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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

MEDIA RELEASE: The Sound of Music is extended for two weeks

June 23, 2015… The critics are describing the Stratford Festival’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music as “wondrous,” “magnificent,” and a “joyous celebration.”  With four stars from both the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, The Sound of Music has become the must-see musical of the season. Now the run is being extended for two more weeks, so you have until November 1 to catch this beautiful production.

Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, the force behind a string of Stratford mega-hits, including Crazy for You and Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music features Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria and Ben Carlson as Captain von Trapp, surrounded by a cast of superb performers, all of whom bring this beloved musical to rich theatrical life.

The newly added performances are as follows:

Tuesday, October 20, at 2 p.m.
Wednesday, October 21, at 2 p.m.
Thursday, October 22, at 8 p.m.
Saturday, October 24, at 2 p.m.
Sunday, October 25, at 2 p.m.
Tuesday, October 27, at 8 p.m.
Wednesday, October 28, at 2 p.m.
Thursday, October 29, at 2 p.m.
Saturday, October 31, at 2 p.m.
Sunday, November 1, at 2 p.m.

Tickets for these newly added performances go on sale to Members of the Stratford Festival at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 24, and to the general public the following day. To purchase tickets to see The Sound of Music this summer or fall, visit or call the box office at 1.800.567.1600.

The Stratford Festival season also features Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Adventures of Pericles, Carousel, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Physicists, Possible Worlds, She Stoops to Conquer, Oedipus Rex, The Alchemist and The Last Wife. Visit for more information.

The Sound of Music is co-sponsored by RBC and Union Gas Limited.

Production support is generously provided by the Harkins/Manning families in memory of James
& Susan Harkins, and by Riki Turofsky & Charles Petersen.

Support for the 2015 season of the Festival Theatre is generously provided by Claire and Daniel


Thursday, 18 June 2015

And the rumours begin...

The second set of openings have barely cooled on the Stratford stages, yet the rumour mill for the 2016 season has started grinding away.  

Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian is reporting that Stratford is considering A Chorus Line and A Little Night Music as its two musicals for next summer, with Donna Feore at the helm of ACL and Gary Griffin returning to direct ALNM.  

Stay tuned...


Monday, 15 June 2015

Review: Carousel turns but does not move

Centre: Jonathan Winsby as Billy Bigelow, with 
members of the company in Carousel. Photo by David Hou.
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar’s Play “Liliom”, as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer
Original dances by Agnes De Mille; Choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld
Directed by Susan H. Schulman; musical direction by Franklin Brasz
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk (set), Dana Osborne (costumes), Kevin Fraser (lighting), BradPeterson (projection), Peter McBoyle (sound), John Stead (fights)

It is unfortunately the case that after several weeks of late nights, a reviewer whose full-time employment lies outside of reviewing might not have been in the most generous frame of mind when seeing Carousel a full two weeks after it officially opened (humblest apologies if this is the case). Eschewing other reviewers’ (and friends’) opinions until the chance to see it oneself is fraught, especially given the controversial nature of the musical’s story (synopsis here).

In staging Carousel in the same season as Taming of the Shrew the Stratford Festival was taking both a risk and an opportunity – the risk in being criticized for giving audiences two plays with misogynistic reputations, but also the opportunity to address the issues of sexual politics and domestic abuse.

However, audiences intending to see both should probably see Carousel before Taming of the Shrew; it might not pale as much in comparison. In other words, this year's Petruchio and Kate could teach this year's Billy and Julie a thing or two.

By all accounts director Susan Schulman and her cast did their homework in regards to trying to gain insight into the difficult issue of spousal abuse that the play depicts.  This is laudable, but their insight is not translated in the least onto their stage.  The overall look and feel of the production is pretty but without depth, much like a musician that can play all the right notes but has no emotional connection to the music he plays. Technically everything is sound, but there is no fury that binds the production.

