Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An Important Funny Earnest Thing Happened On The Way To The West Side - Stratford Reviews

The Importance of Being Earnest - Avon Theatre - Stratford Festival, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5)
Written by Oscar Wilde, Directed by Brian Bedford
Runs until Oct. 30th 2009
UPDATE: Transferring to Broadway at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre in Winter 2011

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum - Avon Theatre - Stratford Festival, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5)
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Directed by Des McAnuff
Runs until Nov. 7th 2009
UPDATE: Transferring to Toronto with Mirvish in Dec. 2010

West Side Story - Festival Theatre - Stratford Festival, ON - *** (out of 5)
Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Arthur Laurents, Directed by Gary Griffin
Runs until Nov. 8th 2009

Being the first year where Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) becomes sole artistic director of Stratford Shakespeare Festival (just 1.5 hours west of Toronto) after some tumultuous backstage drama last year (worthy of another season of Slings & Arrows), the Canadian who went abroad (to La Jolla and Broadway), got famous, and now is coming home, is under quite the watchful eye from the Canadian Theatre community, especially as he brings in outside talent, including some from the states, to pump up the buzz at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

I so far have only caught the three big shows that have been garnering critical acclaim (ironically none which are Shakespeare plays) but while I would love to tout our own local theatre company, I had less than a stellar reaction to an early preview of West Side Story (directed by Chicago director Gary Griffin (A Color Purple)), which has so far garnered better reactions than the current Broadway revival. But I'll explain more below. Meanwhile, Des McAnuff redeems himself (from a flawed Guys & Dolls seen earlier on Broadway this year) with a terrific A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum. But it's Tony nominated Canadian actor Brian Bedford who directs an exquisite The Importance of Being Earnest that hopefully finds a transfer to let more audiences appreciate his glorious production.

The Importance of Being Earnest may have the gimmick of director Brian Bedford directing himself, Brian Bedford, as Lady Bracknell, but the gender switch isn't played for laughs or irony and in fact, Bedford easily sinks effortlessly into the role without any smattering of overdramatic effect.

It was my first time experiencing Being Earnest and what a comedy to behold! In the comedy of class and manners, and where presentation is at the upmost importance, Set Designer Desmond Heeley constructs beautifully painted on (hint hint) sets that look both flat and 3 dimensional, which cleverly works with the themes of the play.

The cast assembled works effortlessly around Bedford's commanding Lady Braknell (a character who should be commanding even if a male is not discreetly playing her). Mike Shara (above left) and Ben Carlson (above right) are boyishly delightful as Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing (respectively). Their charming banter is a total hoot and Ben Carlson plays befuddled innocence perfectly while Shara (who looks more suited for a sports field) is deliciously devious without losing an ounce of his innocence.

The two boys are played off perfectly by the wonderful Sara Topham as Gwendolen Fairfax and Andrea Runge's Cecily Cardew all while the superb Sarah Dodd and droll Stephen Ouimette twirl around the misundertandings as Miss Prism and Rev. Canon Chasuble (respectively).

It's an all-round aces production with a top notch cast and beautiful direction that keeps things... well... earnest, never playing it over the top but keeping things serious in its satirical bite.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum meanwhile is completely over-the-top and a silly romp as it should be. While it was also the first time I saw the silly musical, the players and McAnuff's fun and fancy-free direction keeps things constantly rolling from one joke to another, some that work, some that don't, but boy do they sure try! I can't say that the musical itself is absolutely brilliant or anything (even though it's a Sondheim show), but it's amusing enough for Stratford's best actors to spin their comic wheels for a fun night for all!

Sadly, original lead and Statford stalwart Bruce Dow (above) has to bow out of the production due to medical issues, and while Canadian comedian Sean Cullen has taken over, I saw the show just in between the switch when the younger understudy Randy Ganne took over during the interim but while his voice isn't the strongest, and he seemed slightly hesitant during the famous opening number "Comedy Tonight" but Ganne quickly established himself as a wonderful and vibrant Pseudolus and his lean youthfulness added a different dimension to the proceedings.

And if Ganne hadn't, he still had a top notch cast around him. Stephen Ouimette (above, again, The Importance of Being Earnest) was hysterical as Hysterium. Cliff Saunders (Broadway's The 39 Steps) milked everything he could as Marcus Lycus. Deann deGruijter (above) is perfectly 2 dimensional as Domina, which is exactly what is needed for that role.

