Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

A musical set in mid-nineteenth century Lisbon and based loosely on the life of someone called Maria Severa? And providing a current work inspired by fado music? In baseball, my score would be one for three. Yes, I have heard of Lisbon but the other two facts (I blush) drew a blank until I saw Maria Severa, the new musical by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli now playing at the Court House Theatre during the Shaw Festival’s 50th anniversary.

Fado (fate in Portuguese) is described as urban folk music or Portuguese blues and a woman called Maria Severa is credited with introducing it in the 19th century. Little is known about her life and many legends have sprung about her. Sportelli and Turvey have taken their own route and developed a script about a mythical Maria Severa who was a prostitute in Mouraria, a working class district of Lisbon.

She works the district with a Brazilian girl named Jasmine (Saccha Dennis) and they meet two prospective customers, Fernando (Jonathan Gould) and Armando (Mark Uhre). They are aristocratic brothers and live in an estate situated above Mouraria.

Armando’s family is in financial trouble and he is a bullfighter by day. His mother Costanca (Sharry Flett) is planning to marry him off to the wealthy Clara (Jacqueline Thair) for financial reasons. Armando falls in love with Maria.

Maria is also a singer and a composer and she performs at a club in Mouraria. There is a guitarist named Carlos (Jeff Irving) who works there and he is in love with her. There is also her mother (Jenny L. Wright) who will provide some of the broad humour of the musical.

It is not hard to guess that Armando’s mother will object to her son’s choice of woman and will of course try hard to dissuade him from having anything to do with Maria. A priest (played by Neil Barclay) comes in to convince Armando of the error of his ways.

The classic situation has been developed and if all goes well Armando will solve his financial woes and marry Maria. But this is a work composed in 2011 and not a 1931 Broadway musical.

The musical numbers range from accompanied recitatives to some beautifully melodic songs. They cover a broad range from the romantic “Wandering Moon” and “Starlight” to the gritty “Bread and Butter,” the latter referring to prostitution.

Julie Martell is not convincing as a prostitute but she makes a beautiful musician and sings splendidly in the title role.

Mark Uhre is a fine figure of a man, as they say, with a voice to match. He is a matador, a singer, a lover, a man. His one shortcoming is his atrocious table manners and I somehow doubt that his high-breeding would allow him to shovel food down his gullet the way he does here. The fine-toned and sharp-nosed Countess played by Sharry Flatt would have driven those table manners out of him three days after his birth!

Jenny L. Wright is allowed to have a field day in overacting and hamming it up as Mama and is enjoyable. Saccha Dennis is given some license too and provides some contrast to Maria. She is excellent vocally as well.

Jeff Irving as Carlos is a clever, undernourished musician in love with Maria, a woman who is clearly more talented musically than he is.

Jackie Maxwell directs and dramaturges this work. The latter must mean that she helped shape up the plot. In any event, it is a highly enjoyable musical and very educational. Fado, Mouraria and Maria Severa will become almost household terms from now on. No?

Maria Severa by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli opened on July 19 and will run until October 2, 2011 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Monday, August 29, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

“I am exhausted.”

That was the comment of a gentleman as he was walking out of the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. No, he was not a stagehand or other worker who had just finished an arduous shift of work. He had just finished watching The President, a one-act play by Ferenc Molnar, adapted by Morwyn Brebner, which lasts for one hour. It is the lunchtime offering of the Shaw Festival and it is performed at such speed that the audience needs a rest at the end.

The President is a farce on a caffeine overdose but it is also an interesting play about transformation. There is no time to notice the latter because you are running as fast as you can to keep up with the farce and are probably laughing too hard.

The plot? Norrison (Lorne Kennedy), a wily, Napoleonic and fast talking corporate executive is looking after Lydia (Julie Martell), the daughter of a very important client. She is supposed to be studying but instead she has taken up with a rather unwashed cabby and become pregnant. Her parents are arriving in one hour and Norrison must turn the Communist taxi driver into a titled, well-groomed corporate executive suitable to Lydia’s moralistic and conservative parents.

Start your engines. Norrison marshals his staff with military precision and machine-gun speed into transforming the cabby Tony Foot (Jeff Meadows) into the sleek Count von Schottenberg Jr. in one hour.

An incomplete list of the items required to achieve the transformation involves precise order of clothes, adoption papers to raise Tony’s social status, the paraphernalia that go with the life of a corporate executive, a shave and a haircut, membership in the right clubs and the proper attitude.

Verbal and physical speed are of course essential to farce but you have never heard anyone talk as quickly as Lorne Kennedy as he orders clothes, food, hotel accommodation and promotions and demotions with mind-boggling speed, detail and precision.

Julie Martell is the very horny Lydia (Tony gets to paw her body a dozen times and you can see what they have in common and why she is pregnant and why Tony is willing to do whatever he is told).

All the other characters are cogs or satellites to the transformation machine that Norrison sets in motion. There are twenty-two characters and they are played by fifteen actors. Peter Millard is a butler-type assistant to Norrison and Michael Ball is a drunken Count who is willing to adopt Tony for the right price and provided he is not older than him like the last one.

Blair Williams directs the verbal and physical breakneck speeding and the result is uproarious laughter and, after one hour, some fatigue.

Molnar’s play was first performed in Budapest in 1929 and has been produced and adapted numerous times ever since. In 1961 Billy Wilder made a movie based on the play, One, Two, Three, starring James Cagney. The current adaptation by Morwyn Brebner was first seen at the Shaw Festival in 2008 and is being revived after allowing sufficient time for people to catch their breath.

