Tuesday, August 30, 2016

THE AENEID - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

** (out of 5)

The body of a two-year old child is washed up on the beach: a small boy is rescued from a bombed building; hundreds of thousand risk their lives to cross thousands of miles of water in rickety boats; millions live in horrible conditions in refugee camps. That is the face of refugees today and a stunning condemnation of our inhumanity. It is a story that is impossible to describe or comprehend.

The Stratford Festival has decided to tackle the issue head on by producing a play called The Aeneid.
 Members of the company in The Aeneid. Photography by David Hou.
 Let’s look at the positive side. A title like The Aeneid has a lot of cachet. It connects us to Virgil’s great epic, the founding myth of the Roman Empire. Check. The play is written by Olivier Kemeid, a French-Canadian playwright and in a nation of two latitudes we need to pay attention to both of them. Check. The translation has been commissioned by the Stratford Festival (Check) and done by Maureen Labonteé. It deals with a current issue of world-wide importance. Double check and don’t say anything when you realize that it is somewhat stale dated.

Let’s look at the negative side. The play has almost nothing to do with Virgil’s epic. It borrows the title and a few names but any resemblance to The Aeneid is almost coincidental. Yes, you will recognize Queen Dido of Carthage and the trip to the Underworld but they won’t help you much.

Virgil’s Aeneid is about the founding of Rome and if Kemeid wants to pull himself up by his bootstraps and make it into a story of refugees relevant to today, he is whistling up the wrong tree not to say he is misleading us. Trying to graft a modern tragedy onto an ancient epic is bad enough but one should at least choose a story that can resonate with current history.

Troy, Romans, Greeks, Carthage – none of these names appear in the play. We have a burning city and people escaping from it. This is the Fire section of the play. Then we stop at a sandy beach (the Water Section) where a modern couple tells the refugees to go away. From there it is to the Earth section where the refugees try to get past an Immigration Officer.
 
Monice Peter as Creusa and Gareth Potter as Aeneas in The Aeneid. Photography by David Hou.
The penultimate stop is in the Underworld where Aeneas meets his father who tells him where to go – no, in the nice sense. The refugees finally reach their destination in the Blood section, a land of freedom and plenty where they will build something great described at some length.

Kemeid wrote his Aeneid in 2007 and at one point there is a lengthy catalogue of where refugees can be found. The only country not mentioned is Syria because there was no civil war in Syria in 2007.  

It does not work. From burning city to sandy beach, we have people with Roman names such as the familiar Aeneas (Gareth Potter) and Hector (Mike Nadajewski) to less familiar ones like Creusa (Monice Peter) Anchises (Michael Spencer-Davis), Ascanus (Malakai Magassouba), Coroebus (Andrew Robinson) and Achmaenidis (Josue Laboucane).

Some of the characters are mercifully listed simply by their jobs such as Hotel Manager (Tiffany Claire Martin), Immigration Officer (Karen Robinson), Scavenger (E.B. Smith) and Old Farmer (Laboucane).

Director Keira Loughran tries to give life to the dreary and confused play without success. If you go back to the check marks for the positive aspects of the play after seeing it, you will discover that there are almost none.

A bad night at the theatre.
   _____


The Aeneid by Olivier Kemeid will run until September 25, 2016 at the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

Monday, August 22, 2016

“MASTER HAROLD”…AND THE BOYS, THE ADVENTURES OF THE BLACK GIRL AND ENGAGED - REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTIONS

Reviewed by James Karas

“Master Harold”…and the boys is a searing drama about racism in South Africa and it gets a masterly production at the Shaw Festival. It got a standing ovation at the end that was spontaneous and richly deserved.

The plot could hardly be simpler. Willie (Allan Louis) and Sam (André Sills) are black men who work in a tea room in Port Elizabeth. Hally (James Daly) is the son of the owner and looks like a troubled young man.

Willie calls the boss’s son Master Harold and his dream is to win a ballroom dancing contest. He is a decent man who knows his position in the racist society of South Africa in 1950.
André Sills as Sam, James Daly as Hally and Allan Louis as Willie in “Master Harold” …and the Boys. 
Photo by David Cooper.
Sam calls his “master” Hally and as the plot develops we realize that he is a friend of the young man and in fact a father figure. Hally’s father is a drunk and an invalid who is hospitalized and Hally harbors a great deal of hatred for him. The guidance and affection that Hally should have received from his father came from Sam.  

Between memories of good times, dreams of winning the dance contest by Willie, facing the pressures of his relationship with his father by Sam, the play builds up to an explosive climax that takes your breath away.

Friendship, respect, basic decency and gratitude are all swept away in several lines and a single gesture. Hally demands that Sam start calling him “Master Harold” and tells him that he is inferior to his hated father because he, the father, is a white man. He repeats a disgusting racist joke that is his and his father’s favourite. The gesture will freeze you in your tracks and I don’t want to spoil it for you. You should see the play.

The play lasts ninety minutes and all the action takes place in a tea room with a counter and some tables by Set Designer Peter Hartwell.

Philip Akin directs the three actors with impeccable touches. From simple gestures to facial expressions to vocal intonations, these are highly accomplished performances.    

