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In June of last year, Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar), the incredible lyric and book writer of many of my favorite musicals, announced that after a recent successful table reading, the long-awaited revival of the musical, Chess, with music by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus (Mamma Mia!) would return to the Broadway stage for the first time since 1988. Way back in 1984, the musical began the game with the first move being a very successful concept album, and because of that success (the album was a Top 10 hit in the UK, West Germany and South Africa, reached #47 on the US Billboard 200, #39 in France, #35 in Australia, and was #1 on the Swedish charts for seven weeks, most likely due to ABBA’s Swedish heritage), made the strategic and daring move in 1986 to the West End. There it continued its winning streak by scoring numerous awards and three Olivier nominations including Best New Musical and nods for two of its leads. The wildly embraced musical game starred Eileen Page, Tommy Körberg, and Murray Head, and ran for over two years before, naturally making its way to New York City and the Broadway stage.
chessarttsbcb_48022332b984b336e3383e6ff3c0085e739As it made its way over here, the show was reconfigured quite dramatically. The creative team reimagined the show from beginning to end, creating a very altered musical intended specifically for its American audience, with considerable differences in both plot and music. Trevor Nunn (Les Misérables, Sunset Boulevard, Cats) brought in playwright Richard Nelson (James Joyce’s The Dead) in an attempt to make a more straightforward “book show” for Broadway audiences. Nunn decided also, to not bring over Paige for the role of Florence but asked Nelson to recreate the character as an American and Judy Kuhn (Fun Home) was subsequently cast (to great acclaim). After such success in England, Chess did not get the rave reviews it was hoping for or had received in London, with some saying that the new book took away a great deal of its cohesion.  Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote: “the evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand” and not surprisingly, the musical only ran for two months before the producers were check mated and closed the show.
With great fanfare and theatre geek excitement (mine), it was announced in November of 2017 that the show would have a pre-Broadway tryout at the Kennedy Center from February 14 to 18, 2018 by the Broadway Center Stage at the Eisenhower Theater, and I for one, knew I had to be there to see this show. It was one of those musicals from the 80’s that in my little apartment on Vaughn Road in Toronto, I would continuously listen to the cassette tape of the concept album over and over again, dreaming of the day that I would get to see this show live on stage. It never did make its way to Toronto, at least when I was around to see it, nor did I ever get the chance in London or New York. So with director Michael Mayer (West End’s Funny Girl, Broadway’s The Terms of My Surrender, 2ST’s Whorl Inside a Loop) taking control of the chess pieces with a restructured storyline and book from writer, Danny Strong (Empire,The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) in front of a scaffolding supporting conductor, Chris Fenwick and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, I would finally get my chance.
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Ramin Karimloo and Raul Esparza in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Little did I know back than in my early twenties, that this current revival would star two of my most favorite male Broadway singers, face to face, battling it out, not just for the championship of this particular musical chess match, but also for my Broadway heart. Raul Esparza (Broadway’s Leap of Faith, The Homecoming), as obnoxious American chess champion, Freddie Trumper (yes, this is truly the character’s original name) has always reigned as my number one, seeing him in numerous plays and almost seeing him in Sondheim’s Company. Sadly he was out the night that I, accompanied by eleven of my good friends celebrating my birthday, showed up for Bobby’s birthday and to see Raul Esparza sing the incredible final number, ‘Being Alive’ (click here to check it out). Boy, did my heart sink when I saw the note in the Playbill that he was out for the week, replaced by a perfectly fine actor, but no Raul in my eyes. But Esparza did make it up to me, surprisingly, when he stepped in at the last minute, filling in for a worn-out Patti LuPone, at a benefit, hilariously titled Leading Ladies Singing Sondheim (or something like that). He arrived unannounced in the last few moments of the night and sang the song that I had sadly missed out on months before. And he sang it as spectacularly as I had imagined he would.
Sneaking up behind Esparza on my list of favorite male Broadway singers and performers, most definitely, is the incredibly gifted and gorgeous Ramin Karimloo (Tokyo/Osaka’s Prince of Broadway), who destroyed me in the Les Miserables revival and astounded me further in the overall lesser show, Anastasia on Broadway. But here in D.C. playing the heartthrob Russian chess master, Anatoly Sergievsky, one had to ask the question: “What could be better than this?” These two magnificent singers, battling it out, over an international chess tournament, singing their hearts out to one of my favorite scores. Who would win the highly important and internationally relevant chess game? But more importantly, who would win the battle to be my favorite Broadway leading man? (sorry Bryce Pinkham, you are wonderful and in my top ten, but not my top two…)
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Karen Olivo and Ensemble in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
