Review: YOU CAN’T STOP THE BEAT- The Enduring Power of Musical Theatre at the Stratford Festival

by Lynn on July 20, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person until July 31, 2021. Stratford, Ontario. Under the Canopy at the Festival Theatre.

Curated and directed by Thom Allison

Conducted by Laura Burton

Lighting designed by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Sound by Peter McBoyle

The Singers:

Alana Hibbert

Gabrielle Jones

Evangelia Kambites

Mark Uhre

The Band:

Conductor, keyboard, Laura Burton

Cello, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, George Meanwell

Acoustic Bass, Electric Bass, Michael McClennan

Drum kit, David Campion

This is the second of four cabarets that are programmed at the Stratford Festival, each playing for two weeks, each with its own theme.

Why do we love musicals? What is their allure for so many? Thom Allison, the gifted curator and director of You Can’t Stop The Beat—The Enduring Power of Musical Theatre and his exemplary cast, explain it all for us in words and songs.

Musicals have provided a magic world in which our imaginations can soar. When there were years of war and strife, depression and hard times, there was the musical with its up-beat story, cheering us, getting us to move on and be resilient. The musical can deal with difficult subjects and engage the audience, often better than straight plays can. Enduring musicals have dealt with such tough subjects as: racism and intolerance (South Pacific), xenophobia (Oklahoma), wife-beating (Carousel), racial intolerance (The King and I) and the rise of Nazism in Germany etc. (Cabaret).

Any good musical sets the tone and atmosphere in the first five minutes and You Can’t Stop The Beat is no different. The sassy, classy cast of Alana Hibbert, Gabrielle Jones, Evangelia Kambites and Mark Uhre establish the pulse and throb of the endeavor with their rousing singing of “Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story. Starting slowly but barely containing the pent-up energy of the song, they then explode into full throttle, each with their own body language that moves the song.

In the world of imagination, one might say that Don Quixote was delusional, lost in his own muddled thoughts. But you would be hard-pressed to believe that after hearing Mark Uhre sing “I, Don Quixote” from Man of La Mancha with such conviction and vigor.

Love gets great representation in the world of the musical—all those sweeping chords and heart squeezing words. Thom Allison  has created a medley of love songs in which the cast shine in their own way: “Twin Soliloquies” from South Pacific sung beautifully by Alana Hibbert and Gabrielle Jones, “People Will Say We’re In Love” from Oklahoma sung by the whole cast, “If I Loved You” from Carousel with Mark Uhre doing the honours, “Mr. Snow” from Carousel  sung beautifully by Evangelia Kambites.

Musicals and Merman naturally go together. Gabrielle Jones does an impressive impression of how Ethel Merman might have started off singing “Anything Goes” from Anything Goes—full-voiced and unvarying in the force of it. Fortunately, Jones eased into singing the rest of the song, in her own powerful style but with shading and variation.

There is a constant flow of easy banter between the cast as they tease, chide and josh each other. Gabrielle Jones is reminded “Gab we cut that part.” And she replying “But I put it back in ‘cause I wanted a bigger break before my next song.” They are attentive to each other when they sing and listen and that makes the audience do the same.

Thom Allison introduces the sobering nature of musicals by including “Suppertime” from As Thousands Cheer (1933) written by Irving Berlin. The song is sung by a mother who struggles with how she will tell her children that their father and her husband will not be coming home because he was lynched by a racist mob. Alana Hibbert was heartbreaking and tender singing that song. Do we listen to the song in a different way because a white composer/lyricist wrote it for a Black character? Is this cultural appropriation or a gifted musical creator who can express the heartache and inner life of a character that we can all experience? I am glad of the questions.

“Suppertime” provided a natural way into exploring the serious nature of musicals, looking at flawed, damaged, raging and troubled characters. And nobody covers that territory better than Stephen Sondheim.  We have the plucky, darkly funny “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd sung with impish style by Mark Uhre and Gabrielle Jones about the variations one can bake into a meat pie; the company sings “The Little Things We Do Together” from Company itemizing the good and annoying things that make a relationship; Evangelia Kambites does a masterful job of “Getting Married Today,” from Company breathlessly and frantically explaining why she won’t be getting married today. And in a wonderful change of pace, Thom Allison throws a stunning curve ball by having Mark Uhre sing “Could I Leave You” from Follies, a song usually sung by a woman whose marriage is failing. Mark Uhre sings it with biting emotion and cool contempt. It makes us listen to that song in a different way but it leads to the same conclusion. Loved that curve ball.

This wonderful, joyous, thoughtful concert concludes with the cast singing the anthem-like song “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray in which you also can’t stop tapping your toe thanks to the music, the cast and the solid band.  

You Can’t Stop The Beat—The Enduring Power of Musical Theatre plays at the Stratford Festival until July 31, 2021.

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