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Friday, 30 May 2014

Review: More saffron, maybe? Man of La Mancha opens at Stratford

Man of La Mancha, written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Robert McQueen
Musical Direction by Franklin Brasz
Designed by Douglas Parschuk
Tom Rooney as Miguel de Cervantes / Don Quixote.
Photo: Michael Cooper
The Story: Miguel de Cervantes and his servant have been thrown in prison to await interrogation by the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. There they are put on "trial" by their fellow prisoners, and Cervantes pleads his defense in the form a play - in which he enlists his fellow prisoners to take parts. They perform the story of Alonso Quijana, a man made mad by the world's troubles, who now believes himself to be the knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, on a quest to "add some measure of grace to the world". Cervantes story of Don Quixote's belief in his altered reality slowly but surely imbues his fellow prisoners with a kind of hopeful determination to believe in something better.

Mr. McQueen's Man of La Mancha fails to add that measure of grace to the world that Donna Feore did in last season's Fiddler on the Roof, despite its having a much more triumphant ending than Fiddler's. But then, neither the play nor music is as well constructed as Fiddler, so perhaps it is not fair to compare. The cast is stacked, and had the fortune to block on the enormously intricate set from early days so they move comfortably around it, and yet the production does not seem quite cohesive...  like it is missing a little sumthin'-sumthin' that would put it over the top.
Robin Hutton as Aldonza.
Photo: Michael Cooper
The three leads, Tom Rooney (Cervantes / Don Quixote), Steve Ross (Sancho) and Robin Hutton (Aldonza) have fine voices - not operatic, mind you, and Ms. Hutton did sound as if she were straining to hit some notes that were perhaps a bit out of her vocal range. That matters to audiences with musical training and ears, but it really does not detract from her acting. She plays the role as a fiery "alley cat" indeed, and opening night she seemed transported during her rendition of "Aldonza", knocking it firmly out of the park and taking the audience with her.

Steve Ross as Sancho Panza.
Photo: Michael Cooper
For those expecting a bubbly, bumbling sort of Sancho, Steve Ross's version will be a delightful disappointment, since he plays the part with an inarticulate - and hilarious - dry pragmatism, alternating between enthusiasm for and frustration with his master (never more evident than in "I Like Him"), be it Cervantes or Don Quixote.

Tom Rooney plays both these parts, transforming from Cervates to the aging knight before our eyes during (my personal favourite number) "I, Don Quixote", not just with stage beard and makeup, but with a voice slightly altered and the halting movements of one who can no longer trust his muscles and limbs to do what they should. However Mr. Rooney is more engaging as Cervantes, the playwright, subtly manipulating the prisoner / actors from the shadows, entrancing them with this absurd idea of a better world. It is perhaps this imbalance which keeps the production from truly soaring to greater heights - notwithstanding the ecstatically delivered "Impossible Dream".

Those characters entranced earliest by Cervantes include an adorably sweet padre, played by Sean Alexander Hauk, and the ever-watchable-to-the point-of-distraction Monique Lund as the Housekeeper. Also enthused is Shane Carty's Governor, who throws himself into the role of the innkeeper like a man who has been waiting years for something this interesting to come along.
Kayla James as Antonia, Sean Alexander Hauk as the Padre, Monique Lund as the Housekeeper.
Photo: Michael Cooper
Of course, every playwright has its critics, and Cervantes is no exception, even in prison. His critics are the Duke, a skeptic played by Shawn Wright like a regal litigious prosecutor, and Pedro, a menacing hulk of of a brute portrayed by Cory O'Brien. (Choreographer Marc Kimmelman and fight director John Stead did their best to stage fight scenes stylized by dance which was interesting but not very convincing as either fighting or dancing, unfortunately.)

Back to that colossal, clever set. On the Festival Stage, this set might have been a disaster, but Douglas Paraschuk's design - while departing the text - encompasses not only the stage and its wings, but threatens to engulf the audience as well, placing us all in prison - a prison which happens to be the inside of a decrepit windmill. Its enormous blades upstage move in relation to events downstage - as Aldonza is attacked, for instance, the sky darkens and they blow more quickly in an oncoming storm. Subtle touch to indicate the passage of time? Smacking us over the head with some pathetic fallacy?  Is the set too elaborate? Just right for a modern interpretation? Whatever you choose to see in it, the set is undeniably breathtaking.

And so is the musical direction, by Franklin Brasz. With much more Spanish flair in the score than these ears have heard before - provided mostly by Spanish guitar onstage, not overly pronounced brass and strings - it is hard not to sway to the Latin rhythms, or not to feel moved at play's end. And yet... the feeling one is left with is that of something missing - like a paella without the saffron. The production is good, no doubt about it. But it could have been great.

Man of La Mancha continues in repertory until October 11 at the Avon Theatre.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A bit out of order here...

