The Stratford Festival: Geniuses at Work

The Stratford Festival in Ontario routinely employs the talents of two Theatre geniuses, separated in their endeavors by four centuries. The earlier is, of course, William Shakespeare, around whose plays the Festival was founded and continues to flourish, now in its 67th season. Over the years, I have seen three pairs of star-crossed lovers, two melancholy Danes, a pair of crook’d Kings (one female), multiples of the popular comedies, and Christopher Plummer as both Lear and Prospero.

The modern genius is director-choreographer Donna Feore, whose grasp of musical theatre and ability to communicate its wonders are boundless. Her “Crazy for You” in 2014 was spectacular and last season’s dance-centric “The Music Man” stands out in vivid memory. In 2016, with rarely-granted approval from the Michael Bennett estate, she re-staged “A Chorus Line” on the Festival’s expansive thrust stage with a thrilling result.

Recently I saw four of this season’s twelve productions, two by Shakespeare and two musicals staged by Ms. Feore. An abundance of riches.

No two of Shakespeare’s plays could be any more different than “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is from “Othello.” That one is a rollicking comedy and the other a dark tragedy is just the tip of the comparison.

Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In “Merry Wives,” two assertive married women turn the tables on Sir John Falstaff, their bungling would-be suitor, whose indignities and other comic capers lead to the play’s satisfying resolution.

In “Othello,” Iago, a villain for the ages, plots against trusting Othello, leaving both of their compliant wives slain, each by her own husband’s hand. At this play’s gut-wrenching resolution, my companion asked rhetorically, “How can these actors possibly do this again tomorrow?”

Othello (Michael Blake), left, and Iago (Gordon S. Miller)

Also distinguishing the two plays from one another is their contrasting forms. “Merry Wives” is 87 percent in prose (the most of all the plays) and 13 percent verse, while “Othello” is near the inverse at 19 percent prose, 81 verse. This factor by itself bespeaks the need for opposing acting styles. The Stratford company masters both. Their “Merry Wives,” driven by Geraint Wyn Davies’ superb Falstaff, moves along at a merry clip, its sharply comic dialogue enhanced with a dose of slapstick.  What makes the dual accomplishment even more remarkable is that fully sixteen actors appear in both plays, including, most notably, Michael Blake, who plays the jealousy-driven Othello and Mr. Page, the trusting of the two “Merry Wives” husbands. If you find two more contrasting Shakespearean roles, let me know. Blake plays them both to perfection.

The Merry Wives: Sophia Walker (left) as Mrs. Ford and Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page.

Perhaps to avoid over-playing his sliminess, Gordon S. Miller’s Iago is a straightforward bad guy. The character has significantly more lines than Othello (1100 to 890), much of that difference directly to the audience. His letting us in on his nefarious intentions, usually with a friendly-confidante tone, can have you, perversely, on the verge of siding with him. Miller just tells us straight out, without the character’s quasi-erotic enjoyment of his evil doings. It is director Nigel Shawn Williams’s choice, I guess, but I missed the glint in Iago’s eye.

Michael Blake as Othello and Amelia Sargisson as Desdemona

What I did not miss is Desdemona’s usual complacency in the face of her husband’s intention to kill her. Played with emotional depth by Amelia Sargisson, this Desdemona fights like a hellcat, first verbally and then during Othello’s murderous attack, until, significantly bigger and stronger, he finally overpowers her. (There’s only so much you can change.)  It is a shattering enactment and the final scene that follows it, which can feel anti-climactic, is anything but.

None of the Shakespeare actors is in either “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Billy Elliot the Musical,” but if they were, they would probably excel in those contrasting musicals under Ms. Feore’s direction. Her “Little Shop” is an especially lively take on the show. The R & B girl-trio, for example, dances as well as sings their narrative segments, and the few mini-crowd scenes are spirited, but there’s a limit to what even she can do with the piece…an odd choice in the #MeToo era.

Audrey (Gabi Epstein) and Seymour (André Morin) with Audrey II as a toddler

Ostensibly about an insatiable person-eating plant gobbling up all of humanity (think unfettered Greed), the boy-friend-battered heroine Audrey getting nothing but platitudes from her male co-workers is cringeworthy. The abuser does become the plant’s first human meal (post-mortem), but its second course is the kindly florist, intentionally enticed into the plant’s orifice by shop assistant Seymour, whom the proprietor had adopted as his son.

Seymour with Audrey II, grown up (and hungry)

Then it is Audrey’s turn. Chewed upon but lingering, she offers herself up to Audrey II, as the plant is dubbed, to demonstrate her love for Seymour. I get that it’s an allegory, and audiences seem to enjoy it, but for me “Little Shop” is past its sell-by date.