The President by Ferenc Molnar, adapted by Morwyn Brebner continues until October 9, 2011at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Fiona Reid and Mike Ross

Reviewed by James Karas

Judith Thompson’s White Biting Dog opens with an arresting image. A man is standing on a bridge ready to jump to his death. He is stopped by a talking dog and returns to his home to look after his ill father. He will also try to reconcile his father with his estranged mother.

We have the brutal reality of a man ready to commit suicide and the fairy tale intervention by an animal to change the course of his life. This sets the tone for this absurdist drama that was first produced in 1984, won a Governor-General’s Award and is now playing at the Young Centre in a production by Soulpepper.

The man who is saved by the white dog is Cape (Mike Ross), a divorced lawyer who had or faked a nervous breakdown and was fired by his law firm. He never smiles, he tells us, and is perhaps a sociopath.

He is living with his father Glidden (Joseph Ziegler) who is suffering from dementia and other ailments and was given one week to live three months ago. He sprinkles peat moss over himself and acts bizarrely like the rest of the characters. (who the father or Cape?)

Cape meets Pony (Michaela Washburn), a young woman who owns the white dog that saved his life. He considers her an angel and she goes into trances and acts pretty weirdly.

Cape’s mother Lomia (Fiona Reid), shows up with Pascal (Gregory Prest), a young stud. They are living together and their apartment just burned down. Lomia is dressed in a nightgown and she is described by her husband as a slut.

The play examines the relationships of the characters and almost never moves on a realistic level. There are numerous striking images like Cape drinking his nosebleed and the fridge being full of bottles of blood. There is a suggestion of an incestuous encounter between Cape and Lomia and a homosexual contact between Cape and Pascal.

Cape falls in love with Pony and the issue of whether Lomia will dump Pascal and return to Glidden moves the plot forward. But, again, nothing in the play is linear or moves in a rational order.

The set consists of some steel columns suggesting the bridge with a cloudy sky in the background. The foreground consists of a couch and table with a raised platform. The set and costumes are designed by Christina Poddubiuk.

The unreality of the play and the dreamlike quality of some of the scenes made me think that Cape did jump off the bridge and the images and events of the play represent his thoughts in the few seconds before his death. His relationship with his parents, his ill and dying father, his whorish mother, his relationship with his wife and his dream for a saviour like Pony and her dog, all come rushing through his mind as he meets his end. Is Judith Thompson imagining that such thoughts may occur to one committing suicide and she has expanded them into a play?

Nancy Palk directs this interesting play with some of Soulpepper’s stalwart actors. Ziegler is excellent as the now potty, now rational Glidden and Reid is equally adept as Lomia. Washburn looks and acts the perhaps angelic and decidedly otherworldly Pony. Prest and Ross both look like sociopaths in their own right.

If you are looking for a play with a linear plot, a beginning, a middle and an end, this is not it. It is an absurd play where images and scenes follow fluidly as in a dream or perhaps a nightmare. I cannot say that I absorbed it all or terribly enjoyed it but it is interesting theatre nevertheless.

White Biting Dog by Judith Thompson opened on August 18 and will run until October 1, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Oliver Dennis and Karen Rae. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas
In 1960 Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros opened to great acclaim in London. Theatre critic Martin Esslin attended a party to celebrate the great success and remarked to Ionesco’s wife that the playwright must be very happy. She replied that he in fact is sad. The reason: “He is afraid of death” she said.

In his journal, Ionesco noted how much he dreaded death “from my day of my birth” and it is a subject that permeates much of his work.

Ionesco’s wild imagination turned this fear of death into a cosmic parable and a comic absurdity about dying. Exit the King which was first performed in 1962 is essentially a rumination about realizing that the knowledge and fear of death are about to meet. It is now playing at the Young Centre in a fine production by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

The central character of Exit is King Berenger (Oliver Dennis) who is dying. He is surrounded by his two wives, his Doctor, a guard and a servant. The King orders the sun to come out but it seems to disobey him. He dodders onto his throne and he is unceremoniously informed that he is dying. The King is prepared to die in a few decades or centuries but not now. He is told that he has a couple of hours to live, i.e. until the end of the play.

The play is made up of the juxtaposition of extreme unrealities; Berenger’s kingdom was endless; now it is reduced to a few yards. Berenger was the creator and inventor of everything from the Homeric epics to the airplane; now he is a fool. He has won hundreds of military victories; now he cannot walk up several steps. All of the past and the present belong to the imagination of Berenger and have no relation to reality.

Oliver Dennis is perfect for the role. His Berenger is a lost, frightened and comical soul who staggers around the stage, falls frequently and is incapable of performing the most rudimentary physical or mental activity while maintaining grandiose ideas about the past and planning for an even more grandiose posthumous existence. He wants everything to be made into a memorial for him. He wants to be almost deified and he plans to come back perhaps. Dennis presets the King as a fool, a madman, a dreamer and a frightened person with marvelous ability.

Marguerite (Brenda Robins) is Berenger’s first wife. The husky-voiced Robins plays the Queen as a no-nonsense woman who can be imperious and sarcastic. She is not sentimental and perhaps understands the King better than anyone.