Dan Chameroy (who was a great Curly a couple of years ago in Stratford's Oklahoma) oozes oily slick charm as Miles Gloriosus.

The ensemble is aces, and include 3 very game Protean's: Julius Sermonia, Jordan Bell, and Stephen Cota. Even the harem girls are played by fabulous ladies including Sara Topham (again, The Importance of Being Earnest) and Jennifer Rias (Anita in West Side Story, see below).

Then there is Mike Nadajewski and Chilina Kennedy as Hero and Philia, the two central lovers in the silly comedy of errors. Both exude a beautiful dumb innocence and mine the comedy for every ounce they've got. With beautiful voices and absolutely laugh-out-loud hysterical performances, Nadajewski and Kennedy are such delights in the musical comedy that it's hard to believe they play Glad Hand and Maria (respectively) in West Side Story over at the Festival theatre. (And I loved the scene where Hero tries to jump up to the balcony just like Paul Nolan's Tony does in WSS. A sly hilarious wink at Kennedy's other show at Stratford).

Which leads to West Side Story. And I'll preface my review with the fact that I saw an early preview that happened to have a LOT of understudies, so maybe it threw off the dancing in the ensemble which I found VERY WEAK, which threw off the entire vibe of the whole show, and considering I consider this mostly a dancing show, it affected my review.

But first, back to Chilina Kennedy (Wonderful Town at Shaw) as Maria. WHAT. A. STAR! and this was before I saw her in A Funny Thing where she knocked THAT complete OPPOSITE role (as a dimwitted lover... okay maybe not that different) out of the park. Here she balances the innocence and naivety with a strong willed young woman emerging from her protective community. Her powerful performance is only exceeded by her powerful voice and Kennedy is really able to centre the tragedy at the centre of the show within her performance (And seriously, a completely opposite role to Philia).

Paul Nolan's Tony is equally strong opposite Kennedy and while his voice is more pop/rock (especially compared to Matt Cavanaugh's vibrato on Broadway), his limber and energetic Tony is just as affecting and I liked how his voice balanced out Kennedy's.

Nolan and Kennedy really seemed like teenagers in love, ready to run away and escape their world and their chemistry together was the best part of the show.

Unfortunately, the world around them isn't as up to the task except for Jennifer Rias who was terrific as Anita. Granted I say the harsh criticism knowing the understudy went on for Riff, and there were several more that night, all taking over each other's roles and thus I think it affected what needs to be tight dancing by Sergio Trujillo recreating Jerome Robbin's BRILLIANT choreography to suit a thrust stage. While the choreography worked, the dancing just wasn't up to the level I saw on Broadway, not even close, but I will allow that it was the first week of previews at the time (then again, I also saw the first week or previews in DC where the Broadway show started and it was already perfect). I'm guessing it has gotten better in Stratford due to the raves, but it just wasn't tight enough when I saw it, though my theory is because Stratford worked with the actors they have, who are actors first, singers second, dancers third (as opposed to Broadway which seemed like dancers first, singers second, actors third). And since I feel this is truly a dancing show set to Romeo and Juliet, the dancing that Jerome Robbins has contractually written into the show, is extremely important and must be presented with perfection to work.

Interestingly enough, the Broadway version also tried to cast age appropriate actors and were criticized for casting an Abercrombie looking young cast, but the problem here in Stratford was that while they cast one that looked more gang appropriate, the actors seemed older than me, and I am far away from being a teenager that would still be in a gang and I felt that THAT threw off the whole high school musical believability to the show.

Still, it's West Side Story so even when it could be tighter, it's still enjoyable, and I enjoyed the sets by Douglas Paraschuk and the lighting by Kevin Fraser (although my friend thought the bathtub and floating dresses were too showy for the stripped down production design).

It's a good production, don't get me wrong, and Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy are truly amazing in the central roles, but at least when I saw it, the rest of the production didn't have the flair and tightness of the Arthur Laurents directed production now seen on Broadway. And I say that knowing most reviews have countered this view. (Hey, I'll see this show again and re-review it if they invite me! I wanted to see it later in the season when they might have had more time to fix the kinks but at this point, I haven't gone back yet).

I would really love to go back to see The Importance of Being Earnest again. Hopefully it gets a transfer SOMEWHERE.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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