Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Yanna McIntosh as the Queen, Geraint Wyn Davies (centre) as Cymbeline and Mike Shara as Cloten with Brad Hodder and Naomi Wright (background) in Cymbeline. Photo by David Hou.
Reviewed by James Karas

No one would argue that Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s best plays. Even so, you would expect the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to produce it with some frequency but even they steer away from it. In its 61 years, the Festival has produced the play only four times, the last time being in 2004.

The reasons for avoiding the play are not hard to find. It has a large cast (not unusual for Shakespeare) and a bizarre plot that leaves you scratching your head at the best of times.

The current production at the Tom Patterson Theatre, directed by Antoni Cimolino, is solid, well-done, traditional (you could say almost unimaginative) staging that is helped by some fine acting, especially by the women.

Cara Ricketts as Innogen (she is usually known as Imogen but some editors prefer Innogen), is an attractive, intelligent and resourceful woman. She has to cross-dress as a man and find herself lying beside a headless torso which she mistakes for her husband’s. A performance worthy of the character by Ricketts.

Yanna McIntosh plays the conniving and evil Queen. She is Innogen’s stepmother and wants her to marry her oaf of son Cloten. She plots to get rid of Innogen and peace is only restored when she dies near the end of the play. McIntosh handles the role with relish and great ability.

King Cymbeline is played by Geraint Wyn Davies. The King is a decent man and supposedly under the thumb of the Queen, his second wife. Davies appeared sufficiently royal as he had to maneuver between being a leader in control and a husband who is blind-sided by his wife.

Graham Abbey is Posthumus, the “hero” of the play. He is not of royal blood but Innogen loves him and they are married. He is exiled to Rome where he shows more brawn than brain when he wagers with Iachino, a sleazy Italian, that Innogen is irreproachable. Well, Iachino goes to her bedroom hidden in a trunk, approaches as she sleeps and notices a mole under her breast. Needless to say, Posthumus believes that his wife was unfaithful and denounces her. Fine performances by Abbey and Tom McCamus as Iachino.

Mike Shara is perfect as the lumbering, arrogant, stupid and oafish Cloten, the Queen’s son from a previous marriage. He is intended for Innogen and the throne of England but luckily for both his head is chopped off.

The rest of the cast provide good performances that deliver the text without necessarily improving the play.

Cimolino does give us a battle scene with the Romans marching in formation and being met by the British is a loud fight. It’s a bit of a relief amid the plot’s twists and turns.

The play is done on a completely bare stage. Even the cave where Belarius (John Vickery) and his two “sons” who look like left-over Neanderthals but are better spoken live is just a fold in the curtains. Belarius abducted the King’s children, Guiderius (E.B. Smith) and Arviragus (Ian Lake) and raised them in a cave.

A four-poster bed is wheeled on and off the stage in the opening scene and later in the play. I am not sure why unless it is a reminder of the importance of the bedroom scene in which Innogen is unjustly compromised.

The Romans wear the plummeted helmets, breastplates and greaves of Hollywood movie variety while the Queen wears a long black gown with ruffles suggesting the Elizabethan era. The play is set at the time when Christ was born and the costumes clearly suggest that in some instances they are about sixteen hundred years apart.

Cymbeline is a tough play to like and even tougher to stage with a coherent, imaginative and comprehensible vision. Potions, apparitions and the appearance of Jupiter do not help. Cimolino gives us a comprehensible and intelligent production that does him and the Festival great credit.

Another production?


Cymbeline by William Shakespeare opened on May 31 and will run in repertory until September 30, 2012 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

Thornton Wilder called his 1954 play The Matchmaker a farce and indeed it has many farcical elements. But it is also a play with characterization, plot development and wisdom that raise it above the usual door-slamming, pants-down farces.

Chris Abraham who directs the play at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this season has taken Wilder at his word and produced a fast-moving, wildly farcical view of the play that went over extremely well with the audience.

The Matchmaker was made into the musical Hello, Dolly! and most people know that version better than the play. A vote of thanks to Stratford for giving us the play.

Horace Vandergelder is a wealthy merchant in Yonkers, New York in the 1880s and at age 60 he has decided to re-marry. He is bombastic, opinionated, untrusting and thinks that the world is peopled with fools. In short, he is hilarious. Give the role to Tom McCamus, with white hair and a beard, and you have an actor who can bring in the character and the laughs.

