Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cabaret Must-See Musical Theatre

A review of Cabaret from Robert Reid at The Record:

"War is on the minds of many Canadians.

"With our soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is mounting two musicals that unfold on the cusp of war -- the First World War in the case of The Music Man and the Second World War in the case of Cabaret.

"They make for a fascinating study in contrasts. William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience meets Broadway.

"Cabaret, which opened Thursday at the Avon Theatre, is dark, claustrophobic and foreboding. Conversely, The Music Man, which opened the previous night, is sunny, open and optimistic. It's interesting that Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966, when America was embroiled in an unpopular war (Vietnam) not unlike Iraq. Cabaret is more in keeping with the temper of the times in which we live, so it doesn't come across as the glorious success of The Music Man.

"Nonetheless, it's an impressive accomplishment achieved by a trio making their festival debuts -- director Amanda Dehnert, musical director Rick Fox and choreographer Kelly Devine.

"Whether on stage or in film, Cabaret has become familiar. Dehnert does a good job re-imagining what have almost becomes musical theatre clichés.

"Stratford mounted a memorable Cabaret in 1987 with Brent Carver as the Emcee and Sheila McCarthy as Sally Bowles. While this production won't linger so long in the mind, it offers its own copious rewards, especially in the first act which serves up extraordinary musical theatre.

"Inspired by Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical stories set in Berlin in the early 1930s and set to lyrics by Fred Ebb and music by John Kander, Cabaret depicts a society of the verge of collapse -- moral and esthetic, as well as political.

"The production is anchored by Bruce Dow who plays the Emcee as a sad, sinister, prescient, vaudevillian clown on familiar terms with evil.

"Sally is often portrayed as a waifish girl/woman. But Trish Lindstrom, who returns to Stratford for the second time in a decade, gives her Sally a quintessentially English stiff upper lip. That is, until she disintegrates before our very eyes while singing the title song drenched in disillusionment and bitterness. If anything Lindstrom has a better voice than Sally requires, but we can't hold that against her.

"Like Jonathan Goad in The Music Man, Sean Arbuckle is an emerging dramatic festival actor of talent who shows he also can sing. He's a solid Clifford, the aspiring American writer who travels to Berlin to find himself and ends up finding Sally.

"Cory O'Brien is effective as Ernest Ludwig, the gregarious young man Clifford meets on the train to Berlin, only to learn later that he is a Nazi.

"Ditto for Diana Coatsworth as the prostitute-cum-Nazi sympathizer Fraulein Kost.

"Despite the talent on display from the young actors, this production is dominated by the deeply affecting performances of Nora McLellan, as the plucky, German landlady Fraulein Schneider, and Frank Moore, as the heartbroken Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz.

"They make this Cabaret theirs.

"This isn't how the musical is written, but no matter. It still works.

"The production brims with campy decadence, but it never slips into lewdness or vulgarity.

"David Boechler's costumes expose a lot of skin -- including Dow's ample buttocks.

"Douglas Paraschuk's set is not the tradition Kit Kat Klub, but a dilapidated train station (remember Hitler got the trains running on time).

"Kevin Fraser's lighting bathes the production in dark, lurid tones reminiscent of the height of German Expressionism.

"Paraschuk and Fraser combine to create numerous exciting effects, including innovative use of projection on a scrim curtain.

"The Music Man and Cabaret both depict societies in transition.

"The difference is that in the former the characters are oblivious of what's in store, while in the latter the characters are all too aware, notwithstanding their denials. With this pair of complementary musicals -- one a comedy in which love is found and the other a tragedy in which love is lost -- the festival proves once again that Broadway can intersect with Stratford- Upon-Avon in the small southwestern Ontario city of Stratford."

Trojan a "Must See"

A review of The Trojan Women by Sharon Malvern at the Stratford Beacon Herald:

"A powerful, intense production of The Trojan Women proves that a 2400-year-old drama can still grip an audience.

"Euripides’ play is as fresh as today’s newspaper headlines in depicting the tragic consequences of war, the effects on the victors and the victims, and the suffering of innocent women and children.

"It’s a story both timely and timeless, a theme that director Marti Maraden and designer John Pennoyer skilfully underscored in the choices they made for costumes and overall effects.

"Highlighted by an extraordinary performance by Martha Henry as Hecuba, a strong cast delivers the lyrical lines with passion and clarity.

"The well-known Greeks’ trick, a wooden horse stuffed with soldiers to get inside the walls of Troy, led to a massacre.

"After the city fell to its conquerors, Poseidon appears (in 20th century naval uniform) to lament the devastation of the once glorious city and its heroes.

"Joined by the goddess Pallas Athena ( in a power suit) who helped the Greeks but is now angry at them, the pair agree to make the Greeks’ homeward voyage horrific.

"David Keely and Nora McLellan aptly epitomize the aloof, self-serving attitudes of those who play with human lives in times of war.

"While mourning the deaths of her husband, King Priam of Troy, and her sons, Paris and Hector, Hecuba is further shocked by the news brought by Talthybius, the Greek messenger.

"The victors have decided to distribute the Trojan women amongst themselves: Hecuba will become a slave to Odysseus; her daughter Cassandra will become the mistress of Agamemnon; and another daughter, Polyxena, has been slain by the tomb of Achilles.

"Cassandra (Kelli Fox) presents a compelling portrait of the mad seer, as she whirls about the stage prophesying the disasters that will come to the Greeks. It’s a scary, spell-binding scene.

"But worse is yet to come. Andromache with her baby son, Astyanax, is wailing over the death of her husband Hector when Talthybius reluctantly brings the news that the child will be thrown to his death from the towers of Troy, so that he will not survive to avenge his father.

"In one of the most heart-rending scenes imaginable, the youngster is torn from his weeping mother’s arms, and she is forcibly taken off to Greece. Seana McKenna gives a poignant performance, while Sean Arbuckle shows sensitivity as the messenger caught between his duty and his humanity.

"King Menelaus ( Brad Rudy) demands that his faithless wife Helen, cause of the Trojan war, be returned to him. Yanna McIntosh portrays Helen as a beautiful, sexy woman, pleading her innocence in a 'trial' presided over by Hecuba.

"When her grandchild’s crushed body is brought back on his father’s shield, Hecuba’s pain reaches unbearable heights, as she tenderly croons to him. Throughout the play, Martha Henry most effectively symbolizes grief in every gesture, speech and movement.

"The plot ends as Troy is set on fire and the powerless women are led away to their captors.
The Chorus – a traditional feature of Greek drama- reflects and comments on the action through complementary song, movement, and dance.

"Dressed in multi-coloured garments, with headscarves, their restrictive clothing has both ancient and contemporary references. These eight actors contribute greatly to the play's emotional impact.

"In contrast, the military men look definitely modern, in boots and flak jackets, with a menacing appearance. The Trojan Women is an engrossing, unforgettable theatrical experience.

"Characterized by superb direction and acting, it is a tribute to the endurance of the human spirit even in appalling circumstances.

"It’s a must-see this season."

"Potent", "Seductive" Cabaret

Toronto Sun theatre critic John Coulbourn gives 4.5 stars (out of 5) to Cabaret:

"This may be your parents' Cabaret -- but chances are, it's going to take them a while to recognize it.

"In her Stratford debut, director Amanda Dehnert tackles one of the best-known musicals of the past century and rebuilds it from the ground up, all but exorcising the ghosts of Joel Gray, Liza Minnelli and even Brent Carver, Sheila McCarthy and Alan Cumming in the process.

"It is, of course, the Christopher Isherwood-inspired tale, as retold through the eyes of playwrights John Van Druten and Joe Masteroff, and Dehnert retains all the essential elements of a world descending slowly and inexorably into hell.

"But, in a production that opened Thursday at the Avon Theatre, she manages, ever so subtly, to shift the routing just enough that even though we arrive at the same old destination, she seems to have taken us on a whole new trip.

"The story is still set in the troubled heart of Berlin, circa 1930, in a rooming-house run by Fraulein Schnedier (Nora McLellan) and in the notorious Kit Kat Club, where decadence lives in the person of a mysterious Emcee (Bruce Dow) who sits over the whole production like some tragi-comic God of Misrule.

"It is to this world that American Clifford Bradshaw (Sean Arbuckle) has come in search of grist to grind into a novel. Instead, he falls in with a mysterious German (Cory O'Brien) who introduces him first to Fraulein Schneider's establishment and then to the Kit Kat Club, where Clifford falls in with the flamboyant singer Sally Bowles, played by Trish Lindstrom.

"Sally soon bullies her way into Clifford's room and then his bed and the romance that springs up between them finds echoes in the relationship developing between their landlady and a fellow tenant, one Herr Schultz (Frank Moore), a Jew who runs a fruit stand in the neighbourhood.

"While these romances flourish, the world around them continues its descent into the madness that will become the Second World War -- and eventually, that madness overwhelms them.

"It is a story driven as much by impending doom as by the tunes of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb -- songs like So What? that capture time and place with the precision of a camera or Two Ladies that hold convention up for good-natured ridicule. There are songs, like Married, that will melt your heart, like Tomorrow Belongs to Me, that will freeze it, and like the song that gives the play its name, that seems to say it all.

"And they are all served up here with professional polish by musical director Rick Fox, working with a bravura cast who occupies Douglas Paraschuk's seedy set like wood creatures, unaware of their impending extinction. Costumed by David Boechler, choreographed by Kelly Devine and lit by Jim Neil, they offer up a potent blend of sex-drenched hedonism and worldly innocence that is certain to steal your heart.

"In counterpoint to their world, the Fraulein and the fruit-seller represent another facet of the tragedy, rendered even more deeply touching by fine performances from McLellan and Moore.

"Meanwhile, Dow's casting is inspired. He has the courage and the talent to break all the moulds, creating an all-new character that blends androgeny and sensuality with the haunting asexuality of a spoiled child. And while Arbuckle and O'Brien are strong in what are essentially supporting roles, Lindstrom is an unfortunate choice in the role of Sally Bowles.

"Even weighed against Clifford's accusation that Sally can only sleep her way into employment, Lindstrom just doesn't seem to have the talent, the personality nor the requisite sensual charms to fill the boots of Sally Bowles, only rising to the demands of the character in her defiant delivery of the title song.

