Monday, November 10, 2008

Can Do Anuff - Jersey Boys and Caesar and Cleopatra - Theatre Reviews

Jersey Boys - Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON
Currently the National Tour (Sherry) cast, Canadian Cast begins Dec. 13th 2008
Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe, Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, Directed by Des McAnuff

Caesar and Cleopatra - Stratford Shakespeare Festival Theatre - Stratford, ON
By George Bernard Shaw, Directed by Des McAnuff
Closed Nov. 8th 2008

Without planning it on purpose, I ended up taking in two shows within 2 days that were both directed by Toronto's own Des McAnuff upon his return to his hometown after being artistic director at La Jolla's Playhouse and is currently the artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (AND is directing Guys and Dolls on Broadway this winter as well! Busy man!)

(l to r: Gouveia, Bwarie, Rannells, Kushnier)

I had seen Jersey Boys on Broadway already with its original cast and I remembered being totally taken in by the slick direction of a solid yet simple musical headed by an amazing cast but I wondered if replacements would do the show justice. Well, the current National Touring cast certainly does an amazing job.

Joseph Leo Bwarie is almost as good as Tony winner John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli and since Bwarie looks younger, probably fits the role even more.

The great pride comes with Canadian Jeremy Kushnier (plucked from the Vegas version to play in his homeland) whose Tommy DeVito is devastating and slick and if he had replaced Christian Hoff. he would have won the Tony instead. Thankfully when the cast moves on with the rest of the tour, Kushnier will stay put to anchor the new all-Canadian cast.

I will mostly miss Andrew Rannells who has the baby face and earnest charm for playing Bob Gaudio (excellently played by Daniel Reichard in the original) and Rannells voice is wonderfully full and vibrant.

The only major disappointment is with Steve Gouveia as Nick Massi who has a disappointing voice with caricature acting on an already underwritten role.

Still, the show is so well directed and fast paced with great choreography from another Canadian, Sergio Trujillo, that the show is still a lot of fun and totally solid, despite being essentially a glorified tribute show.

Over in Stratford, I happen to catch one of the last shows for Caesar and Cleopatra, the play Shaw wrote prior to Pigmalion but essentially has a similar structure. Silly girl gets tutored by an elder man.

In this case, it's teen queen Cleopatra who must share her throne with her even sillier brother (a hilarious Paul Dunn) and accidentally finds Caesar under a sphinx who slowly guides the girl to confident leadership.

But I was really here to see Nikki M. James (All Shook Up, The Wiz) as Cleopatra go up against Christopher Plummer (fricken The Sound of Music of course! and many many other plays and films) and Plummer was of course commanding and assertive while James was absolutely wonderful as a girl who learns and grows through the course of the play. The acting couldn't have been better and they were accompanied by an amazing ensemble that included Steven Sutcliffe (Ragtime) and Diane D'Aquila amongst many other worthy mentions.

The play itself was hilarious in the first act and then goes darker and deeper in act 2 though I found it almost seemed like too much of a whiplash turn that didn't exactly flow from one to the other. I was fascinated with the darkness in the second act but it felt distant from the enjoyability of the first and almost done to pad up the "importance" of the piece.

Still, the simplicity of the extravagantly looking sets transformed the famous Festival Theatre thrust stage into ancient Egypt and the play had a wonderful regality to it that could easily transfer to Broadway in a split second. My only problem with the production is still the actual play itself which seems like a pre-cursor to later works, particularly Pygmalion which I think felt like a fuller more cohesive play as a whole but this production itself was extremely well done.

Jersey Boys - Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (4 stars out of 5)

Caesar and Cleopatra - Stratford Shakespeare Festival Theatre - Stratford, ON - ***1/2 (3.5 stars out of 5)

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