the title of “If I’d Been A Man”, I carve the word “BULLSHIT” in my program. This is sung by Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein as they wonder if they could have gone further if they had been a man.

Let us ponder this a while. They are two women who formed their own companies. In the case of Helena Rubinstein she was a woman on her own and could not get a bank loan. So she started her company WITH HER OWN MONEY! Both women were masters at their products, marketing, reading the public and using their smarts and wits. Both women were at the top of their game because they created this particular game. And here they are singing a stupid song wondering if they could have gone farther if they were a man. Only a man in this instance could/would write such an unperceptive song. Sorry fellahs.

Here are two iconic actresses playing two iconic women in business and doing it beautifully. Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein is a diminutive force. She has a voice like steel. I do have trouble sometimes making out what she is singing (much has been made for a long time about Ms LuPone’s penchant for not enunciating—great voice though she has). She sings that “she’s at the dop.” ??? “Dop?” Hmmm. OH, I GET IT!!! TOP! She’s at the top. Ok. Ms Rubinstein has an accent. So now Ms LuPone does not enunciate with an accent. Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden is bright, charming and formidable when making tough decisions. One of those decisions was to fire her husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), who had been her right hand man who then went to work for Helena Rubinstein. By the same token, Rubinstein’s right hand man, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills) left in a huff and went to work for Elizabeth Arden, and took Rubinstein’s secrets with him.

The two women sing of narcissism, the colour pink, being past their best by date and being women in a man’s world. Precious little of the songs or Doug Wright’s book actually tell us how these women got where they got; the details, the minutiae. We need that.

A fabricated scene at the end has both women speaking at an event for young women. As they wait to be called they ruminate together on their journey to this point in time. Then a dippy, twittery, up-speaking young woman comes to collect the two icons to speak to the audience. The dippy young woman does not seem to actually know who these women are. Is that how you really want to end your musical, with an idiot too witless to know about these two great women?

Unsatisfying all round.

Comment. Isn’t Wikipedia a great thing? All the stuff you don’t get in the musical purporting to be about these two icons, you can get in Wikipedia. It’s great to see two different powerhouses –LuPone and Ebersole—together. I just wish the vehicle was better.

Presented by David Stone and Marc Platt (Ben Platt’s father) and seven other producers.

Opened: April 6, 2017.
Closes: Open ended.
Cast: 20; 7 men, 13 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

>Dear Evan Hansen

At the Music Box Theatre

Book by Steven Levenson
Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Directed by Michael Grief
Choreography by Danny Mefford
Scenic design by David Korins
Production design by Peter Nigrini
Costumes by Emily Rebholz
Lighting by Japhy Weideman
Sound by Nevin Steinberg
Cast: Rachel Bay Jones
Laura Dreyfuss
Mike Faist
Kristolyn Lloyd
Michael Park
Ben Platt
Will Roland
Jennifer Laura Thompson

Gut-wrenching for the audience and Ben Platt who plays Evan Hansen. And it’s a musical proving beautifully that this most popular genre of theatre is perfect for dealing with uncomfortable subjects, in this case, anxiety, depression and feeling lost and alone.

The Story. Evan Hansen is a teenager who suffers from anxiety, depression and feelings of being invisible and alone. His psychiatrist tells him to write himself a letter (hence, Dear Evan Hansen) about the good things in his life. His mother, Heidi, is a single parent trying her best with Evan but feels she has failed him. The letter Evan writes is anything but uplifting. As Evan is printing the letter at school Connor Murphy, a bully with his own feelings of being lost and abandoned, takes the letter and pushes Evan. Three days later Evan is called into the principal’s office to face Connor’s parents. They have the letter Evan wrote. Connor has killed himself and his parents think that the letter addressed to Evan Hansen is Connor’s suicide note. They believe that Evan and Connor were friends and want to know more. Instead of telling them the truth, Evan lies and makes up a whole story about his secret (straight) friendship with Connor. The story explodes out of control.

The Production. The first song is sung by Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mother, and Cynthia Murphy, Connor’s Mom. They have it rough too. They try and find a way to reach their lost, wayward, angry sons and are as lost and angry as they are. This gives the show a larger focus, it’s not just about the teenaged boys, it’s also about their struggling mothers.

When Evan (Ben Platt) appears he is sitting on his bed, looking out to us, anxious, isolated, lost. The reaction of the audience is explosive. Now that Ben Platt has won the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical I assume that reaction will be electrifying.

Mr. Platt has a lot of ticks, quirky gestures, awkward body language and it all works to create this shy, awkward, lonely kid. He joins the index finger and the thumb on both hands and then brings these fingers from both hands together so that it looks like he’s playing with some string or something small. Terrific gesture. His whole performance is a raft of such stuff.

He sometimes gasps softly and up-speaks to illustrate his uncertainty. In Act II he has s song, “Words Fail,” in which he confesses the whole lie. He is shredded by his deception. He sobs while he sings. His fact is awash with tears. His nose drips. I’m sorry but I’m taken right out of the scene and the song. My failing. I am just not engaged in that soul-crushing stuff when an actor thinks he has to saw off his arm to affect the soul-shredding the character is doing. I want to yell: “Get a grip!” but of course don’t.