The point of the play, I think, is not that racism, injustice, abuse and repulsive behaviour exist. They are almost run of the mill results of racial attitudes. Fugard illustrates that racism can rob people of their fundamental humanity as it does with Hally.

A great day at the theatre.

And a bonus.

If you want to see a performance that you can use the words “bravura performance” you must see The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God.  That is a long title for a 45-minute delight of an adaptation for the stage by Lisa Codrington from a short play by Bernard Shaw.
 
The cast of The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. Photo by David Cooper.
Here is a partial list of the people you will meet: The Almighty, The Lord of Hosts, Micah the Morasthite, King Solomon, The Conjurer and some mortals like a Mathematician, the Black Bearer, a Biologist, an Artist, a White Missionary and a Black Mumba Snake. I tried to list the characters in the play in order of descending importance from God to the Snake but I was not sure where to place GBS who also appears. Does he go before or after the Almighty?

What are these.., well we can’t call them “people”…let’s say characters (?) doing in “The Darkest Africa” and the Bible which happen to be the settings of the play? They have to contend with a Black Girl who is in search of God. She has an awful lot of questions about God and the Bible and a few other things. (Why did God take only five days for creation of everything?)

You want to see a bravura performance. Just watch Natasha Mumba as the Black Girl. She has energy, intelligence, a tongue that can outshoot a machine gun and a mesmerizing theatricality.       

Seven actors taking from one to several roles have to answer to and try to keep up with Mumba. They are enjoyable to say the least. I will simply list their names: Guy Bannerman, Tara Rosling, Ben Sanders, Kiera Sangster, Andre Sills, Graeme Somerville, Jonathan Tan.

The Adventures starts at 11:30 and will not affect your lunch or the matinee performance that you no doubt came to see. But it will leave you with an unforgettable performance …did I say “bravura”?

And a disappointment.

Staging W.S. Gilbert’s Engaged is surely an intelligent choice. This Gilbert is more famous as the librettist of the Gilbert and Sullivan team of operetta creators but he wrote a lot of plays too. 

His 1877 farce is directed by Morris Panych with a cast that should have us guffawing if not rolling in the aisles but it did not work fro me. It is the sort of production where the actors try hard and for some reason most lines misfire.
 
(l to r) Nicole Underhay as Belinda Treherne, Diana Donnelly as Minnie Symperson and Gray Powell as Cheviot Hill in Engaged. Photo by David Cooper.
A taste of the plot. Cheviot Hill (Gray Powell) is well off and has a bad habit of proposing to every pretty girl that he meets. His friend Belvawney (Jeff Meadows gets £1000 per year from Cheviot’s father to make sure that Cheviot does not get married. If he gets married the annuity will go to Symperson (Shawn Wright) who is pushing his daughter Minnie (Diana Donnelly) to marry Cheviot.

And you should meet those colourful Scottish people, Angus (Martin Happer), Maggie (Julia Course) and Mrs. Macfarlane (Mary Haney), whose specialty is derailing trains for a profit. There is more, much more plot complications but all I can say is that I did not enjoy the production. You can’t win them all.
           ______

“Master Harold” …and the boys”  by Athol Fugard continues in repertory until September 10, 2016 at the Court House Theatre. Engaged by W.S. Gilbert continues until October 23, 2016 at the Royal George Theatre. The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God by Lisa Codrington from a short story by Bernard Shaw continues until September 11, 2016 at the Court House Theatre, all in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC – REVIEW OF 2016 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Along with its extravagant production of A Chorus Line, the Stratford Festival offers Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Avon Theatre as its other musical. It is a well-done production but in the interest of full disclosure I might as well start with an admission that I have not been able to warm up to the musical.

A Little Night Music strikes me as a French farce for intelligent people with characters of a certain age. It is based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. With some significant exceptions, I find that there is an excess of recitative and many songs that I simply tolerated.

 Members of the company in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.
Some of the people in the musical have had a glorious life (?), some think that they still have it, only to discover that they may be wrong and some are just starting to live. Madame Armfeldt (Rosemary Dunsmore) from a wheelchair wistfully remembers the “Liaisons” of her youth that provided her with wealth for her old age. She cashed in her assets but now she wishes she had married for love. 

At the other end we have the seminary student Henrik (Gabriel Antonacci) who is not sure what to do with his hormones and is the sourpuss of the group. He does find his way, so to speak, with his 18-year old virgin stepmother Anne (Alexis Gordon). She is an airhead who has been married to Henrik’s father Fredrik (Ben Carlson) for eleven months and the sexual relationships in this house are summarized in three songs: Anne promises to do it “Soon”, Fredrik sings “Now” and Henrik says “Later.”

The centerpiece of the musical is the well-named Désirée (Yanna McIntosh) who is both desired and desiring but perhaps past her best before date. Right now she is desired by Fredrik and Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Juan Chioran), a tall and handsome dragoon right out of an operetta. Carlson can act marvelously but singing is just not his forte. Chioran is custom-made for the role, theatrically and vocally. Yanna McIntosh handles her part with splendour.