The third battle of the night, the one that takes place on stage and not in my head, is for the heart of the Hungarian emigre, Florence Vassy, playing Freddie’s chess second (which I’m not entirely sure what that position means) and the love interest of both Freddie and Anatoly. Florence is played and sung most miraculously by Tony Award-winner Karen Olivo (West Side Story, In the Heights) knocking out each and every one of her songs, especially “Heaven Help My Heart”. Her performance is heart wrenching. But the biggest moment of the night, at least when it comes to the ladies, is the duet, “I Know Him So Well”, sung with the late arrival, Anatoly’s estranged wife, Svetlana, played beautifully by Tony Award-winner Ruthie Ann Miles (Broadway’s The King and I, Sunday in the Park with George). These two magically brought me back in time to that great old apartment in Toronto, when I used to listen to Paige and Barbara Dickson sing their version, a song which held the #1 spot on the UK singles charts for 4 weeks. Now, sitting there at the Kennedy Center last weekend, I couldn’t have been more satisfied.
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Bryce Pinkham and Ensemble in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Residing magnificently in the expanded role of the Arbiter and Narrator of this complex reordering of the story, Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) guides us deliciously through the tale. He provides a perfect positioning, informing and delivering us from Murano, Italy to the second act city of Bangkok, with stand-outs numbers like the very well-known “One Night in Bangkok“, “US vs USSR” and “The Story of Chess” rising above the rest, with the help of the semi-circle of the ensemble. He beautifully trots out Svetlana in the second act, courtesy of the KGB. They have hope that her presence will mess with the mind of Anatoly during the important second chess match of the night, a match that carries more weight then just the championship title.
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Ramin Karimloo and Sean Allan Krill in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Semi-staged in a similar style to New York City Center’s Encores! series, director Mayer, on a set designed by David Rockwell (Roundabout’s She Loves Me), with costumes by Clint Ramos (Broadway’s Once On This Island), lighting by Kevin Adams (Broadway’s Next to Normal), and sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), the production almost reinstates itself to the legendary status it has always been inches away from. Strong’s new script takes us back to many of the original elements of the London production, most structurally significant is the story’s returning of the first act to Murano, Italy, and the second act to Bangkok. He also reinstated Florence as a Hungarian with a lost and imprisoned father, and reimagined the TV executive, Walter as a devious CIA agent, strongly portrayed by Sean Allan Krill (Broadway’s Honeymoon in Vegas). Walter doesn’t care much for chess, but he does care about politics and the new world order, so he colludes with the KGB agent, Molokov, dynamically played by Bradley Dean (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen) to interfere with the matches in order to save the nuclear arms reduction talks that are at risk of imploding. Seems farfetched? It sort of is, but the metaphoric balance of global power and pride always does seem connected to something other than actual policy, be it the Olympics or Chess. The complicated tale wraps this American Vs the USSR chess game tightly around the Cold War with imagery of Ronald Reagan and inspired by the celebrated 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky chess match. So much is at stake, from Love to War, and we all can’t take our eyes and ears off the players.
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Ramin Karimloo and Ruthie Ann Miles in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
It is thrillingly sung throughout, especially  Karimloo, blowing us all away with every note sung, nailing the difficult task of making us care about a man who lives his emotionally life internally, never daring to let anyone inside his heart, nor see his loneliness. That is until Olivo’s Florence comes along, and finds her way. It’s not surprising, her voice could melt any obstructions away. Esparza, battling a bad cold but soldiering on (this was announced just before the curtain went up – sort of a personal déjà-vu moment), tries his best to rock out dramatically, especially during the magnificent eleven o’clock number, “Pity the Child”. Beginning that song softly, showing us the pain that lives inside this man, his voice transported me, and when the song asked for power and fervor, a level this glorious rock tenor usually has in abundance, Esparza struggled. There was a moment at the end that felt like a strong solid note was to be held as it powerfully flew across the theatre, but the air and the sound wasn’t there to soar. But what he lacked in rock and roll power and edge, the man certainly maked up for it with swagger. Even on this one night, in full battle with a cold, his rendition and performance was heartbreaking, captivating, and somehow, unparalleled, even with the roughness and strain of a compromised voice. He brought a layered sensitivity to the difficult and arrogant Trumper, and I’m thankful that I was present to see it. With that in mind, all I can say is Hallelujah (click here to hear Esparza sing Hallelujah)
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Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
So who won the battle of favorite Broadway leading man? I’m calling it a draw, as I hope to see both these performers once again play this game of Chess when this wonderful show makes it way back to the Broadway stage.  Only with Esparza back in full vocal force, will I be able to make that call. And I’m guessing it will be a tie, with both of these magnificent performers coming out as winners, just like this show.  Don’t make me wait another 30 years to see it again, though. That was far too long. It’s your move now, Mr. Producers.

