Thursday, July 26, 2012

Dazed and Confused - Midsummer, Charlie Brown, Pirates of Penzance, Zapata! - Stage Reviews

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Canadian Stage at Shakespeare in High Park - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Richard Rose
Runs until Sept. 2nd 2012

You're A Good Man Charlie Brown - Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Avon Theatre - Stratford, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music, Lyrics and Book by Clark Gesner, Based on the comic strip "Peanuts" by Charles M. Shulz, Additional Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa, Additional Dialogue by Michael Mayer, Directed and Choreographed by Donna Feore
Runs until Oct. 28th 2012

The Pirates of Penzance - Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Avon Theatre - Stratford, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Runs until Oct. 27th 2012

Zapata! The Musical - New York Musical Festival - The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center - New York, NY - * (out of 5 stars)

Music by Peter Edwards, Book and Lyrics by Peter and Ada Edwards , Directed by Elizabeth Lucas
Runs until Jul. 29th 2012

Let's be honest here. Ol' Billy Shakespeare was probably on some kind of shrooms or magical berries when he wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream because I have NEVER really understood the story. Sure, there's the quartet of mixed up lovers and a king and a queen, but then add in an acting troupe doing their own thing, fairies, some kind of magical juice and a guy named Puck and I keep asking WHY? (which I know, I probably just shouldn't). I've seen numerous versions of the play between the stage and film, and I can still not recount what the actual story details are. To me, a measure of success for a Shakespeare play is one where the production is understandable, but I'm not even sure if this play has much to understand and maybe the point is just to enjoy in the magical whispy (crazy) delights of the fragmented scenes within this much beloved classic Shakespearean tale?

For the 30th Anniversary of Canadian Stage's Shakespeare in High Park, they're staging the ultimate outdoor summer classic, A Midsummer Night's Dream again. While I'm not sure I fully understand all of director Richard Rose's vision, and I'm not sure if that vision made Dream any clearer, I'm not sure it mattered with such a joyous cast that made for a delightful evening outside to see theatre under the stars.

Partly setting the play in the Ontario Muskoka's, with Dmitry Chepovetsky and Tamara Podemski's Theseus and Hippoltya arriving in a golf cart, all while Canadian Mounties move props around a mostly bare stage, it wonderfully lets the trees of High Park be the real setting for this Night's Dream.

Dmitry Chepovetsky and Tamara Podemski stand strong and confident again as Oberon and Titania with their usual commanding performances.

John Cleland is hysterical as Nick Bottom, now a real estate agent before he gets into trouble in the fairy world and turns into an ass. Cleland is surrounded by a wonderful "acting" troupe, with Pierre Simpson (from Toronto French Theatre) as the show's proper Quebecois "director" Pierre Le Coing, Mark Crawford (The Normal Heart), and Richard Lee (every other play in Toronto, including The Neverending Story and Other People) as Francis Filchenkov and Tom Chow, respectively, creating a little international troupe. They double as Peasebottom, Cobweb and Mustardseed in a very funny sequence using the voices of children. Cleland and Simpson are wonderfully amusing together (and terrific discoveries for me), while Crawford and Lee get good laughs in their scenes.

As for the lovers, Hermia's costume might seem a bit overkill in showing her stuck in an old-fashioned fatherly grip, but Sophia Kolinas nicely plays her lust for Lysander partly as an escape (with facial expressions in a later part of the play showing a deeper story behind her choices). Eric Morin (Altar Boyz) is wonderfully spirited and winning as the dude Lysander, a sort of rock n' roll dippy with rock solid abs who loves being in love. His interactions with Helena are particularly fun, especially when played by an exasperated power-walking Lululemon wearing Sarah Sherman who is wonderfully endearing and manages to make Shakespeare's words seem modern and fresh. All this happens while Helena yearns for Ali Momen's suited-up Demetrius, whose love for Hermia seems a bit too calculated, like a business transaction with Hermia's father.

Then there is Puck, who instigates much of the trouble in the fairy world, creating mischief, if only by accident, and giving Gil Garrett more room to have a playful romp on the stage, as he also did so joyously in The Game of Love and Chance.

While not everything quite worked for me in this production (or really, any production of Midsummer), having a cast that puts together some of Toronto's best actors, including Chepovetsky and Podemski, up-and-comers Lee, Crawford, Morin and discovering the joys of Sherman, Simpson and Cleland, helps overcome some of the vagaries of the story and interpretation. There are so many delightful moments from the strong cast, some clever interpretations from Rose, and some fun silliness perfect for a summer outdoor park theatre audience (including when the characters end up jumping off stage through the bushes) makes it a delightful summer night of Shakespeare theatre!