To cut to the chase, the Count and Fredrik in compromising attire find themselves in   Désirée’s bedroom. The Count challenges Fredrik to a duel. The Countess (Cynthia Dale) finds out about her husband’s infidelity and we are off into the stratosphere of adultery.
Members of the company in A Little Night Music. Photogaphy by David Hou.
Not quite. The Countess and Anne sing “Every Day a Little Death,” a somber view of life stated in the title. Dale and Gordon do well with the song which manages to be beautiful with limited vocal demands.

The highlight of the musical is the great song “Send in the Clowns.” It comes near the end when Fredrik is in Désirée’s bedroom. The song is contemplative, reflective, sad, ironic, introspective, almost self-mocking - fantastic. She wants to turn a page on a life of love affairs or sexual liaisons and settle with Fredrik who happens to be the father of her daughter. But they are on different wavelengths. The show of their lives is not going well. She is on the ground; he is in midair. He does not want what she wants. Someone should send in the clowns to entertain the audience as they do when a show is going badly. But, in the last verse, she tells us there are no clowns to send – they are the clowns. 

The song hangs above the show like a chandelier made of diamonds. McIntosh sings the melody gorgeously and the song raises the musical from a Broadway hit to a work of beauty.

A Little Night Music has a considerable amount of humour and director Gary Griffin does only moderately well in evoking laughter.

The set designed by Debra featured four tubular structures that struck me like smoke stacks. The dresses were beautiful.
    _____

A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book)) continues in repertory until October 23, 2016 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

BREATH OF KINGS – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTIONS

Reviewed by James Karas

**** (out of 5)

Breath of Kings: Rebellion is Graham Abbey’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. He edits the two plays so that we can see the essence of both in about three hours including an intermission. Abbey has also adapted Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V under the title Breath of Kings: Redemption.  The two adaptations can be seen separately or in successive performances at the Stratford Festival.

It is an amazing achievement that makes Shakespeare more approachable without taking away anything essential. Purists will no doubt complain but when you get four plays for the price of two in superb albeit truncated productions you should tone down your criticism. 
 
Graham Abbey (left) as King Henry IV and Araya Mengesha as Prince Hal in Breath of Kings: Rebellion.
 Photography by David Hou
Richard II is the story of a weak, vacillating king who is convinced that he has been put on the throne of England by God and God alone can remove him. Arrogance without talent is a dangerous mix and Richard suffers the consequences. Tom Rooney in a long robe gives us the arrogance and the ineptness of the pathetic king who, if he did not deserve to be murdered, certainly did not deserve to rule a nation.

Opposing Richard is his cousin Henry Bolingbroke who is exiled and stripped of his wealth by Richard. Graham Abbey as the future Henry IV is self-assured, assertive and commanding. He moves from simply wanting what was taken away from him by Richard to going for the throne.

In the Henry IV, Part 1 Abbey plays the King, troubled by his conscience as the usurper of the throne and by his son Prince Hal (Araya Mengesha) who keeps company with some unsavoury ne’er-do-wells like Falstaff in a tavern. King Henry faces rebels the way Richard II did with the Earl of Northumberland (Nigel Shawn Williams) and his son Hotspur (Jonathan Sousa) leading the rebels.

The contrast between the two young hotheads is central to the play. Hotspur is the paragon of bravery and pride albeit with an uncontrollable temper. Hal is the epitome of a dissolute young man who spends his time in a pub. Mengesha and Sousa are about the same size and the contrast and comparison is striking and they both give fine performances. But let’s do something about their hair. Comb it, give them a haircut, make a wig for them but do something. And while we are at it, Abbey as King Henry IV with his grey wig looks like a leftover hippie from the 1960s.

There is no Henry IV of course without a good Falstaff and Geraint Wyn Davies is one of the best. This cowardly, conniving, womanizing, heavy-drinking and eating, bigger than life man enjoys life and if he never tells the truth he considers it an accomplishment. A memorable Falstaff from Wyn Davies.
 Geraint Wyn Davies (centre) as Sir John Falstaff with members of the company in Breath of Kings: Rebellion. Photography by David Hou.
In Breath of Kings: Redemption Abbey adapts the less successful and less frequently produced Henry IV Part 2 and the martial Henry V in which the warrior king thrashes the French in the Battle of Agincourt. By this time Prince Hal has matured and become a responsible monarch. He rejects Falstaff and his old companions quite brutally and if you listen carefully he may have committed a couple of war crimes but leave that subject alone.

Falstaff and his companions are still with us in Henry IV, Part 2 and we have comic figures like Justice Shallow (Tom Rooney), Justice Silence (Stephen Russell), Mistress Quickly (Kate Hennig), Doll Tearsheet (Michelle Giroux) in Gloucestershire and Eastcheap.  

The great humorous scenes of the Henry IV plays with Falstaff are missing from Henry V. The scene where the French Princess Katherine (Mikaela Davies) is taught English is entertaining but there is not much more. Mengesha as Henry V lacks the energy and magnetism of a warrior loved by his soldiers and the scene where he woos Katherine simply flops.    

The four plays even as condensed into two have large casts and there is considerable doubling. Directors Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman have decided to have many of the male roles played by women. In fact most of Richard’s supporters are played by women. Carly Street, for example, plays the Duke of Norfolk, The Archbishop of York, a gardener, Lady Percy, and the Earl of Douglas, the latter with a stupendous Scottish accent. Shane Carty gets to play three noble men and Nym. Michelle Giroux deserves special mention for a fine performance as Richard’s Queen and as Doll Tearsheet though the latter role is more memorable for the juicy name than for the size of the part.    