Ramin Karimloo

Ramin Karimloo (center)and Ensemble in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Out of Town

Hairspray – High Stepping in Houston

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Returning to the Broadway at the Hobby Center series for one week only, the high-stepping, toe-tapping, raucous romp good time known as Hairspray the musical. Join “The Nicest Kids In Town” for a three hour escapade through history, teenaged angst, a powerful message against the evils of segregation and the importance of inclusivity. With joy peppered in to its oh-so-beating, never ending, joy ride, heart, this Tony Award-winning musical comedy brings smiles to the faces, as well as a few well-earned tears of joy to the eyes, of every audience member.
Let’s quickly revisit the history of all things Hairspray. This material originated back in 1988, in John Waters and New Line Cinema’s cult classic movie of the same name. Launching the career of then newcomer, Ricki Lake, and featuring Water’s frequent onscreen collaborator, Divine, with Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono as the scheming baddies. Fast forward to 2002, Hairspray was brought to the stage as a full-fledged Broadway musical, winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, as well as trophies for Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein, as the dynamic mother/daughter act. The cast also and included a pre-Glee Matthew Morrison and a pre-Xanadu Kerry Butler.

Caroline Eiseman

In 2007, the movie-turned-musical, returned to cineplexes, this time starring A-list Hollywood royalty including John Travolta as Edna, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron and Queen Latifah. Almost a decade after that, NBC remounted a live television musical, including Tony Award-winner Kristin Chenoweth, EGOT Jennifer Hudson, pop princess Ariana Grande and Dancing With The Stars Emmy-winner, Derek Hough, in the cast. Today, however, the show has returned to the stage in a gloriously remastered national tour.

Caroline Eiseman, Greg Kalafatas

The story centered around plucky teenager, Tracy Turnblad, played with aplomb by Caroline Eiseman. We are under her delightful spell from the moment she began the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore.” The spirited, zaftig teen has one ambition, to become a council member and dance on “The Corny Collins Show” an American Bandstand type program based in Baltimore. Her worried mother, Edna (a scene stealing Greg Kalafatas) frets they won’t put a girl as heavy as Tracy on air, and that her daughter is setting herself up for a massive disappointment. With best friend, delightfully dorky, Penny Pingleton (a dynamite Scarlett Jacques) by her side, Tracy headed to the studio where she came face to face with her onscreen crush, teenaged heartthrob, Link Larkin (Skyler Shields) an Elvis wannabe with dreams of stardom of his own. The roadblocks to her teenaged-dreams becoming a reality, racist television producer, the villainess, Velma Von Tussle (Sarah Haynes) and her daughter, and Link’s current girlfriend, Amber (Caroline Portner), both putting Turnblad squarely in their nefarious sights.

Josiah Thomas Randolph, Kalab Quinn, Gabriel Yarborough and Company

Frequently sent to after-school detention, Tracy met a slew of kids of color, and quickly befriended Seaweed J. Stubbs (an electrifying Josiah Rogers). His rendition of “Run and Tell That” paired with his precision dance moves, proved Rogers should have a long and celebrated career ahead of him. A little cultural appropriation later, Tracy “borrowed” all of Seawood’s singular sensational dance moves, and secured herself a spot on the show. Believing everyone should have the right to dance together, Tracy then started a movement for equality that set the racially-segregated Baltimore on its ear. Her student activism fueling the engine on this exciting train ride of a narrative. Seaweed’s mother, Motormouth Maybelle (standout Deidra Lang) delivered the emotionally impactful, gospel-tinged power ballad, “I Know Where I’ve Been” to thunderous applause.

Greg Kalafatas, Ralph Prentice Daniel

The talent team behind the show is a who’s who of Tony Award-winners and Broadway legends. The music and lyrics, written by Tony Award-winners, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is a combination of silly shenanigans and poignant prose that has stood the test of time. “Welcome to the 60s’, sung by The Dynamites (Ashia Collins, Leiah Lewis and Kynnedi Moryae Porter) is an act one standout, arguably the three strongest voices on the stage. The closing number “You Can’t Stop The Beat” is an anthem of equality and progressive momentum that will stay with you long after the curtain has dropped. William Ivey Long’s costume design is so well honored here, you would think they are all his Great White Way originals.

Greg Kalafatas, Caroline Eiseman

It wouldn’t be Hairspray, without the gravity defying wigs and hair design, credited to Paul Huntly and Bernie Ardia, with visual nods to the rock band The B-52’s, former first lady, Jackie O and the silhouettes of ancient Greek statuary. David Rockwell’s technicolor set proved the importance of coloring with every crayon in the box. Robbie Roby energetic choreography paid tribute to the original signature moves of Jerry Mitchell. The same Mitchell behind hits Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, On Your Feet!, and Pretty Woman: The Musical fame, just to name a few. Finally, Jack O’Brien’s brisk direction has been wonderfully reproduced at the skilled hands of Matt Lenz.

