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Thursday, 31 May 2012

Review: You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown

Ken James Stewart, Erica Peck, Kevin Yee, Amy Wallis and
Andrew Broderick as Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Sally and
Schroeder. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.

Based on the comic strip "Peanuts" by Charles M. Schulz. Book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner.

Additional dialogue by Michael Mayer. Additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa.

Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore. Musical Direction by Laura Burton. Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco and Dana Osborne.

The Story: A typical day in the life of 5-year old Charlie Brown, his sister Sally, his dog Snoopy and his friends Schroeder, Lucy and Linus; it is filled with questions about the world as they figure out who they are, hide behind their insecurities and try - like the rest of us - to determine a formula for happiness.

Elephant in the room - why does Stratford consider the world of the Peanuts gang worthy of its stages? Tranquilizer: Have you even read Peanuts? Truth on a myriad of topics like depression, intolerance and faith. Discussions on music, psychiatry, and philosophy. Never getting an answer to the question, "What does it all mean?" Being who you really want to be in your own imagination. The never-ending struggle to work up the courage to talk to someone attractive. Feeling vulnerable. Feeling insecure.  Does any of this sound familiar? Just because it is all out of the mouths of babes (and their dog) makes it no less important to be staged.

All right then.  

Director and choreographer Donna Feore, with help from musical director Laura Burton, has taken a musical written in the angst-ridden 1960`s and surpassed the updated version of 1999. The songs are familiar but given a near complete makeover with jazz, gospel, and hip-hop. The choreography is likewise treated, matching dance style to music. It needed to be updated to appeal to today`s audiences, of course, but it is brilliantly done, and what was particularly brilliant was that for the most part, all the actors dance in character.

The set, designed by Michael Gianfranceso, is bold, bright and resembles a series of boxes within boxes, not unlike a comic strip, and the use of video projections provides depth, helps denote vignette changes, and even some provides some character development. (Many of the projections get big laughs, especially when Snoopy plays on his Snoopbook - the game projected was designed by local teen Dylan Woodley.) The oversized props are lacquered into plasticky, toy-like brilliance, and the costumes by Dana Osbourne pay homage to, but are not copies of, the Peanuts` original look. Charlie Brown has his yellow and zig-zags, but Sally and Lucy have bouncy petticoats, leggings and Seuss-like hair (in Sally`s case), while Linus and Schroeder have more modern looks with hightop Converse sneakers and denim skateboard shorts. In short, the production definitely appeals to anyone who still feels 25 and under.

Kevin Yee and Amy Wallis as Linus
and Sally. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Thumb-sucking, blanket-weilding Linus is brought to life by Kevin Yee, who overplays the sweetness factor to the point of cavity-inducing, but it is strangely fitting for this character, since Linus is the pseudo-intellectual who does not truly understand the academia he spews (hence the blanket to hide behind). Linus sees himself as `the sweet one` and so he must be, and therefore so must go Mr. Yee. A fantastic dancer, his moment to shine comes with "My Blanket and Me" as he dances with five more oversized copies of his beloved blanket, even leading them in a kick line.
Andrew Broderick and Erica Peck as
Schroeder and Lucy. Photo by
Cylla Von Tiedemann

Andrew Broderick plays the piano-prodigy Schroeder as the coolest kid in class. Nappy hair, shorts, socks and t-shirt the right lengths, oversized-headphones on his ears, he walks and talks street - he is the artiste of the group. No wonder Lucy wants his undivided attention. But like all cool kids, he has his insecurities too, and the arts are his security blanket (dead composers can`t talk back). Mr. Broderick leads the  whole cast (Snoopy too) in the "Beethoven Day" which starts out generically enough, but suddenly morphs into "Stomp!"-like choreography that just about brings the audience to its feet mid-act.