The amazing fact is not the size of the cast and how well they act nor the doubling but the clarity with which the plot lines are delineated. The canvas is quite huge. You need to keep track of the Royal Family of England under Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, their supporters, their supporters, the rebels and sundry other characters. There are the people of Eastcheap, Gloucestershire, and the French court and so on. Abbey’s adaptations and Mengesha’s and Cushman’s staging manage to keep us in the loop at all times.
                                  
There is some loss of energy near the end of Henry V but the adaptations and performances are immensely successful as a brilliant and approachable presentation of four of Shakespeare’s plays.
           ______

Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Breath of Kings: Redemption by William Shakespeare adapted by Graham Abbey continue in repertory until September 24, 2016 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Sunday, August 14, 2016

THE 39 STEPS – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION


*** (out of 5)

It’s all a matter of taste.

Take The 39 Steps. The Playbill tells us “it is adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock.”

A part of the audience found the whole production simply hilarious. Every move, every gesture evoked belly-shaking guffaws. Another part of the audience may have found the performance just as entertaining but they were the quiet, undemonstrative types where laughter is concerned.

 Andrew Shaver, Raquel Duffy, Kawa Ada. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

There were also some who did not find the thing entertaining at all. Like me.

Barlow’s adaptation, if that is the right word, is based almost entirely on Alfred Hitchcock’s film of 1935 with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Buchan’s book and Hitchcock’s film are substantially different.

Barlow has taken most of the characters from the film and has given all the parts to four actors. His treatment can be called many names that amount to the same thing: a caricature, a parody, a burlesque, a travesty, perhaps. A comic send up, certainly.

Ravi Jain directs Kawa Ada, Raquel Duffy, Anand Rajaram and Andrew Shaver in Soulpepper’s production. Ada plays Richard Hannay, the hero who discovers a plot to destroy England. Duffy plays Annabella, Margaret and Pamela, and Rajaram and Shaver are listed as Clown 2 and Clown 1 respectively.
 Kawa Ada, Anand Rajaram. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
Examples that the audience found uproariously funny. There is a door on wheels and a character enters it, pushes it along and renters it and repeats the action several more times. A doddering old man pushes a chair with his cane across the stage. An old man is making a speech and cannot be heard. He is told to speak up and he raises his head and speaks to the ceiling.

The performance is made up of actions like these and a good part of the audience roared with approval.

I did not laugh but the actors deserve praise for the frenetic pace that they maintain and the quick character changes that they achieve almost seamlessly. Jain and the actors achieve admirable speed, coordination and impeccable timing that must be recognized.

But in the end it is all a matter of taste.
 ______
 The 39 Steps adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock runs until August 27, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca

Saturday, August 13, 2016

SWEENEY TODD – REVIEW OF 2016 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street did and still does well as a Broadway musical since it opened in 1979. But it does just as well and perhaps better on the operatic stage. The Glimmerglass Festival has chosen it as its “musical” for this year’s roster of productions. It proved a wise choice in a highly praiseworthy production.

The production has the benefit of superb singers and an accomplished orchestra but it relies on pared down sets.
 
Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett and Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival's 
production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In the opening scene, we see the cast in their “street clothes” and they take their costumes from a clothes rack to become the chorus of the opera. Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland provides two moveable walls which serve as the backdrop for most of the performance with some variations for the asylum scene and the “end” of Mrs. Lovett.

Sweeney Todd is billed as a thriller and it reaches back to Jacobean revenge tragedies where murder, dismemberment and far more grotesque doings are the order of the day. Benjamin Barker was a barber on Fleet Street in London but he was transported to Australia by Judge Turpin on trumped up charges. His crime was having a pretty and virtuous wife that the judge desired. Now he returns to London disguised as Sweeny Todd to wreak vengeance.

He meets the inimitable Mrs. Lovett who runs a pie shop and she knows Barker’s story. They team up to avenge Sweeney and save his lovely daughter Johanna (Emily Pogorelc) who is the judge’s ward and on whom the judge has lecherous designs. As a barber, Sweeney has the perfect method of disposing of people’s souls with his sharp razor. Bodies are a bit more cumbersome but, you see, good meat is hard to come by and Mrs. Lovett needs a lot of it for those delicious pies.

Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley leads the cast as the grim and murderous Sweeney in search of his wife, his daughter and justice. He has a threatening manner and vocal power as he slashes his victims’ throats. 
L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett makes a perfect partner for Sweeny. If he is after revenge, she is after money and more. Bybee performs with gusto the lurid role and sells delicious pies made with human flesh with sheer pleasure. She is just the type of woman your mother wants you to bring home.

Bass Peter Volpe plays the despicable Judge Turpin who wants to marry his young and beautiful ward Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter. Volpe sings and acts well and when Turpin gets a well-deserved close shave we are almost eager to order a meat pie from Mrs. Lovett the next day.