The performance is masterful. Mr. Platt sings beautifully and spills his guts for the whole show.

As Connor, Mike Faist is strong, wily and a bit bullying to Evan. Faist has a careless attitude when it comes to Connor, but over time there is an understanding. I can’t tell you how because that will give it away.

Rachel Bay Jones as Heidi Hansen tries to understand her troubled son but it’s hard. She works full time and also goes to school to be able to get a better job. Lovely performane.

Comment. Steven Levenson’s book is rich in complex issues about troubled youth and their parents. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics capture the angst and anxiety of all those involved. I play the CD a lot. Smart lyrics.

What a fascinating idea for a show. A show about teenaged anxiety and depression, suicide and examining the misfit. Stunning.

Produced by Stacey Minditch and about 34 others.

Opened: Dec. 2016
Closed: Open ended
Cast: 8; 4 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes approx.


At the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on—the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Rick Salutin with Theatre Passe Muraille
Directed by Philip Akin
Designed by Rachel Forbes
Lighting by Steve Lucas
Music direction by John-Luke Addison
Cast: Donna Belleville
Sharry Flett
Jonah McIntosh
Marla McLean
Ric Reid
Cherissa Richards
Travis Seetoo
Jeremiah Sparks

A production that is valiant in its creativity but the play has passed it’s ‘best by’ date.

The Story. This being the sesquicentennial of Canada, I can appreciate why artistic director, Tim Carroll chose this one. It’s a play about the revolt of farmers in Upper Canada against British rule and the corruption of the government in place with its arbitrary rules. People cleared land and farmed it thinking that since they did the work, the land was theirs. Nope. They found that they could be thrown off the land by corrupt people in power who now wanted a lot of money for the land these people had cleared and worked.

The story is made up of various episodes pertaining to many and various participants. Eventually the farmers got fed up and were organized to rebel by William Lyon MacKenzie. The rebellion was the beginning of Confederation.

The Production. The play was created in the early 1970s by the Theatre Passe Muraille cast. They improvised during the day and what they settled on was then written down by playwright/historian Rick Salutin. Salutin was and is deeply interested in politics and could put things in historical context.

The production at the Shaw Festival is full of creativity and invention because of its director Philip Akin and the wonderful cast of eight who play all the parts regardless of gender and ethnicity.

Rachel Forbes’ set is simple with a grouping of logs that form a winding ramp with stumps around the ramp. A cast of eight play all the parts. Akin wanted to shake things up so women play men and there is a mash-up of genders.

He calls it “a rich, percolating stew of a play….I wanted to explore it without regard to race, gender or even culture…I wanted …to flip our expectations of what we would normally consider a historical play to be.” Very honourable.

Its cast of eight is terrific. Akin has them create the percussive sound and movement through clapping and tapping themselves on arms and legs etc. There is a throb and pulse to the movement of this wonderful ensemble.

Since the play was initially improvised characterization is not a strong point in the text. But this is a gifted cast and they bring their humanity and humanness to the play and their characters. Ric Reid plays William Lyon MacKenzie with focus, a clear eye and a bit of an edge. He’s a wonderful actor. There is a scene between a mail order bride and the man she will marry. The shy bride is played by Sharry Flett. Her equally stoical, awkward groom is played by Marla McLean. These two women do wonders in creating the halting, unsure relationship between this woman and man. Later the man has to go to fight and we see the love that has grown between the two. It is beautifully acted and you just ache with their heart-ache at having to part.

Comment. Still, while I can appreciate why Tim Carroll chose 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, I think it’s a really odd choice for the Shaw Festival. The play opened in 1973 at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto when it was on Trinity Square. The play was then called 1837.

The next year it was extensively revised and renamed 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt “to emphasize the rebellion’s rural roots. It had several professional tours, remounts and other productions in the 1970s.” Conspicuous by its absence is any reference to any productions after the 1970s.

The show’s initial strength was the improvisations. But on the page, it’s just dull. The production at the Shaw Festival is valiant in its creativity, but at its basic level the play is a bunch of facts and endless lists of characters without much development or context so we don’t know who they are really.

There is a long speech by a character who itemizes the many and various people and their relatives who run the government. It’s instantly clear they are all corrupt but the speech goes on and on with more and more names piled into the speech so that your head is swimming with information when we got the point already. Later on when MacKenzie is organizing the farmers things get lively, but it’s a hard slog until then.

Ok it chronicles the country’s beginning but that doesn’t mean the play should be revived if it’s past its best by date. Since the 1970s our political theatre such as it is has come a long way. I think of the sharp, spare, satiric aim of VideoCabaret that skewers and illuminates the same time period and it engages us at all times. I think choosing 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt is unfortunate, valiant effort notwithstanding. I can’t even imagine what American visitors to the Shaw Festival will make of this.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Opened: May 27, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 8, 2017.
Cast: 8; 4 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, approx..

Treasure Island.

At the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Robert Louis Stevenson
Adapted by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Mitchell Cushman
Set by Douglas Paraschuk
Costumes by Charlotte Dean
Lighting by Kevin Fraser
Composed and sound by Debashis Sinha
Projections by Nick Bottomley
Cast: Thomas Mitchell Barnet
Juan Chioran
Sarah Dodd
Randy Hughson
Katelyn McCulloch
Gordon Patrick White
And others.