“Billy Elliot the Musical,” on the other hand, is timely, emotionally resonant and exquisitely conceived. After an early number, I thought “It doesn’t get any better than this.” And then it did, in pulse-quickening dance sequences that include energetic tap, classic ballet and every style in between.

Nolen Dubuc (centre) as Billy Elliot with members of the company

In a rarely-achieved fusion, the numbers spring from seemingly incompatible themes: young Billy’s burgeoning interest in the ballet and the economic and political fallout from Britain’s 1984 coal miners’ strike. Against the background of the strike that crushed the British National Union of Mineworkers, Billy’s evolution-in-dance is an uplifting saga.

That the contrasting story lines mesh so well is a tribute to Lee Hall, who adapted his own screenplay (from the 2000 British film), and to Elton John’s exciting musical score. Under Ms. Feore’s direction and choreography, the whole of this “Billy Elliot” exceeds the sum of its parts.

Growing up in a single-dad household (mom had died), eleven-year old Billy stumbles into a young girls’ dance class after his boxing lesson.  Caught up among the girls’ awkward pliés and off-balance pirouettes, he catches the eye of Mrs. Wilkinson, the bored ballet teacher. Against the wishes – even the core values – of his father and brother, Billy continues in the class, eventually earning an audition for Britain’s prestigious Royal Ballet School.

You needn’t have seen the movie to predict the outcome, but getting there is a stirring dramatic and musical journey. Tears of compassion well up for the struggling miners and their families, while the exhilarating dance sequences are heaven-sent…joyous.

Three young dancers rotated in the title role on Broadway, where the show won ten Tony Awards including Best Musical, but it is impossible to imagine a better Billy than Nolen Dubuc, whose rapport with Ms. Feore is palpable. The lad acts the role impeccably and progresses from inept novice to accomplished dancer right before your eyes. There are also nine Ballet Girls, age about five to twelve, with nary an affectation among them. Mrs. Wilkinson is tough, sarcastic and very funny. Hard-bitten as she seems, she becomes something of a surrogate mother to Billy; Blythe Wilson is perfection in the role. (Billy’s real mum appears to him in several poignant scenes.)

Swan Lake fantasy: Billy (Nolen Dubuc) and Older Billy (Colton Curtis)

And, oh, the musical numbers: there’s the rousing “Solidarity, ” sung in counterpoint by the robust chorus of grim coppers and miners facing off with the brightly tutu’d Ballet Girls between them; “Expressing Yourself,” a nifty Music Hall song-and-dance of Pride between Billy and his chum Michael (Emerson Gamble) and an exquisite “Swan Lake” fantasy-danced by Billy with his older self (Colton Curtis). “Electricity,” Billy’s ‘eleven o’clock number,’ sets the Festival stage ablaze, and there’s more…much more.

Substituting our current political woes for the British coal miners’ despair and replacing Billy’s passion for the dance with whatever dreams or ambitions you harbor for yourself completes the metaphor.

How fortunate these performers are to be able to perform Donna Feore’s magnificent “Billy Elliot” again tomorrow.

The four shows reviewed here run through October. The season also includes Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” the classic comedies “The Front Page” and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” and other offerings including family-friendly “The Neverending Story” and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” For complete brochure: 800-567-1600 or visit www.stratfordfestival.ca

Blog, Canadian Theatre

Predicting the Tony Awards

The Broadway theater season, which ends in late April, culminates with the American Theatre Wing’s Antoinette Perry Awards – the Tonys. For the 2018-19 season 42 nominators considered 34 eligible shows in 24 categories. (No critics are among the nominators and few are among the 831 voters, some of whom have personal and/or financial interests in the productions…a topic for another day.)

The Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards, both of which are nominated and voted by critics, have already been announced. Some winners coincide, but where Tony is exclusively Broadway, OCC and DD consider off-Broadway as well. Here are predictions in sixteen Tony categories:

Best Musical: Two of the five nominees would be shoo-ins if the season did not include the other. “The Prom” was my runaway favorite until I saw “Hadestown,” a brilliant riff on the Orpheus/Eurydice and Hades/ Persephone Greek myths (in modern vernacular). “The Prom,” with its dual tracks of self-involved Broadway actors and a same-sex prom date, is both humorous and heart-warming. Both are deserving and either could win, but the glittery “Hadestown” is more likely.

The cast of “The Prom” [Photos courtesy of the productions]

        Best Play:  The British-imported “The Ferryman,” a play set against Ireland’s 1980s “troubles,” is a galvanizing three hours. The largely American replacement cast is every bit as good as the original Brits. Prediction: It will (and should) win.