Marriages, of which there are several in the play, require the services of a matchmaker, of course, and Yonkers at that time was well-served by Dolly Gallagher Levi, herself a widow and the best friend of Vandergelder’s late wife. Her talent is to convince people that they want what she wants them to want. She must be intelligent, circumspect, cajoling and conniving, and, one need hardly say it, amusing. Seana McKenna, with her distinctive voice, brings all those characteristics in Dolly and dominates the performance whenever she is on stage.

Vandergelder’s hands are full. He has two idiotic clerks in Cornelius (Mike Shara) and Barnaby (done well by Josh Epstein) who set out for Manhattan in search of adventure culminating in the ultimate experience of kissing a woman. Shara has that bumbling, naïve look that is perfect for the role. The two clerks provide much of the slapstick humour as the innocents abroad.

He also has his pretty niece Ermengarde (nicely done by Cara Ricketts) who is in love with and insisting on marrying the unacceptable artist (yikes!) Ambrose (Skye Brandon).

The Yonkers crowd including the strange-accented and job-changing Malachi (wildly played by Geraint Wyn Davies) descend on New York. The two clerks find themselves in Irene Molloy’s hat shop where they have no business being as does Vandergelder. Irene (Laura Condlin) is a candidate for Vandergelder’s wife and massive confusion and classic farce scenes (hiding under a table or in a closet) ensue.

There is a snooty Headwaiter (John Vickery), an over-effusive spinster played by Nora McLellan (a major talent not used frequently enough) and an assortment of characters that fill the stage and provide energy and slapstick humour.

The cast had the audience in the palms of their hands and the evening and the production moved briskly. It may be churlish to complain, but I will anyway. Abraham’s choice of a farcical and slapstick approach is defensible but is there such thing as overdoing it? Some of the jokes struck me as being over-influenced by cheap sitcom gags that we could have done without. Stage farce can do without some of the excesses of second or third rate television programmes. The Matchmaker is a fine play that does not need every gag that a director can think of.

When all is said, The Matchmaker was an excellent end to the first of week of opening nights at Stratford.

The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder opened on June 2 and will play in repertory until October 27, 2012 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordshakespearefestival.com 1 800 567-1600

Monday, June 18, 2012


From left: C. David Johnson as Major General Stanley, Kyle Blair as Frederic and Amy Wallis as Mabel Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance.

Reviewed by James Karas

W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan made life very easy for producers who wanted to put on operettas. The wrote a number of sure-fire hits that provided fantastic tunes, very funny and silly plots, and the possibility of creating a high-spirited, indeed exuberant, production. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has taken its cue and produced just that type of show in its staging of The Pirates of Penzance at the Avon Theatre.

In case you have forgotten the basis of the plot, here is a sharp reminder. Ruth, a nursemaid, was sent to enroll Frederic as an apprentice pilot. She misunderstood and enrolled him as an apprentice pirate. Those things will happen and that is how Frederic ended up being indentured to The Pirates of Penzance where he was duty-bound (remember the subtitle of the operetta is The Slave of Duty) to stay until his 21st birthday. (By the way Penzance is in Cornwall, England, not some Caribbean island).

But Frederic was born on February 29 and when he was chronologically 21 he had celebrated only 5 birthdays. I trust that is clear.

The success of the production rests largely with director Ethan McSweeny. From the opening bars to the final scene, this is an imaginative, funny, well-sung, exuberant production that provides a thrilling night at the theatre. McSweeny is clever, inventive and simply brilliant.

I do not want to short-change Choreographer Marcos Santana or Set Designer Anna Louizos who provide so much of the energy of the show and the scenic splendor respectively.

The key performers do excellent work even though there are some vocal limitations. Frederic must be young, naïve, handsome and sing his heart out. Kyle Blair qualifies on all counts although his voice tends to become a bit strained in the high notes.

Mabel (Amy Wallis), the lady that Frederic falls in love with, is pert, pretty, petite and can sing up a storm. Wallis manages her high notes and trills with perfect pitch and she is a delight to watch.

Thomas is in the hands of the Sean Arbuckle who does an excellent job as the would-be tough Pirate King. He is well-served by his lieutenant Samuel (Jordan Till) who is quite funny.

Major-General Stanley is perhaps the most famous character of The Pirates because he gets to sing “I am the very model of a Modern Major-General”. C. David Johnson is very good in the role except that he does not quite succeed in enunciating all the words of the song or maintaining the speed of the patter.