Kevin James Stewart as
Charlie Brown. Photo by
Cylla Von Tiedemann
Charlie Brown is played by Ken James Stewart, who captures his character`s melancholy well - the musical never calls for him to be the grouch he could be in the comic strip. Mr. Stewart brings a wistful sweetness to the role but never overplays it, and it is to his credit that we never feel so sorry for him to be heartbroken - Charlie Brown, is afterall, Everyman, and we get the feeling that for all his neuroses he will persevere, and in the end, he'll be ok.

His lil`sister Sally is played by Amy Wallis, who brings a wild fire to the role. Sally is the least inhibited of any of the characters, she says what she wants, she behaves as she wants, she blames others for her failures and is not too worried - yet - about consequences. She is, in fact, a little girl who doesn`t know enough - yet - to have responsibilities or insecurities, and that is exactly how Ms. Wallis portrays her. She is just a crackling whirlwind on stage, and she plays Sally with deadly earnestness, whether deciding on a "New Philosophy" (another near show-stopper), or "Chasing Rabbits" with Snoopy.

Lucy, older sister to Linus, is actually Erica Peck, fresh from starring in "We Will Rock You" in Toronto. A true belter, she reigns it in - until appropriate, and then look out - and has carefully honed the perennially crabby Lucy so that she is only bossy, never the bully as depicted in the strip. In fact, it is Lucy - who usually pulls the football - who gives Charlie Brown his only moments of redemption: after teasing him about his secret desire to be known as Flash, she later calls him Flash in a moment of genuine support. And it is she who utters the last line and title of the play - but Ms. Peck makes Lucy visibly struggle a bit before admitting it to herself, and realizing that Charlie Brown deserves to be told - he is indeed a good man. It is a mark she has learned something valuable about herself as a result of her crabby-poll.

Stephen Patterson as Snoopy
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann
Stephen Patterson plays Snoopy. I mean literally plays Snoopy, you can tell which moments he was allowed to improvise. Snoopy, like Sally, has few inhibitions. He lives in his own imagination when he is on his own, and is a dog when he is around the others. As played by Mr. Patterson, he is always a bit subversively  cool, complete with Snoopberry, electric guitar and skateboard, and he joins in each style of dancing (and makes a few up of his own).   If anyone walks away with this show it will be Mr. Patterson, simply because he continuously dials up the hilarity, until the final show-stopper "Suppertime", which starts off in slinky jazz and builds to true musical-comedy crescendo - what dog does not sing the Hallelujah chorus when its supper is placed before him?

Caveat: There is no continuous plot to this musical, it is very non-traditional in that sense. For younger audiences this serves well to hold their attention, since the action moves from joke to joke and number to number in quick succession, like comic strip panels. However really young audiences, while taking delight in individual antic moments, may be a bit confused by the thing as a whole.

Those coming from this production of You`re A Good Man, Charlie Brown may feel buoyed and think "well, that was a bit of warm and fuzzy entertainment."  But they may also wonder, a week or month from now why they cannot forget Lucy`s disconcertion or Charlie Brown`s moments of despair. It may seem like fluff for those who do not look past the surface - but that surface is a mirror and in its uncomfortable depths are all of us.

You`re a Good Man Charlie Brown continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 28th.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

I Heart 42nd Street

Kyle Blair as Billy Lawlor with members of the company.
Photo by David Hou.

42nd Street
Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin.
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble; Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes

Original direction and dances by Gower Champion; Originally Produced on Broadway by David Merrick
Directed by Gary Griffin, Designed by Debra Hansen, Musical Direction by Michael Barber, Choreography by Alex Sanchez

Starring Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Sean Arbuckle and Cynthia Dale

The story: In the height of the depression, young and naive Peggy Sawyer arrives in New York to chase her dream of being a Broadway hoofer. She becomes a late addition to the chorus line for a new show by theatre legend Julian Marsh who desperately needs a hit. Her talent is evident and admired, but not by the leading lady, the stage veteran Dorothy Brock.  While Peggy learns the part, Dorothy and Julian continue to lock horns until opening night, when an accident leaves Dorothy unable to go on. Someone must take her place, and the success -or failure - of the show is suddenly riding on Peggy's small shoulders.