"Still, what Dehnert has created is impressive -- a lingering testament to the seductive power of evil that is no less relevant or compelling today than it was when Isherwood himself first stepped off the train in Berlin."

Friday, May 30, 2008

"Sexy Cabaret"

A review of Cabaret by Donal O'Connor at the Stratford Beacon Herald:

"Cabaret is not your usual musical. There’s no happy ending. Things don’t really get resolved.

"The story set in Berlin in 1930 is told by an American novelist named Cliff Bradshaw and is a reflection of a period of time he had spent in the city just when the Nazis were coming to power.

"The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of the show that opened Thursday at the Avon Theatre acknowledges that coming storm and looks it squarely in the eye.

"Director Amanda Dehnert, in collaboration with set designer Douglas Paraschuk, has set the play in a bombed-out shell of a building of stone and exposed steel. Spotlights mounted on an upper landing are manned by characters in the play and are ominous reminders of wartime searchlights.

"The lighting by Kevin Fraser is, for the most part, harsh and contrasty. And, interestingly in this production, Sally Bowles (Trish Lindstrom), the featured singer at the Kit Kat Klub with whom Cliff (Sean Arbuckle) becomes involved, is portrayed as disturbed and angry rather than glamorous.

"There is, of course, lots more to the play based on Joe Masteroff’s book and the music of John Kander and lyrics of Fred Ebb. But those elements alone strongly set the mood of the Stratford production.

"Cabaret is about Cliff’s mixed-up relationship with Sally Bowles and it’s also about the characters who inhabit the Kit Kat and who provide the risque entertainment, not least of all the Emcee who has no name.

"Bruce Dow does the honours here and he presents a corpulent, bisexual master of ceremonies who is acutely attuned to all that’s happening around him. Decorated in some outrageous outfits by costume designer David Boechler, Mr. Dow’s Emcee is obviously in his element at the Kit Kat Klub where cross-dressing and other sexual deviations/experiments are the norm.

"And it’s an effective bit of staging that has the Emcee and lusty Klub entertainers frozen in place as ghostly witnesses to the unfolding of other lives when they’re not actually performing as dancers.

"Apart form Cliff and Sally, those 'other lives' include the courtly and kind-hearted Herr Schultz (Frank Moore) and his love interest Fraulein Schneider (Nora McLellan). The courtship between the elderly couple — he’s the Jewish fruit merchant, she’s the never-married landlady who rents rooms to Sally and Cliff — is given full play in this production.

"The characters are superbly portrayed, not least of all in the singing department.

"Ernst Ludwig, the charming German who befriends, uses and then assaults Cliff to further his political (Nazi) goals, is convincingly played by Cory O’Brien.

"There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle showbiz in Cabaret, and this production choreographed by Kelly Devine and with musical direction from Rick Fox does not disappoint in the song and dance area. Ms. Devine has assembled an agile and sexy company of dancers, and there’s no reason to think they don’t amply reflect the licentious goings-on after dark in Berlin on the brink of disaster.

"Still, for all of the inspired staging — there are some neat video projections and references to film of the period, and the creeping Nazism is also nicely handled — the show seems to have a significant flaw.

"Ms. Lindstrom’s Sally Bowles may well be as authentic as any, but her dour Sally does not an endearing character make. Nor does it suggest a reason why Cliff Bradshaw, quite well played by Mr. Arbuckle, would be attracted to her — unless it’s just about the singing.

"The show needs to find an emotional centre."

Come to the Cabaret

Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian gives Cabaret 3 out of 4 stars:

"Come to the cabaret, old chum, but be prepared to be initially bowled over and ultimately disappointed.

"Amanda Dehnert's revival of the Kander and Ebb musical which opened at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival last night starts out like gangbusters, nailing you to the wall with a first act that is easily the most provocative and brilliantly staged musical in Stratford history.

"But something happens over intermission and – despite a few musical highlights – it ends as T.S. Eliot said the world would, 'Not with a bang, but with a whimper.'

"The story of failed American author Cliff Bradshaw, who comes to Berlin in the final days of the grand orgy that led to the rise of the Nazi party, has become so familiar that in recent years, directors have gone mad trying to outshock each other.

"For a while, it looks like Dehnert and her Stratford company have succeeded. Doug Paraschuk's set is not the Kit Kat Club but a desolate railroad station long after the last train for Auschwitz has gone.

"Kevin Fraser delivers probably the most daring lighting in his distinguished career, splashing the stage with lurid colours and illuminating people from unlikely angles, while David Boechler's costumes emphasize the erotic on everyone and Kelly Devine's choreography raises the sexual stakes even higher.

"Our guide, of course, is the Emcee, radically reinterpreted here by Bruce Dow to be part Satan and part Rosie O'Donnell. Dow is like a silent movie clown on acid: all seeing, all knowing, all leering. At the end of the show, he'll prove to have a heart, but by then it's too late for anyone.

"Until then, Dow is superbly confident and delivers his songs with all his old panache, but with a new and frightening edge.

"Radical reinterpretation has also gone on with the show's other major lead, Sally Bowles. This British failed singer and emotional vacuum usually calls on young women to play the diva card.
Not Trish Lindström. She's a truly scary creature, strung tighter than a violin, with the wild, darting eyes of the truly mad. She's a charmer yes, but you immediately sense the baggage she brings with her extends far past her luggage.

"When Dehnert lets her self-destruct before our eyes during "Cabaret" it's like the proverbial car crash that you don't want to see, but can't look away from.

"There are other excellent performances as well, led by Sean Arbuckle as Cliff Bradshaw, who winds up, quite against his will, being the moral centre of the play. He's charming but weak, which is somehow an irresistible combination.

"Nora McLellan brings great depth and enormous pain to Fraulein Schneider, who throws away her one chance at love to surive the Nazi onslaught.

"And Frank Moore is heartbreaking as her lover, Herr Schultz, playing for tattered dignity rather than easy pathos.

"We also get a nice turn from Cory O'Brien as the duplicitous Nazi, Ernst Ludwig, and a lusty contribution from Diana Coatsworth as the prostitute Fraulein Kost.

"But with so much going right, it's hard to see how Dehnert lets all the air out of the tires in Act II. It begins with a seemingly pointless mock-athletic ballet for the company and even the Emcee's lethal gorilla dance on "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" is strangely muted.

"By the time we get to the finale, which Sam Mendes, for example, turned into a moment of pure horror, Dehnert seems to have simply run out of inspiration.

"The show doesn't end. It just stops.

"But fans of exciting theatricality should show up for the thrills available in the first act and the excellent performances throughout.

"After all, what good is sitting alone in your room?"

Globe Giddy Over Music Man

The Music Man receives a perfect review (4 stars) from J. Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail:

"Well, I'm sold! Sure, I fancy myself a sophistimacated fella from the big city, immune to cotton-headed sentimental fluffery. But I gotta tell you folks that you'd be missing out big time if you didn't head on down to the Stratford Festival of Shakespearean Splendours and catch their light-as-a-feather, family-friendly revival of The Music Man.

"It's pure candy floss for the soul, I tell you, guaranteed to rotate any frown by 180 degrees and put more spring in your step than a Swiss watchsmith maker turned shoe maker.

"Ye gods. What has happened to me? 'Professor' Harold Hill's rhythmic salesman patter is positively infectious in Susan H. Schulman's fantastic production of Meredith Willson's 1957 musical.

"Hill (Jonathan Goad), of course, is a fast-talkin' con man who swindles small-town Americans into buying band instruments, uniforms and instruction manuals for their kids, before hightailing it out on the last train without teaching them a note.

"On his latest stop, in River City, Iowa, in the year of 1912, however, Hill finds a worthy adversary in the form of local librarian and music teacher Marian Paroo (Leah Oster), an 'old maid'" of 26 who quickly grows wise to his ways.

"The British have a pretentious habit of taking classic musicals like this one and trying to find the dark, inner meaning that doesn't exist in them. The Trevor Nunn revival of My Fair Lady that recently passed through Toronto was a prime example, including as it did a moment where Eliza ended up marching in a protest for women's rights.

"Schulman, thankfully, has no such highfalutin ideas about The Music Man; there are no signs of the world war about to break out two years later across the ocean or specious links between Hill's confidence tricks and those that led America to invade Iraq. No, Schulman knows her territory and has unleashed a non-stop barrage of joyful music and dancing on Patrick Clark's whimsical, translucent set, on which print advertisements are projected.

"Michael Lichtefeld's clever choreography is unrelenting in its energy, a mix of ballet and pumped-up folk dance executed by a uniformly graceful ensemble. Even a number like Marian the Librarian gets turned into a blowout extravaganza with library patrons riding roughshod over the reading room, juggling books and enacting a dumb-show version of Romeo and Juliet (currently playing in its original version over at Stratford's Festival Theatre).

"Willson's score - full of gems like Till There Was You, the only song from a musical ever covered by the Beatles - is given its full due by Berthold Carrière's tight orchestra, which features a suitably Souza-esque brass section that really wails. (The realization that Marian's theme Goodnight My Someone is simply a slower version of Harold Hill's Seventy-Six Trombones is a joy to rediscover.) As for the romantic leads, Goad and Oster's performances rarely dip too far below the surface, but somehow their simple approach sneaks up on you and plucks at your heartstrings. Goad handles Hill's verbal gymnastics with finesse and sports a winning grin. One could complain about Oster's slightly stilted delivery in the dialogue, but her soaring voice more than makes up for it.

"Among the supporting cast of Iowans, Lee MacDougall is funny as the malapropism-prone Mayor Shinn, but Fiona Reid pickpockets every scene as his upright wife, giving 'Balzac' a pronunciation that just verges on the obscene. The quartet of quarrelling school board officials who continually break into barbershop is pitch-perfect.

"As writer and lyricist, Willson has a trunk full of cheap tricks to win over even the most cynical of audience members, the cheapest being having a number of roles designated to be played by young children.

"Aveleigh Keller is adorable as little Amryllis, while Christopher Van Hagen's performance as Marian's lisping little brother Withrop needs to be videotaped and put up on right away.

"Given all this, the program notes for The Music Man are strangely defensive. 'Simple? Simple-minded? Hardly,' writes Robert Harris, host of CBC Radio's I Hear Music. 'A nostalgic bit of hokey Americana? Hardly.'

