Review: PLAY ON! at the Stratford Festival

by Lynn on August 1, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Festival Theatre Canopy, Stratford, Ont.

From the show’s information:


Shakespeare’s influence on Western culture extends even into your favourite pop hits. Whether it be direct lines from his plays appearing in Top 40 lyrics or whole songs inspired by his plots, whether the borrowers be Taylor Swift, Madonna, Elton John, The Beatles, Prince or Radiohead, Shakespeare is still there, lurking in the mainstream, as cool and as relevant as ever. This lively celebration of terrific tunes affords a great opportunity to introduce a younger audience to Shakespeare’s continuing role in popular culture.”

Curated by Robert Markus, Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis

Directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis

Lighting designer, Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Sound design, Peter McBoyle

The Singers: Gabriel Antonacci

Jacob MacInnis

Jennifer Rider-Shaw

Kaitlyn Santa Juana

The Band: Reza Jacobs, Music director, keyboard

Kevin Ramessar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar

Jon Maharaj, acoustic bass, electric bass

Dale-Anne Brendon, Drum kit, orchestra supervisor

The title of this well-curated, thoughtfully referenced concert of course comes from the opening line of Twelfth Night when the Duke says: “If music be the food of love, play on;…” Music and words are at the heart of this concert.

Rather than incorporating songs that are in Shakespeare’s plays, curators, Robert Markus, Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis have culled music and songs from contemporary sources, be they Broadway musicals such as, Kiss Me Kate, West Side Story and The Lion King to the works of singer-songwriters such as Taylor Swift, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Mark Knopfler, Prince, John Lennon and Paul McCartney among others, who referenced either the words or characters of Shakespeare.  

I can’t think of two people more besotted with and devoted to the words of Shakespeare than Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis. To that end, a few years ago they formed their theatre company Shakespeare BASH’d that performs the Bard in a bar. The productions are raucous clear and always do justice to the play. Robert Markus is immersed in the world of musical theatre. He also sang (beautifully) in the Stratford concert Why We Tell The Story and was the star of the Toronto production of Dear Evan Hansen, among many other shows. Together these three curators have made thoughtful selections of readings from Shakespeare’s plays (Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Richard III etc.) to accompany and illuminate the well-chosen songs.

The cast of four represented a specific ensemble: Gabriel Antonacci (Romeo Ensemble), Jacob MacInnis (Richard Ensemble), Jennifer Rider-Shaw (Beatrice Ensemble) and Kaitlyn Santa Juana (Julia Ensemble) although each singer was not confined to songs dealing with that character. They often supported each other singing chorus etc.

One got the sense of the beauty and blended harmonies of these talented singers by the first stunning notes of “Sigh No More” in which Benedick’s words to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing are referenced: “Serve God, love me and mend.”  It was like hearing the perfectly blended voices sighing. That sound was glorious. Jacob MacInnis has a pure, strong voice in his compelling singing of “The King Must Die.” Gabriel Antonacci is full of energy in “Check Yes Juliet” and has is powerful baritone. Jennifer Ryder-Shaw and Kaitlyn Santa Juana have beautiful soprano voices and a nice comedic sense with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”.  


Time and time again for Play On! the singers are drowned out by the over-amplified band, and I noted “Too Loud!” in my program beside so many songs. This did not happen with the other two concerts in the series: Why We Tell the Story and You Can’t Stop the Beat in which both the band and the singers were beautifully balanced in their amplification, with the band supporting the singers, not competing with them. The band is the same for all the concerts. The musical director/keyboardist is not.

For Play On! the Musical Director/Keyboardist is Reza Jacobs. Mr. Jacobs is a gifted musician, but in this case he has allowed the band to overwhelm the singers. It was obvious the singers were often struggling to be heard over the band. And the result is that one can’t hear the lyrics clearly or at all which is unforgivable in a concert in which the words are the focus.

This has to be addressed. The amplification must be adjusted so that we hear the lyrics and the singers clearly and not be overwhelmed by the noise of the loudness. This isn’t the winging of a cranky critic. I’m also a member of the audience. Remember the audience? We are the reason the talent shows up to perform. A lot of hard-working people toiled to create this show. A lot of the audience worked hard to get there on time or at all. Fix the amplification, please.  

Thank heaven for Spotify and YouTube. One can look up each song and actually hear the lyrics being sung.  

Plays at the Stratford Festival until August 15, 2021.

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes, no intermission.

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