There are several performers from Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program that deserve credit for praiseworthy work. They are tenor Christopher Bozeka as the caricature of the operatic singer Adolfo Pirelli, tenor Nicholas Nestorak as the toady Tobias and tenor Bille Bruley as the ass-kissing Beadle Bamford. The opera seethes with disgusting characters but Glimmerglass is rich in having singers to do justice to the roles.

The lovely voiced soprano Emily Pogorelc deserves special praise as Johanna Barker who, with baritone Harry Greenleaf, another talented young artist, provided the love interest and decency in the moral cesspool of the opera.

Director Christopher Alden had a fine cast but limited stage props to work with.  He does a fine job with a few movable panels.

The chorus’s movements are well choreographed and the production works well.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra under John DeMain performs superbly.
            _____
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street  by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book adapted from the play by Christopher Bond) opened on July 9 and will be performed nine times until August 26, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Friday, August 12, 2016

THE THIEVING MAGPIE – REVIEW OF 2016 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Thieving Magpie (La Gazza Ladra, for sticklers) is a delightful opera that gets a rousing and captivating production directed by Peter Kazaras at the Glimmerglass Festival.

Rossini’s 1817 romp has been assigned a number of tags but I think it is an opera buffa at heart but more about this later.

Plot main: The lovely servant Ninetta (Rachele Gilmore) loves her employer’s son Giannetto (tenor Michele Angelini). Fabrizio, his father, approves; Lucia, his mother does not because she thinks Ninetta is a thief because of missing silverware. Subplot one: Ninetta’s father Fernando arrives as an army deserter sentenced to death. Subplot two: The town mayor has his eye on Ninetta and is prepared to blackmail her. We have about two and a half hours to enjoy the opera and solve all these problems.
Rachele Gilmore as Ninetta, Ensemble member Simon Dyer, Musa Ngqungwana as Gottardo, Calvin Griffin as Fabrizio Vingradito, Michele Angelini as Giannetto and Leah Hawkins as Lucia in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of "The Thieving Magpie"
Our main concern is Ninetta who stands accused of theft, must protect her father and defend herself from the lecherous Mayor. Get a grip on yourself because she is convicted and sentenced to death. Soprano Rachele Gilmore with her delicious voice, vivacious manner and strong character leaves no doubt that she will pull through but she does come awfully close to losing all.

Angelini as Giannetto looks and sound like a tenor that came from central casting, as they used to say. Tall, faithful, ardent, with a martial bearing and high notes that just fly from his chest, he never leaves us in doubt that Ninetta and their love will triumph.

Bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana sings exceptionally well as the lecherous and corrupt Mayor but let the latter have Ninetta? We wouldn’t trust him with a plastic magpie let alone an anthropomorphic or ornithological one.  
   Leah Hawkins as Lucia, Calvin Griffin as Fabrizio Vingradito, Michele Angelini as Giannetto and members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of "The Thieving Magpie"
Bass-baritone Dale Travis was disappointing as Ninetta’s father Fernando. He sounded almost hoarse and off his voice. Soprano Leah Hawkins was an authoritative Lucia and bass-baritone Calvin Griffin was her nice and obedient husband in good performances.   

You can’t have a thieving magpie without a magpie and that can be a plastic one in a cage or a dancer. Kazaras has choreographer Meg Gillentine in an ornate “magpie” costume greet the patrons as they take their seats in the theatre. She has a large cage on the stage and she dances in and out of it in a delightful performance.

The opera is set in and around the spacious courtyard of Fabrizio’s house and outside the jail cells of the town. Set Designer Myung Hee Chung has her own idea for the large yard and the town setting. A large wreath (or is it the outline of a cage?) enfolds the front of the stage with a vista of blue sky in the background. The scene does change for the jail scene but the simple idea of the wreath remains.

The Thieving Magpie has been described as a melodrama, a rescue opera, a tearjerker, a tragedy, a comedy and no doubt some other names. It is a classic comedy. The old try to interfere with the course of true love of the young; a dirty old man does the same; integrity is questioned but in the end wins. The usual obstacles of comedy are all there as is the happy ending.

Kazaras does excellent work with all of those elements. The opera can take well over three hours to perform. He cuts it down to less than two and a half hours excluding intermission.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Joseph Colaneri maintain a brisk pace from the drum roll of the overture right up to the happy ending.

A simply delightful evening at the opera.
     _____

The Thieving Magpie by Gioachino Rossini (music) and Giovanni Gherardini (libretto) opened on July16 and will be performed eight times until August 25, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Thursday, August 11, 2016

LA BOHÈME – REVIEW OF 2016 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival’s chestnut offering this year is Puccini’s La Bohème. Yes, the one where she coughs in the first scene, dies in the last and there isn’t a dry eye left in the house. And rightly so.

Director E. Loren Meeker and designer Kevin Depinet have set the opera in the Paris of the Belle Époque, the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec which was beautiful, colourful, and full of life and joy. This is the image conveyed successfully in the Café Momus scene in the Latin Quarter. Depinet makes full and very intelligent use of the small stage of the Alice Busch Opera Theatre to convey a vivacious party atmosphere without the paraphernalia one sees in larger houses. More about this later.