Due to some scheduling conflicts I'll be reviewing things a bit out of opening order here. I'll be reviewing King John and Mother Courage next week, so next up on The Bard and the Boards is Man of La Mancha. Check back tomorrow!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Review: Rhythm, Music and a fine leading man... who could ask for anything more? Crazy For You opens at the Stratford Festival

Crazy for You
Music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin; Book by Ken Ludwig
Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore
Musical direction by Shelly Hanson
Designed by Debra Hanson
Josh Franklin (centre) as Bobby Child, with members of the company.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The Story: Bobby Child is a fellow who wants to be a song and dance man, but whose Manhattan mother wants him to work in a bank. She sends him to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose on a theatre, where Bobby promptly falls in love with Polly, daughter of the theatre's owner, who will have nothing to do with him. He disguises himself as Bela Zangler, Theatre Producer, and persuades the townsfolk to put on a show to save the theatre, and perhaps the sleepy town, from ruin. All goes swimmingly until the real Zangler shows up, and well...

Natalie Daradich as Polly.
Photo: Cyll von Tiedeman

Ok, the screwball story is lifted from any Mickey Rooney / Judy Garland flick (most closely Girl Crazy), but that's ok, since the cheeky script calls attention to that very fact, and the leading lady, Natalie Daradich, has the same spunk, and vocal style (plus the adorable dimples) of said Judy.  But director Donna Feore doesn't just make a silk purse out of this sow's ear of a plot, she makes a veritable Prada. 

First, she went further afield to find her leading man - one who is definitely more Carey Grant than Mickey Rooney (yay!) - pulling a true song-and-dance man, Josh Franklin, in from New York to do the heavy lifting - the show rests very solidly on his broad shoulders. He has a fine voice, great comedic timing, and that charisma that cannot be taught - not an "aw, shucks" charm, but a sophisticated twinkle that one cannot help but like instantly. It is evident that he works hard at his craft from the way he shares the limelight with his very varied co-stars, Natalie Daradich (Polly), Tom Rooney (Zangler), Robin Hutton (Irene) and Kayla James (Tess).

A total and completely delightful surprise was seeing Tom Rooney create an utterly hilarious Bela Zangler. Mr. Rooney, an actor of much natural gravity, uses this gift to play Zangler almost deadpan, even while wobbling drunkenly all over the set. His foil in this Marx-Brother-like scene is the imposter-Zangler Josh Franklin, and together they create their own version of a show stopper (it is hard to go on while your audience passes out from laughing so hard).

Robin Hutton as Irene.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Likewise, Robin Hutton shows off some previously unseen comedic chops as the ditched (and sexually frustrated) fiancee Irene, illustrating how an actor can use dance to seem both sexy and klutzy simultaneously.  By contrast, Kayla James and the other dancers, male and female, show the sexy side of pure athleticism as they tap, jive and waltz around the stage.

Which brings up the second smart move by their director. Ms. Feore very adamantly rejected copying the 1992 Broadway production or 2012 British remount. Her choreography and Shelly Hanson's musical direction reaches back to the very core of America's cultural heritage: tap-dance, jazz, and the swinging, crazy, flying dances it birthed, the jitterbug and Lindy hop. Numbers like Slap that Bass and I Got Rhythm both threatened to stop the show on opening night, and Ms. Feore uses the round thrust stage to its best advantage, keeping it relatively bare during these numbers to give the dancers space to do what they do best (better than any in recent history, in fact), and often recalling the Busby Berkeley patterns of legs and various other body parts that must make this a gorgeous show to see from the balcony. 

Members of the Company.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann
In fact, this may be what makes Crazy For You the perfect musical for theatre aficionados and for the Stratford Festival in particular - especially for those who claim to prefer Shakespeare, and give a slight sniff to musicals (you know who you are). 

Because at its core, Ken Ludwig's book is a love-letter to theatre. It is a love of theatre and performing which revitalizes a man, an entire town, drives relationships and brings a community together - because, as crazy as that plot sounds, that is exactly what happened in our very own Stratford, Ontario.  Sometimes art does imitate life after all.

Crazy For You continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 12.

Marcus Nance, Steve Ross and Stepehen Patterson.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Quality of Something: King Lear opens in Stratford

King Lear, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Eo Sharpe
Featuring Colm Feore, Maeve Beaty, Scott Wentworth, Evan Buliung

Colm Feore as King Lear, with Sara Farb as Cordelia
Photo: David Hou
The Story: An aging King Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters based on how much they say they love him. When his most beloved daughter Cordelia answers with simple honesty, Lear becomes enraged and banishes her, giving her share of the kingdom to her two older and more obsequious sisters. Likewise his friend the Earl of Gloucester puts stake in the wrong son, and these events set in motion not only a war, but the eventual downfall of both men.

