Saturday, August 04, 2012

Stratford 2012 - The Matchmaker

Maybe it's just me, but Stratford's production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker didn't strike too many sparks.

For someone who grew up hearing the tunes from Hello, Dolly! done by everyone from Louis Armstrong to teenagers in high school theatre, it's easy to see why the play, originally called The Merchant of Yonkers (and a flop) in 1938 and then revised at the behest of Stratford's founding director Sir Tyrone Guthrie as The Matchmaker in 1955 and then to London and Broadway, made such a great musical: there's a lot of room for musical numbers in the plot. It's played as a farce with mistaken identities, slamming doors, people hiding under tables; all the usual elements that make plays like Noises Off work so well. But it's also a comedy of manners, poking fun at the conventions of society of the time (the 1890's), and while that kind of play can have great farcical moments -- the screen scene in The School For Scandal is a fine example -- it just seemed to run a little flat in this play. Maybe it's because Mr. Wilder allows for several moments of breaking down the fourth wall and having the characters speak directly to the audience, including Dolly's speech at the end of the play. That has a monumental impact in Our Town, but here it's a little disconcerting. It does not help that the characters are looking back at the people and the play with a hefty helping of cynicism.

Tom McCamus, who does characters with his voice the way some do them with their entire body, was Horace Vandergelder, the tightfisted half-a-millionaire. He controls his niece Ermengard (Cara Ricketts) with an iron hand, threatens her intended Ambrose Kemper (Skye Brandon), and terrorizes his employees, the adventure-seeking Cornelius Hackl (Michael Shara) and the shy and overreacting Barnaby Tucker (Josh Epstein). The set-up from the git-go is that he will be defied by everyone, including the title character, Dolly Gallagher Levi (Seana McKenna). Ms. McKenna brings a charm to the part that isn't overpowering, and she reveals some of the vulnerability in Dolly that makes her appealing, but the play really isn't about her; the real matchmaker is Horace.

As I noted earlier, it's easy to see how this could be a musical, and if you know Hello Dolly!, you'll hear the cues for the musical numbers that Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman picked up and turned into standards. And there is a musical theme running through this production: the lights in the show come up on Ambrose wistfully singing "The Sidewalks of New York," and that tune is the lietmotif all the way through to the curtain call. And while the song itself is a playful look at a town of long ago, one couldn't help notice that it was done in a slightly acidic tone, as if warning us that adventures can be perilous; even dangerous.

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Friday, August 03, 2012

Stratford 2012 - 42nd Street

"The two most beautiful words in the English language: 'musical comedy.'" - Justin Marshall, the director of Pretty Lady.

That sums up the whole idea of 42nd Street, the musical comedy that pays tribute to all the other musical comedies by pulling out all the cliches of Broadway musicals, putting on their tap shoes, and hoofing their way across the stage of the Festival Theatre at Stratford. The story is so well-known -- a girl gets off the bus from Allentown and through luck and compound fractures becomes the toast of Broadway in the smash hit Pretty Lady -- that it's been done, re-done, and parodied (Dames At Sea). The cast has all the types: the young ingenue; the handsome boy tenor; the tough-as-nails/heart-of-gold chorine; the wisecracker; the hard-bitten director; the prima donna star; and even a few mob thugs. You hardly need a synopsis or a program. All you have to do is sit back and listen for the cues to the music, hum along to songs you know, and try to keep your feet from tapping along.

Stratford hasn't always done musicals. When I started coming on a regular basis in the early 1970's, the chances of seeing a show like 42nd Street were as rare as seeing palm trees along the Avon River. Yes, they have always produced modern plays by Canadian and American playwrights, including Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Robert Patrick's Kennedy's Children was done here in the early 1970's, and they've done stunning works with avant-garde and adventures like Treasure Island. They'd also done their share of Gilbert & Sullivan (The Pirates of Penzance is a regular) along with operettas like Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne. But they also realized that they needed to fill the seats with audiences that weren't into heavy or classical dramas; there was gold in the blue-hair crowd from Toronto, Buffalo, Detroit, and Toledo, and they wanted shows like Oklahoma!, Camelot, My Fair Lady, and for the aging boomers, Jesus Christ Superstar. They had the theatres, they had the talent, and they had the need. And it has worked: productions like Hello Dolly! pay the way for plays like Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, so while the grandparents enjoyed the Broadway show and mom and dad absorbed the culture of Henry V, the gay grandson enjoyed the not-too-subtle subtext of Mr. Marlowe. It's business... but it's also good theatre, and it brings in the audiences who might otherwise turn up their scholarly noses at something they might consider shallow and see what Stratford can do with it. It can be an eye-opener to a larger perspective on something as playful as the "Peanuts" musical, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Or it could be just plain fun and dazzling as the production of 42nd Street. The music is by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, with the book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, and based on the original production directed by Gower Champion. (There's a Broadway legend story that goes along with the original production: Gower Champion died the afternoon of opening night in August 1980.) Director Gary Griffin has a fine cast with Cynthia Dale as the prima donna star who dominates the show until her accident; Kyle Blair is the handsome young tenor, Sean Arbuckle is the tough director, and Jennifer Rider-Shaw is the starry-eyed kid from Allentown who pulls off the smash. The supporting cast is terrific, but it's really an ensemble show, and they can all sing and dance. And they do, right up to the second bow.