It’s the Robert Louis Stevenson classic about pirates, a treasure map, buried treasure, a one-legged pirate and his parrot. Director Mitchell Cushman puts everything in this production except perhaps the kitchen sink.

The Story. When the audience files in we get a program of course, but all kids get a treasure map as well. Kids are invited on stage to look through a telescope by a man in sailing costume/pirate? To look and find the man with the one leg named Long John Silver.

The Production. Nicolas Billon adapted the play from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. Mitchell Cushman directs it. When the show begins a father is reading a bedtime story to his son, James, about pirates etc. His sister Bennett is asleep in the bunk above. When James is tucked in, he of course dreams of the pirates and Long John Silver and the treasure map etc. and is transported to that land and all the attendant adventures.

Nick Bottomley’s projections are magical. Images are projected on the curtain in a kind of projection I’ve never seen before. Images seem to appear as if from water and just as quickly, disappear.

James the young boy becomes Jim Hawkins in the Treasure Island adventure—Thomas Mitchell Barnet plays him with sweet innocence and energetic curiosity. Juan Chioran plays James’ caring dad as well as a very commanding, compassionate Long John Silver.
There is a lovely bond between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. So there is a bond both in real life and in the fantasy story between Jim/James and Long John Silver/Dad.

The character of Ben Gunn is played by Katelyn McCulloch, who is a master aerialist, who does all her tricks suspended above the stage using swaths of silk. One is tempted to just watch her do tricks and not listen to what she is saying. Don’t give in to temptation.

There is a lot of playing to the audience and the kids get right into it. Jim Hawkins is looking for a character who is behind him and of course asks the audience if they have seen this character. The audience steps up and yells: “HE’S BEHIND YOU!” And this is where Jim gets deaf. “WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” To which the kids scream more and are in earnest. I am tempted to stand up and yell something inappropriate: “He’s behind you, you goofball, turn around and let’s get going with the story, eh, the meter’s ticking!”

Comment. Kids are a tough audience and for the most part I thought the production pulled off the feat of telling the story, with lots of breathless activity. But I do have to wonder why the cast, for the most part, shout everything. Kids hate to be shouted at. Stop it! We’re in the room! We hear you. Can you turn it down, please?

There is a bit at the end when James comes back to the real world when he’s talking to his mother, that comes as a surprise and I don’t think that revelation is developed enough. I won’t give it away, but more information is needed to fill the gap.

But as I said, Treasure Island is totally for kids and I think they will love it.

Presented by the Stratford Festival

Opened: June 3, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 22, 2017.
Cast: 20: 12 men, 8 women
Running Time: 2 hours approx..


At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

Choreography, Costumes Set and Lighting by John Neumeier
Staged by John Neumeier, Tamas Detrich and Laura Cazzaniga
Music by Sergei Prokofiev and Alfred Schnittke

NOTE: For a brilliant review read Martha Schabas in the Globe and Mail. I’m just commenting on the look, sweep, emotion and visceral wallop of this piece.

This production is astonishing in its realization of Tennessee Williams’ play about a fragile-minded, faded belle and her descent into madness.

Choreographer, John Neumeier begins his story in the mental asylum where Blanche Dubois (Jurgita Dronina) has just arrived. She sits on a bed, her suitcase rests on the head of the bed. She stares blankly out us.

She is haunted by memories of her marriage when she found her husband Allan (Spencer Hack) in the arms of another man with fatal consequences. Her loneliness drives her to easy sex with men in hotels. That finally pushes her to go to New Orleans and be with her sister Stella (Emma Hawes) and her husband Stanley (Harrison James). Stanley is one dangerous sexual animal. Stanley feels he’s been pushed aside because of Blanche. He has enough of Blanche’s interference in his house. He rapes her. It drives her over the edge and Stanley has Blanche committed to the mental institute. She is taken there by a stern nurse dressed in black and a doctor, also dressed in black. When the doctor turns around to face us we see it’s the same dancer (Spencer Hack)who played her husband Allan in Act I.

The production is breathtaking, not just because of the imagination and sweep of the piece, but because of the stillness of seeing such a wounded soul as Blanche in the first scene. There is a fatalism about Blanche’s situation, as if she could not help it. But of course her sense of herself as a southern belle with genteel ways could also be seen as Blanche being a natural flirt and the men she attracted taking advantage of that.

The acting of these dancers is stunning. Jurgita Dronina as Blanche has that distracted, other-worldly air of a woman totally out of her time. She wants to be back in Belle Reve, her girlhood home where everything was genteel, and that’s not possible.

As Allan Spencer Hack is flighty, sprightly, delicate and comfortable in the arms of his male lover. His humiliation when Blanche sees him with his lover is soul crushing because it leads to Allan’s suicide. As Stanley, Harrison James swaggers with such brimming confidence. He knows his power on men and women. The sex with Stella—an equally accommodating Emma Hawes—is muscular, athletic, raw and consensual. It is like watching two rutting animals go at it with equal passion and abandon.

And the rape scene with Stanley and Blanche is something else again-cruel, overpowering, deliberate, emotionally charged and it leaves you limp in your seat. The result is that Blanche ends the play as she began it, in the asylum, sitting on her bed, looking blankly out to us.