Those who follow theatre news have long been aware of the brewing media storm that is now engulfing Colm Feore as he has tackled the role of King Lear at the Stratford Festival. It is very apt, paralleling that great scene on the heath, and as anyone who saw the opening night performance on Monday, it is also very, very well-deserved.

One of the dangers of living in Stratford and seeing some of the same actors on stage for several years running is that one begins to anticipate - or dread, in some cases - exactly how a particular actor will breathe life into a character. That is to say, they get typecast, their mannerisms become ingrained, habitual, and therefore... well, boring.

Antoni Cimolino's production of King Lear is not boring. The costumes are historical, the stage is all but bare excepting some small props, the music is subtle, the interpretation fresh, and the acting singularly untypical, and inhabitual - and therefore superb.
Maev Beaty as Goneril
Photo: David Hou
Leading the way is Colm Feore, never more generous, never more surprising as King Lear. He clearly shows Lear's path, a very smart one chosen by director Antoni Cimolino, as a man slowly robbed of his identity and therefore his sanity. It is beautiful to watch this character interpreted not as a feeble-minded man aging into dementia, but as an overbearing father whose lack of perception leaves him out of touch with his daughters and in fact, his entire kingdom. The family dynamic set up by Mr. Cimolino is one of long-suppressed dysfunction that finally and viciously explodes into a stunned audience. Mr. Feore's manner of building to blinding fury is almost gentle - until it is not.  In this way he shows a King who still believes he has the power to call forth a storm to equal his heart's rage - and he does. And even more inspiring, Mr. Feore's surrender to the storm does not simply trigger Lear's descent into madness, but rather it triggers his surrender to a new reality for himself, one where a king is just a man, a man should be a good father, and that father is mortal. His madness stems from not being able to immediately reconcile the two, and it is a brilliantly played arc.

Maev Beaty provides the best support for this interpretation in her role as Goneril. Where Liisa Repo-Martel's Regan is stony and petulant, and Sara Farb's Cordelia is tender but flat, Ms. Beaty's Goneril is every adult child fed up with the bad decisions of an aging and imposing parent. Her Goneril is a woman who wants to keep her home in order, has a life of her own to live, has a partial kingdom to keep ticking along. But she has a father - whom she still loves - who runs up her bills while letting his knights ruin her carpets. Anyone of the sandwich generation can identify with her frustration, and at Goneril's utter horror when her father turns on her so savagely. In fact, at this point, Lear seems to be just a nasty piece of work, and Goneril the victim, and it was wonderfully different to see her turn from having genuine affection for her father, to being her father's daughter indeed - Ms. Beaty's Goneril out-Lears Lear himself in her savagery.

Evan Buliung as Edgar and Scott Wentworth as Gloucester
Photo: David Hou
In the parallel story of Gloucester and his sons, the chemistry between Scott Wentworth and Evan Buliung as Gloucester and Edgar is discernible, even from a distance. Evan Buliung has a marvelous talent for melancholy thoughtfulness that leaves an indelible mark on his audiences, and Mr. Cimolino's attention to small textual details pays off in spades, particularly with Edgar's character: Edgar is initially wanton, so his later admission of a litany of sins while disguised as Tom O'Bedlam makes sense; there is early identification of "Bedlam beggars" on the stage, and Edgar takes notice of them (far earlier than Lear), and while Kent pushes them away, Edgar reaches out to them at play's end - these all signal a complete identity and perspective shift for Edgar, leaving this very grim play with a sliver of hope that under his rule, things will be very different. 

As Mr. Cimolino notes in an earlier article in the Toronto Star, his bench for Lear is very deep. Brad Hodder proves himself an chameleon, playing a good hero last season (Cassio) and a truly despicable but two-dimensional villain Edmund this season, and Mike Shara does his creepy best with the also two-dimensional Cornwall. There are others who give weight and presence on stage no matter what role they perform - Jonathan Goad as Kent, Michael Blake as Albany, Scott Wentworth as Gloucester, Stephen Ouimette as the Fool - the only real criticism one can make of the play (not the production) is that the Fool needs to be played by a good actor, but there is never enough for that good actor to do in the role of the Fool. Mr. Ouimette delivers the Fool's knock-out punches to an oblivious Lear in the same gentle and off-handed way Lear's own angry rants begin which is a nice touch, as is his inarticulately wordless departure, but - and this is a criticism of the production - ultimately the cuts to the Fool's lines makes his departure all the more abrupt, and makes this good actor seem all the more underused. 

That being said, this is an immaculate, thoughtful production that hits all the right marks and some surprisingly high notes, and although it may not have audiences in tears, it should leave them gasping for breath. King Lear, starring Colm Feore, continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 10th. Update: due to overwhelming popularity, King Lear will continue to run until October 25th.

Edgar: Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.  
    ~King Lear, V, iii.

Coming shortly:

A review of last night's opening of King Lear will appear in this space shortly. In the meantime see what others thought via the reviews column on the right.

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