"Whoa, whoa, hold your horses! No hard sell necessary. Why, it's as clear as a buttonhook in the well water that you've gotta hop in your Model T and head on down catch this shipoopi of a show."

Charismatic, Charming Music Man

John Coulbourn (Sun Media) gives The Music Man 4 out of 5 stars:

"It is a role that, for many, will always belong to the late Robert Preston.

"When Merdith Willson's The Music Man took Broadway by storm in 1957, Preston was cast as Professor Harold Hill -- a silver-tongued confidence man who falls in love and ends up whistling a whole new tune -- and he stole the heart of New York.

"That proved to be mere petty thievery, however, for when The Music Man became a movie in 1962 Preston stole the heart of the world.

"Every subsequent production of Wilson's musical has been measured in no small part by how the leading man's performance compares to Preston's.

"That would include the Stratford Festival production that opened on the stage of the Avon Theatre Wednesday, featuring Jonathan Goad as the unscrupulous 'Professor' who arrives in River City, Iowa circa 1912, determined to bilk its upright citizenry of a substantial chunk of hard-earned change.

"After convincing them that the town's young people are falling into delinquency, he promises redemption through a youth marching band -- and happily, just happens to be selling instruments, uniforms and a revolutionary new teaching method.

"Not everyone in River City is buying what he has to sell, however, and principal amongst his detractors is the pragmatic Miss Marian Paroo (played by Leah Oster), River City's librarian and herself a bit of a dab hand at music.

"But Marian's initial antipathy for the amoral Hill crumbles when her troubled little brother, Winthrop (young Christopher Van Hagen in a show-stealing turn) falls prey to Hill's charms.

"And while Hill has set out to seduce the sweet-voiced Marian, he instead finds himself seduced by her in turn, so that when the time comes to pull up stakes and flee, he has no choice but to stay and face the music instead.

"Goad's is a daring bit of casting, of course, taking an actor best known for his work in the classics (his Iago helped turn Othello into one of the hits of last year's season) and passing him off as a musical romantic lead.

"But it pays big dividends, for while Goad is no Robert Preston (and, really, what actor worth his salt would want to be?), he brings both talent and charisma enough to this performance that all but the most devoted Preston fans are almost certain to love him.

"In fact, it could be said that Goad is the major selling point in this production directed with an emphasis on charm by Susan H. Schulman and designed in ice-cream shades by Patrick Clark. In what is best described as a big-hearted production, Schulman and Clark create a pretty little world where rough edges have been smoothed by time and bruises washed with a healing balm of nostalgia -- a world, in fact, so free of menace that Hill faces no real danger in working his con. Sadly, he doesn't face a lot of romance, either, for while Oster has a glorious singing voice, as an actress, she seems content to be a pretty face.

"Still, it proves a brilliant showcase for Willson's music.

"Under the assured musical direction of Berthold Carriere, with choreography by Michael Lichtefeld, a cast that includes Lee MacDougall, a deliciously dippy Fiona Reid, Laird Mackintosh, Shawn Wright, Jonathan Monro, Marcus Nance, Eddie Glenn, Michelle Fisk and a host of others romps through a score that is two hours plus of pure charm, from the delicious Train Opening, through You Got Trouble, Goodnight My Someone, Lida Rose, Till There Was You and Gary, Indiana, ending up with the perennial charm of Seventy-Six Trombones.

"While it stops short of the kind of success that would leave devoted fans asking 'Who was Robert Preston?,' it is good enough and more to have musical theatre fans asking 'Who is this Jonathan Goad?'"

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Music Man Charms Ouzounian

Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian gives The Music Man 4 stars and a glowing review:

"There's no trouble at all in River City.

"The production of The Music Man that opened last night at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is so joyous, skilful, professional and perfect that all I really have to do is tell you all the reasons you must buy tickets for it at once.

"Director Susan H. Schulman has performed a kind of minor miracle by taking a piece of musical theatre that many people regard as hopelessly old-fashioned and proving that it's truly timeless as long as everyone involved with it really believes in the story they're telling.

"Meredith Willson's saga of how con man Harold Hill convinces the citizens of 1912 Iowa that he can teach their children to form a band has never seemed fresher or more touching than it does here.

"Besides Schulman's deft way with the material, playing it brisk and funny, never cartoonish, you have the joy of the kind of all-star company you can only get at Stratford.

"It's a thrill to discover that skilled tragedian Jonathan Goad is a first-rate musical comedy star, or that Fiona Reid can steal a production even with the relatively minor role of the Mayor's wife, just by the way she says 'Balzac!'

"And the incredibly versatile Michelle Fisk makes the potentially sentimental role of Mrs. Paroo a wondrous display of comedy and warmth that sparks the evening perfectly.

"When someone like Sara Topham, who has played parts as commanding as Rosalind, brings her wide-eyed charm to the virtual cameo of Ethel Toffelmier, you know you're on safe ground. And the reassuring comic presence of Lee MacDougall as the malaprop-riddled Mayor makes it even better.

"There's the wonderful barber-shop quartet of Laird Mackintosh, Shawn Wright, Jonathan Monro and Marcus Nance – each a major talent in their own right – who combine into one perfect unit of comedy and music.

"Eddie Glen is the ultimate sidekick as Marcellus, Eric S. Robertson a perfect leading dancer and W. Joseph Matheson the eminently hissable villain, while young Christopher Van Hagen is a wondrous young Winthrop, devoid of any disfiguring cutesiness.

"But probably the happiest discovery in the whole production is Leah Oster, making her Stratford debut as Marian the Librarian.

"With a clear, true voice, a wonderfully saucy sense of humour and unexpected reserves of deep feeling, she's united with her director to give us a leading lady who provides a fresh new take on the show and makes it even more endearing.

"Every single technical element is in excellent hands as well. Patrick Clark's sets have the feel of nostalgia, but move with the speed and invention a modern musical requires, while Kevin Fraser knows just when to turn on the schmaltz with his lighting and when to keep it bright and cheerful.

"The always-superb Berthold Carrière has never conducted his orchestra with more zip and verve – another reason the show seems like a newly minted treasure and not a soggy remnant.

"And Michael Lichtefeld's choreography manages to be true to the period while adding countless touches of personal invention. His 'in-joke' addition of a mini Romeo and Juliet in the library ballet is pure saucy delight.

"The production is full of moments to cherish, from Goad's cheekily flashing smile, to Oster's slyly telegraphed kisses. But in the end, you'll come away with that feeling of happiness that only a beautifully produced musical can create.

"I'm not ashamed to admit I was in tears at least a half-dozen times in the evening. For that, I thank Susan H. Schulman, her talented company and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for understanding that if you're going to do a musical, you better do it superbly."

First Scene of the Season "Best Possible Start"

Review of Romeo and Juliet by Robert Cushman (National Post):

"In the latest Stratford production of Romeo and Juliet, the prologue is assigned, unusually, to Friar Laurence. Peter Donaldson plays the role, and his delivery gives the new season and the new regime their best possible start. His Friar proves not only the most thoughtful but, in many ways, the most passionate person on stage.

"He rages at the two feuding families of Verona, at the recalcitrant Romeo in his more self-pitying moments, but he's notably kinder to the more sensible Juliet, and his anger is generally constructive. Like everyone else in the play he's defeated by events, which themselves are an index to human fallibility, his own included. He appropriates the last speech as well as the first, and it's partly due to him that the play seems the tragedy of a society as well as of a couple of kids.

"The society is in fact more powerfully present than the kids. Des McAnuff's staging is excellent, brawls, balls and all. The platform stage has been rounded off, warmly lit (by Robert Thomson) and elaborately but not overpoweringly built up. Heidi Ettinger's set is dominated by an arched Italianate bridge that can serve as a balcony, summon a place and even, in a fanciful way, link periods. The production starts contemporary with Vespas, prams and guns; it gets into fancy-dress for the Capulets' party and stays there, allowing, among other things, for the sword-fights to make sense.

"We only return to the present for the final post-mortems: a satisfying and foreseeable rounding-off, even if you doubt the need for modern dress in the first place. (You can't 'make' a play relevant. Either it is or it isn't. Though you can, admittedly, obscure its relevance.) The centrality of Donaldson's Friar may have something to do with his being the one character who doesn't need to change his clothes.

"A trapdoor allows for popup appearances by Juliet's bed or the Friar's pharmacopeia, the latter probably once too often. Ettinger's summoning of the Capulet tomb is awesome, a line of permanent sepulchres stretching out behind Juliet's supposedly temporary one. In the final sequence, which involves rain, Lucy Peacock's Nurse makes an unscripted but very moving appearance to take pride of place among the mourners. Her early gossipy scenes are nothing special, but once things start to go wrong and the Nurse is roused successively to indignation and accommodation and grief, she is superb. She has an unforgettable moment, smoothing Juliet's sheets to camouflage her unease at having betrayed her. The production is good at small physical things as well as big ones.

"It isn't as good at orchestrating all the performances. Some reputable actors do disappointing work: Steven Sutcliffe's Paris is ineffectual, and Evan Buliung so laboriously underlines Mercutio's sexy banter that one wonders what his friends see in him. He only becomes likeable when about to die, and it's hard to see what good an unlikeable Mercutio does the play. Some others are plain bad. Paul Dunn's clown Peter, though, is brilliant, while Lady Montague (Irene Poole) makes an unusually vivid impression, signalling her abrupt death via a couple of lines and a fair bit of directorial invention. Heading the other dignified household, John Vickery is an excellent Capulet, genial until crossed at which point he becomes volcanic.

"As for the star-crossed twosome themselves: well, they're on the right lines, she wise beyond her years, he callow beneath his. When Gareth Potter's Romeo is finally shocked into maturity --at 'then, I defy you, stars' -- he's impressive; earlier, he's never afraid to play the boy's emotional self-indulgence. What's lost between these extremes is any saving sense of a vital connection to Juliet. Nikki M. James gets much of Juliet through her eyes -- especially in her first scene where she amusedly sizes up her elders' plans for her early marriage -- but hardly any through her voice. Her long speeches disappear into space, and even her shorter ones trail off. Missing, plainly, are experience and technique; this is one performance that may well improve greatly over the long Stratford haul. The balcony scene, at least, is charmingly impulsive from both parties, though her audibility is hardly helped by the intrusion of mood-music at the end of the lovers' meeting. The best TV has given up on this kind of pandering, and even movies show signs, so it's an odd time for the theatre to start.