I love the play but this ballet invests another kind of life and emotion to it. It’s a piece of art that is astonishing. Brilliant.

It closes today (June 10)after only a week’s run.


At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon
Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore
Music direction by Laura Burton
Set by Michael Gianfrancesco
Costumes by Dana Osborne
Lighting by Michael Walton
Sound by Peter Boyle
Cast: Sean Arbuckle
Evan Buliung
Beau Dixon
Alexis Gordon
Lisa Horner
John Kirkpatrick
Laurie Murdock
Glynis Ranney
Steve Ross
Brad Rudy
Mark Uhre
Blythe Wilson

Lively and joyous with a few concerns including please, PLEASE lower the volume! We actually want to hear and listen to the dialogue and music without having our ears drums burst.

The Story. Nathan Detroit, poor soul, is frantically looking for a private place for his floating craps game. He can’t let Miss Adelaide, his fiancée of 14 years know because she wants him to give it up. The police of course must not know. Nathan needs a quick $1,000 as a deposit on a place for the craps game so he bets Sky Masterson—a slick gambler who bets on anything—on how much cheesecake vs strudel is sold at a particular restaurant. That idea flops too. But Sky is bet that he can’t take any ‘doll’ on a little trip to Havana, Cuba. Sky takes the bet until he realizes whom he has to take. It’s prim, proper Miss Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army. Will he succeed or will Sarah thwart him.

The Production. Director/choreographer Donna Feore and her smart set designer, Michael Gianfrancesco initially create the grey, dark and gloomy world of New York City in the dead of night. That’s when the sharp-dressing, formal, quirky-talking gambling, gangster guys and their sassy dolls come to life.

Feore sets the tone of this lively, slightly dangerous world of mobsters and gamblers with the cleverest bit of business to get us to turn off our phones. A mobster wanders on stage. A phone upstage rings, and rings and rings. The mobster paces in frustration at the ringing. He takes out his gun and shoots it. Silence. Then the mobster looks at us and points, indicating the same might happen if our phones go off.

In a flash that grey world changes into blazing neon colour (Kudos to lighting designer, Michael Walton). Feore makes those people pulse with kinetic energy as a pickpocket goes about his business of relieving people of their heavy wallets, men and women meet for dates, even a poor drunk has his own little story when he thinks he got lucky as he sidles up to a woman in a red dress and begins to fondle her breasts, not realizing ‘she’ is a mannequin. A photographer takes flash pictures of it all. In a wonderful bit of cheek Feore makes the photographer a woman. It’s doubtful that would happen in the 1930s (the approximate time of the show), but since the women in Guys and Dolls rule why not make the photographer a woman too. Love that.

Dana Osborne’s flashy, form-fitting suits for the guys and the skimpy garb for the chorus-girl dolls (except for Sarah Brown and her ‘sisters’) suggests a world of dazzle and preening. The men take pride in how they look and these suits show that off.

But while clothes might make the man, (or woman) it’s an actor’s performance that makes the character and the performances here are very fine. Sean Arbuckle as Nathan Detroit is a man who worries; first about finding a place for the craps game and then about keeping it from Miss Adelaide. He is a man who likes things the way they are, so I guess that’s why he doesn’t marry Adelaide. Arbuckle creates a portrait of a sweet wimp who does love Adelaide but can’t move forward. Blyth Wilson plays Adelaide as almost always smiling, except for her sneezing when she gets frustrated with Nathan’s lack of movement towards marriage. I do wish that Wilson has a bit more edge to her portrayal. Adelaide has grit. Wilson could show more of it. Her singing and dancing are dandy.

Alexis Gordon, as Sarah Brown, has such nuance and layers to her portrayal of this uptight, upright salvation army woman. And she sings with a clear soprano voice that floats with ease. She is equally matched by Evan Buliung as the suave Sky Masterson. Nothing fazes him or intimidates him until he meets Sarah. And what starts as a bet to take her to Havana ends with him falling in love with her. Sky is an honourable man with a conscience and a strong moral centre—all beautifully rendered in Buliung’s performance.

One can go crazy with the puns and word play of Steve Ross’ performance as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. I won’t fall into the trap. Ross plays Nicely-Nicely as a kind of distracted, sweet, always eating ‘nebbish.’ He scurries with a purpose and sings like a dream, especially in “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat.”

Feore’s choreography as always is fast almost to the point of frantic and leaves everyone, including the audience, breathless. Whether it’s the intoxicating throb of “Havana” or the revival meeting vibe of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat,” or the acrobatic-balletic slide of “The Crapshooters Dance” and “Luck Be A Lady,” Feore ramps up the energy level with each number.
Interestingly Feore appears to have told her cast to let the audience dictate how long the applause lasts for each number. The cast holds the last pose as the applause just rolls in and only breaks that pose when it’s thought the applause is lessening. Usually the person ‘charged’ with breaking the pose first, then followed by the rest of the group, breaks the pose when the applause is loudest, just to get the show going. Not with this show. I thought that interesting.