In contrast to her, there is the king’s second wife, Queen Marie played by Karen Rae. Dressed in a beautiful, long gown displaying delightful cleavage, Queen Marie is the opposite of Queen Marguerite. She is sentimental, consoling to the king and tries to be protective of him. A good job done by Rae.

During the second half of the play, the King turns to domestic issues as he approaches death. That reality is brought to him through the servant Juliette (Trish Lindstrom). Lindstrom runs around crouched and has the manner and voice of a servant who is used to taking orders and abuse without differentiating between the two.

William Webster plays the Doctor, Bacteriologist, Executioner and Astrologist. Like Queen Marguerite, he is a no-nonsense person who delivers his lines in a business-like manner. Derek Boyes as the Guard gets to make lots of announcements.

The King is living in a ramshackle palace with a big crack on the wall. The throne room is tilted as if it were sinking, the furniture looks moth-eaten and the throne is a simple chair on a platform. Set and Costume designer Lorenzo Savoini has captured the essence of the play in his designs.

Much credit to Albert Schultz for his directing. The pacing is impeccable and he pays attention to every detail from the staggering of the king to the postures of the maid. He gets superb performances from all the actors.

In 1960 when Mrs. Ionesco told Martin Esslin that her husband was afraid of death, the playwright was 51 years old. He had another 34 years of that dread in front of him. He died in Paris in 1994.

Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco, translated by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, opened on August 16 and will run until September 9, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Sara Tophm as Célimène and Ben Carlson as Alceste. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has mounted a production of Moliere’s The Misanthrope that is done to perfection. Yes, that is a grandiose statement that begs all kinds of replies, some none too pleasant. But I sat through the performance on opening night at the Festival Theatre and was simply enthralled. It was as if I were seeing the play for the first time and Richard Wilbur’s rhyming couplets came pouring out of the actors’ mouths sounding fresh, colloquial and simply wonderful.

The Misanthrope premiered in 1666 to mediocre reviews. Since then it has joined the rarefied company of great comedies that stretches from Aristophanes to Shaw. It was written in rhyming couplets and there have been a number of translations into English, bath in prose and poetry, but none as successful as Richard Wilbur’s rhyming couplets which first appeared in 1955.

Director David Grindley, Set designer John Lee Beatty and Costume Designer Robin Fraser Paye have opted for the high elegance and sophistication of the 18th century. The elegant set with its chandeliers, fancy doors and soft curtains evokes refined tastes and manners in an aristocratic milieu.

The cast deliver the mellifluous and colloquial lines in a perfect pitch meaning they are aware that they are speaking in rhyming couplets but without sounding stilted. The translation is so fluid that they are able to do that.

Ben Carlson plays Alceste, the Parisian who despises hypocrisy, dishonesty, cant and bad writing. He would rather lose everything than stoop to flattery and false friendship. Carlson is simply marvelous.

His opposite is Célimène, a coquettish young woman who practices exactly what Alceste fulminates against. She has many admirers and lovers and the last thing she says to any of them is the truth. The problem is that Alceste is in love with her and when it comes to love, all principles go to hell. Sara Topham is a beautiful Célimène who can manipulate men, stand up to the nosey Arsinoé and deliver a smashing performance.

The other side of the Célimène coin is the officious and puritanical Arsinoé who attempts to castigate Célimène for her immorality. In one of those scenes that are a sheer joy to watch, Célimène gives Arsinoé her comeuppance. It is here that the repartee between the two woman reaches extraordinary heights because of the poetry. It would be fun in prose but it is much better in verse.

Juan Chioran plays Philinte, Alceste’s friend who has a more rational and compromising view of the world. He attempts to be the voice of reason and Chioran is exceptional in the role. His companion in that regard in Eliante played well by Martha Farrell.

The two foppish marquesses, Clitandre and Acaste, played by Steve Ross and Trent Purdy respectively are stock fools who chase the beautiful Célimène and they are good for a few laughs. Peter Hutt is very good as the would-be poet Oronte.

Director Grindley has hit the perfect pace and created the proper atmosphere for the play. If the rhyming couplets were spoken a bit faster, they would have been difficult to follow at times; more slowly and they would have bored us. Grindley finds just the right speed. He never lets the verse become stilted or in the way of the comedy or drama of the play. This is intelligent, perceptive and superb directing.

It is sometimes easier to criticize than to praise but I have no criticism to offer, only praise. As such it is best to shut up and recommend that you not miss this production of this great play.

The Misanthrope by Moliere, translated by Richard Wilbur opened on August 12 and will run until October 29, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Friday, August 19, 2011


From left: Brian Denney a Max, Ian Lake as Joey, Cara Ricketts as Ruth, Stephen Ouimette as Sam and Aaron Krohn as Lenny. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by by James Karas

Watching Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming is like walking on a frozen lake. The surface appears flat and solid but the ice creaks with every step that you take. There are pools of water here and there and there are some visible cracks. Danger lurks every time you apply pressure to the surface and you may be swallowed at any moment. Nothing is what it seems but you have no idea what “is”.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has assigned the task of capturing the spirit of the play to director Jennifer Tarver and at least one “star” actor in Brian Dennehy and some outstanding local talent.

The plot of The Homecoming is, on the surface, quite ordinary. Teddy (Mike Shara), a professor of philosophy in America, is returning to his home in London. He is accompanied by his wife Ruth (Cara Rickets). He left some years ago and his father Max (Brian Dennehy) and two brothers, Lenny (Aaron Krohn) and Joey (Ian Lake) know nothing about his marriage or children.