This is an old-fashioned, bold-as-brass stage musical. Set in the 1930's the costumes are lavish, the songs are big, recognizable and hummable, and the dancing is loud and literally toe-tapping. It should feel dated, but it doesn't. It should be a piece of fluff, but it isn't. Instead it is the story of an underdog, an everyman who makes good, and of  the people who rediscover their own dreams. It is a story with heart.

It is also a show with a lot of humour by way of inside jokes and pokes at musical theatre tropes, and some vaudevillian slapstick to boot. When a character quips that "for $4.40 a seat" the dancing has to be spectacular, the audience (who paid considerably more) gives an appreciative laugh. As another warns the naive Peggy about male musicians, the fellows in the visible orchestra audibly protest. Julian Marsh passionately declares "musical comedy" two of the most important words in the English language.

Cynthia Dale as Dorothy Brock.
Photo by David Hou
One such inside poke must be the casting of Cynthia Dale as Dorothy Brock. Dorothy is an "experienced" stage actress, hired for the lead of Marsh's show, but not able to dance as well as the younger chorus girls. In an art-imitating-life-imitating-art sort of way, Ms. Dale has tongue firmly planted in cheek as she Divas her way through the role, but she also imbues Dorothy with vulnerability and unexpected kindness. She leads the curtain-call tap number - unlike Dorothy Brock, Ms. Dale was never to be doubted.

The show's true lead belongs to the actress playing Peggy Sawyer, however, and in this case Jennifer Rider-Shaw is simply perfect. Dimples Shirley Temple would die for and a 1000-kilowatt smile, Ms. Rider-Shaw looks and sounds the part of an innocent who finds her place, her voice gradually growing richer and more nuanced as her character learns. She provides the heart of the show, her faith in the power of Broadway undiminished, reawakening the enthusiasm of the show's jaded producer, played by Sean Arbuckle.

Jennifer Rider-Shaw and Sean Arbuckle as
Peggy Sawyer and Julian Marsh.
Photo by David Hou.
The character of Julian Marsh could read like a man with one nerve left, or one who reeks of desperation. Sean Arbuckle manages to avoid both traps and gives the producer  an aura of gravity and power, a man strong enough to make tough decisions, handle Dorothy Brock and yet deliver some of the best comic lines completely dead-pan. It could be because of this power there seems to be more chemistry between Peggy and the Producer than Peggy and Billy Lawlor, her love-interest, but it is not to the detriment of the story - in fact Mr. Arbuckle illustrates exactly how someone cynical can be re-seduced by the light of a dream. One is left with the feeling that a mutual respect and partnership has been born, and Mr. Arbuckle radiates the producer's rediscovered joy and literally infects the audience with it.

One cannot review a song-and-dance show without mentioning the dancing - in this case, mostly tap-dancing. Simply put, it is killer. Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Kyle Blair and all the ladies and gents of the chorus can tap-dance like demons, with such fleetness of feet they literally become a blur, sequins flying as fast as their toes. Such energy should be harnessed as a power source, and if there is not a sudden increase in desire for tap lessons, I will eat one of those feathered headdresses. Equally fast are the costume changes - so many and so dramatically different that they require ten wardrobe attendants backstage who deservedly get their applause. Also deserving of praise are the costume builders - they were designed by Debra Hansen, but there is an unspeakable amount of sequins that were sewn for this show.
Naomi Costain and Geoffrey Tyler as
Anytime Annie and Bert Barry.
Photo by David Hou.

One other mention should go to the tag team of Gabrielle Jones and Geoffrey Tyler as Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, the show-within-a-show's writers. At first their purpose just seems to be line-quippers and ego-strokers, but Ms. Jones' Broadway voice, and Mr. Tyler's vaudevillian comedy are showcased near the end of the play to great and appreciative amazement.

Go see 42nd Street out of a love for musical comedy, but appreciate it for its heart.

It continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 28th.
Sean Arbuckle as Julian Marsh.
Photo by David Hou.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Strong Opener for 60th Season: Much Ado About Nothing

Ben Carlson and
Deborah Hay as
Benedick and Beatrice
Photo by David Hou.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Christopher Newton, Designed by Santo Loquasto

The Story: When the Prince's army returns triumphant from war, the young man Claudio's fancy turns to thoughts of love for Hero, the governor's daughter. His friend the prince decides to help make this match, and under the barbarous teasing of their comrade Benedick, decides to pair him up with the equally sharp Beatrice, Hero's cousin. The wittiest wooing that was ever seen follows, but when Hero is falsely accused of infidelity by the Prince and Claudio, the depth of Beatrice and Benedick's love is put to a true test.

Although the central plot of Much Ado About Nothing is about Hero and Claudio, it is usually Beatrice and Benedick who steal the show. It is just how Shakespeare wrote them - they are fully developed, they progress in knowledge and are the better for it, not to mention the quality of their dialogue. So the casting of Beatrice and Benedick is essential to the success of a production.

Christopher Newton - longtime artistic director at the Shaw Festival - chose wisely for his directorial debut at Stratford. Having worked with both Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson before at Shaw (and attended their real-life wedding), this duo is indeed a powerful force on stage. Mr. Newton knew enough to keep his Beatrice and Benedick at either end of the stage while they sparred but once their love was declared, they came together in the most touching ways - a reach for a hand, an almost embrace, a final passionate kiss.

Mr. Carlson has a gift for crystal clear delivery of the Bard's words and meanings, even as quickly spoken as Benedick's. He allows Benedick's intelligence, insightfulness and sense of fun to come through, and so it is to his credit that the one burst of violence from Benedick is truly shocking. As his equal Ms. Hay is not only as precise, she is also a master at comic timing - both physical and verbal. She has one of the best pratfalls ever choreographed, and the audience appreciated it with overwhelming applause (which meant she had to hold what had to be a very uncomfortable position for far longer than she was supposed to). Beatrice's famous words "Kill Claudio" is usually signal a moment of shift and gravity but is instead played here to great laughter - but both actors make it work beautifully.

Michael Blake as Borachio
Gareth Potter as Don John
Photo by David Hou.
This production both heightened and dropped the comedy ball in some unexpected ways. Gareth Potter gives the best version of Don John as yet seen . Usually a non-character who blusters but rarely acts, Mr. Potter made him the fool of the production - a bit of a coward, not too bright, and unwittingly laughable in his ineptness. In contrast the character who usually provides the comic-relief, Constable Dogberry, was inexplicably unfunny as played by Richard Binsley.  Then again Claire Lautier provided memorable archness as a too-flirty-for-her-own-good Margaret, while the men of the Watch were full of bonhomie but not much else.  There was also a trio of two maids and a footman who seemed to be acting out their own love-triangle, but while this may have meant to fill the space while furniture was being moved and the textual songs were being sung, it was distracting and a not a little cringeworthy.

This little trio may have been the director's way of illustrating that the play was set in Brazil at the turn of the century - little else denotes it besides their dress, their tango, the pointed beards worn by the soldiers, and the oblique reference in the program to "Henrique Oswald", a Brazilian composer of that era. Most other actors are dressed in early twentieth century gowns and suits, and at first glance the set could be Italian, or Portuguese, or Spanish... but the notes say it is Brazil, and so it must be. Or not. It really does not matter in this production.

What does matter is the gigantic staircase taking up most of stage left. Designed by Santo Loquasto, it is at first glance a beautifully rendered "Oooh" moment, perfectly fitting the house of Leonato the Governor. It gives something for Beatrice and Benedick to hide behind while eavesdropping, and an elegant entrance for Hero as a bride. But. It is in the way. The actors have to go around it, or over it, or behind it, which becomes distracting. Most importantly, it blocks the view of anyone sitting in orchestra aisles 7 through 9 for some of the most important and funny scenes. It  is not only irresponsible of the director and designer, it is also inexcusable for an organization that is pleading for audiences not only to attend, but to pay top dollar in a recovering economy.
Timothy Stickney
as Friar Francis,
Deborah Hay and
Ben Carlson as
Beatrice and Benedick.
Photo by David Hou.