"Revving up the violence is another thing, but it's also the easy part. Romeo and Juliet was, as far as we can tell, the first full-blooded play about romantic love; Shakespeare in Love got that right. It remains, by centuries of consent, the iconic one. There's an audience out there, new with each generation, that wants to believe in it."

Post Can't Say Enough About Hamlet

Review of Hamlet by Robert Cushman (National Post):

"In his years at the Shaw Festival Ben Carlson mastered the art of delivering long prose sentences, lucidly and thrillingly and wittily, on a single breath. As Hamlet at the Stratford Festival he translates this same skill into blank verse, with results that are just as exciting and--Shaw being Shaw and Shakespeare being Shakespeare--considerably more moving.

"In a production by the British director Adrian Noble that's without a single dead moment, he gives a performance without a single dead word or dead thought. It's world-class Shakespeare.

"Carlson can be a difficult actor to sum up because he is so transparent. He offers no mannerisms that a critic can seize upon and call 'interpretation.' This makes him ideal for Hamlet who is less a character than a ceaselessly probing intelligence, a glistening, abnormally sensitive surface that reflects and refracts every idea that fate throws in its path.

"He does, of course, have emotions and a situation, and Carlson gives full measure to Hamlet's initial grief, to the complementary qualities of gentleness and mordancy that allow him to see the best in some and the worst in others (Adrienne Gould's superb Ophelia gets it from both barrels), and the determination that alternately spurs and deserts him.

"The Ghost's revelations excite him, to the point that he literally throws a fit, from which he emerges well on the manic side of depressive. When he's in company, he has purpose; he can't stop himself talking. When he's alone, he can't stop himself thinking.

"The production, full of action in group scenes, leaves him pointedly alone on vast expanses of platform, for the soliloquies; and it's exhilarating to see Carlson, in his first appearance on the Festival stage, commanding both the space and the text. He has a remarkable gift for sounding spontaneous, conversational, freshly thoughtful without ever losing the shape of a speech.

"'O that this too, too solid flesh would melt' is pure, baffled sadness; 'O what a rogue and peasant slave' is vigorous self-directed anger, laughing at his own excesses ('O vengeance') and then resolute to put them to use ('about, my brains').

"A couple of minutes later in 'to be or not to be' he's thrown back to naked mind; the idea of suicide has occurred to him, he can't shake it and it leads him to a quieter and yet more helpless bafflement at his own failure to revenge. The most hackneyed of speeches is made fresh.

"The last soliloquy, spoken against the sight and sound of the Norwegian army trudging off to their graves 'like beds,' is the ground zero of hopeless resolution. When he returns from England it's with a new philosophical resolve, a new gentleness and a steely new realism. And he's the first Hamlet I can remember who speaks to the skull of Yorick as if he actually did know him.

"Every scene has a rationale, fresh but unforced. We see the Players rehearsing Hamlet's new speech for The Murder of Gonzago just before he instructs them in it. Claudius tempts Laertes over a game of pool. He also sets spies on his own spies. A few familiar ideas come up fresh: the use of silhouettes, for example, for the play within the play, and then in the play itself. The Ghost (James Blendick) enters in a conventional swirl of dry ice, but when he speaks it's with a truly eerie mix of the supernatural and the familiar.

"His reappearance in Gertrude's closet is clearly the product of Hamlet's own imagination, a brake on an encounter that's becoming uncomfortably Oedipal. Maria Ricossa's elegant Gertrude is shallow in the wrong way (she makes nothing of Ophelia's drowning) but I at least believed that she and Hamlet were mother and son; in some productions they might never have met.

"Scott Wentworth as Claudius doesn't play his love for her as deeply or tormentedly as he might (and he is sometimes surprisingly hard to hear) but he presents a smooth usurper-tyrant whose fits of rage extend, in the prayer scene, to himself. The mutual loathing of him and Hamlet is palpable.

"The richest family grouping, though, is Polonius-Ophelia-Laertes, who share an affecting group hug when Laertes (Bruce Godfree, a bit suburban) leaves for France. Geraint Wyn Davies, the least doddery of dads, conveys real concern when he lectures his kids, and he gets their respect in return. Gould's Ophelia, loving and shockable, strikes any of number of new notes, including some on the piano (the production's use of music is exemplary); her elders show their affection by joining her in duets, a habit that has a horrific pay-off in a harrowingly unsentimental mad-scene. Earlier, she's silently shown her reaction to Hamlet's plans to go back to school; she's not in favour.

"There's a bed on stage for the nunnery scene, making its eroticism first tender and then nasty. Tom Rooney is a lovely, supportive Horatio, Victor Ertmanis and Randy Hughson a funny pair of Gravediggers, and I could go on. This is a fantastic evening. "

Hamlet is Immaculate

John Coulbourn (Sun Media) gives Hamlet 4.5 stars out of 5:

"There's very little rotten in the state of Denmark -- at least, not in the Denmark conceived by director Adrian Noble.

"His Denmark -- an elegant Edwardian evocation of Hamlet's Elsinore, created in collaboration with designer Santo Loquasto -- sweeps across the stage of the Stratford Festival in a confident debut, bringing lusty life to Shakespeare's tragic prince and his court.

"Noble's Hamlet opened Tuesday on the stage of the Festival Theatre. With all due respect to Loquasto's impressive design and costuming, all imaginatively lit by Michael Walton, Noble makes his most impressive statements through his performers.

"In Ben Carlson, he has found a strong, sure-footed Hamlet, an actor with a gift for thinking on his feet and a talent for using that gift to maximum effect. Clearly tortured by guilt and indecision, Carlson's Hamlet only flirts with madness, using it merely as as a refuge from which to plot revenge for the murder of his father -- who keeps returning, in the ghostly form of James Blendick, to demand (in sonorous tones more appropriate to a revival meeting than classic theatre) that his murder be avenged.

"His murderer, of course, is his brother (and Hamlet's uncle) Claudius, played by Scott Wentworth. Claudius is an ambitious sort who, after indulging in fratricide to usurp a throne, then marries his widowed sister-in-law Gertrude (Maria Ricossa), to secure his tenuous hold on the crown. In this, he has the seeming co-operation of his chief counsellor, Polonius (Geraint Wyn Davies) -- a fawning, fussy sort who has had his eye on Hamlet as a potential son-in-law, a husband for the fey Ophelia (Adrienne Gould).

"All of that changes, of course, as Hamlet's suspicions are awakened by his father's ghost, then further fed by his uncle's behaviour. Supported by his loyal friend Horatio (Tom Rooney), Hamlet determines to revenge his father and ends up miring the entire court in tragedy.

"Now, about those performances.

"Not surprisingly, for those who have been following his career, Carlson -- under Noble's aegis -- gives a deft and sure-footed performance that, despite its strength, still has room to grow throughout the summer. Carlson has yet to find the comfort level in Shakespeare's poetry that he enjoys in Shavian prose.

"As Ophelia, Gould gives what just might be the performance of her career to date -- sweet and vulnerable, marked by the madness of a wood spirit. While Wentworth seems to have fallen into a vocal pattern that renders his Claudius too often incomprehensible, Ricossa's Gertrude is a study in elegant simplicity that proves deeply touching, For his part, Wyn Davies eventually rises above a certain lack of gravitas to bring Polonius to memorable life.

"There is some impressive work in supporting roles, too, with several welcome newcomers to the Stratford making lasting first impressions. Double-cast as the player king and the first gravedigger, Victor Ertmanis proves strong in both turns, supported in the second by an equally impressive newcomer Randy Hughson. As the long-suffering Horatio, Rooney opts for quiet understatement, while David Leyshon and Patrick McManus step as deftly into the shoes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Jeff Lillico does the mantle of Fortinbras.

"Sadly, not all debuts are as impressive. One is left to wonder just what it was that inspired the Festival to bring Bruce Godfree all the way from Britain to essay a Laertes that rarely rises above the level of forgettable.

"Yet for all his occasional missteps, many of them technical, Noble manages to keep his production very much of a piece, advancing his plot with ease and assurance while giving his extensive cast (which also includes Festival stalwarts such as Juan Chioran, Ron Kennell and Stephen Russell) every opportunity to strut their stuff on this stage.

"All that is rotten in the state of Noble's Denmark is by and large the stuff that Shakespeare intended. Noble is to be commended for making that look easy."

Too Much Action, Not Enough Talk, in Romeo

John Coulbourn (Sun Media) gives Romeo and Juliet 2.5 stars out of 5:

"In his first production as artistic director of the newly rechristened Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Des McAnuff seems determined to establish that, when it comes to romance, he's an old-fashioned kind of guy.

"In his production of Romeo And Juliet, which officially launched not just his reign, but the current season as well, on Monday on the stage of the Festival Theatre, McAnuff starts us off in a Verona very much of today, filled with I-pods, baby carriages, pistols and machine guns.

"But once the action cuts to the costume ball where our tragic young hero, played in this production by Gareth Potter, meets our young heroine, played by Nikki M. James, the entire production suddenly rockets back to Elizabethan times. There, it remains, firmly lodged, until our two star-crossed lovers meet a tragic end, at which time, we are suddenly drop-kicked back to modern-day Soprano-land for a brief denouement.

"Theatrically, it's a device that not only affords McAnuff and his overly-fussy set designer, Heidi Ettinger, the opportunity to throw in visual flourishes such as Vespas and cappuccino machines, it also gives costume designer Paul Tazewell a double workout, re-upholstering, as he must, not only R & J's two feuding houses, but two disparate eras as well.

"As for what it adds to the show, well, that's a little difficult to say, beyond a bit of head-scratching diversion for those unaccustomed to the peripatetic nature of time in theatre.

"It's all part and parcel of what is essentially a very busy production, filled with to-ing and fro-ing and otherwise all a bustle, determined to never miss a chance to keep the action up and its audience engaged, a new scene already under way before the set pieces for the scene just passed are swallowed up by a voracious floor or wheeled back into the wings.