While the show throbs with energy and many scenes of witty humour, I do have some concerns regarding Feore’s staging. The show is full of so many of her witty touches why then are songs sung with clichéd staging. For example, Sarah’s grandfather, Arvide Abernathy (a wonderfully touching Laurie Murdoch) sings “More I Cannot Wish You” in which he expresses his hopes for a life full of love for her. He faces Sarah when he sings it tenderly. But then Feore has Arvide turn away from Sarah and face the audience, still singing. So Sarah is smiling and looking at his back. Arvide turns back to Sarah and continues singing tenderly only to walk away again, this time downstage, again facing the audience. Again, Sarah is left abandoned still smiling at Arvide’s back.

What is that? That staging compromises the audience’s engagement in the song and the characters involved in it. When the two characters are together with one singing to the other (who is listening intently) the audience is right there with them. But when one character veers off on his own (as Arvide does) then the whole point is compromised. Feore has done this too often in other shows as well. Why can’t she trust the music and the people who sing it to grip the audience?

In “Take Back Your Mink” sung by Adelaide and her Hot Box Dancers she places the chorus downstage giving them the focus and Adelaide upstage where she is almost lost, even though she is standing on a raised platform. Surely the staging should be reversed.

And about the volume, it is too loud both when the chorus sings and when anyone speaks. Why is that? How many times do audience members have to be heard to say (at intermission and at the end) ‘It’s too loud” before anyone listens and lowers the volume? It’s not a rock concert. We are there to listen. The orchestra is microphoned as is the cast. Our ears in the audience are hurting. Please solve this.

Comment. How to reconcile the fact that Sky takes Sarah to Havana to win a bet and then takes her to a taverna and plies her with the drink dolce de leche but doesn’t tell her that there is rum in it. In 2017, with rape culture in our headlines every day, this section of Guys and Dolls makes us suck air. Sky is not taking her to Havana overnight. He is taking her there to his favourite restaurant and will then bring her back to New York that night. Sarah loves this sweet milk drink and sucks it back quickly and immediately loosens up as a result. Sky is horrified when Sarah gets very drunk very quickly, and realizes he has to protect her from herself and the rest of the men in the place who don’t care about protecting her.

Guys and Dolls is a wonderful musical with that uncomfortable bit that in a sense brings out the moral streak in Sky. It certainly makes us ponder the world of the show and our own. While I have concerns, Donna Feore has done a fine job of filling the production with her vision, choreography and humour. Her company of actors and dancers is sterling.

Presented by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: May 29, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 29, 2017.
Cast: 33; 21 men, 12 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, approx.


At the Lemon Tree Studio, 58 Stewart St. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Raf Antonio
Directed by Indrit Kasapi
Set, costumes and lighting by Joe Pagnan
Original composition by Dustin Peters
Sound by Deanna Choi

A look into the world and the power of the erotic and the evolving nature of queer love today. The production is up close and intimate.

Nacio is a photographer who is trying to get established. He sees Lobo in a local coffee shop and takes his picture. There is a spark between them. It seems that they met before in Vancouver and Lobo was taken with Nacio. The connection between them is strong with much flirting. The problem is that Nacio is in a non-physical sexual partnership with Felix, a musician and composer. Nacio says that he and Felix have a cerebral sexual connection. The relationships between the three men take interesting turns when Felix meets Lobo.

Raf Antonio opens up the almost secretive erotic world of queer love to a straight as well as queer audience. His dialogue between Lobo and Nacio is instantly flirty. Each man comes up with a smart retort to up the banter. At times it seems as if both Augusto Bitter as Nacio and Chy Ryan Spain as Lobo are batting banter back and forth, rather than making it seem like dialogue. Over time an aching intimacy between Lobo and Nacio is developed with Spain being the most varied of the three actors. Bitter establishes his confusion and unease quite nicely.

In Indrit Kasapi’s careful production, this banter is the two men marking out their territory and coming on to the other. Eventually they are able to go deeper into the relationship and thus Nacio must question his relationship with Felix.

As Felix, Allie MacDonald is a graceful character who is needy for Nacio even though they have agreed on what their relationship will be. I was mystified as to why their relationship was not physically sexual. If Raf Antonio explains it in his play I missed it. I think that idea needs developing.

The audience is small because they follow the action between the various locations in the story. While there are a few chairs on which to sit, this is a true immersive theatre production. As usual Joe Pagnan brings his sharp, creative eye to creating the world of the play in his set, costumes and moody lighting design.

Raf Antonio examines an interesting subject: erotic love and its power in a queer world and he does it with style and intelligence. I look forward to his next play.

Presented by LemonTree Creations

First Perforamance: May 28, 2017.
Saw it: June 6, 2017.
Closes: June 10, 2017.
Cast: 3 men.
Running Time: 90 minutes


At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber
Book revised by Stephen Fry (with contributions by Mike Ockrent)
Music by Noel Gay
Directed by Ashlie Corcoran
Music direction by Paul Sportelli
Choreography by Parker Esse
Set by Drew Facey
Costumes by Sue LePage
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Sound by John Lott
Cast: Neil Barclay
Donna Belleville
Kyle Blair
Julie Course
Sharry Flett
Kristy Frank
Élodie Gillett
Ric Reid
Michael Therriault
Jay Turvey
Jenny L. Wright

A rousing rags to riches story that seems to follow a formula, done well with a scene that in 2017 will make you squirm.