If, however, one plans ahead and get seats in aisle 3, there are other strong and worthy performances to admire. Timothy Stickney as Friar Francis conveys the power of his convictions without being over-the-top. James Blendick portrays a father in all his tenderness and hurt, and morphs into a powerful opponent to the Prince. Juan Chioran is beautifully nuanced as Don Pedro, changing from friend and comrade to shocked and stiff Royal Ruler, illustrating wistfulness and wisdom at various moments. 

Too bad about that staircase though. 

Much Ado About Nothing continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 27. I recommend sitting in the balcony or in orchestra aisles 1 through 4 for best viewing.

Sunday, 27 May 2012


[Press Release] Strike averted at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

 May 27, 2012… The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is delighted to announce that it has come to an agreement regarding a first contract with its call-centre workers.

The deal, which still needs to be ratified, gives the workers a wage increase of 5.5% over two years and contains a clause agreeing not to contract out call-centre work for the duration of the contract.

The Festival’s celebratory 60th season gets under way tomorrow, Monday, May 28, with the gala opening of Much Ado About Nothing. Five more productions will open throughout the week, with further openings occurring in July and August.


Saturday, 26 May 2012

Festival faces possible job action

[Press Release]

May 26, 2012… The Stratford Shakespeare Festival regrettably finds itself in difficult labour negotiations with a possible strike by its call-centre staff as it heads into its 60th season.

The Festival wishes to inform the public that contingency plans are in place to ensure a pleasant patron experience in the event of a strike.

The Festival is confident that these plans will ensure theatregoers will not be unduly inconvenienced if a strike should occur. It recognizes, however, that picket lines may be present on public property adjacent to Festival venues.

There has never been a strike in the Festival’s 59-year history and with negotiations continuing, it is hoped that a resolution will be reached without job action.

The affected employees are in the Festival’s call centre, a group of 53 people who recently joined IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. As the call centre handles the sale of tickets, the Festival suggests that patrons purchase tickets online at, though phone lines will remain open for the duration of any labour disruption.

Call-centre staff have been in a legal strike position since 12:01 a.m. on Friday, May 25.

Negotiations have focused on two major issues: wages and contracting out. The union is currently demanding wage increases of 12% over two years, down from an original demand of 36%.

The Festival is offering 5% over two years, in keeping with wage increases in other Festival departments and in keeping with recent private-sector wage settlements, which have averaged 1.5% to 2.5% per year. 

The union has demanded that the Festival guarantee that call-centre work will never be contracted out.

The Festival has offered to include a statement confirming that it has no intention of contracting out call-centre work for the duration of the contract. Further, should contracting out become necessary for effective operations, it would give workers no less than six months’ notice.

Despite a trend towards outsourcing call-centre work, the Festival sees great value in maintaining an in-house call centre. Since 2005, the Festival has invested more than $3 million in call-centre renovations, technology, training and staff development.
Call-centre staff have always been valued employees and have been remunerated as such. In 2000, a full pay-policy study was conducted by the Festival and it confirmed that call-centre wages were more than 25% above the industry standard.

The Festival’s 2012 season opens officially on Monday, May 28, with a performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Five more productions will open throughout the week, with further openings occurring in July and August.



Stratford Festival faces first strike in 60 Years

By Richard Ouzounian
May 25, 2012
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is facing the first labour action in its 60-year history, right on the verge of its Monday night season opening.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Ouimette Triumphs in Chicago

Stratford Shakespare Festival favourite Stephen Ouimette is not back here this year, but this is what critics are saying about his performance in The Iceman Cometh at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. (He stars with Festival alum Brian Dennehy and Broadway veteran Nathan Lane.)