My only quibble is that this production was staged on the thrust stage of the Festival Theatre, which I doubt was intended for a full-tilt Broadway tap dance show. It doesn't leave you a lot of room for scenery -- although you don't need much -- and it must have been interesting to choreograph twenty or so dancers on the small space. But it does allow for imaginative and three-dimensional staging that you wouldn't get on the stage of the traditional proscenium house at the Avon, and there's something to be said for, in the words of my late dance teacher Paul Avery, "doing it up brown" on the same stage that saw William Shatner perform Julius Caesar and Irene Worth play Hedda Gabler. And there's not a wrong step or a sour note in the whole show. Sir Tyrone Guthrie would be proud, and I'll bet he would have been tapping along.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Stratford 2012 - A Word or Two

The stage is set with a desk and chair, a director's chair, a small podium, and a winding staircase of books that cantilevers over the stage like an impossible sculpture; in the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, toppling to the skies. The lights come up on an elderly gentleman sitting at the foot of this literary tower, and the words come forth.

This is supposed to be a one-man show: Christopher Plummer, actor (everything from Hamlet to The Sound of Music to Star Trek VI) and director, but it is not really just one man there. He is in the company of Lewis Carroll, George Bernard Shaw, William Shakespeare, A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock, Ogden Nash, Emily Dickinson, Christopher Marlowe, Oscar Wilde, the Bible, Archibald MacLeish, and many others. He tells us of his love for words, for language, for sharing the mysteries of life and longing and love through the words; of growing up in Montreal and of his family that read aloud after dinner when he was a boy, and discovering the stage and theatre. In his memoir, In Spite of Myself, Mr. Plummer is very candid about his faults, his excesses, and his ambitions, and he brings them with him to this tale as well. He's unfailingly honest, wistful, rueful, joyful, and all through his own words and those of writers he loves.

Even though it was in the Avon Theatre, a converted movie house that seats over a thousand people, it is an intimate performance, and even though I was in the fourth row center, I knew he was reaching and touching the people in the back row of the balcony. Not because he's that powerful an actor -- although he is, and a single raised eyebrow from him carries for miles -- but because what he was sharing was so deeply felt. And it should; this is a performance that he created and produced on his own and has toured with before. This is a labor of love.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Stratford 2012 -- Cymbeline

The program notes tell us that Cymbeline is thought to be the last play Shakespeare wrote. If it is, then it is a sort of grand finale of all of his works, combining elements of every style and genre that he used in the rest of the canon. There are hints of Hamlet, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Julius Caesar, and even a touch of A Midsummer Night's Dream; and probably a few I missed (oh, yes, A Winter's Tale seems to be in there, too).

The plot follows a typical Shakespearean route: a king banishes his daughter for botching an arranged marriage to a dolt; she chooses a nice but poor fellow, and then we get into jealousy, trickery, false accusations of adultery, cross-dressing as a boy as a disguise to hide out, stolen babies, old retainers who take pity on the banished, rustic rubes in the woods, crashing battle scenes, a deus ex machina appearance by a Roman god, the inevitable climactic scene where all is revealed and all are reconciled, and a few Agatha Christie revelations are thrown in for good measure.

Even the most dedicated Shakespeare scholar -- and I am by any measure not one -- would have trouble explaining the plot or filling in the holes, but this is the kind of play that Stratford does very well, and this production does not disappoint. As we were going in to the theatre, I warned my parents that the running time on this production was three hours -- and it was -- and we were seeing the play in the Tom Patterson Theatre, a converted curling rink with hard chairs. Wow, what a first night. But the play moved along quickly and the acting was up to their usual superb standards. Director Antoni Cimolino, who is to assume the duties of Artistic Director for the festival next year, chose wisely in his casting of the roles, including Cara Ricketts as Imogen, the daughter who is the focus of so many troubles. The title role was played by Geraint Wyn Davies, who has been with the company for nine seasons and has moved gracefully from playing the young hunk to the mature father figure. Graham Abbey has the unenviable task of playing Posthumus, the love interest for Imogen. I sometimes think Shakespeare wrote roles like that almost as an afterthought; he gets battered about, he's not got a lot of driving action in the plot, and in this case, he gets the daylights kicked out of him by both the Romans and the Britons. The course of true love never did run smooth, right? But he ends up with the woman he loves, and all's well that... well, you get the idea. (One thing Stratford used to fall short on was the casting of men with the builds to play the parts, and the PYSBO (Put Your Shirt Back On) quotient was high. I'm happy to report they're getting better at it, or they've added a gym to the green room.)

The supporting roles were also done well and in full dimension; Michael Sharo as the aptly-named Cloten plays the thick-necked dull-witted brute to perfection, and his comeuppance is shocking but not unsatisfying, and Tom McCamus plays an oily villain to perfection. The set design was minimal, as is necessary on the elongated thrust stage of the Patterson, but that didn't stop them from using lights, fog, and costumes to good effect.

If this was indeed the Bard's last work, it was a retrospective rather than a eulogy. There were no heavy speeches, few quotable or memorable lines, and rather than leave the stage strewn with corpses, he gives us a happy if not wistful exeunt omnes. Not a bad way to go.