"In a McAnuff production, going with the flow is as easy as sitting back and letting things carry you along, seemingly pulled inexorably by the ever-shifting colours of the sun/moon that hangs over and dominates the stage.

"But this is, after all, the world of Shakespeare, where the play is the thing -- and frankly, for all that it includes snippets of dialogue rarely used in a modern production, this play is not all that well served, particularly by a largely inexperienced cast that has but a tenuous hold on spoken verse.

"As Romeo, Potter only achieves the higher ranges of adequate, held back by James who, while she most certainly looks the part of the lovesick young Juliet, lacks the voice to fill this theatre and the directoral impetus to face her audience.

"A seasoned actor with a trained voice might get away with giving the public her back as frequently as James, but then a seasoned actor probably wouldn't.

"In supporting roles, it's a mixed bag, with Stratford veterans such as Peter Donaldson cast as the kind but ultimately bumbling Friar Laurence, and Lucy Peacock, as Juliet's nurse, offering strong turns in small roles, although the latter could pare things down.

"Steven Sutcliffe, for his part, makes the most of a rather colourless Paris while Evan Buliung offers up an acceptably hale Mercutio who seems content to say more through mime than through Shakespeare's glorious text. Paul Dunn, meanwhile, covers everything he does with an elaborate web of fussiness.

"There are, in addition to a few Stratford veterans such as Wayne Best and Brian Tree, a whole passel of new faces, with 22 debuts listed both behind the scenes and on stage in this production. Not surprisingly, all things considered, it sits on the stage like the new kid in school, determined to impress, talking too loud (or not loud enough) and aspiring to a maturity he hasn't quite achieved. "

The Music Man is Platinum

Review of The Music Man by Donal O'Connor at the Stratford Beacon Herald:

"It’s as American as apple pie, but the Canadian production of The Music Man that opened Wednesday at Stratford’s Avon Theatre makes a joyful sound for all ears.

"The Stratford Shakespeare Festival production directed by Susan Schulman is also a sight to behold and remember. And it’s full of heart, thanks to some dynamic and perfectly timed acting by Jonathan Goad as Professor Harold Hill, amazing singing by co-star Leah Oster as Marian Paroo and a cast that includes some cute and talented kids.

"Meredith Wilson’s play, which has solid credentials as a crowd-pleaser, is set in River City, Iowa, in 1912. Travelling con man Harold Hill arrives in town, suggests to the townsfolk there’s potential for trouble in a new pool hall and convinces them the way to counter that is to start up a band — for which he will sell the instruments, the music books and the uniforms.

"His plan is to take the money and run. But, as he eventually puts it, his foot gets caught in the door. What keeps him is Marian the Librarian.

"It turns out that the idea of a children’s band takes on a life of its own, unleashing a transformative power. Based on that thread of a story by Mr. Wilson and Franklin Lacey, the play weaves a wondrous tapestry of music, dialogue and dance. And this Stratford production excels in all departments — including its breathtaking set.

"Patrick Clark’s palette for his gorgeous set and costume designs begins with creamy tones for moveable streetscape buildings and suggestions of clapboard housing. Costumes are accented with beiges and browns and muted greens and blue-greys. Hats are bowlers and straw boaters.
Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography, beginning with the neatly orchestrated train ride in the first scene, is imaginative throughout; his dancers obviously well rehearsed.

"The library scene, in which a persistent Prof. Hill tries to melt the ice around Ms. Paroo the librarian, is a treat for the senses that succeeds absolutely on every level.

"There may be trouble with a capital T in River City, but there’s none with this show. The music under maestro Bert Carriere’s baton is infectious and the dancers are a delight and obviously take delight in performing.

"The foursome of Laird Mackintosh, Shawn Wright, Jonathan Monro and Marcus Nance — the barbershop quartet inspired by Prof. Hill — provide a series of pull-out entertainments on their own that add flavour to the treat. Flavour comes in small packages too, and one of the biggest rounds of applause at last night’s performance was for diminutive Christopher Van Hagen, who plays Winthrop, the librarian’s son.

"The applause was for Winthrop’s lispy (part of the character) rendition of the song 'Gary, Indiana.' There are other fine performances, including Michelle Fisk’s bang-on portrayal of Marian’s Irish mother and Lee MacDougall’s portrayal of the language-mangling Mayor Shinn.

"At the pinnacle of it all, however, is a grand and nuanced performance by Mr. Goad. Acclaimed for his major Shakespearean roles at Stratford in recent years, Mr. Goad is dynamite as Harold Hill as he skips and spins and high steps and gestures maniacally as the music man of the show’s title.

"There’s no question either that he can hold a note as he puts his own brand on the catchy favourites 'Seventy-Six Trombones' and 'Ya Got Trouble.'

"The match with Ms. Oster, a first-timer at Stratford this season, is well made too. And it’s to the actress’s (and director’s) credit that she holds on to Marian’s iciness for as long as she does.

"Ms. Oster’s singing of 'Til There Was You' is the cream on the pie."

Hamlet Star and Director Praised

Hamlet receives 3.5/4 stars and a glowing review from J. Kelly Nestruck at the Globe and Mail:

"When Ben Carlson's Hamlet picks up Yorick's skull in that much-parodied graveside scene, he doesn't look the old jester straight in the eye sockets as is usual. Instead, he holds the cranium high above his head as if he is remembering being a small child below and contemplating the long, sad passage of time that separates that time of ignorant innocence from now.

"There are dozens of magically melancholy moments like that in Adrian Noble's new production, where crisp direction and compelling acting combine to make Shakespeare's greatest play seem fresh even in its most familiar scenes.

"Carlson, Stratford's eighth Hamlet and recently pilfered from the Shaw Festival, comes trailing acclaim from Chicago, where he won the 2007 Joseph Jefferson Award for best actor in the role. His is a smug and sarcastic Hamlet, a bullying intellectual who excoriates everyone around him for their actions and yet does nothing constructive himself – that familiar modern man of privilege who takes university degree after university degree, mostly out of a desire to delay engaging with real life, and then looks down on those of lesser learning with contempt. But while he should be loathsome, Carlson – a curly-haired cross between actors Albert Schultz and Vincent D'Onofrio – remains consistently alluring in his aimless arrogance. He may not be Prince Charming, but he's still a prince.

"Prince of what, though, I'm not quite sure. Noble, a former artistic director of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, has set the play in 1910 in what seems vaguely to be czarist Russia in Santo Loquasto's beautifully repressed design in shades of grey. His production is less concerned with the particularities of that moment in time, however, than with letting the text unfold with as little adornment as possible. It's the mirror opposite of Des McAnuff's showy, robust Romeo and Juliet, which opened the festival Monday; the only rat-a-tat-tat here comes from Carlson's machine-gun delivery.

"Noble's direction is never more elegant than when the Players (led by a stirring Victor Ertmanis) arrive at the court in a giant caravan, garnering spontaneous applause from the audience. Through their rehearsals to the moment Hamlet commandeers their spotlight to 'catch the conscience of the king' in the audience, you can't imagine a more enthralling production.

"Part of what is great about this string of scenes is that Noble wisely gets entirely out of the way in the middle, leaving Carlson to deliver, 'O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!' on an empty, illuminated patch of stage, as if he were a chess piece marooned on a single square trying to figure out his next move without knowing the position of the pieces around him. He falls to the floor in despair, bangs on it, smacks himself on his head in self-loathing, then finally snaps out of it. This is just one in a string of soliloquies that Carlson delivers as if they were the whole play in miniature.

"Not every element in the production is so bewitching. A billiards table brought on for Claudius and Laertes to plot over looks marvellous, but the actors are uncomfortable with this kind of cue. Laertes flubbed his first attempt to break, then Claudius missed an easy shot. (Perhaps by the end of the run they'll be clearing the table.)

"And Carlson misses a couple of pockets as well, notably, 'To be or not to be' (though to be fair, that speech snookers just about everyone). It is hard to imagine a Hamlet as self-regarding as Carlson's ever seriously contemplating suicide. His Hamlet is not truly mad, but rather, as humorist W.S. Gilbert memorably put it, 'idiotically sane with lucid intervals of lunacy.'

"In contrast, Adrienne Gould's Ophelia genuinely loses her mind, losing her pants along the way – hers is a disturbing, lewd madness. Even when in her right mind, Gould plays the part with an original bent, as a bookish and nervous young woman, expressing through the piano what society forbids her to speak with her tongue.

"She rounds out a mostly strong supporting cast. Scott Wentworth's Claudius gets a soliloquy to match Carlson's as he confronts his conscience in front of a bare light bulb. Gerant Wyn Davies is everything you would want in a Polonius, a bit of a pill but lovable – though dispatched in a too-hasty manner. Tom Rooney is a stalwart Horatio, while James Blendick thunders as the ghost of old Hamlet.

"Maria Ricossa's frail Gertrude, however, is an enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in an Oedipus complex. She seems constantly on the verge of explaining herself, but is robbed of having her chance to speak by Claudius, Hamlet and then death.

"Though everyone knows Hamlet's question, 'To be or not to be,' few are as familiar with his fatalistic answer in Act V: 'Let be.' It's his last line before stepping into the fencing match and bloody denouement he has delayed for ages. At this moment of final acceptance, Carlson is clear-headed and confident. His path to this moment is a precisely articulated journey – and worth making your own up to Stratford to see."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Loveless Hollywood-Style Love Story?

A review of Romeo and Juliet from Robyn Godfrey at the Stratford Gazette:

"The names of Romeo and Juliet are so ingrained in our culture that reviewing the story hardly seems necessary. Naturally Shakespeare’s tale has more depth than that, and in Des McAnuff’s inaugural production as artistic director, the traditional love tragedy takes an unusual back seat to the paths of violence in the character’s world.

"The production opens with onstage Vespas, and Armani-clad fellows in dark shades that evoke the Mafia, especially when several pistols are shot off in quick succession (once horrifyingly aimed at a baby carriage). Happily this Hollywood style does not persist for very long, although the escalation of fighting continues to be an emphasized theme.