Max’s brother Sam (Stephen Ouimette) shares the house with Max and the two young men.

We are taken back into family history with all the men telling stories from the past. They are all telling the truth but you cannot believe anything that they are saying. Perhaps it is all true or all lies. Max had a great friend called McGregor. Was he sleeping with Max’s wife? Did he “have her” in the back seat of the cab that Sam was driving?

The boys tell stories of brutalizing woman in a matter-of-fact fashion as if they are simply describing having a beer with a friend. Are the men fantasizing the past or are they factual?

Brian Dennehy plays the brutal but ineffectual paterfamilias and it is indeed a powerful performance. He always carries a stick and you never know when he will use it.

Stephen Ouimette’s Sam is the opposite of Max. Sam is a prissy chauffeur who prides himself on his fine manners and consideration for his customers. People always ask for him, he tells us. Max’s comment is that they can have him for a pittance on Blackfriar’s Bridge. Ouimette captures the nuances of Sam’s character in a fine performance.

Joey (Ian Lake) is training to be a boxer and is physically dangerous but when he tries to have sex with Ruth he is unsuccessful. Lenny pretends to be cerebral and tries to engage Teddy in philosophical arguments but there is unspeakable violence lurking under the pseudo-intellectual façade. Lake and Krohn are well-suited for their roles and do good work subject to my comments below.

The men in The Homecoming speak a lower class London accent and this poses a serious problem for North American actors it seems. Dennehy has a powerful voice and his extraordinary acting manages to camouflage his limited ability with an accent.

Lenny speaks in a high-pitched voice that accentuates his evil side and he does well with the accent. Unfortunately he forgets to maintain the high pitch and lowers his voice about an octave in the second half of the play.

Stephen Ouimette slips in and out of the accent but like Dennehy he camouflages the fault with his fine acting.

Mike Shara’s accent is hopeless and he is miscast as the philosopher who can watch his wife on the couch with his brother. There are other roles he can do; keep him away from anything that requires an English accent.

Car Rickets is excellent as Ruth. She is cool and in the end the tart, as Max calls her, becomes a goddess as she takes over control of the men. Try to figure that one out. That’s what opaque means.

Pinter is famous for his pauses and Tarver wants us to know that they are there but some of them seemed more like coffee breaks.

The Homecoming is an extraordinary play and one cans see it repeatedly and discover new depths and angles every time. This production emphasized the dark humour of the play and the overall impression is favorable. If this were a school project, I would give it a B+ based on the several superb performances but still feel tightness in my stomach every time I hear some of those accents.

The Homecoming by Harold Pinter opened on August 11 and will run until October 30, 2011 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Gareth Potter as Hosanna in Hosanna. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has staged an exceptional production of an outstanding and memorable Canadian play. I speak of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna.

There are productions that I see and forget about them almost completely within a few weeks. There are others that are permanently etched in my memory. Hosanna is one of the latter. I saw the original English-language production at the Tarragon Theatre back in 1974 and still remember it clearly. Richard Monette and Richard Donat were directed by Bill Glassco in those golden days of the flowering of Canadian drama.

Hosanna has only two characters and for a considerable stretch, only one of them is on stage.

The two characters are gay men living in a dumpy one-room apartment in Montreal.

Claude is a farm boy who early in life realized that he is gay. He moved to Montreal’s seedy side and became a drag queen by night and a hairdresser by day. He dresses and makes love like a woman. He has adopted the name Hosanna and his dream is to appear in drag looking like Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.

Raymond, his lover, is the epitome of the tough, macho man, a biker, in fact. He wears a leather jacket, leather pants and boots but age is creeping up on him. He is developing a paunch and he is balding. He has adopted the name Cuirette.

The roles of “man” and “woman” taken by the two men are deceiving. Hosanna is in fact the breadwinner; they live in his apartment and he calls the shots. The unemployed Cuirette does all the housework and is in effect Hosanna’s maid.

At one point Cuirette asks Hosanna “what are you?” and the play tries to answer that question about both men. It is the crux of the play and the plot develops towards an answer to that question.

Gareth Potter and Oliver Becker deliver outstanding performances as the warring couple. The play uses strong, corrosive, blunt language and the two actors deliver it with brute force but also a certain rough lyricism and at times even musicality. Potter as Hosanna has a slight French accent that adds to the effectiveness and splendour of his delivery.

Hosanna has acquired many enemies in the gay community especially at the bar where he/she spends her evenings. The offended drag queens plot to humiliate her. At the opening of the play, he/she is returning from the bar dressed like Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and he/she is crushed and humiliated.

The play moves backward from then on as we uncover the backgrounds of the two men, their relationship and the details of Hosanna’s comeuppance.

Director Weyni Mengesha does a superb job in guiding these extraordinary performances that display all the ugliness of the subculture of drag queens but also the tortured lives and humanity of the two men.

Set Designer Michael Gianfranceso’s bachelor apartment is all that one can imagine in a disgusting place like the one occupied by Hosanna.

The programme contains an Audience Alert: “This production includes mature content, nudity, strong language, haze effects, herbal cigarettes, smoke and the use of strong fragrance.” The Alert should contain the message of “This is a pitch-perfect production of an outstanding Canadian play and everyone should see it.”