 
 Rhys Lloyd Talbot as Colline, Brian Vu as Schaunard, Raquel González as Mimì, Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo and Hunter Enoch as Marcello in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
How about our Mimi? Soprano Raquel González breaks our hearts very easily. Sure her candle goes out and she knocks on Rodolfo’s loft door, but after that she sees what she wants and goes for it. She drops her keys and makes sure her candle stays out. Rodolfo sees what he likes too and a couple of arias and a duet later, it is love at first sight.

González sings sweetly, lovingly, effortlessly. Her outpouring of emotion from “Mi chiamano Mimi” to “Donde lieta usci” to the final love duet is delivered with vocal beauty and deep feeling that goes straight to our heart.

What about the object of her love – Rodolfo? We are not sure about his character, especially his jealousy, but that is not our concern here. Tenor Michael Brandenburg does well in his protestations of love when in the midrange of his voice but he does not always do as well in his high notes. He is quite ardent in the beginning and in the end but what he does well emotionally he does not always match vocally.
 
Hunter Enoch as Marcello, Vanessa Becerra as Musetta, Brian Vu as Schaunard, Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo and Raquel González as Mimì in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
His loft-mate Marcello, baritone Hunter Enoch, makes a significant vocal impression in the relatively minor role. His voice resonates with emotion and beauty in a fine performance. Bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot as the philosopher Colline and baritone Brian Vu as the musician Schaunard (both Young Artists) do fine work as Rodolfo’s rowdy but decent friends.

Soprano Vanessa Becerra (another Young Artist on her way up) as Musetta showed spunk and gave us a very vivacious flirt.

The loft of the first act is well-designed with its entrance from a door on the floor. The scene at the gates of Paris is realistic and appropriate. The relatively short scene in the loft where Mimi and Rodolfo meet and go to the café in the Latin Quarter usually requires an interval to change the set. In this production no interval was needed and (the set was changed in a matter of seconds. Bravo for the entire design including the quick change.

Joseph Colaneri conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

Meeker deserves kudos for his conception and execution of this familiar work. He stays the middle course without any off the wall takes and gives us exactly what Puccini intended. A tragic love story, well sung, well done and well wept.   
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La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini (music) and Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto) opened on July 8 and will be performed thirteen times until August 27, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

THE CRUCIBLE – REVIEW OF OUTSTANDING 2016 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival on the shore of Lake Otsego is up and running for its 41st season. A few kilometers away from Cooperstown and the museum that honours people who hit balls with a bat, it provides cultural nourishment, intellectual pleasure and spiritual enrichment for modest people who enjoy opera. You may roll your eyes now.

One of this year’s eclectic choices is The Crucible by composer Robert Ward and librettist Bernard Stambler. It gets a superb production conducted by Nicole Paiement and directed by Francesca Zambello.
 

 The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Robert Ward's "The Crucible." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Crucible is, of course, based on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play that deals directly with the Salem witch trials of 1682 but more cogently with the American witch trials of the 1950’s under Senator McCarthy.

Ward and Stambler captured and indeed heightened the dramatic events of the play. Nicole Paiement conducts the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in an intense and nuanced performance emphasizing every dramatic chord.

The singing is affecting and frequently outstanding if just as frequently uneven. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton gave perhaps the best performance as Elizabeth Proctor, a troubled woman who betrays her husband while trying to save him. Her marvelous voice conveyed pathos and she gave us an Elizabeth that we fully sympathized with. A nice combination of vocal beauty and acting ability.

Baritone Brian Mulligan has the taxing role of John Proctor, a practical farmer who committed a sin and is caught in the maelstrom of insanity led by a few girls. He is caught up in the vortex of religious fanaticism, vengeance and greed that will lead to his death. In the end he rises to heroic if tragic stature in a fine performance by Mulligan.

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris sang the role of the Judge Danforth, the man who arrogates to himself the role of God’s spokesman and Satan detective. Morris may have been having a bad night but he sounded strained at times even though he never failed to be dramatic.
 
Jamie Barton as Elizabeth Proctor, Brian Mulligan as John Proctor and Maren Weinberger as Mary Warren in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Robert Ward's "The Crucible." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Most of the cast of The Crucible comes from the Festival’s Young Artists program and their performances were overall admirable. Most notable were soprano Ariana Wehr as Abigail Williams, baritone Michael Miller as the nasty Thomas Putnam, mezzo-soprano Helena Brown as Rebecca Nurse, and Maren Weinberger as Mary Warren.   

Zambello’s production is taut but Spartan. The set by Neil Patel consists of bare gray walls with windows that serves for interior and exterior scenes. The only change is the scene between John Proctor and Abigail where the same gray motif prevails but there is a fallen tree in the background.

The staging is done expertly and the drama proceeds to its ultimate climax inexorable and dramatically.

A superb night at the opera.  

And speaking of baseball, some of you American aficionados may wish to acquaint yourselves with opera. The World Series is coming faster than a curve ball and where will you go when the Blue Jays clobber all the American teams? Remember, the lights go down during an opera performance.  
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The Crucible  by Robert Ward (music) and Bernard Syambler (libretto) based on Arthur Miller’s play opened on July 23 and will be performed nine times until August 27, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS - REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION


*** (out of 5)

Father Comes Home From The Wars is a three-part play by Suzan-Lori Parks that deals with the lives of a group of slaves during the American Civil War. At almost three hours, it is not a snappy evening and the pace set by director Weyni Mengesha makes it seem even longer. The virtues of fine acting help, the Homeric references add interest but the final result is not entirely satisfactory.