"For example, during the fantastic Queen Mab speech, given voice in this production by Evan Buliung, Mercutio becomes wilder and wilder the longer it goes on until he is utterly out of control. Buliung whips himself and the audience into a frenzy until he is brought solidly back to earth – it is a brilliant way of subtly stressing the way aggression can rapidly intensify into violence, or in Mercutio’s case – self-destruction.

"The characters in this production are all tougher than usually imagined. Peter Donaldson’s Friar Laurence is a warrior monk, one who has little patience, who shouts a lot and even shoves Romeo around; he almost bullies Romeo into escaping Verona, but he of all the performers exudes the most grief when tragedy overtakes his good intentions.

"Lucy Peacock’s Nurse is also able to stand up to Lord and Lady Capulet for a moment longer than often portrayed, but has one giggling from beginning to end of her prattling speeches. Her extra-puffy sleeves and ribbon-bedecked cape make her larger than life, and there is an obvious rapport between her and Nikki M. James as Juliet which shines through the layers.

"As Juliet, Nikki M. James looks and sounds the part of a 13-year-old not whiny, but child-like.

"While this is good for playing a young girl, it is not great for an actor in an 1,800-seat theatre, and it is only during her scene of grief over Romeo’s banishment that her voice grows strong enough to fill the space. If she can capture that voice and hold it for the rest of the play, she will be a much stronger Juliet.

"Her Romeo is played by Gareth Potter, who comes on very enthusiastically, as any horny teenager might. However, while there is passion in his delivery, there is little passion between him and Ms. James. The blocking gives them no time to develop it – the enormous (and somewhat noisy) bridge/balcony hinders them, and as they awaken after their only night together, the light barely comes up before Romeo hops out of bed to make his escape. As a result, the last death scene does not feel tragic at all.

"This is puzzling, because for the most part, are lots of vulgar jokes, gestures and innuendoes slung around this production – literally. Why the emphasis is on the lewd and not the love is not clear.

"There are other strengths. Gordon S. Miller brings the oft-overlooked Benvolio to life, Sophia Walker and Stephen Sutcliffe deliver the text beautifully. The comedy is wonderful and it was clever to put the prologue and epilogue in the sturdy voice of Peter Donaldson. The modern-to-Renaissance costumes of Paul Tazewell were in luscious hues of the traditional blues and reds, and brava to the wardrobe attendants for those lightening quick-changes.

"However the weaknesses ultimately undo this production. The red set and background music is distracting, and the actors need to gel and find the love. Taking bows to an overly loud version of The Cure’s Just Like Heaven may seem appropriate given the lyrics, but was just another jarring example of something amiss.

"Romeo and Juliet continues in repertory until Nov. 8 at the Festival Theatre. Give it a few weeks to find its heart."

Romeo and Juliet Accused of Being Adolescent

Review from Gary Smith at the Hamilton Spectator:

"The news from Verona is not very good. If Des McAnuff's idea of Shakespeare is the sadly adolescent production of Romeo and Juliet paraded across Stratford's stage Monday night we are in for a rough ride.

"A burning ball of a hot sun heats passions on a cobblestone street as Italian stallions loll about on red and blue scooters. A scruffy red-headed chap sips espresso at a cafe table. Schoolgirls, in those awful mini-tartans some people think pass for uniforms, text message with BlackBerrys.

"Oh my, it's all so trivial. It's been done before.

"McAnuff might think he's forcing Shakespeare into a realm of relevance but surely the play's timeless messages speak for themselves.

"Do we really need blatant images to remind us the world remains a frightening place? Not really.

"Partway through, for no discernible reason, other than directorial conceit, McAnuff rushes us backward in time. The cast don tights and pick up swords, until close to the end.

"In the final tomb scene, Veronese citizens reappear, decked out in modern dress, brandishing flashlights that flick in our face.

"You know the drill. You are all responsible. Oh dear, it's so tired.

"In spite of being politically correct, with an interracial, even cross-gendered cast, this production is obvious and coarse.

"It never fails to be vulgar, cleaving to a heavy-handed, shrill sort of comedy that may thrill 15 year olds brought up on Adam Sandler movies.

"Stripped of poetry, hustled back and forth in time, Shakespeare's lovers are robbed of real truth. It's only near the end, when they clasp each other tightly, recognizing how easily love can be stalled by circumstance, that this production chugs to life.

"Gareth Potter is a visceral Romeo, suggesting the passion of a confused, troubled kid. He speaks Shakespeare's text with a knot of feral rage. But where is the poetry?

"Well, I guess motor scooters and jeans don't jive with anything as elitist as that.

"Nikki M. James starts slowly with a breathless little voice. Her Juliet improves as the play forges on, suggesting a 14 year-old befuddled by life. She's almost too innocent and naive, both in character and performance. And she looks uncomfortable in period dress.

"The rest of this Stratford cast is a pretty mixed bag. Evan Buliung, an actor with smarts, has resorted to a Mercutio of crotch-clutching coarseness.

"Such excess typifies the vulgar nature of this ho-hum production. The slightest suggestion of matters sexual has double entendres dropping like chestnuts from Verona trees.

"Even Peter Donaldson's Friar Laurence gets off some scuzzy line readings here.

"Lucy Peacock's broad interpretation of Juliet's nurse is funny at the start but never regains important dignity as the story progresses.

"Sophia Walker as Lady Capulet is simply an embarrassment, all high school mannerisms and theatre school enthusiasm.

"Not much about the physical production is thrilling. Heidi Ettinger's sets offer atmosphere at the expense of Stratford's famous stage.

"Paul Tazewell's costumes are a casualty of McAnuff's troubled vision.

"A soundscape, annoyingly new age, is a mistake. So is rock music added to a rackety curtain. Neither makes the production modern.

"Over the years, Stratford has staged some dismal productions of this most romantic Shakespearean play. Remember Marion Day and Jonathan Crombie in 1997? Well, don't look for redemption here.

"This is a very American take on Shakespeare making me long for Britain's Chichester Theatre production of Macbeth with its Stalinist terror. Or better yet, Britain's National Theatre's traditional take on Much Ado About Nothing.

"It's in the vision of course. When you reduce Shakespeare to the parameters of a Hollywood action flick, you're pretty much in trouble."

"Really Wonderful" Hamlet

Review from Laura Cudworth at the Stratford Beacon Herald:

"While Hamlet wavers, Ben Carlson does not.

"That’s why this season’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet is engaging and well worth seeing.

"Mr. Carlson has played the part before (in Chicago to rave reviews) and he doesn’t disappoint in his Stratford debut either. Mr. Carlson is comfortable in Hamlet’s skin and in the decisions he’s made on the character’s behalf. Mr. Carlson’s Hamlet is crystal clear.

"There’s something very satisfying about the main character not having the show stolen from him. For those who want to see Hamlet, you’ll get Hamlet.

"The very famous soliloquies are beautifully delivered. This is a memorable production all around.

"Director Adrian Noble avoids gimmicks and presents the play without distractions. It’s bare bones. Other than large wooden doors and carefully chosen props, used sparingly, there’s no set to speak of.

"This play is so familiar, he has the luxury of being able to let the actors act. And they do.

"The production is set in 1910 during the Edwardian era, which has a very distinct look, and it doesn’t have to compete with a flashy set. The military influence in the clothing suggests a discipline that is lacking in the self-indulgence of the upper classes.

"The lighting design is nothing short of spectacular. Michael Walton’s use of shadows and silhouettes is absolutely lovely and serves the play well. Backlighting, flashlights and lamps all set the mood and make the play interesting to look at.

"The light and dark, the very things Hamlet grapples with philosophically, are physically on the stage. Really wonderful.

"Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is compelled to avenge his father’s death after it’s revealed to him his uncle, who now sits on the throne, murdered his father. His uncle Claudius (Scott Wentworth) has also married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Because of his mother’s infidelity Hamlet turns on all women, most horribly on the chaste Ophelia.

"The beef I have is with the virgin/whore dichotomy Shakespeare sets up through Ophelia and Gertrude. But in this production Ophelia’s innocence takes on a juvenile quality that’s a bit disturbing.

"She’s dressed like a child, her bed is childlike and a doll sits on top. This is someone being courted for marriage. She’s not 35 but she’s not 10 either. All the childlike imagery combined with the romantic connection to Hamlet is, frankly, a bit creepy.

"Mr. Noble could have trusted Adrienne Gould to act the part — Ophelia’s an iconic character — and toned down the heavy imagery.

"While Hamlet speaks some of Shakespeare’s most well known lines, Polonius too has some of the best known phrases and some of the wisest. His advice to Laertes, 'To thine own self be true,' for example.

"However, it’s not long after this that he becomes a bit of a clown when he believes Hamlet’s apparent madness is the result of Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. Geraint Wyn Davies handles both the wisdom of the man and the foolishness of the man with ease. He’s a pleasure to watch, and his timing is impeccable. He’s missed on stage once he’s met his fate.

"Mr. Wentworth, Ms. Gould and Maria Ricossa as Gertrude turned in solid performances too. This really is a professional and polished production."

Thumbs-up for Carlson's Second Hamlet

Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian gives Hamlet 3.5/4 stars:

"Last night's opening night production of Hamlet was a tantalizing demonstration of how close the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, under its new management, is coming close to delivering its promises.

"I am willing to bet you couldn't find a better Shakespearean performance in all of North America – maybe in all the English-speaking world – than that of Ben Carlson.

"It possesses all the qualities you dream of in a Hamlet: energy, intelligence, virility, charm and a brilliant way of speaking the text.

"Add to this the fact that he's surrounded by a mostly excellent supporting cast and framed by a frequently thrilling production by Adrian Noble, and you realize why the evening is such a cause for celebration.

"It's not perfect yet. There are still instances of miscast roles and overdesigned scenes, but it must be stated: this is the best production we've had of a major Shakespearean tragedy at Stratford in far too long.

"Noble's concept is to set things back in 1910 in a vaguely Scandinavian setting which provides an interesting balance between the old and the new. Guns can be carried, but men can still wear sabers, while the elegantly severe line of Santo Loquasto's costumes is flattering on almost everyone.

"Things start out badly, with an odd conception of the ramparts sequences and James Blendick appearing through huge back doors engulfed by enough smoke to keep Lord of the Rings going for a year.

"But they pick up immediately in the court scene, which Noble conceives of as a fun Christmas party, with everyone swirling around in bright red costumes.