I’ve also seen The Pirates of Penzance before, but never in a professional manner. I’ve never fully remembered the story in previous school and community productions, but they’ve always been zany and full of timely jokes that I’ve always enjoyed it. I still can’t tell you what the exact story is, other than some shenanigans and mix-ups with some pirates, but I never thought that was much the point of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

Unfortunately, Stratford’s current revival of The Pirates of Penzance is played pretty straight laced, with a framing device of a play within the operetta that doesn’t seem to add much to the proceedings. There’s some lovely singing from the Stratford cast, and a standout leading performance by Kyle Blair (A Man of No Importance) but with the exception of an aside that explains the history of Stratford leadership, the updated quips and jokes were kept at a minimum. I know it’s not necessary, and Gilbert & Sullivan’s piece should stand on its on even when played straight, but I found this production lacking some zip and didn’t quite seem to feel cohesive enough. There’s an additional straightforward framing device that sets this Pirates as a play within a play, but it felt like an unnecessary layer that didn’t add much to the enjoyment of Gilbert & Sullivan’s piece and did not add much needed energy to the show.

Meanwhile, I had never seen You're A Good Man Charlie Brown, the Broadway musical based on Charles Schulz's Peanut characters, but I had heard the revival cast recording and knew it that it had a problematic book that had been reworked for the last Broadway revival (making stars out of Kristin Chenoweth and Roger Bart and earning them Tony Awards). Stratford has also courted some criticism for showcasing this family friendly (and highly unShakesperean show) in its lineup this season, but I think it is great that the reputable theatre company is taking on a "kids" show, and I don't have a problem with the show choice at least. While Stratford adheres to the revised version (which has many critics), the show is basically a hodgepodge of random sketches of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang, with less of the adult psychology of the strip and more of the commercial cuteness sold in stores.

The Stratford's You're A Good Man Charlie Brown misses the mark in the deeper levels that adults could truly identify with in the comic strips, but leads Ken James Stewart (who was so hilarious in a small part in Shaw Festival's The President) and Erika Peck (the best parts of We Will Rock You and The Boys in the Photograph) are total delights as Charlie Brown and Lucy, respectively, and carry the show enough to be a cute and charming little show. 

Amy Wallis, (also in Pirates) makes a nice little mark here on Sally (the role that won Kristin Chenoweth her first Tony) but Stephen Patterson doesn't make the Snoopy role quite as endearing as you would imagine it, and is not helped by his costume.

The overall colour scheme is bright and bold (and probably giving the usual Stratford crowd seizures) but while I'm not against an aggressively cartoonish set (since, you know, it's based on a cartoon), I do wish they stuck to the Sunday morning cartoon print colours that the strip would use, instead of the bright fluorescent hues that frame a projection screen that doesn't seem to be used to its potential.

Still, it's the fragmented scenes that will either bother you, or you'll accept in the way the musical is built, and while the cast won me over, you have to enjoy it as if you're reading Charlie Brown one panel at a time.

But if Charlie Brown doesn't quite match the double meaning cleverness of Shulz's originals, NYMF entry Zapata! The Musical seems to entirely miss its mark on the tone of a musical that wants to mix the lessons learned by Mexican revolutionary fighter Emiliano Zapata and how the Occupy Wall Street movement should be fought. When the rock'nroll bass riffs during the opening Occupy Wall Street scene, and it is played out completely straight, you realize that the show, which sounded ripe for a satirical spin, is being played in an all serious and earnest tone. As the show then abruptly takes us back to the Mexican revolution, the show that has all the right intentions, goes seriously wrong when it begins to feel like a museum diorama and the show becomes a series of straight forward history lesson scenes, tied together with some Mexican music, dancing, and very earnest expository dialogue. 

The talented cast is done no favours with a poor sound design (which in a rotating showcase like NYMF is excusable) and Andrew Call (American Idiot) and Enrique Acevedo do what they can to lead the show, but the textbook history lesson dampens the dramatics of Zapata's story and almost makes much of the real-life tragedy seem laughable. I applaud the effort and the message the authors are trying to get across, but the serious issues and facts at hand seem diminished in the production in its current state.

The Pirates of Penzance photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
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