We are in Texas in 1862 and a slave named Hero (Dion Johnstone) is faced with a dilemma. His owner, a Colonel (Oliver Dennis) in the Confederate Army, wants him to follow him in the war and promises to free him in return. A slave fighting with the Confederate Army on the promise of freedom is laden with more irony than one can bear.
 Lisa Berry, Dion Johnstone, Walter Borden, Akosua Amo-Adem, Marcel Stewart, Daren A. Herbert, Peter Fernandes, Roy Lewis. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Should Hero accept his owner's offer?

Four other slaves (the Chorus of Undesirable Slaves played by Akosua Amo-Adem, Peter Fernandes, Roy Lewis and Marcel Stewart) along with the Oldest Old Man (Walter Borden), a slave named Homer (Daren A. Herbert) and Penny (Lisa Berry) discuss and some even take bets on whether Hero will accept his owner’s offer.

If you are wondering about the Homeric references, Hero is Odysseus, the father who returns from the wars, Penny is Penelope, his faithful wife with a twist and Homer is really one of the suitors in The Odyssey, again with an interesting twist. There is also a faithful and talking dog names Odyssey (Peter Fernandes). Don’t sweat the classical references.

The second part takes place near a battlefield where the Colonel and Hero have Smith (Gregory Prest), a captive Union officer kept in a cage.  The conversation among the three takes a wide range but it does not always keep one’s interest. But there are a couple of twists to Smith’s story that arouse interest but they do not get us anywhere.

The final part takes us back to Texas where some of the slaves are running away but there is a delay (they discuss things endlessly) and Hero, now called Ulysses returns home. There are a number of plot twists as the play winds its way to the end. Odyssey Dog appears and he does an extensive and even entertaining comedy routine but it does not quite fit the rest of the play. Was Parks running out of ideas and started adding plot twists and standup comedy by Dog?

The fate of Penny, Homer, Ulysses and the escaping slaves is finally resolved but in an unsatisfactory way.
Marcel Stewart, Lisa Berry, Roy Lewis, Akosua Amo-Adem. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann 
Johnstone is a heroic and complex man who must deal with essential decisions including loyalty and treachery, fidelity and survival. For example, if he is to avoid following his owner into the Confederate Army, he contemplates cutting off a foot.

Oliver Dennis is the classic slave owner, arrogant, demanding loyalty without having to practice it himself and with a sense of superiority over his slaves based on skin colour. He can be cruel and treacherous and Dennis does a fine job in the role.

Penny is a sympathetic woman caught up in the maelstrom of war and a husband who wants to join in it. Her fate becomes even more distressing in the end and Berry draws our sympathy and admiration

Prest does a fine job as Smith the prisoner who is threatened with death and must talk his way out of being killed. There are a couple of plot twists involving Smith as well.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini suggests a barren landscape with a tree stump and a couple of rocks.

There is a great story to be told about a slave who chooses to follow hos owner in the Confederate Army but Parks is only partially successful in telling it and Mengesha in conveying it.
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Father Comes Home from the Wars, (Parts I, II III) by Suzan-Lori Parks opened on August 4 and will run until August 17, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca  

Monday, August 8, 2016

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE – REVIEW OF 2016 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

**** (out of five)

The Shaw Festival in its fine production of Wilde’s A Woman Of No Importance manages to gives us two shows for the price of one. We get Wilde’s play, of course, full of aphorisms, balanced phrases and witty lines. But we also get a fashion show designed by Michael Gianfranceso based on Cecil Beaton’s designs.

Director Eda Holmes sets the play in England in 1951 where the upper class is reestablishing its fashionable dominance in London after the grim years of World War II.
 
(l to r): Matthew Finlan as Farquhar, the servant; Mary Haney as Lady Caroline Pontefract, Fiona Reid as Lady Hunstanton, Diana Donnelly as Mrs Allonby, Claire Jullien as Lady Stutfield, Julia Course as Miss Hester Worsley and Landon Doak as Francis, the servant. Photo by David Cooper.

Wilde sets up issues of high-toned morality and religion in a social class that is concerned mostly with its own entertainment. Lord Illingworth (Martin Happer) is rich, amoral and wants to enjoy life, especially women. He does have a secret that will visit him soon (no, it will not come to haunt him) but in the meantime he appoints Gerald Arbuthnot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) as his private secretary.

The magnificently dressed ladies (the men are nicely dressed too, but who gives a hoot about them) are gathered on the terrace of Huntstanton Chase for the play and the accompanying fashion show. The set for the opening scene consists of an ugly curtain that looks like it was hastily hung up by stage hands on Sunday morning. Happily it is the only ugly part of the stage design and it disappears after Act I.

With the exception of Lord Illingworth and Gerald Arbuthnot, the men in the play are mostly necessary space fillers. Sir John Pontefract (Jim Mezon) takes pictures, Mr. Kelvil MP (Jeff Meadows) has his name mispronounced, Lord Alfred Rufford (Thom Marriott) and Archdeacon Daubeny (Ric Reid) are there too.