"No wonder Hamlet's dour entrance puts such a cramp on the proceedings.

"We really shift into high gear with Carlson's first soliloquy which shows this is a man who can actually make thought seem visible and give intellectual concepts a muscular identity.

"It's the kind of thrill you imagine people must have felt when they saw Christopher Plummer perform the part 51 years ago.

"For a while afterwards, Noble's grasp seems erratic. It's fascinatingly different (as well as richly rewarding) for Geraint Wyn Davies to play Polonius as a real, concerned middle-aged father instead of a dottering laugh-getting machine, but once again the perambulating presence of Blendick as the Ghost is less than convincing and results in some pretty drab scenes.

"The conception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also strangely vague and you wonder what David Leyshon and Patrick McManus are supposed to be accomplishing.

"But then you get to the scene with the players and everyone comes alive, led by a lustily amusing performance from Victor Ertmanis as the Player King (his First Gravedigger later on is also quite droll).

"Carlson keeps those amazing soliloquies firing like machine gun bullets and we find ourselves in a Nunnery scene where Adrienne Gould comes into her own as Ophelia, creating real romantic and sexual tension with Carlson.

"The play-within-a-play scene is one of Noble's most brilliant pieces of staging, with lights flashing everywhere. It sends Scott Wentworth's Claudius into an acting high he maintains for the rest of the show. Malleable, yet evil, self-loving and self-loathing at once, he's a brilliantly conflicted Claudius.

"By the same token, Tom Rooney's Horatio is gentle and thoughtfully supportive throughout.
The same can't be said for Maria Ricossa's Gertrude, who seems too much of a Rosedale trophy wife, elegantly thin and totally clueless. Her moments of passion – like the description of Ophelia's death – largely go for naught.

"Gould, however, grows ever stronger with a mad scene that goes for hurt and anger and lust rather than wistful insanity and she makes a real meal out of it.

"All throughout, Bruce Godfree is perfectly acceptable as her brother Laertes, but strikes no real sparks of originality.

"As far as I was concerned, the evening built to its climax at the first act curtain, with Carlson's electrifying rendition of 'How all occasions do inform against me,' with it's modern political overtones ringing through stronger than ever.

"The much shorter second act has several problems. There's less Carlson in it, to begin with (blame Shakespeare for that) and when he does reappear, he's in a kinder, gentler mode that's perhaps a bit too passive.

"Noble also over-reaches by playing the Laertes-Claudius plotting scene around a giant billiard table for no apparent reason.

"But by the final duel scene, everyone is back on form and it's hard not to feel a lump in your throat as Hamlet speaks his final words

"All in all, it's a more-than-worthy night and Carlson's Hamlet is the kind of performance that comes along once in a lifetime."

"Exciting and Fresh" R & J, Despite Leads

Another 2.5 stars (out of 4) for Romeo and Juliet. This time from J. Kelly Nestruck at the Globe and Mail:

"Rat-a-tat-tat! Des McAnuff knows you get only one chance to make a first impression and so Romeo and Juliet, the primordial production of his tenure as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, comes out with machine guns blazing.

"In the thrilling opening to his new production, a pregnant woman and her baby get caught in the crossfire of rival gangs of Capulets and Montagues, who duel with switchblades, pistols and Vespas until the Prince breaks them up with his Uzi. The following flashy scenes set in modern-day Italy include iPod-toting Lolitas and a barista making espressos right on stage.

"As it turns out, however, McAnuff is only playing with his image as that big-shot Broadway director who bumped the more earnest Marti Maraden and Don Shipley aside to become the sole artistic head of the festival earlier this spring. (Though invited, neither Maraden nor Shipley was in attendance at the premiere; they had, however, both made appearances at Shaw Festival openings the week before.) A few scenes later, Romeo and his friends change into period dress for the Capulet ball – and they never change back. Just as there is no turning back from inevitable tragedy once the two lovers meet. It's an exciting and fresh approach to the play, which makes it seem as if the self-absorbed teenage lovers have been swept up in a melodramatic masquerade of their own making, the seriousness of which neither understands until it's too late.

"After the spectacular opening, McAnuff has a few more tricks up the humungous sleeves of Paul Tazewell's colourful costumes. None, however, are clever enough to paper over the production's gaping hole: a Romeo and a Juliet who are both out of their depth.

"Gareth Potter, who has worked his way up through the company, and Nikki M. James, McAnuff's young American protégé, convey their characters' youthfulness and innocence without any difficulty whatsoever. Indeed, the petite James is the first professional Juliet I've seen who could actually pass for 13.

"But the two have little chemistry and both fall into trouble as soon as the play calls for more than dewy naiveté. Potter can be quite compelling when he rises to anger, but too often his lines are just an amorphous mass. As for James, her sing-song delivery becomes increasingly monotonous as the play goes on into more treacherous territory. You feel neither their love nor their loss.

"Potter's and James's difficulty in handling the text would not be quite as apparent were they not playing opposite two stellar veteran supporting cast members: Peter Donaldson and Lucy Peacock. Donaldson's Friar Laurence is not a bumbler as he is often portrayed, but a genuine sage who hopes Romeo and Juliet's love will heal the rift between their two families. As the Nurse, Peacock had the crowd in stitches with her delicious comic lines, but was equally affecting in her hysterics after Tybalt's death.

"Other delights in the support casting cast include Evan Buliung's wildly self-destructive Mercutio, an alternatively charming and frightening manic depressive Timothy D. Stickney's macho Tybalt, and Paul Dunn as servant Peter, making the most out of every moment he is onstage.

"John Vickery is perhaps a bit too fey as Capulet, though he does project tyrannical power in his rages, while Gordon S. Miller plays Benvolio as a bit more of a bed wetter than perhaps necessary.

"McAnuff's colour-blind production is very fluid, aided by the mobile set of arches and bridges designed for Stratford's famous thrust stage by Heidi Ettinger. Every scene begins with someone running onto the stage or the set, which quietly and automatically transforms.

"But while the production moves and moves, it doesn't move. There wasn't a wet eye in the house as Romeo and Juliet took their lives one after another, at least not until the Nurse arrived to drape herself on their body and Friar Lawrence delivered the epilogue. (He delivers the prologue too, becoming the heart and soul of the production.) The modern day invades again in this final scene and continues into the curtain call, which takes place to blasted jangly guitars of the Cure's Just Like Heaven. Another sign that there has been a change at Stratford. 'I promise you that I'll run away with you,' Robert Smith croons. 'I'll run away with you.'

"McAnuff's opening show is a mixed bag, but I'm intrigued enough to run away with him for a while and see where he's going to take us."

Stratford Still Shaken as Festival Opens

An editorial from the Stratford Beacon-Herald:

"To coin a phrase — the play’s the thing.

"And now, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival can get on with the plays and put its winter of discontent, shamelessly to steal yet another phrase, behind them.

"As it has done 56 times, the Festival rolled out the red carpet on Monday night to kick off a new season of Shakespeare. Getting to this point wasn’t easy as back in March some real drama took place in the offices and board rooms of the fixture of Canadian theatre.

"A triumvirate had been put in place to steer the Festival through the post-Richard Monette era, but two of the three, Marti Maraden and Don Shipley, exited stage left (sorry) just as rehearsals were about to start.

"That left globetrotting Des McAnuff as the lone artistic director. And there were a couple of other bumps along the way.

"A director’s arrival was delayed when he broke his leg (literally, hence avoiding a fourth tired theatre cliche).

"The lengthy and successful relationship between Cynthia Dale and the Stratford Festival was also in the news, but for the wrong reasons, as the actress who was synonymous with the Festival for the last few years was left without a part in 2008.

"Much has been written and said about the off-season challenges, but on several occasions it was put into perspective Monday night. The crowds still turned out, the weather was great, the bagpipes skirled and patrons filed into the theatre as they have for over half a century.

"Does that make everything all right? Of course not. Tourism in general is under fire in Ontario. Rising gas prices are keeping people at home, whether they be from London or Lansing, Toronto or Toledo.

"There is still a perception held by many Americans that crossing the border into Canada is much tougher than it used to be. Although that is not really the case, one thing that is reality is that many Americans have less disposable income now than they did a few years ago.

"These are indeed challenging times for tourism in general in Canada and, in particular, theatre in Stratford.

"But, as Stratford resident and Festival alum Sheila McCarthy said Monday night, 'this place is invincible.'

"Well, we’re not sure it’s invincible but it has certainly faced far greater challenges than this and lived to fight another day.

"There have been tumultuous annual meetings that bordered on civil unrest and there have been times that the staid institution has teetered on the brink of anarchy. It was not all that long ago that there was a controversy that makes this past winter’s drama seem like a footnote.

"For those who don’t remember, in 1980 Robin Phillips ended his tenure as artistic director and the Festival board hired Martha Henry, Urjo Kareda, Pam Brighton and Peter Moss . This group of directors was dismissed just two months later. The board decided Briton John Dexter would be a good replacement, but he was refused a work permit. Along came John Hirsch to take the helm and calm the waters. And all that took place in the midst of the worst Canadian economic downturn since the 1930s.

"But it survived — and it will survive its current challenges as well.

"The fact is, Stratford puts on fine theatre. Despite challenges, economic or otherwise, fine theatre is timeless.

"Our saving grace here is that — and it’s not just a well worn phrase — the play is the thing, and when it comes to plays, we do it here as well or better than anyone, and for that reason, this season and many more seasons will do just fine."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Curtain Rises on a New Festival Era"

From Laura Cudworth at the Stratford Beacon Herald:

"The forecast called for thunderstorms during the Stratford Shakespeare Festival opening but they never materialized. Perhaps that’s a sign.

"There were a few bumps during the Festival’s 56th preseason and much has been written about all that’s gone wrong. Most notably were the resignations of two of the three artistic directors, Marti Maraden and Don Shipley, as rehearsals were about to start.

"There have been smaller hiccups as well. Director Michael Langham broke his leg and was delayed getting to Stratford for rehearsals.

"Anika Noni Rose, cast as Cleopatra opposite Christopher Plummer’s Caesar, had scheduling conflicts and dropped out.

"But last night the Stratford Police Pipes and Drums played, crowds came out to see the spectacle and celebrities walked a new red carpet to see the opening production of Romeo and Juliet.