Steve Ross is superb as the Sergeant of the Police, a Keystone Kops type of force that wears Union Jack underwear.

For ensemble dancing and singing, we have three groups: the pirates, the wards of the Major-General and the police and they provide much of the energetic movement of the production.

The Pirates is, as I said, set on the coast of Cornwall but the attempts at English accents range from the inept to the more inept.

In the end, the complaints are minor compared to the overall conception, design and execution of the production. It may well prove one of the best of the season.

The Pirates of Penzance by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan opened on June 1 and will run in repertory until October 27, 2012 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, June 11, 2012


From left: Amy Wallis as Sally, Ken James Stewart as Charlie Brown, Andrew Broderick as Schroeder, Erica Peck as Lucy and Kevin Yee as Linus in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

What possessed the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to choose You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown for production this year?

First let me give you some information so helpfully provided by Professor James Magruder in the programme. Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts has spawned a billion-dollar a year industry. At one time it was supposed to have been read by 5% of the literate population of the globe!

A musical called You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was created in 1967 and by the 1980s “there had been 40,000 productions of the show, making it the most produced musical in the history of the American theatre” according to Professor Magruder.

Did it prove impossible for Stratford to argue against stats like that and hence the production?

The musical has the six Peanuts characters perform musical sketches, some no more than vignettes, based on familiar incidents of their “life.” Charlie (Ken James Stewart) is involved in several musical numbers and of course relates his woes with the little girl in the red hair, his attempts at playing baseball and trying to connect with people.

Linus (Kevin Yee) sings about “My Blanket and me,” Schroeder (Andrew Broderick) sings “Beethoven Day,” Snoopy (Stephen Patterson) has several numbers and is the amusing dog that pretends to be The Red Baron or just wants to be fed and sleep on top of his doghouse.

Sally (Amy Wallis) is mostly an ensemble player but she does tell us about “My New Philosophy” with Schroeder. The bossy Lucy of Erica Peck does an amusing poll about her character.

Before dumping on the whole, I should note that these youngster performed very well. They displayed confidence, talent and sheer energy that should stand them in good stead on stage and screen.

Some of the sketches, taken individually, were relatively amusing. Like picking up the paper and reading a cartoon strip and smiling at the punch line, you might say.

But in this case, we were not reading the newspaper or glancing at a cartoon strip. We had to sit through a couple of hours of noisy singing and cartoonish antics. The theatre had a lot of children and I am not sure if the show is intended for kids. Some of the material will no doubt be over the head of children but the show is colourful enough with some projections of video games to keep the little tykes awake and enjoying the show.

There was some adult humour about the ironies of life, the pain of rejection, the fear of approaching a young girl and the heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that Charlie Brown and the rest of us are heirs to.

All of that is not enough to save the show from being a noisy bore that makes two hours appear like an eternity.

Director and Choreographer Donna Feore delivers what she was given but an efficient and talented driver who comes to your door on time with a lousy pizza gets little credit for his speed and careful driving.

A bad night at the theatre and a question: why did the Festival choose this musical?


You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on the comic strip “Peanuts” by Charles Schulz with book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner with additional dialogue by Michael Mayer and additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, opened on May 30 and will continue in repertory until October 28, 2012 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Friday, June 8, 2012


                                                  Members of the company in 42nd Street. Photo by David Hou.

Reviewed by James Karas

When David Merrick produced 42nd Street on Broadway in 1980, he called it a “Song and Dance Extravaganza”. There is truth in that statement and many other epithets were attached to the huge hit that ran for nine years and 3,486 performances. Gower Champion, its legendary director and choreographer, died on the day the show opened!

42nd Street is this year’s big musical offering from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. If the usually unreliable opening night audience is any indicator, it should be a big hit and pay the bills.

The plot of 42nd Street is based on a pleasant myth that may be called almost a cliché. An innocent young woman, dressed in a white dress, white hat and white gloves, arrives in New York in the 1930’s and wants to sing and dance on Broadway. The wholesome Peggy Sawyer (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) is from Allentown, Pennsylvania, presumably the bastion of American virtue and innocence.