Hosanna by Michel Tremblay opened on August 10 and will play until September 21, 2011 at the Studio Theatre. Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Patricia Schuman as Carlotta Monterey and David Pittsinger as Eugene O'Neill in A Blizzard On Marblehead Neck. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Reviewed by James Karas

A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck is the second half of the Double Bill of one-act operas presented by the Glimmerglass Festival. The half-jour opera has music by Jeanine Tesori and a libretto by Tony Kushner.

If John Musto and Mark Campbell in Later the Same Evening give life to the figures painted by Edward Hopper, Tony Kushner has taken an incident from the life of playwright Eugene O’Neill and embellished it into a libretto.

O’Neill and his wife Carlotta Monterey are living in a cottage on Marblehead Neck, Massachusetts. It is February 5, 1951 and a blizzard is raging outside. At 63, O’Neill is suffering from a degenerative disease and is well past his prime as a writer. In fact, his last play that was produced, The Iceman Cometh, received derisive reviews. This is literally, the playwright in winter.

He and Carlotta are at war with scathing insults flying back and forth and vehemence reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They bring out every piece of dirty laundry from their past and air it with relish as they, especially Carlotta, try to score some points. O’Neill finds solace in listening to an old record which Carlotta takes out of the phonograph and smashes to bits.

To add more venom to the insults, three theatre critics, Louis Kronenberger (Carlin Gilfry), Bernard DeVoto (Aleksey Bogdanov) and Mary McCarthy (Stephanie Foley Davis), appear to give scathing reviews of O’Neill’s plays, especially The Iceman).

That is more than anyone can take and O’Neill walks out into the blizzard where he collapses in the snow. The young woman who sings in the record (played by Lindsay Russell) appears to the hallucinating O’Neill and he is eventually rescued.

This is a bloody good libretto – intelligent, literate, compact and moving. Tesori provides equally good music. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger bears an uncanny resemblance to O’Neill and he brings out the pathos and horror of a man trapped in a prison of age, illness, bad weather and a wife who is relentlessly offensive and hurtful. His resonant voice is an aural delight

Patricia Schuman makes a very effective Carlotta who has to fight over the temperature in their cottage. Life with the great playwright was probably extremely difficult and now they have both ended up in the nightmare that their relationship created.

The half-hour piece is directed by Francesca Zambello and the sets by Erhard Rom are fairly realistic and effective.

With the exception of Pittsinger and Schuman, all the singers are members of Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program.

A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Tony Kushner (libretto) opened on July 21 and will be performed six times until August 22, 2011 as part of a Double Bill at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Lauren Snouffer as Ruth Baldwin in Later the Same Evening. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Reviewed by James Karas

The market for one-act operas can be described quite charitably as very limited. Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, like Coke and Pepsi, have cornered the lion’s share of that demand and after one gives some shelf space to Puccini’s triptych and a handful of others, you have hit the bottom of the barrel, mixed metaphor and all.

The Glimmerglass Festival not only offers two one-acters but they are both new works, one of them receiving its first professional production and the other its world premiere.

The first piece of the Double Bill is entitled Later The Same Evening with music by John Musto and a libretto by Mark Campbell. The other is A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Tony Kushner (libretto).

For those who think that opera librettos are mere clotheslines on which composers can hang their arias (and frequently they are) Mark Campbell wants to add a roundly dissenting voice. His tight libretto (the opera takes 1 hour and 15 minutes to perform) is intelligent, complex and fascinating. He puts eleven people on stage and they are all united through five paintings by Edward Hopper and the attendance at a Broadway show.

In a fascinating turn of the imagination, Campbell takes five paintings by Hopper and creates “lives” for them in the opera. The painted figures in Hopper’s “Two on the Aisle”, “Room in New York”, “Hotel Window”, “Hotel Room” and “Automat” become characters whose lives are interwoven when they meet in the theatre.

There is a lot to do and explain in the short time allowed but Director Leon Major moves everything at a brisk speed and achieves a fluidity that makes everything look seamless.

Hopper’s “Room in New York” which shows a man reading a newspaper and a woman playing a piano becomes Elaine (Andrea Arias Martin) and Gus (Kyle Albertson), a warring couple with their marriage on the rocks. Following an argument, she leaves to go to the theatre.

“Hotel Window” shows an elegantly dressed woman looking out of a window but in the hands of Campbell the woman becomes Estelle (Patricia Schuman), a recent widow who is waiting for her date to take her to the theatre.

The woman sitting on a bed in ”A Hotel Room” becomes Ruth (Lauren Snouffer), a failed dancer who is writing to her boyfriend Joe in Indianapolis to tell him that she is going back. Joe (John Boehr) will appear at the Broadway show that everyone is attending and provide a fascinating plot twist.

The man and the woman in “Two in the Aisle” are already at the theatre in the painting but in the life that Campbell gives them they are Sheldon (Neal Ferreira) and his wife Rose (Andrea Carroll) an older, bickering Jewish couple.

That is the type of fascinating combination of art and fiction that makes up the plot to which composer John Musto has added modern music. The cast sing through the various plot strands and the music varies with the character and plot strand. Hopper’s five paintings are always on view and they act as the unifying items of the opera.

There are no show-stopping arias and much of the music sounds like accompanied recitative. Like much modern music, it required some getting used to but like so many new works it will have to shove its way in on the shelf between Cavalleria and Pagliacci and hope that some Artistic Director like Glimmerglass’s Francesca Zambello will find it and stage it again.