“The Ferryman” now features Brian D’Arcy James and Holley Fain

Musical Revival: With only two contenders, either “Kiss Me, Kate,” which is tweaked to reflect the #MeToo era, or the totally re-imagined “Oklahoma!” will win. My choice would be the latter, but a conservative voter base might not be ready for its makeover. “Kiss Me, Kate” is the likely winner.  (Both Outer Critics and Drama Desk cited the off-Broadway “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.”)

        Play Revival: Arthur Miller’s 1947 “All My Sons” is infused with new energy by terrific direction and performances. The plot, revolving around faulty airplane parts, remains all too relevant. The recently-closed “The Waverly Gallery” is a formidable contender, spurred by its star (and Best Actress nominee) Elaine May.

Santino Fontana, center, in “Tootsie”

Leading Actor in a Musical:  Dustin Hoffman was Oscar-nominated for the “Tootsie” movie in 1983, losing out to Ben Kingsley, for “Gandhi.”  Santino Fontana is Tony-nominated for the same role in the musical “Tootsie.” Gandhi himself couldn’t beat him.            

Leading Actress in a Musical: Stephanie J. Block is the likely winner as the eldest of three incarnations in “The Cher Show” in a close vote over Kelli O’Hara, who re-invents the “Kiss Me, Kate” diva as a feminist. (Vote totals are not made public.)

Bryan Cranston on the “Network” set

        Leading Actor in a Play: This is a Finch face-off between Bryan Cranston in the Peter Finch “Network” role and Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Neither drama was nominated for Best Play, but one of those leading men will win. (My guess is Cranston, if only for the mad scene.)

Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) at the defense table with Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe)

Leading Actress in a Play:  In this strong category, Elaine May is first among equals for the progressively addled proprietor of “The Waverly Gallery.” Equally deserving are Annette Bening for “All My Sons,” Janet McTeer as The Divine Sarah in “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” and Laurie Metcalf for her half of “Hillary and Clinton.” Elaine May, at age 87, is your winner. (In a notable snub, Glenda Jackson was not nominated for her King Lear.)

Featured Actor and Actress in Musicals: Even if he were less than wonderful as Greek god Hermes in “Hadestown,” André de Shields could win for his lifetime body of work. But he is and he will. In the same show, Amber Gray is a goddess Persephone to die for, but she’s up against a formidable contender in Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, as a captivating Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” Both women are deserving. A tie vote would be perfect.

Amber Gray fronting the “Hadestown” ensemble

Featured Actor and Actress in Plays:  Benjamin Walker as the anguished Chris in “All My Sons,” and Celia Keenan-Bolger as adolescent Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” should prevail. Walker’s main competition is Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch in “Ink.” Keenan-Bolger’s is…forget it. Bet the ranch.

Celia Keenan-Bolger accepting the Outer Critics Circle Award for Scout in “Mockingbird” (She’ll probably dress down for the Tonys)

Two technical Tonys should be unanimous selections: Best Musical Costumes to Bob Mackie for the fabulous “The Cher Show” outfits; Stephanie J. Block alone has 30 costume changes! The Best Musical Lighting Tony is surely Bradley King’s, whose spectacular effects for “Hadestown” deserve top billing.

Stephanie J. Block, center, rocking one slinky “The Cher Show” costume

Best Directors of a Play and a Musical:  While these do not always coincide with the respective Best production winners, my prediction is that they will this year: Sam Mendes should win for “The Ferryman,” as should Rachel Chavkin for “Hadestown,” whose composer/lyricist/book writer Anais Mitchell is also a woman. About time, right?

The 73rd Annual Tony Awards, hosted by James Corden, will be televised live by CBS-TV on Sunday, June 9 from 8 to 11PM. The festivities will include numbers from seven current Broadway musicals. Really.

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

A “MAC BETH” for the (Teen) Ages

A lot of stuff in plays happens offstage. Not just unsavory events, but things that are easier to tell than to show. (The plot of the play reviewed here last week, “Happy Talk,” turns on offstage happenings.) Many such are dictated by logistics – and common sense. You’ll not see Willy Loman’s car crash on stage, nor do you need to in order to gather its meaning.

Shakespeare abounds with examples. In “The Winter’s Tale,” for one, Antigonus’s ursine pursuer presumably eats him…offstage. And, alas, the Midsummer Night consummation between Titania and Bottom takes place after the scene ends.

Nowhere in Shakespeare is this device more critical than in “Macbeth.” The murders of King Duncan and his hapless attendants, the fatal attack on Banquo and (spoiler alert) Macbeth’s ceremonial be-heading all occur out of audience view.

MAC BETH cast: Dancin’ in the Rain [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Not All The Talk In “Happy Talk” Is Happy

There is a limit to how much can be revealed about The New Group production of Jesse Eisenberg’s “Happy Talk,” without crossing into spoiler territory. That there are five characters is safe enough (they’re all in the Playbill), although one’s entrance half-way through alters the 105-minute play dramatically. What had been a humanistic, quasi-comedic character study takes on a shadowy texture that continues to darken up to the denouement.