Julian Marsh (Sean Arbuckle), a rough-and-ready producer, is putting on a show on Broadway and he is auditioning hopefuls. The star of the show will be the Dorothy Brock (Cynthia Dale) who comes accompanied by her sugar daddy Abner Dillon (Steve Ross), her lover Pat Denning (C. David Johnson) and her hauteur.

Well, Dorothy will break her leg and the show will close. No, she will be replaced by … no peaking at the programme, now … and guess what the result will be? Now you realize why Merrick called the show a Song and Dance Extravaganza.

The show does provide a lot of fabulous tap-dancing, shapely “dames”, in a variety of plumage and handsome men in top hats and tails. They all generate energy, rhythm, toe-tapping excitement and sheer entertainment.

The songs are familiar and memorable. From the title tune “Forty Second Street” to “Lullaby of Broadway” to “We’re in the Money” these are beautiful melodies that follow you out of the theatre and remain imbedded in your subconscious.

The credit for much of that goes to Harry Warren for the music and Al Dubin for the Lyrics. Director Gary Griffin does a great job with the dancing and the creation of energy (there are lots of entrances and exits) but he is not as lucky in the singing department.

The star of the show and the show-within-the show is Cynthia Dale. Unfortunately her singing ability does not quite match the hype that precedes her appearance. Her voice can be described as adequate but one ventures to submit that it is not enough for a major production by a major institution like the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

If the rest of the singers had first-rate voices that soared above Dale’s, we may be more charitable towards her and them but the fact is that no one hits the stratosphere. Kyle Blair as Billy Lawlor does a decent job and Jennifer Rider-Shaw, the new star, does not quite soar to the heights that would make the moniker entirely applicable but she is close enough.

Sean Arbuckle is convincing as the tough if not too bright director of the show but he is a director and not a singer for good reason. He is very good in mid-range but he is well-advised and usually does not stray into notes beyond his ambit.

I am always ambivalent about big Broadway productions in Stratford. The job of management is surely to produce works of quality that fill the theatre. Can that not be done without light stuff like 42nd Street? Does a song and dance extravaganza fit in with Shakespeare and Company?

Opening night audiences are about as reliable as Helen of Troy. The seats are filled with fellow actors and donors who are all well-disposed towards the performers and the production. Frequently they display knee-jerk enthusiasm for which there is sacnt justification. No matter how pedestrian the play or the performance, a standing ovation at the end is de rigueur. But in the case of 42nd Street, the enthusiasm of the audience went beyond cheering their friends. They simply loved the show.

Perhaps that is a good barometer for choosing a production

42nd Street by Harry Warren (music), Al Dubin (lyrics) and Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble (book) opened on May 29 and will run in repertory until October 28, 2012 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, June 4, 2012


Ben Carlson as Benedick and Deborah Hay as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by David Hou.

Reviewed by James Karas

The cover of the programme for Much Ado About Nothing, the opening production of this year’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, shows a straight-backed, mustachioed Ben Carlson in military uniform with his right arm around the waist of Deborah Hay. She is dressed in a beautiful gown, hair well- coiffed with an impressive column behind them.

Carlson is Benedick and Hay is Beatrice in this production of Shakespeare’s comedy of love, wit and battle of the sexes set in early twentieth century Brazil by director Christopher Newton.

Much Ado involves two parallel love stories, some wooing by proxy and a dastardly deed of deception that derails one wedding and causes a great deal of distress. Shakespeare also provides some low comedy with the inimitable Dogberry and his hilarious cohorts of incompetents and torturers of the English language who nevertheless solve the crime committed against our Hero and pave the way for happily ever after.

The best part of the play is the verbal jousting between Benedick and Beatrice and there is no hesitation in awarding full marks to Carlson and Hay for their performances or to Newton for his directing. They deliver their lines with skill and flair and are given comic activities such as sliding down the stairs by Hay or dropping a glass by Carlson when they are overhearing how devoted they are supposed to be to each other.

Claudio (Tyrone Savage) is the conventional ardent lover of Hero (the lovely Bethany Jillard) and it is their wedding that will be thrown off course when the bride is accused of gross misconduct on the eve of their nuptials. They will eventually find the primrose path, of course. Juan Chioran is an impressive Don Pedro, epaulets, medals and sash in perfect order. His half-brother, the black clad and evil Don John who will accuse Hero of infidelity is done well by Gareth Potter.