That is not to say that there is no emotion at all – Alexis Gordon is the epitome of quiet strength as Julie, never better than as she sings “What’s the Use of Wondrin’” in her soaring soprano, and Jonathan Winsby goes from macho to (nearly) endearing during “Soliloquy” as Billy realizes he might have fathered a daughter. Robin Evan Willis is effervescent as Carrie, Julie’s friend; Alanah Hibbert gives us a strong, sympathetic Nettie; Shaun Alexander Hauk is adorable as Mr. Snow, and Jaqueline Burtney brings out the best in both Louise’s parents – Julie’s inherent grace and Billy’s innate fierceness – in what is this Carousel’s most moving performance.

Jacqueline Burtney as Louise.
Photo by David Hou.
But… there is little chemistry between Ms. Gordon and Mr. Winsby; Ms. Gordon’s Julie is so guarded that even her recklessness seems calculated, while Mr. Winsby’s Billy is played much too broadly to leave any room for subtlety.  One wishes for Ms. Willis that her character’s naivety could have been pared down – the ‘dumb-blonde’ stereotype was tired in the 70’s, and does nothing to serve a modern audience. Although emotional, Ms. Burtney’s wild ballet comes too late in the play to anchor it, and other cast members seem ill-used – Marcus Nance and Evan Buliung to name two. Mr. Nance has vocals that could bring down any house, and Mr. Buliung can deliver a soliloquy that will raise a roof, but here in Carousel they appear as side supports to a main event that is not strong enough to sustain itself.

It is preferable to be moved to tears either in empathy or in joy or even in outrage when seeing such a complex, highly-regarded piece of theatre. Unfortunately it is unlikely audiences will be moved to any emotion other than a fleeting appreciation at the attempt – perhaps the reason for the awkwardly abbreviated applause this past Saturday evening.

Carousel continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 16th.  

Alexis Gordon as Julie and Jonathan Winsby as Billy Bigelow,
with members of the company in Carousel. Photo by David Hou.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Review: Taming of the Shrew. Shrewd, Abraham, very shrewd.

Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
Designed by Julie Fox (set, costumes), Kimberly Purtell (lighting), Thomas Ryder Payne (sound and compositions)

Ben Carlson (foreground) as Petruchio, Deborah Hay as Katherina,
with members of the company. Photo by David Hou
From the moment of reading Chris Abraham’s director’s notes in the house program, no one should think that his interpretation of Taming of the Shrew is anything but thoughtful and modern. In fact, he reveals everything that he is about to show us as clearly as if were emblazoned on the stage itself.

The “controversy” of Taming of the Shrew is that it was written in a time when women were commonly thought of as “chattel”, and women’s roles in society were extremely limited – wife, mother, whore, nun or spinster.  If a woman was very lucky she married well and was widowed young, and could then live a life on her own terms, and if unlucky she was an eccentric spinster possibly associated with witchcraft. Not a good time to be a woman, unless of course you were the Queen.

Deborah Hay as Katherina; Michael Spenser-Davis as Gremio.
Photo by David Hou.
However scholars have made the argument for decades that Shakespeare never meant Shrew to be a purely misogynistic story of a man taking his wife to school. There are signs throughout the text and perhaps the most telling is Petruchio’s use of the falconry metaphor, in which a master must tame his falcon so they may work together – too cruel, he breaks its spirit and the bird will live in fear; too gentle and the bird will remain something wild.

Mr. Abraham puts his finger on the crux of Shrew – no one is who they seem to be.  It is meta-theatre at its best – we know the characters are actually actors, but Mr. Abraham takes this a step further in a delightful interpretation of the induction, a plot device of Shakespeare’s making that frames the story to a play within a play. I cannot in good conscience ruin this by giving away the details, but it underscores Mr. Abraham’s entire vision, one he carries through to the very end.

L-R: Mike Shara as Hortensio, Sarah Afful as Bianca, Cyrus Lane
as Lucentio. Photo by David Hou.
The multiple disguises can be daunting for an audience not familiar with the story (summarised nicely here) and the romping, frivolous subplot threatens to overwhelm the more serious relationship of Kate and Petruchio at times, but this appears to be Abraham’s point. It comes down to which husband-wife duo at the end of the play will have the happiest marriage? Hint: the two who come together out of understanding and respect, not deception and lust.