That shift in tone is abrupt, but not without some foreshadowing, as when a mystery story, once solved, yields its clues retroactively. “I didn’t see that coming,” you think, until “oh yeah” sets in.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Identity-check at NJ Rep: “Surfing My DNA”

Any time someone appears on stage in tap shoes, I’m all in.

Jodi Long brings that footwear and more to “Surfing My DNA,” world-premiering through May 26 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Written and performed by Ms. Long, the hybrid stage piece is half biography (of her parents) and half her own memoir. With that former content split further between the two parents, including their experiences with anti-Asian racism and their show-business careers, the result, while interesting enough, is necessarily diffuse.

What separated Long’s parents from typical mainstream1940s/50s husband-and-wife vaudeville teams was not lack of talent; archived clips of their act, neatly projected on NJ Rep’s backdrop,  allay any such doubts. It was their heritage that set them apart and dictated their bookings. Long’s father was born in Australia to a Scottish mother and a Chinese father; her mother was born in Portland, Oregon, where her Japanese parents had settled. With their dominant Oriental, as it was then called, heritage, Larry and Trudie (their names, really) worked Asian-themed venues in San Francisco, known as the Chop Suey Circuit, before landing some gigs in New York, including a 1951 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. (The grainy footage of Ed introducing them as “direct from China” and Larry intoning Chinese-sounding gibberish, is priceless. Agonizingly un-PC, but historically priceless.) Jodi’s narrative through their career, punctuated by her own time-step tapping, is entertaining.

Jodi Long in tap-dance mode [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

She also covers her parents’ histories, with Larry’s centering on his family emigrating from Australia to the U. S., where he pursued a show-biz career, eventually landing a role  in a road company “Flower Drum Song” that toured on-and-off for ten years. Bye-bye, family.

Her mother’s background is more fleshed out. As a teen, Trudie was interred with her family in the infamous west coast camps where Japanese-Americans – U.S. citizens, mind you – were confined during World War II. Eventually sponsored for release from the camp by a New York Daily News columnist (whose motives remain un-examined), she embarks on an adventurous cross-country train trip, settles precariously in NYC and eventually lands a job as a showgirl at the Mafia-owned China Doll nightclub – for a princely $75 a week. “And that’s how I got into show business,” mom concludes. The segment is the show’s best, both for subject and narration. Trudie’s tale could (should?) comprise a play of its own.

The second hour-long act takes a more somber turn. Long attends the funeral of a family “uncle” in Portland and re-connects with long-lost family in Australia, where she learns of her Scottish ancestry. Continuing in memoir mode, the segment about surfing in Bradley Beach is of local interest, but introducing a litany of drunk and druggie ‘boyfriends’  is clearly TMI. She drops a few F-bombs that dud-out, and her imagined or recalled conversations, in which she does both voices, mostly ramble.

Channeling her late uncle

While “Surfing My DNA” is a solo-actor play, Ms. Long is complemented by a musician-cum sound effects fellow, whose skills are as versatile as his instruments. Set against the wall stage left, Yukio Tsuji provides percussive and electronic accompaniment for the musical vignettes and some hauntingly  mood-enhancing atonality on the shakuhachi, a 7th Century Japanese, longitudinal, end-blown, bamboo-flute. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Notwithstanding a couple exceptions over the past twenty-two years, plays premiering at New Jersey Rep do not emerge fully formed. The company’s raison d’etre, after all, is to provide authors with the opportunity to see their plays “on their feet” for the first time and to initiate editing and re-tooling, a process that most often involves pruning.

Jodi Long is two-thirds of the “Surfing My DNA” triumvirate. Together with her director Eric Rosen, playwright/performer Long now has a golden few weeks to carve out the 90-minute presentation aborning within “Surfing My DNA.” (Keep the tap shoes in.)

Through May 26 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances Thurs & Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2pm. For tickets ($50): 732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org

 

Blog, Professional, Regional

A Visit with “The Belle of Amherst” in Red Bank NJ

Something special is afoot at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, where Maureen Silliman is embodying Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s one-woman play about the enigmatic 19th Century poet. In the play, Dickinson (1830-1886) shares her thoughts, dreams, snippets of her poetry and even a recipe or two with groups of visitors that you could join before the play closes on May 5. That the reputedly reclusive Dickinson would have been so forthcoming is questionable; regardless, Ms. Silliman’s performance is touchingly sensitive as well as unflinchingly commanding – of the character, the play and, not incidentally, the wide expanse of Two River’s main-stage venue.

Maureen Silliman as Emily Dickinson [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Blog, Professional, Regional