The plot moves at a good pace, the laughs come in and we bask in the sun of Shakespearean comedy of wit. We wait for the belly laughs of the low comedy provided by Dogberry and Company. This is the tankard of beer after the champagne of wit and we are ready for it. Unfortunately, the beer was left in the sun too long and it arrives flat.

Dogberry (Richard Binsley) in the play and most productions comes from another world. His dress, accent and ability to use the wrong word make him and his companions a hilarious part of the play. In this production they are more or less part of the crowd and barely produce a giggle for much of the time and never achieve anything like a huge laugh. This is a major hole in the production.

The set by Designer Santo Loquasto consists of a large staircase which is impressive but also problematic. It provides a hiding place for Beatrice and Benedick when the others talk about them and it is an impressive entrance for the brides. But it also creates some sight-line problems. If it were smaller and at the back of the stage it may have been less impressive but more practical.

The costumes of the officers are fairly conventional military uniforms. The other men of the court wore conventional suits and tails where necessary. There were suggestions of Brazil in some of the outfits and the music but nothing very outlandish or particularly striking in the change of locale.

Which brings us back to the programme cover and the production. Benedick is not a heroic conqueror but a middle aged officer who does not kill in war and only reluctantly challenges his friend to a duel. To that extent the cover is misleading but it’s not exactly a capital offence.

What is more serious is the costume and hair that Hay is given in the actual production. Did someone spend long hours to make sure that the beautiful Hay wears an ugly, straight skirt and a hideous top? Could they make her hair any less attractive? Why did they dress her up quite beautifully for the programme cover and then gave her the awful stuff for the production?

In the end, Newton and the production merit a B. All the ingredients and talent for an A were there and were simply not used or misapplied. Too bad.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare opened on May 28 and will run in repertory until October 27, 2012 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

 Ragtime is a big, ambitious and intelligent musical that premiered in Toronto in 1996 and is this’s year’s “big musical” offering from the Shaw Festival. The production deserves the epithets applied to the work that is based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name.

The musical wants to do nothing less than present a large if not comprehensive view of America at the beginning of the 20th century. An amalgam of fact and myth, real people and fictional characters are used to give a gritty, realistic and glorious depiction of Americana.

The inter-connected plot starts with the well-off and closed-off society of New Rochelle, New York. The Father (Benedict Campbell) has all the prejudices and bigotry of most white Americans of the era whereas his wife (Patty Jameson) is far more tolerant and humane. They are rich and life is good.

The other end of the social spectrum is represented by the blacks of Harlem and more specifically by Coalhouse Walker (Thom Allison) and Booker T. Washington (Aadin Church). Walker is a rebel and demands civil rights by violent means as opposed to Washington’s non-violent approach.

The third social segment is that of the immigrants, represented by Tateh (Jay Turvey), a fresh-off-the-boat Jew. We also have Henry Ford (Peter Millard) and J.P. Morgan (Anthony Malarky) to represent the nascent industrial and financial America that would come to dominate the world.

For good measure we also have the magician Houdini (Kelly Wong) and the fiery labour activist Emma Goldman (Kate Hennig) who reminds us of the horrible working conditions of the lower classes.

That is indeed a large canvas and one that would appear quite unsuitable for musical treatment where a light touch and entertaining approach would seem to be essential.

Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have found a medium for the words and music to match the subject matter of the work. The syncopated rhythms of ragtime music allow for powerful expressions as well as lyrical songs and ensemble pieces. The music and songs are eminently approachable and very effective.

Thom Allison gives an impressive performance as the Negro who is pushed into rebellion and in the end violence against the injustices meted upon him. Allison has a powerful voice and sang and performed with conviction.

Jay Turvey’s Tateh starts as a dreamy and hopeful immigrant only to be struck down by the reality of life in an American sweatshop. But he is lucky and gets out of his milieu quite triumphantly. He becomes a movie mogul and the apotheosis of the American dream. Superb work by Turvey.

Campbell is the bigot Father who eventually comes around. He has to sing a couple of songs and as long as he does not stray too far from his allotted octave, he is fine. Jameson as his wife has a better voice and plays a more sympathetic part.

The set by Sue LePage is heavy on steel girders and insistent on the impression of a nation that represents industrial power. There is even a Model T Ford, surely one of the grand symbols of American ingenuity, productivity and wealth.

Jackie Maxwell directs admirably this grand production.

Ragtime by Terence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) opened on May 26 and will continue in repertory until October 14, 2012 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.