Later the Same Evening by John Musto (music) and Mark Campbell (libretto) opened on July 21 and will be performed six times until August 22, 2011 as part of a Double Bill at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Monday, August 15, 2011


Alexandra Deshorties in the title role of Cherubini's Medea. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Reviewed by James Karas

Luigi Cherubini’s Medea has the distinction of perhaps being more famous for some of its productions than as an opera. It was first produced in Paris in 1797 in French and did not do well. It was subsequently translated into Italian and went through several versions but never managed to join the standard repertoire. It was all but forgotten until Maria Callas sang the title role in Florence in 1953.

Callas sang the role in Dallas in 1958, at Covent Garden in 1959 and at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus before 20,000 fans in 1961. All productions are invariably described as ”famous,” an example of the performance of an obscure opera becoming a cultural and historical event.

All of which leads us to the current production of Medea, not in Milan or London but in a small theatre on a green lawn on the shores of Lake Otsego, at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.

A loud “bravo” for an eclectic choice of opera to Artistic and General director Francesca Zambello is followed by an even louder cheer of approval for an outstanding production.

There may be a number of reasons for the paucity of productions but surely one of the main ones is the enormous vocal and acting demands of the title role. Iago, Lady Macbeth, Clytemnestra and Lizzie Borden look like pleasant neighbours compared to Medea. If you can’t remember what she did, here is a reminder: she killed her brother in order to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece; when her father gave chase as she and Jason were escaping, she chopped her brother’s body into pieces and threw it into the sea to put an end to the pursuit.

When Jason decided to abandon her and marry Princess Glauce, she had the latter poisoned and in order to take revenge on the faithless Jason, she murdered their children!

This is evil, hatred and a desire for vengeance on an Olympian scale. The singer who undertakes the role has to possess vocal power and acting ability to fulfill a role few have dared to tackle and fewer have succeeded.

Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties tackles the role with confidence and the result is a bravura performance. She has the vocal power and stamina and the acting ability to render an exceptional Medea. She moves around the stage with controlled furor and perhaps utter madness and dominates the production.

American tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney, a member of Glimmerglass’s Young Artists program, replaced Jason Collins in the role of Jason. He gave an excellent performance as the hapless and faithless hero of Greek mythology.

American bass-baritone David Pittsinger was a sonorous and effective King Creon and mezzo soprano Sarah Larsen, another Young Artist, made her mark as the handmaid Neris.

Soprano Jessica Stavros was thrown into the role of Glauce to replace the ailing Wendy Bryn Harmer. It is a tough role and Glauce gets the first big aria of the opera (“Oh, Amore, vieni a me!”) near the beginning. Stavros, another member of the Young Artists Program, proved a disappointment. She sounded strained and was unable to do justice to the role. She has a big voice and there is no doubt that she can do better.

Medea takes place in mythical Greece (forget Corinthian columns) and Sets and Costumes Designer Joe Vanek places it nowhere. There are black panels and even the suggestion of The Lion’s Gate at Argos but the impression is that of primitiveness without being precise about it. It works.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus do a superb job under the baton of Daniele Rustioni.

Director Michael Barker-Caven delivers a powerfully performed and well-acted production of an opera that that requires guts and imagination to produce. A signal success.

Medea by Luigi Cherubini (music) and Francois-Benoit Hoffman (original libretto) in Italian version Carlo Zangarini opened on July 8 and will be performed nine times until August 16, 2011 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Friday, August 12, 2011


Deborah Voigt as Annie Oakley and Rod Gilfry as Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun. Photo: William Brown.

Reviewed by James Karas

Annie Get Your Gun is a musical that has left its mark on Broadway history for many good reasons. It deals with the American West and show business and that is a pretty good start. Irving Berlin composed some of his most memorable songs for it and even people like me who have never seen a production of it have heard songs like “There is no business like show business” and “Anything you can do I can do better.” Behind all of this lies a performer who is almost as legendary as Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill, the main characters of the musical. I speak of Ethel Merman.

The role of Annie Oakley was written for her and she belted out her songs with unmatched power and verve. Merman died in 1984 but her association with the role remains.

Francesca Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, assigned the directorial duties for Annie to herself and she clearly wanted the production to be a super success. How do you top Ethel Merman? One way is by finding an opera singer who can sing roles by such lung-busting composers as Wagner and Strauss. If you can do Brunnhilde, Isolde and Salome, Annie Oakley should be a cakewalk. Zambello’s choice: Deborah Voigt.

The Annie Oakley of Annie Get Your Gun is an illiterate sharpshooter who runs into Frank Butler (Rod Gilfry), a sharpshooter with the Buffalo Bill Show. She challenges him to a shooting duel, beats him and then falls in love with him. The rather thin plot is about the shooting contests between Annie and Frank and the struggle to survive by the two travelling troupes, The Buffalo Bill and The Bill Pawnee Show.

There is some light comedy and romance, of course, but what we want is some powerful singing and that means we need a powerful singer. Deborah Voigt is not it. Why can she not open all cylinders and burn the top of our hair with Berlin’s marvelous songs? Erase all thought of Merman. Forget that she is Deborah Voigt. The review would be that of a competent singer doing a good job. But she is Deborah Voigt and we expect a lot more from this first-rate soprano and I know of no explanation for why she does not deliver the goods.

Voigt is a full-sized girl and somewhat past her first blush of youth. If Annie is a young, innocent and beautiful country girl, Voigt bears scant resemblance to her. Voigt moves rather slowly and her comedic talents are rather limited. But we can overlook all of that provided that when she sings “There is no business like show business” some light bulbs are shattered. They did not.