The Story. Bill Snibson is a working class, Cockney-speaking bloke from Lambeth, with simple tastes. He loves Sally Smith, also a working class woman, and she loves ‘im, er, sorry, him. Then his life is turned upside down. He is told that he has inherited an earldom and all the money, land and baubles that come with it. He is told by the folks of the upper class, of which Bill is now a member, he must forget his former simple life, and definitely his girlfriend Sally. He balks. The upper class twits push back. Who will win? Will Bill be true to his principles? Will he succumb to money and canapés? Will Sally hold on? Soul-searching questions that are pondered whilst tap-dancing.

The Production. Drew Facey has fashioned a double winding staircase structure that is evocative enough of the upper class digs of the Duchess of Dene in the wilds of Hampshire. A few set pieces here and there and some large family portraits of overdressed aristocracy up there on the wall and the audience conjures up the rest. Sue LePage’s wonderful costumes establish the ritzy upper class and the working class. Bill is in functional clothes with a bit of flash: jersey, vest, kerchief tied around his neck, workman’s trousers. Sally’s dress is black and flashy and a bit garish. Perfect for her.

Director Ashlie Corcoran and choreographer Parker Esse have a clear eye for the dazzle and sparkle of the piece. Those in the upper class move slowly and with a contained imperiousness. Those in the working class—Bill Snibson and Sally Smith for example—move at a clip. Bill always seems to be rushing. Makes perfect sense, he has to scramble to make a living and would move quickly.

The dances are rousing and joyous, as if the aristocratic folks need an excuse to break loose and dance. The Lambeth Walk is particularly lively, certainly since it’s lead by Bill Snibson.

Bill is played by the masterful Michael Therriault. Is there anything he can’t do? He sings, dances and acts with aplomb. As Bill he has a commonsensical, feet-firmly-on-the -ground attitude. He knows where he is comfortable and belongs, and this snooty upper class isn’t it. By the same token, he’s not allowed to go back to where he’s comfortable. This is a clear dilemma for Bill and Therriault pulls that off with ease. He is a gifted comedian who pulls off the humour, some groaning jokes others witty entendres, in Stephen Fry’s 1980 revision of the play. Act I certainly has the Fry wit but it’s Act II where the puns and entendres seem more plentiful. In a certain sense Fry’s humour is more sophisticated than this charmingly silly show can really support—the show is not diminished by that humour; it’s just an observation.

As Sally Smith, Kristi Frank has a good idea where she belongs and where she is most confident and that is in London, in Lambeth with her mates. She does not give a toss for the snooty Hampshire countryside. Give her teaming London every time. It’s a lovely performance of a feisty, commanding character, who sings beautifully.

While the majority of the characters in that ‘smart set’ are upper class twits, there is Sharry Flett as a dignified, gracious Duchess of Dene. She keeps everything going in that set. She knows how that social strata works and what is needed. She is eager to help Bill fit in.

Comment. Me and My Girl (set in the 1930s) is that formula kind of British musical in which a poor man or woman comes into a lot of money or title and their social strata changes. I’m also reminded of Half a Sixpence that played in London in 1963, but was set in London in early 1900. In that show a poor young man inherits a lot of money from his long lost grandfather and it changes his life. He falls in love with an upper class woman but also loves a woman of his own station. Who does he commit to?

These characters, in these two musicals and others of this ilk must decide if they will move ‘up’ or stay where they are. And there is usually a rousing number to loosen up those stiff souls in the upper classes. In Me and My Girl it’s “The Lambeth Walk”, in Half a Sixpence it’s a number in which everybody plays the banjo. Hilarious.

There is a cringe worthy scene in Me and My Girl…the Honourable Gerald Bolingbroke (Kyle Blair) spends all his time pursuing Lady Jacqueline Carstone (Julie Course) who treats him like a twit. She pursues Bill Snibson since he now has money. Bill ignores her. Gerald laments. But then Gerald is told to show Jacqueline who is the boss and give her a smack on her rear end. Let us all collectively knit out eyebrows in 2017. From off-stage we hear Gerald smack Jacqueline’s behind. She screams. Then there is another smack and she’s whacked him back. Gerald is startled. Then both smack each other and are suddenly smitten. Exhale. No matter what era this smacking is despicable. How to solve this in 2017 is certainly a dilemma. I guess director Ashlie Corcoran thought it should just stand as behaviour that would be acceptable in the 1930s. Hmmmm.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Opened: May 27, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 23; 11 men, 12 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.


At the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Michael Ross Albert
Based on the play Day of Atonement by Samson Raphaelson
Directed and Choreographed by Tim French
Musical director, Mark Camilleri
Set by Robin Fisher
Lighting by Siobhán Sleath
Costumes by Alex Amini
Sound by Emily Porter
Cast: Patrick Cook
Adriana Crivici
Aaron Ferguson
Ryan Gifford
Kaylee Harwood
W. Joseph Matheson
Luke Opdahl
Jivaro Smith
Theresa Tova
Victoria Whistance-Smith
Victor A. Young

The age old story of wanting to follow your dream but fighting against the guilt of disappointing your family. The production is respectable but the script needs work.