Gordon S. Miller as Biondello, Tom Rooney
as Tranio. Photo by David Hou.
The actors who make it clear that the romance of the subplot is not to be taken seriously are Tom Rooney and Gordon S. Miller as the sidekicks Tranio and Biondello. Mr. Rooney and Mr. Miller’s side-splitting antics could rival Abbott and Costello, and they play the parts like a couple of frat boys who successfully pull off the biggest practical joke of their careers. MikeShara plays the usually buffoonish Hortensio more as an intelligent observer, MichaelSpenser-Davis’ Gremio enjoys a big-codpiece-swinging contest, and Sarah Afful and Cyrus Lane reveal the subplot lovers Bianca and Lucentio to be young pups in lust, revelling in their secret dalliances.

L-R: Ben Carlson as Petruchio, Peter Hutt as Baptista and
Brian Tree as Grumio, with members of the company. Photo by
David Hou.
Of course, the truth of the play comes down to the relationship between Petruchio and Kate, here played by real-life husband and wife team Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay. Mr. Carlson brings an integrity to Petruchio – be may be a rough, down-on-his-luck rustic (the fur and feathers give it away), but he makes it clear from first seeing Kate that he understands the type of woman she is, and that she is his perfect match.

Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay
as Katherina. Photo by David Hou.
But the stage really belongs to Deborah Hay. Her Kate is wild and to be pitied (though she’d hate it), and is much slower to accept Petruchio’s eccentric wooing, but she gets there. Their final scene is electric with tension and suspense – Mr. Abraham keeps both the audience and his characters guessing as to the outcome. Petruchio remains unsure if he has tamed Kate or if he has broken her. His relief when she appears is palpable, and Ms. Hay’s hammer-like delivery of that difficult, wonderful final speech leaves him and everyone else dumbstruck. Ms. Hay throws so many complexities into that final speech - acceptance, shame, fierce pride and finally, a challenge to Petruchio himself. And, the audience realizes, that at this moment Kate herself is still unsure of Petruchio’s true intent and feelings. It is a thrilling moment, and a remarkable feat for both actors and director to create such a highlight. 

Full disclosure: Taming of the Shrew is my favourite Shakespeare play, I was probably going to like this production no matter what. However, the thrill of discovering even newer ways of seeing my favourite story and characters is a gift I truly appreciate, so, thank-you.

Taming of the Shrew continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 10th.

Centre: Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as
Katherina, with members of the company.
Photo by David Hou.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Review: She Stoops to Conquer fails to conquer the audience

She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk (set), Charlotte Dean (costumes), Louise Guinard (lighting), Todd Charlton (sound / composer)

Maeve Beaty as Kate Hardcastle.
Photo by David Hou

"What just happened?" one wonders, as the curtain falls on the opening performance of She Stoops to Conquer last Thursday night.  

The restoration comedy by Oliver Goldsmith is one of the most popular from that period, it has been re-staged at Stratford three times previously.  It is a charming piece about class and hypocrisy, set in a time of elegant fashion (for the upper class) when playwrights and audiences were rebelling against the melodramatic sentimentality that had been the norm upon their stages.  Goldsmith's play even begins with a prologue suggesting that his play is meant to resurrect the dying muse of comedy (Thalia, in case anyone cares).

Unfortunately the production was only able to conjure up the muse of mild amusement (Charmian?) at best; at worst, the muse of indifference (Meh).  The pace was slow, some scenery was chewed but most telling of all - no opening night standing ovation. In recent years at Stratford the standing-O has become the norm rather than the exception - especially on opening nights - so the lack of one is something close to devastating.

But why? The play, the director, the cast, the costumes, the set - all promising foundations, and yet the production cannot bear up.
L-R: Karack Osborn as Tony Lumpkin, Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Dorothy Hardcastle,
Andre Morin as Diggory and Sara Farb as Constance. Photo by David Hou.

Perhaps it is because we have seen Lucy Peacock play the overbearing, overly hysterical mother-figure before (last year's Hay Fever, for instance), as well as Joseph Ziegler as the befuddled father. They are undoubtedly good at it, and while it must be nice for them to have a break from the intensity that is Anne Frank's story, one gets the feeling that this is nothing new for either of them.
Perhaps it it because the resolution between Kate and young Marlowe is less satisfactory as played by Maeve Beaty and Brad Hodder. Mr. Hodder is most believable as the haughty Marlowe, not the timid Marlowe. His performance lacks the credibility of the newly humbled and reformed, and yet the clever Kate (delightfully played by Ms. Beaty) still falls for this hypocritical dolt. It is hard for the audience to celebrate their matrimonial joy.