Now compare Voigt’s singing against that of Klea Blackhurst in the role of Dolly Tate, Butler’s assistant. There is someone who showed how Annie could and should be played. Blackhurst, to give her a really high compliment, was Mermanesque.

Baritone Rod Gilfry was excellent as Frank Butler, the thin-skinned shooter who could not bear being beaten by a woman. Being a smart woman and in true Broadway fashion, Annie pretends to lose and finally gets her man.

The rest of the cast was fine from Jake Gardner as Buffalo Bill Cody to Nick Santa Maria as Chief Sitting Bull to Drew Taylor as Charlie Davenport.

The show is colourful, well paced and highly entertaining. This is old, uncomplicated Broadway at its best. It opened on Broadway in 1946 and by that time shows with more complex plots and better integrated characters had already started appearing. The emphasis is on light comedy, easy-to-digest plot and tuneful songs that made up the “old fashioned” Broadway was on its way out.

Some of those shows have survived because of composers like Irving Berlin whose songs raised them above the banality of the plots and made them works of art.

Zambello does not miss a trick in her handling of the production but the idea (it must have seemed brilliant) of casting an opera star as Annie Oakley simply did not pay off.


Annie Get Your Gun by Irving Berlin (music) and Herbert and Dorothy Fields (libretto) opened on July 16 and will be performed fourteen times until August 21, 2011 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Ginger Costa-Jackson with members of the ensemble in Carmen. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Reviewed by James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival is in full sing. This year Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello has chosen what has become a classical selection of productions for the Festival: a familiar warhorse: Carmen; a less familiar classic: Medea; an American musical: Annie Get Your Gun and a Double Bill of two premiere productions: Later the Same Evening by John Musto and A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck by Jeanine Tesori.

Georges Bizet’s Carmen may have been a fiasco when it opened in 1875 but it has taken sweet vengeance on all its detractors by becoming one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. Glimmerglass treats us to a new production directed by Anne Bogart with Sets and Costumes by James Schuette.

Let’s cut to the chase, as they say, and line up the essentials for a good production of this opera. We need a mezzo-soprano, a soprano, a tenor and a baritone. Sure there are other roles but we did say the essentials.

Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson gets her first lead role, she tells us, and is singing Carmen for the first time. She gets high marks for her vocal achievement in the role but we will cut her down a notch or two in other respects. Costa-Jackson has a rich, sometimes sultry but luminous voice that feels like delicious chocolate at times. She sang with vocal conviction and if her Carmen is not a sexual magnet it is not because Costa-Jackson cannot sing.

She cannot dance very much but that is no great failing. For the seductive Seguidilla she is placed on the top of a table as if to prevent her from attempting to do too many dance steps. What is more significant and more easily corrected is her hand movements and some mannerisms. Her hair kept falling on her face and she threw it back with one or both hands far too many times. You started hoping that she can finish the phrase that she started before she had to flick her hair back. If not the young singer, then surely the director should have fixed this.

Soprano Anya Matanovic as Micaela is not allowed too many physical movements – she holds onto her shawl and purity, mostly. But she does have to sing and Matanovic delivers Micaela’s purity with her lustrous and beautiful voice. A marvelous performance.

Baritone Michael Todd Simpson is, as they say, tall, dark and handsome, the very image of the toreador who will get (but not keep) the girl. Simpson has the self-confidence of a born winner and he sings with assurance and tonal beauty. His Escamillo can conquer both bulls and women.

I was not as thrilled with the work of tenor Adam Diegel in the role of Don Jose. At times he was so stiff, he looked like a statue on whom pigeons could land. His singing was strained on occasion and although he seemed to be an audience favourite I could not give him more than a B for the night that I saw him.

Carmen opens in a square in Seville, then moves to Lillas Pastias’ tavern, then to an encampment in the mountains and finally to outside the bullring. The busy square in Seville is represented by panels that do not cover the stage and give the impression of an interior scene. With the several tables and chairs strewn around, this could be the interior of an army barracks. What the marching children and cigarette girls are doing there is an open question.

A curtain is drawn half way across the stage and the square becomes an unconvincing tavern. The back panel is removed and I have no idea where we are supposed to be but let’s just say that Schuette’s sets add very little to the production.

Bogart’s direction is generally sound but it does beg a few questions. Aside from some of Costa-Jackson’s mannerisms and some stiffness, why do Carmen and Don Jose not have eye contact or have much to do with each other during the final duet? There is a circle of light on the stage and should they not be there right from the start. Don Jose stabs Carmen in the back and drops her to the floor. He leaves her alone and goes to the back of the stage. Should he not be telling her how much he loves her from closer range and should she not die in his arms?

Carmen was composed with spoken dialogue but the conservative audiences outside France expected recitatives and Ernest Guirard composed them. Bogart sensibly discards them and we hear spoken dialogue albeit in some strange accents. These are Spaniards speaking French and who knows what one is supposed to expect.


Carmen by Georges Bizet opened on July2 and will be performed fourteen times until August 23, 2011 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Nancy Palk, Gemma James-Smith and Stuart Hughes. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

This year marks the centenary of Tennessee Williams’ birth (March 26, 1911) and both the Shaw Festival and Soulpepper are marking the occasion with productions of two of his masterpieces. The Shaw Festival tips its hat to the great American playwright with Cat On A Hot Tin Roof while Soulpepper bows with a production of The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie which premiered in 1944 established the theatrical world that Williams was to occupy for the rest of his creative career. It is a world of people who are on the edge – fragile, barely able to or unable to cope, living in a past that never existed and searching for a future that will never come. Like the fragile glass figurines that Laura possesses, adores and indeed lives with, his characters’ lives can be shattered at any moment.