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
"Although fully realized all the way down the cast list, the detail of these characterizations is most potently on display through Stephen Ouimette's Harry Hope, a character whose personal crisis is so believable and wrenching as to dominate the third act, and a good chunk of the fourth. More than anyone else onstage, the terribly sad Ouimette shows us the warmblooded man that was, or that could still be, if growing old were only easier. It's a stunning performance."

Read the full review here.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Des McAnuff receives Governor General’s Performing Arts Award tonight

[Pess Release] May 4, 2012… Artistic Director Des McAnuff will receive the National Arts Centre Award of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards at a ceremony at Rideau Hall tonight. The ceremony is followed by a gala performance at the National Arts Centre, honouring each of Governor General Performing Arts Award recipients. Mr. McAnuff is being recognized for his extraordinary accomplishments over the past performance year.

“Des is very deserving of this recognition,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino. “He has indeed had an extraordinary year, directing two large-scale productions at the Festival, filming one and taking the other on to La Jolla and then to Broadway. This is all in addition to his international accomplishments, which in themselves required super-human strength to complete. We all congratulate him on his achievements and this very great honour.”

At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival Mr. McAnuff directed a celebrated production of Twelfth Night starring Brian Dennehy and Stephen Ouimette. His acclaimed production of Jesus Christ Superstar enjoyed an extended run at Stratford and moved to La Jolla Playhouse in California over the holidays. The show opened on Broadway on March 22 and was recently nominated for two Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival.

Mr. McAnuff opened the second North American tour of Jersey Boys in Philadelphia. He directed a new musical production of Doctor Zhivago, which played in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, Australia, and is now being performed in Seoul with an all-Korean cast. He directed Gounod's Faust for the Metropolitan Opera starring Jonas KaufmannRené Pape, and Marina Poplavskaya.

Mr. McAnuff’s achievements over the past year also include film, with his production of Faust shown in cinemas worldwide and his production of The Tempest, starring Christopher Plummer, released in cinemas. (His production of Caesar and Cleopatra, which also features Christopher Plummer, enjoyed a similar release in 2009, while Twelfth Night was released this year.)

The year 2011 also saw Mr. McAnuff planning Stratford’s 60th anniversary playbill, half of which are Canadian works, including three world premières – Morris Panych and Marek Norman’s WanderlustThe Best Brothers by Daniel MacIvor, and Hirsch by Alon Nashmon and Paul Thompson, about the former Stratford artistic director and legendary theatre artist John Hirsch. Mr. McAnuff will also be directing Shakespeare’s Henry V and Christopher Plummer’s one-man show A Word or Two.


Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Jesus Christ Superstar receives Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations


Des McAnuff

May 1, 2012…Congratulations to Artistic Director Des McAnuff and the cast and crew of Jesus Christ Superstar on their two Tony Award nominations. The production has been nominated for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Josh Young, who plays Judas.
The rock opera also earned two Drama Desk Award nominations last week – one for Best Revival of Musical and one for Best Sound Design for Steve Canyon Kennedy.

Josh Young
“I’m ecstatic for everyone involved in this production,” says Mr. McAnuff. “These nominations fulfil one of the goals I have been striving toward in my time as Artistic Director: the recognition of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s rightful place as a world leader in every area of dramatic repertoire, from classics to musicals.”
“I want to congratulate Des and the entire cast and crew of Jesus Christ Superstar,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino. “This is a tremendous achievement and everyone at the Festival is thrilled by their success. The Superstar company is a group of truly gifted performers and we’re all so proud to have them representing the Festival on Broadway.”

Jesus Christ Superstar originated in Stratford as part of the Festival’s 2011 season and was an instant hit. The show then travelled to La Jolla, California, to perform a six-week run at the La Jolla Playhouse over the holidays. It arrived in New York in February and opened officially on Broadway on March 22.

The Drama Desk Awards will take place on June 3 and the Tony Awards will be given out on June 10.
Congratulations to all, and we wish you great success this awards season.


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