The Story. Jack Robins is about to get his big Broadway break. Broadway star, Mary Dale wants Jack to be in her new Broadway review. He’s eager for that but there is the matter of his guilt. Eight years before, when he was known as Jacob Rabinowitz, he left his family in New York to seek his fortune in Chicago as a jazz singer known as Jack Robins, His father, Cantor Yoselle Rabinowitz wanted Jack to follow in the family business and be a cantor at his father’s synagogue. Jack refused and he and his father have not spoken in eight years.

He comes home to face his family and see if there can be a reconciliation and of course to work on Broadway. Will he be forgiven? Will the guilt prevail?

The Production. Director Timothy French has fashioned a respectable production of this song and dance show. His choreography is lively, albeit the same for the many scenes in the jazz clubs. Robin Fisher’s sets for the various locations (Chicago, New York, Jack’s parents’ home etc.) are simple, efficient and move smoothly from place to place without disruption.

French wanted to recreate the music of the jazz scene in the late 1920s so he has packed the show with the standards of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Jule Styne etc.

As Jack Robins (born Jacob Rabinowitz), Patrick Cook has those boyish good looks that charm and disarm anyone. He dances with confidence and sings beautifully, although you have to wait until the third song, “The Birth of the Blues” to be aware of “the teardrop in his voice” as Jack has been described. Cook does present a character who is conflicted about his allegiances. Should he be true to his dreams and follow them thus offending his family, or does he put his dreams aside and follow the dictates of his father and mother and become a cantor in the synagogue?

Kaylee Harwood is sassy and sophisticated as Mary Dale. She has the poise and confidence of a Broadway star so Jack would have been attracted to that commanding behaviour. She can also handle her dilemma too: courted by two men and in love with one of them. She keeps putting off the other, to whom she is engaged. And Harwood also sings beautifully.

Jack’s parents, Cantor Yoselle Rabinowitz and his wife Sara are a contrast in behaviour. Yoselle, as played by Victor A. Young, is a straight-ahead, direct, rigid man who sees only his side of the story, and no one else’s. He is confident that he wants only the best for Jack and Jack should agree.

Sara, as played by Theresa Tova is the loving mother, welcoming and open-hearted. She is also manipulating, conniving, secretive and underhanded. She has no problem putting the guilt screws on Jack. We are aware of this underhanded behaviour slowly as more and more revelations appear. But Tova’s singing of “Make Someone Happy” is gut-wrenching.

Jivaro Smith, as Oscar Davis, is a multi-talented singer/daner/actor. He acts as a loving surrogate father to Jack. Oscar has his own issues. As a black man he feels that he would never be a Broadway star. (now there is a subject for a musical). Smith offers strong support to Patrick Cook.

Comment. It seems that a lot of people had a hand in working on the script for this show. Even the producers offered suggestions. It was slapped into shape by Michael Ross Albert (who wrote Tough Jews). How then to explain the many holes and inconsistencies in the story?

In Jack’s life his parents didn’t play the good cop/bad cop, which certainly would have been more interesting dramatically. They both were in cahoots but in different ways. Both had the intension of making Jack feel as guilty as possible for deciding to leave for Chicago to become a jazz singer and not stay home and become a cantor. His father was blunt. His mother was more manipulative. Jack’s father is ill. His mother lies to him saying his father wants Jack to forgive him and he has to come home so it can be done. She puts the guilt on him about his father’s condition Jack rushes home and finds his mother there. His father is in the hospital. Why then isn’t she with her husband since his condition is so grave?

His mother suggests that Jack should ask forgiveness for leaving and breaking his father’s heart. Oy, the tyranny of parents (as one woman was heard to say after the show), thus showing she didn’t have a clue that her son was entitled to some happiness.

There are two instances of anti-semitic remarks which do show the feelings at that time. In both instances these are references to pejorative and stereotypical attitudes about how Jews do business. In both cases Jack is a witness to the remarks but says nothing because no one knows he’s Jewish. In the second instance Jack’s stage manager? Company manager? throws the insult to Jack as if he knew that Jack was Jewish, but that can’t be because Jack has not revealed it to anyone (except perhaps Mary and I don’t get the sense Mary would gossip this anyone). Hmmm?

I can see the allure of the piece: family drama, being true to ones dreams, and making the hard decisions. I just wished the writing and story were tighter.

Presented by The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Dancap.

Began: May 23, 2017.
I saw it: May 28, 2017.
Closes: June 18, 2017.
Cast: 11; 8 men, 3 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes approx.


At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by John Pennoyer
Trees created by Ken Dubblesyne
Lighting by Louise Guinand
Composed and sound designed by Reza Jacobs
Cast: Sarah Afful
Rod Beattie
Michael Blake
Matthew G. Brown
Brent Carver
Geraint Wyn Davies
Mac Fyfe
Farhang Ghajar
Gordon S. Miller
Mercedes Morris
Lucy Peacock
Monice Peter
Tom Rooney
Stephen Russell
E.B. Smith
Johnathan Sousa
Shannon Taylor
Emilio Vieira
Brigit Wilson
Tim Ziegler

An exquisite production about music, love and Brent Carver.