If you want high morality straight from the mouth of an Old Testament patriarch just listen to Mrs. Arbuthnot (Fiona Byrne). She believes in Original Sin which condemns all and is passed from generation to generation. Her reference is personal but her high-toned morality is intact. Unlike the fashionably attired ladies, Mrs. Arbuthnot wears a tasteful but by no means haute couture dress and she has a lot to be angry about. Byrne’s characterization in the end comes out as more forceful and righteous than pretentious and self-righteous.
 Martin Happer as Lord Illingworth and Diana Donnelly as Mrs Allonby. Photo by David Cooper
The fashion show is led by Diana Donnelly as Mrs. Allonby and all one can say is that they don’t make them like they used to. Mrs. Allonby kisses Lord Illingworth passionately but nothing comes of it.

We have Hester Worsley (Julia Course), the American millionairess, whom we like even after she is called a Puritan but I am not sure why she does not speak with a clear American accent. Claire Jullien as Lady Stutfiel has a nice dress but ugly glasses and no doubt there is a reason for that.

Fiona Reid provides much of the laughter as Lady Huntstanton who is not too swift and admits it but can deliver lines with perfect intonation and spot-on pauses that are simply a delight. Mary Haney as Lady Caroline Pontefract is also funny.       

When we are not watching the fashion show, we pay attention to Lord Illingworth, Mrs. Arbuthnot and her son Gerald Arbuthnot with meaningful glances towards the lovely Hester.

There are no doubt many who have not seen or read A Woman of No Importance and they may enjoy finding out who the “woman of no importance” is and who is the man of no importance in the play.   

They will enjoy Wilde’s wit, Eda Holmes’ fine directing, get a lot of laughs and a fashion show and discover who is who and get a fine night at the theater.

What more do you want?
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A Woman of no Importance by Oscar Wilde continues until October 22, 2016 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

THE DANCE OF DEATH – REVIEW OF 2016 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

**** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

The Dance of Death is a series of variations on the theme of spousal hatred. August Strindberg was no stranger to marital acrimony and he did not have to go too far from his home when he wrote the play that premiered in 1900. Martha Henry directs the play for the Shaw Festival with powerful performances by Jim Mezon, Fiona Reid and Patrick Galligan.

Edgar (Jim Mezon) is an army captain in charge of a fortress on an island near a port in Sweden. His wife Alice (Fiona Reid) is a former actress and the two are about to “celebrate” their silver wedding anniversary. Perched above the sea, the fortress is in fact a former prison but it is the perfect living quarters metaphorically and realistically for the warring couple which are isolated from the rest of the community and are left with only a Sentry (Landon Doak) walking silently back and forth outside their residence.
Jim Mezon as Edgar, Patrick Galligan as Kurt and Fiona Reid as Alice. Photo by David Cooper.
Mezon with his shaven pate, generous size and thundering voice gives us a powerful Edgar. The power may be more apparent than real because Edgar has some health issues including poor eyesight, excessive use of alcohol and collapsing fits. He admits to nothing and his booming voice brooks no argument.

Fiona Reid’s Alice is no pushover. Her hatred of Edgar is a powerful as his for her and she wants revenge and elimination of him. She engineers his arrest and incarceration but is unsuccessful He attempted to kill her but failed. He chases her around with a sword, makes a shambles of their apartment and as if by divine contempt, they cannot get rid of each other. Fiona Reid excels in comic roles with splendid intonations, physical moves and hilarious pauses. Here we see her in a dramatic role that she handles superbly.

The catalyst for some of the more egregious explosions of marital loathing is the arrival of Alice’s cousin Kurt (Patrick Galligan). He is a quarantine master sent to open a quarantine station on the island. Edgar hates him and wants to destroy him directly and indirectly by affecting his son’s future. Kurt has some experience in spousal combat. A court ordered him to have no communication with his some fifteen years ago.

Galligan’s Kurt can stand his ground against Edgar and he goes many steps further with his attraction to Alice. The two express great passion for each other and plan to get rid of Edgar. This is not a comedy and as you may suspect they do not succeed.

The only other character in the play is the silent Sentry who walks back and forth in the first half without any sign of weariness but who limps during the second half.

The play profits from playwright Conor McPherson’s translation and syncopation. He gets rid of the minor characters of the maid Jenny and the Old Man and provides a colloquial language that is not stilted or awkward. The natural flow of the dialogue works exceptionally well in moving along the plot of a play that has very little plot. 
Jim Mezon as Edgar, Fiona Reid as Alice and Patrick Galligan as Kurt in The Dance of Death. Photo by David Cooper
The set by William Schmuck gives the impression of an apartment above the harbor that still seems claustrophobic and indeed prison-like. Going down to the harbor requires descending numerous steps and Martha Henry makes sure we hear the loud footsteps when the characters go down or come up the stairs.

The dance of Death is not always easy to bring off but Martha Henry with an excellent cast and a superb version of the play by Conor McPherson succeeds in bringing the Strindbergian war into a fine evening at the theatre.
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The Dance of Death by August Strindberg in a version by Conor McPherson runs until September 10, 2016 at the Studio Theater, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, www.shawfest.com/