"This is the start a new era at the Festival under the leadership of remaining artistic director Des McAnuff and general director Antoni Cimolino.

"'This place is invincible,' said actor Sheila McCarthy. 'I think change is good, it’s positive. It’s sad what happened, but time heals everything.'

"She noted the theatre has survived many things and said it will also survive a rising dollar and rising gas prices.

"'It’s going to be a wonderful season,' she said.

"The Beacon Herald Citizen of the Year and former Festival board chair Tom Orr said he’s worried about the border being a turnoff to American visitors but he’s confident in the quality of the productions.

"Like every other year, actors and patrons were full of optimism and expectation last night.

"'I feel this is the strongest week we’ve seen in years,' Mr. Cimolino, himself a past Romeo at the Festival, said on his way into the theatre. 'It’s a phenomenal year and we’re in for some extraordinary results.'

"Mr. McAnuff stressed this season was planned by Ms. Maraden and Mr. Shipley as well. He acknowledged the administrative changes could have been a distraction for the artists, but they remained focused.

"'I’ve noticed the difference but not in bad ways,' said actor Abigail Winter-Culliford, 11.

"Regardless of the drama during the preseason, it’s the performances on stage that will inevitably make or break the season.

"For Mr. McAnuff, last night represented the opening of the first season he collaborated on and the first play he directed at Stratford.

"'I feel great. I feel really great. It’s too late to worry now,' he said.

"As for regular patrons devoted to the Festival, none of the hubbub early on has been a deterrent.

"'I’m really looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to all the Shakespeare,' said Susan Davidson.

"She hasn’t missed a production of Hamlet in 30 years, she said. 'Growing up this was my community theatre. How lucky.'

"American actor Brian Dennehy called Stratford 'actors camp' as he walked the red carpet.

"'For someone like me it’s a privilege to be here.'

"He observed, 'it’s been raining and cold, all of a sudden it’s hot and sunny.'"

Star Not Impressed with R & J Stars

Romeo and Juliet receives 2.5/4 stars from Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian:

"There are so many good things about Des McAnuff's production of Romeo and Juliet, which opened the Stratford Shakespeare Festival season last night, that it's a shame it doesn't ultimately work.

"The reasons for that are simple: Romeo and Juliet.

"We'll get to them later, but first let's deal with all the praiseworthy elements on display.

"There's definitely a new and exciting look onstage at the Festival Theatre, with McAnuff serving notice that without destroying the basic shape and form of the original design, it's possible to break away from the dreary sameness that's been plaguing it in recent years.

"Robert Thomson's lighting is the first cue, using colour and focus differently than they have been in years and making it possible to combine atmosphere and illumination successfully.

"Heidi Ettinger's set is similarly bold, with a floor of multileveled terra cotta tiles, a moving bridge that does amazing things and the most thorough use on the centre trap I've seen in years.

"Michael Roth's music is also much more of a cinematic underscoring than the customary trumpet flourishes in between scenes we've gotten all too used to.

"I have some doubts about Paul Tazewell's costumes, which are frequently just too colourful for their own good and have Romeo running around most of the night in a peacock blue that really wouldn't look good on any male older than 6.

"The major joy of the evening is watching McAnuff move the crowds around, in bold swirling flourishes that push the story forward energetically through all of the first act and the end of the second.

"The ball scene is magic, the street fights look dangerous and the deathly final scene inside the crypt is handled with finesse.

"One could quibble with McAnuff's concept, which begins the show in modern dress with a gimmicky use of Uzis and motor scooters that makes you start to cringe.

"But once the company get dressed up in Renaissance gear for the ball, they stay that way, which is a clever conceit.

"However, we could do without them all reappearing in modern clothes for the final tableau, which kind of reduces the show's theme to 'Don't be hatin'!'

"Another major strength of the evening are the supporting performances from three of the cast in particular.

"Evan Buliung is such a dashing, charismatic Mercutio that it leaves the play feeling empty after he dies. McAnuff has perhaps included one too many of the man's numerous sexual jokes, but Buliung knows how to carry them off with panache.

"Lucy Peacock is also probably the best Nurse I've ever seen, knowing how to make this long-winded lady humourous, instead of boring. One giant speech which she seemingly takes at a single breath is a tribute to her technique as well as her timing.

"And Peter Donaldson is, similarly, the best Friar Laurence in my memory, acting with that stern but understanding quality he plays so well and giving us a man of power instead of a dottering, desiccated relic. McAnuff also lets him speak the show's Prologue and Epilogue – a wise and resonant choice.

"But when all is said and done, the show is called Romeo and Juliet and that's where this production, alas, falls down."

"Granted, these are two of the hardest roles to play in dramatic literature, since you have start with the naivete of teenagers, mature into adult tragedy and speak some of the most glorious verse Shakespeare ever wrote.

"Gareth Potter comes the closest of the two and his scenes of mooncalf madness in Act I are endearing. But when the going gets tough, so does he and that's the one note he plays the rest of the night.

"Nikki M. James is a sweet young woman and it's obvious that she understands all the changes Juliet should go through, but her thin voice, with its lack of variety, ultimately lets her (and us) down.

"The main stage of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is not the place to learn how to perform Shakespeare for the first time, especially not in the leading role in a flagship production. [James was plucked from Des McAnuff's The Wiz.]

"When the play is about the whole world of the Montagues and the Capulets, McAnuff delivers an exciting piece of theatre. But when it's time to zero in on the two young lovers, there's no bells and whistles left. They just can't carry the text.

"Let there be joy for a lot of the bold new physical steps that have been taken, but let's hope the new kids on the block remember that there has to be solid acting going on in front of it all."

Staging Upsets This Romeo Review

From Donal O'Connor at the Stratford Beacon Herald:

"The feuding Capulets and Montagues take another fierce go at each other in Romeo and Juliet in this season’s opening show at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, this time under the direction of newly appointed artistic director Des McAnuff.

"The show that opened last night is richly textured, generally well acted and — with some reservations — a triumphant debut for Mr. McAnuff’s hand-picked Juliet, the New York actress Nikki James.

"Ms. James brings a sweet vulnerability and naturalness to the part, and it’s no great flight of imagination to see her as the 13-year-old Juliet of Shakespeare’s play.

"Gareth Potter’s Romeo, if a little hard to take seriously at first, certainly holds up his role as the other half of the star-crossed lovers, particularly as the darker passages of the tragic story unfold.

"But this is not to say there aren’t several troublesome aspects to this production.

"To start at the beginning, Heidi Ettinger’s set at the Festival Theatre presents a modern scene in Verona — cafe tables in a tiled or bricked courtyard and shiny motor scooters with a timeless background of an arched Veronese bridge.

"The show begins in modern dress —blue jeans and denim jackets for the younger set, suits for the older men, stylish modern dresses for the women. An initial dust-up between the battling families involves handguns. There’s even an automatic weapon fired by the Prince of Verona (Wayne Best) to restore order.

"The action moves on to the Capulets’ dinner ball where players appear in costume, seemingly 17th century. Swords replace guns as the weapons of choice. Players are puffed up in lavish dress.

"Fine, it’s a dress-up party, but you expect sometime afterwards that these folks to whom you’ve been introduced will revert to their modern garb. Well, it’s a long wait in this production and, for me, that anticipation is an unnecessary distraction.

"Director and designer appear to be saying, 'Hey, this story is as relevant today as it was when Shakespeare wrote it.'

"A tribute to other productions, perhaps, that pulled the play totally into today’s world? Something to appeal to younger audiences? It didn’t work for me.

"Yet another distraction in this Romeo and Juliet is the frequent use of a trap door at centre stage to place props on stage as scenes are changed. Used judiciously, the device can be magical. But after delivering — among other things — a garden, a bench and even Juliet herself at one point — one is prompted to think 'What’s going to pop up next?'

"I’m also not convinced the rumbling forward motion of the mid-section of the bridge in Ms. Ettinger’s set helps the production.

"Apart from the workings of the set, it seems to me there are a couple of major difficulties in the more general staging, and none more crucial than the lost opportunity to establish initial romantic contact between the young lovers. With few words between them prior to the well-known balcony scene, it’s vital there is some emphasis placed on the scene at the Capulet’s ball when Romeo and Juliet make eye contact.

"Without it, the airy and poetic balcony exchange seems strange and forced.

"Alas, any loving glances the lovers may have exchanged at the Capulets’ are lost in the action and in the overblown yards of material in which costume designer Paul Tazewell dresses the players.

"And, finally, there’s the Mercutio ( Evan Buliung) character. Testosterone-driven for sure and not a very likable fellow, but is it helpful to have him repeat the phallic gesturing over and over? Or retrieve a cucumber from under the skirts of Juliet’s Nurse (Lucy Peacock)?

"Considering the several off-putting elements in the staging, it seems in some ways remarkable the production still manages to deliver the emotional impact that it does.

"Shakespeare’s compelling text is of course marvellous for doing just that when placed in the hands of capable actors. And Ms. James and Mr. Potter are supported in this regard by strong performances from Ms. Peacock, who presents a multi-layered Nurse/confidante, and by Peter Donaldson as Friar Laurence, who by turns scolds, dishes out reasoned advice and ultimately sees his best-laid plans for the impetuous lovers go terribly wrong.

"Mr. Buliung’s Mercutio — apart from the excesses already mentioned — is aptly bellicose and fully drawn, and John Vickery as Capulet, Juliet’s father, is another standout with a convincing, physical performance.

"Sophia Walker’s Lady Capulet, meanwhile, walks the fine line between wanting to protect her headstrong daughter and knowing she must ultimately side with her husband. Timothy Stickney is a fierce and formidable Tybalt, and Gordon Miller finds the measure of Benvolio, in whom reason tempers impetuosity.

"Paris, the Capulets’ chosen suitor and considered step upward for their daughter, is dutifully played by Steven Sutcliffe. But the character is so ordinary and unlikable, coming as he does between the lovers, that no one is likely to find it unforgettable.

"Paul Dunn adds some comic relief as Peter, one of the Capulet servants, and is good for an early laugh or two. But don’t expect that to mitigate the effect of what is an inordinately gloomy story of young love thwarted."