Perhaps it is because one finds themselves drawn to the character of Tony Lumpkin, as played by Karack Osborn. Tony is a lout full of spleen and mischief and is clearly not meant to be the hero of the play but Mr. Osborn commands the audience's attention in a way his co-stars do not, and therefore Tony is the character one roots for, not Marlow.  I would not call his performance upstaging, either - Sara Farb as his squabbling cousin Constance does her best to keep up with him, but where Mr. Osborn is assertive, Ms. Farb is shrill. Most strange.  Just as strange is that Tyrone Savage, playing the lead in the subplot, does so with far more sincerity than the other romantic lead.
L-R: Brad Hodder as Young Marlow, Nigel Bennet as Sir Charles Marlow,
and Joseph Ziegler as Mr. Richard Hardcastle. Photo by David Hou.
Perhaps it was because the production's best laughs came from the antics and looks of those without many lines - Gareth Potter, Andre Morin, Paul Rowe and Lally Cadeau. Cast as the dimwitted, untrained servants, Misters Potter Morin and Rowe form a background comic trio who eagerly try to impress their boss and guests and fail miserably at every turn but succeed in keeping the audience in stitches; Ms. Cadeau plays the housekeeper / maid to perfection - professional in every way, only sharing her eye-rolling derision with the audience, appreciative of something genuinely funny.

I confess, I have not figured what it was that kept myself and rest of the audience from rolling in the aisles. The play reads funnier and more quickly than played, and it is still relevant - the terms are now "1%" and "working poor" instead of upper and lower class, but it should still tweak some feeling of recognition with modern audiences. Alas, I fear Thalia must allow Chris Abraham's Shrew to play her physician in this case.

She Stoops to Conquer continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 10th.

Karack Osborn as Tony Lumpkin.
Photo by David Hou.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Press release: Stratford Festival and Avon Maitland District School Board in new partnership for arts enrichment

June 2, 2015… The Stratford Festival is pleased to announce the launch of My Academy, an exciting new partnership with the Avon Maitland District School Board. My Academy will provide Stratford students with a once-in-a-lifetime integrated arts opportunity to develop their skills and broaden their knowledge of the performing arts.

My Academy will launch next February 2016, combining the rigours of onstage performance practices and behind-the-scenes craftsmanship to create an experience unlike any other. Students will be able to enrich their existing high school arts programming by learning from and working closely with a broad variety of Festival personnel, from actors and artists to crew members and administrative staff.

The depth of study has been shaped to include all aspects of the theatre world, including acting (text, movement and voice), costume and set design, lighting and sound design, and stage management. The program will culminate in an abridged production of one of Shakespeare’s works at the Festival's Studio Theatre in May 2016.

“We’re delighted to be able to make this opportunity available to students in Avon Maitland schools,” says Executive Director Anita Gaffney. “Not only will My Academy help participants develop new skills and gain insight into different theatrical careers, but it will also allow them to build important relationships within the theatre community.”

“We are tremendously excited about our new partnership with the Stratford Festival,” says Jane Morris, Superintendent of Education, Avon Maitland District School Board. “As our nation’s leading classical theatre, the Festival will help us to provide unique and enriching learning experiences for our students.”

“We are excited to be partnering with Avon Maitland on this unique opportunity for the students in our region,” says Resident Teaching Artist Edward Daranyi. “The Stratford Festival family of production crew, artistic personnel and teaching artists from the Education Department have all expressed enthusiastic interest in delivering this program.”

The program is made up of two parts: the first is an after-school program open to all registered, full-time Avon Maitland students in Grades 7 to 12. The second is a one-credit course, “Exploring and Creating in the Arts,” offered at Stratford Central Secondary School. The focus is to develop students’ acting and production skills while maintaining a focus on good citizenship, inclusion and positive character development.

The after-school program costs $750, but to ensure finances do not impede the ability of any student to apply, subsidies and grants will be available. 

The My Academy application can be found here:  


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