Antonin Cimolino, the Stratford (Ontario) Festival artistic director, describing his 2016 play choices, has said this about his themes: “No defeat can be more devastating than the vanquishing of the spirit; no victory more exhilarating than the triumph of the heart.” Succinctly, that is the 2016 Stratford season in a nutshell.
Here are brief reviews of four plays currently at Stratford. There are nine open, with four more being readied. Information on Stratford’s 2016 season is available by calling (800) 567-1600 or visiting stratfordfestival.ca
“A Little Night Music,” through Oct. 23 in the Avon Theatre (∆∆∆½ out of 4)
This early (1973) Stephen Sondheim operetta, inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film, with a musical nod to Mozart’s serenades and waltzes, is sumptuously staged and dressed at Stratford’s mid-town Avon Theatre. Called “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting” back in the day, this “Night Music” still boasts of those accolades, overcoming occasional tedium and borderline pretension, finishing fast, furiously and funny – and wise.
It is directed lovingly by Gary Griffin with a marvelous cast. The impeccable Ben Carlson is Fredrik. The earthy, world-weary Yanna McIntosh is Desiree; her “Send in the Clowns” is a warm, rueful and memorable melody of past loves, bad decision-making, regrets and lost dreams. Also: festival darling Cynthia Dale, doyenne Rosemary Dunsmore, the burly blowhard Juan Chioran, and Sara Farb as the promiscuous Petra (who wows on the confessional “The Miller’s Son”).
Sondheim’s score, nearly all of it in three-quarter time, is complex and tonsil-testing and includes a Greek Chorus of sorts. His songs merge and reprise and his brilliant wordsmithing is evident on “You Must Meet My Wife” and “It Would Have Been Wonderful.”
“Shakespeare in Love,” through Oct. 16 in the Avon Theatre (∆∆∆)
The play is a British import and so is director Declan Donnellan. In fact, this Disney-owned tale of a young Will Shakespeare with a severe case of writer’s block, one eased by a beautiful young wannabe actress, is having its North American premiere. The play was first a movie (1999) with a script by Marc Norman and the brilliant Tom Stoppard. Lee Hall has adapted it for the stage with mixed results. Oh, it can be fun. There’s plenty of backstage foolishness with a large, raucous cast and attractive young lovers caught up in Elizabethan mores. But there is much clutter, confusion and mere noise amid trysts, swordplay, balcony scenes and chases, all acted out on a three-tiered set.
Viola de Lesseps pretends to be a “boy player” because women weren’t allowed on London stages in 1593. She is cast in a new Shakespearean play that shakily evolves into “Romeo and Juliet.” The law is circumvented, Viola stuns as Juliet, Will is in love, the play is a hit.
All does not end well. Viola disappears but in this story she resurfaces years later in another Shakespearean work, “Twelfth Night.” A clever spin by Norman and Stoppard.
Luke Humphrey and Shannon Taylor charm as Will and Viola. Tom McCamus and Stephen Ouimette delight as Fennyman and Henslowe, two harried show producers.
There is a dancing curtain call. Reels, curtsies. Play deficiencies promptly forgiven.
“All My Sons,” through Sept. 25 in The Tom Patterson Theatre
An exemplary production of the Arthur Miller sins-of-the-father classic. Joseph Ziegler, Lucy Peacock, Tim Campbell, Sarah Afful and Michael Blake star in an electric, emotionally draining story of ambition, the American Dream shattered, guilt, responsibility and what the Greeks called hamartia – a “tragic flaw.”
Miller’s protagonist is Joe Keller, a manufacturer of parts for World War II’s famed fighter plane, the P-40. Some of those parts were found to be defective but Joe shipped them out anyway; 21 American pilots were killed, the Keller parts found to be the culprit. Joe lied to investigators, blamed his partner and returned, relatively unscathed, to his Ohio home. His partner and fellow neighbor, not so lucky: jail time, shame, his family ruined. Joe’s family never talked about the incident; he resumed his status as neighborhood uncle.
The Kellers kept many family secrets and they all unravel one August night in 1946. The past catches up with Joe, who is still in denial about moral responsibility to community and country. “Are you in this world?” asks son Chris. No answer. Hamartia.
This Martha Henry-directed “All My Sons” is extraordinary. The story has always been potent but Henry has added even more intensity by casting black actors as the framed partner/neighbor and his son and daughter, key players in this explosive tale.
“A Chorus Line,” through Oct. 30 in the Festival Theatre
Director/choreographer Donna Feore has been at and around Stratford for nearly three decades. She has said that the first time she set foot on the Festival Main Stage, her thoughts turned to the possibility of using the famed space for a production of “A Chorus Line,” Buffalo’s Michael Bennett’s definitive valentine to dance and dancers. It was a reach, Feore admits, but it has happened, thanks to the imprimatur granted by the late Bennett’s friend and executor, John Breglio. For the first time, the show has been reimagined to include many of Bennett’s original ideas, particularly those for “A Chorus Line” to be performed on a stage that isn’t a true proscenium. No orchestra pit, no chasm between auditioners and the prying dance master Zach, he charged with assembling a chorus line of dancers for a new Broadway show.
So, the show is here with Feore at the helm. The Marvin Hamlisch score is big here, brassy there. There is the soft and sweet “At the Ballet,” the passionate “The Music and the Mirror,” the singular sensation “One,” and the dancer’s credo, “What I Did for Love” – the ultimate ode to devotion, disappointment, triumph, torn ACL’s and shin splints. Mike, Christine, Val, Sheila, Richie, Paul, Cassie and others are back, hopeful and wary.
The stage works: the play looks at home. Donna Feore’s dream has come true.