It is not an easy world to capture and the current production directed by Ted Dykstra at the Young Centre is only partially successful. There are a couple less than stellar performances and the staging and overall-effect fails to provide a cohesive and convincing atmosphere.

Tom (Stuart Hughes) is the narrator and a key character in the play. He is a partially autobiographical version of Williams who is holding a terrible job, trying to become a writer and escape from the drudgery of life with his mother and sister. Tom’s escape route is the movies but when that proves insufficient, he leaves everything behind and joins the merchant navy.

There are several problems with Hughes’s performance. He is given a sort of Southern accent that he cannot quite manage and is quite unnecessary. He speaks quickly in a dream play where the desperation of the character is more important than getting us through the text posthaste. His anger comes out and he reacts to the other characters effectively but Dykstra should have slowed him down and chucked the idea of an accent.

The person that drives the play and everyone in it crazy is Amanda Wingfield, the mother who imagines a glorious past on a Southern plantation where gentlemen callers came and life was wonderful. Instead of marrying one of the rich callers, she went for a ne’er-do-well who left her with their two children and was never heard of again. They live in a crummy apartment where the electricity is cut off because the bill was not paid but she still dreams of that slendid past and imagines her cripple daughter finding a rich husband.

She is pathetic, infuriating and in many ways sympathetic. Nancy Palk is a slender woman with a strong voice who brings out some of Amanda’s traits but it is hard to see her as a pathetic figure. Palk’s talents are not what Amanda requires.

Dykstra has better luck with Gemma James-Smith as Laura. She is a bit chubby for the role but her performance does bring out the pathos, fragility and utter defeat of a young girl who was late for class in high school and had to clump down the aisle. Her brother Tom brings a “gentleman caller” from work, the man she adored from a distance in high school and in the very moving second act of the play, her hopes are raised by his expression of some affection and a kiss, only to be completely crushed when he tells her that he has a girlfriend.

The best performance is delivered by Jeff Lillico as the Gentleman Caller. He was a high school hero but life has not turned out as expected. He is working in the same warehouse as Tom and taking courses in public speaking and radio engineering in order to improve himself. Like Amanda, he is full of braggadocio and hopes for a future that may never come as he looks back to a glorious past that is long gone. Lillico raises his voice in the fashion of one addressing a public gathering but he does show tenderness in the scene with Laura.

The dream quality of the play and the pathos are missing form the first half of the production. What we get is a dysfunctional family that is infuriating but not much more. Things do come together in the second half, especially the scene with Laura and the Gentleman Caller but that is not enough to give us more than a decent production of a great play.


The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams opened on July 6 and will run in repertory until September 10, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

Rodolphe Kreutzer has managed to sneak his surname into history without doing much of anything. He was a prominent violinist in the early 19th century but that would not have entitled him to more than a mention in history books were it not for Beethoven. Beethoven composed a violin sonata and dedicated it to one George Bridgewater, who performed the difficult piece on sight. Violin Sonata No. 9 was dedicated to him until he had an argument with the irascible Ludwig van, who changed the dedication to Herr Kreutzer. Rodolphe did not like the work and he never played it.

Leo Tolstoy was bowled over by the sonata and he named a novella after it in 1889. Listen to the passionate interplay between violin and piano, the fury, almost violence and you will begin to understand what Tolstoy had in mind when he started writing his novella. Imagine the passionate chords of the violin part being played by a beautiful woman and the piano being pounded like a hammer by a man. (In the play, the man is the violinist but I prefer my imagination to the text.)

The sonata and the novella have spawned numerous adaptations and the latest by Ted Dykstra is now showing at the Young Centre in an exceptional one-man show that is also directed by and stars Mr. Dykstra.

Mr. Dykstra plays Yuri, a sophisticated Russian, who tells us his life story while sitting in an easy chair, wearing a silk house coat. He never gets up from the chair and except for some excerpts from the sonata, we only hear him relate the dramatic story of his relationship with his wife. He also paints a picture of the moral universe that he inhabits.

Yuri is patriarchal, to put it politely, or a puritanical, obsessively jealous man who believes that sex should only be practiced for the purpose for procreation. He considers music with its appeal to the senses simply dangerous.

Yuri does marry a woman, he tells us, who is passionate and loves music. What is worse she invites a violinist to the house and they play The Kreutzer Sonata together. They play more than musical instruments, it seems. The squabbles of an emotionally mismatched couple become mortal combat. The clash of the moral universe of the husband with the less elevated world of the sensuous wife becomes a morality tale for all of humanity.

Dykstra’s telling of the tale is nicely modulated and accentuated by playing a few parts from the sonata. He tells the story with controlled anger and moral hauteur. Needless to say, a man of such extraordinary morality does not stop at mere disapproval of conduct that is utterly unbecoming. He simply murders his wife.

The play lasts about an hour without intermission and provides an exceptional piece of entertainment. It is a one act play and therefore not something that one gets to see all that often. It is just one more reason to give Soulpepper a standing ovation for its eclectic choice of plays.

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy, adapted by Ted Dykstra, opened on July 15 and will run until August 11, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666