The Story. Duke Orsino of Illyria loves Olivia but she’s too busy mourning her late brother to bother with him. Viola and her brother Sebastian survive a shipwreck and she lands in Illyria and thinks her brother died. She disguises herself like a man (and names herself Cesario) and goes to work for the Duke. And she falls in love with him. Orsino uses Cesario to plead his case to Olivia who is smitten with this young ‘man’, There is Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby’s simple-minded, hilarious friend, Malvolio, Olivia’s dour major domo, and Feste an impish clown who connects them all.

The Production. Director Martha Henry’s production is exquisite. As we enter the theatre we are faced with three of the most magical looking ‘glass-metal’ trees created by craftsman Ken Dubblestyne. They shine over Illyria in Act I and in Act II with a maneuvering of some branches those trees become one large bridal bouquet. Breathtaking.

One does not usually consider Feste the clown as the star of Twelfth Night but in Martha Henry’s production he is and it makes perfect sense. Feste connects the households of Orsino and Olivia and generally comments on the larger world of the play. He works for Olivia but he also sings, for money, for Orsino to try and cheer him up from his love-sickness. Feste sees the folly in Orsino and Olivia’s situations and in most other situations too, and is quietly fearless in expressing his thoughts. He uses wit, humour, punning, quick thinking and common sense to illuminate the silliness around him. And he sings. And since Feste is played by Brent Carver, he sings beautifully.

Carver begins and ends the production with song, mostly a cappella. His voice soars with plaintive longing and bitter-sweet yearning. He accompanies himself by delicately tapping illuminated bowls with a small rod that creates a haunting bong sound. Or he uses the rod to drag around the edge of the bowl creating an eerie high sound, also haunting. Carver is impish, sprightly, gently considerate but with a point to his logic. It is a beguiling performance.

There is such fastidiousness to Henry’s production. Every single character on that stage is played with a full-bodied, breathing life, whether a leading player or a silent on-looking servant. The servants stand on the periphery of a scene but they are totally engaged in it. They listen and react (this should be a no-brainer, but truly, it’s a rarity when they are directed to do it as well as it’s done in Twelfth Night). For example, it’s not pulling focus to watch Brigit Wilson as Lily, Olivia’s attendant, notice another character talking to Olivia and react to what is being said using the subtlest of body language, smile and exit. It’s not distracting because that bit of stage business in fact draws the audience further in to the main conversation between Olivia and that other character, and because Lily is listening hard, so are we. The fact that she sees the humour, conveys it to us.

Characters make entrances from the darkness with ease and a gentle surprise. For example, Malvolio enters, played by Rod Beattie as a straight-backed, dour, condescending prig, he appears slowly from the gloom of upstage, long walking stick at hand for affect, looking as if he has smelled something unpleasant.

Olivia’s movement from being a woman in deep mourning to one who can hardly wait to get out of these black clothes is also affecting, certainly as Shannon Taylor plays her. At first Olivia wears all black with a veil and is properly saddened by her brother’s death. When she meets Cesario her manner changes. Her attitude becomes almost buoyant because she is smitten with him. The veil is ditched. Olivia is eager to see Cesario again. Then she wears a bright green silk long jacket of sorts over the black dress until finally she ditches the black for good. As Olivia Taylor brings her natural patrician manner to the role. She is sophisticated, sensual, bursting with life as she is attracted to this young ‘man’.

The cast is loaded with actors who are a joy to watch as they inhabit their characters. Sarah Afful can convince you she is a delicate, confident woman as Viola, as well as a sprightly young man as Cesario. E.B. Smith gives Orsino a courtliness and command. Sir Toby Belch, as played by Geraint Wyn Davies, is red-faced, blustery and full of abandon as an amusing drunk. Lucy Peacock plays Maria as an impish woman, in love with Sir Toby, with her own kind of humour but with more maturity, and can control what is going on. Tom Rooney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek is an atomic bomb of comic invention. He has an arsenal of ticks, reactions and double and triple takes that realize humour when you least expect it. In a scene he tries to one-up Cesario by speaking the few words of French he knows. When Cesario replies in fluent French Rooney’s reaction, in mid-step, is priceless. He is so gifted in comedy (and every other kind of theatre) that the audience just waits to laugh at anything he does. It means Rooney must up the game to earn the laugh and he does.

Henry also uses the fact that Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are both in Illyria, unbeknownst to the other. So scene after scene has one leaving a scene just while the other is entering a scene, ‘just’ missing seeing each other.

One instance perhaps plays it too close. Malvolio is sent to find Cesario who has just left Olivia. He passes by two people; one is a seaman the other is Sebastian. Malvolio rushes between them and seems to notice the seaman and perhaps recognize him, but doesn’t note Sebastian. I thought that odd—had he ‘looked’ at Sebastian he would have mistaken him for Viola. It’s the only scene that I looked at with knitted eye-brows.

Comment. When Martha Henry directs a production of anything, she proves again and again that ‘just’ doing the play without pyrotechnics or dazzle is the most resounding way to illuminate the play. She is never by the book; never matter-of-fact. She brings her own quirky way of looking at a play—Feste as the star for example—and it’s always enlightening. To repeat, Martha Henry’s production of Twelfth Night is exquisite.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: May 29, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 20; 14 men, 6 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes approx.