Does the chubby girl get the guy in the end? Will the Corny Collins Show become fully integrated? Will the devilish Von Tussle’s be undone? Well, you have to see the show for answers to all of these questions and more. Well worth your time, the charms of this Hairspray continue to hold tighter than Aqua Net in a rainstorm. Consummately sung, skillfully danced and packed to the gills with scene stealing comedians, Hairspray the musical is a pre-summer Houston treat to beat the heat.

Stephen Best

Hairspray played Broadway at the Hobby Center in Houston from June 4-9, 2024

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Out of Town

Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park Gives Toronto a Hamlet Under the Stars

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Canadian Stage celebrates 41 years of High Park performances with a production of one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays Hamlet directed by Jessica Carmichael and featuring a luminous cast led by Qasim Khan as Hamlet,
with Prince Amponsah, Raquel Duffy, Christo Graham, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Sam Khalilieh, Breton Lalama, Beck Lloyd, Dan Mousseau, Amelia Sargisson, James Dallas Smith and featuring Diego Matamoros as Claudius. On stage July 21 – September 1 in the glorious High Park Amphitheatre

For 41 years, Canadian Stage – one of the country’s premiere producers of large-scale theatre and the largest not-for-profit theatre in Toronto – has been an accessible and foundational theatre experience for generations of Torontonians through its beloved summer theatre tradition Dream in High Park.   This magical annual event returns this July with a new production of one of Shakespeare’s definitive tragedies, HAMLET, on stage under the stars from July 21st to September 1st.

Jessica Carmichael – whose 2021 production of The Rez Sisters for the Stratford Festival was called “the most confident directorial debut at the festival in ages” by The Globe and Mail, directs a stunning cast led by Qasim Khan as Hamlet, joined by Prince Amponsah, Raquel Duffy, Christo Graham, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Sam Khalilieh, Breton Lalama, Beck Lloyd, Dan Mousseau, Amelia Sargisson, James Dallas Smith, and featuring Diego Matamoros as Claudius.  Dream in High Park is generously supported by Lead Sponsor TD Bank.

Set amidst the tumultuous backdrop of political intrigue and familial betrayal, this iconic tale follows the tormented Prince of Denmark as he grapples with existential questions of life, death, and revenge. The upcoming production is only the second time in Dream in High Park’s history that Hamlet has been produced and this year’s show serves as a companion to Canadian Stage’s hotly anticipated Canadian Premiere production of the 2022 Pulitzer prize-winner, Fat Ham.

“Hamlet is one of the most loved and iconic titles in Shakespeare’s canon and also one of the most thrilling psychological dramas in the theatre,” says Canadian Stage Artistic Director Brendan Healy. “We are incredibly excited to be able to offer Toronto audiences the opportunity to experience a new production of the original text in the park this summer, and then to also discover the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning adaptation FAT HAM, later this seasonWe are also thrilled to introduce our audiences to Jessica Carmichael, an exceptional director whose work at Shaw and Stratford has proven her to be an essential voice in this country.”

Coming off a breathtaking performance as Eric in The Inheritance, Canadian Stage is delighted to welcome Qasim Khan back to its stage. Khan, in fact, performed in the one previous production of Hamlet in 2016 as Horatio, now stepping into the titular role. He now leads a luminous cast comprised of many of Canada’s most talented actors, both seasoned and up-and-coming.

Largely considered one of the most complex and coveted roles in classical theatre,

Shakespeare is thought to have written Hamlet in 1599 or 1600 and the play is most likely to have first been performed in 1601.  It has been translated into over 75 languages in the over 400 years since publications, and, like many of Shakespeare’s texts, coined several phrases now embedded in the English language including; ‘to the manner born’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘the primrose path’, ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’, ‘something is rotten’, ‘more things in heaven and earth’, ‘the time is out of joint’, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, ‘this mortal coil’, ‘hoist with one’s own petard’ – and Gertrude’s line, ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’.

Hamlet runs July 21st through September 1st.  Performances take place Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00pm with Sunday performances now offered at 7:00pm. For tickets and information, click here.

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents Bradley Jaden In A Special Edition

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“Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents”, is  filmed live every Wednesday from at the Hotel Edison.

In this episode T2C’s publisher and owner Suzanna Bowling talks with Bradley Jaden. This is a special episode as I was at Bradley Jaden’s concert in NYC and asked to interview him, but he was flying back ASAP to London to do two sold out concerts there. This was very last minute but I am so glad it happened.

I am so grateful to my guest Bradley Jaden.

Suzanna, Bradley Jaden and Rommel Gopez

Thank-you Magda Katz for videoing and creating the content to go live, Rommel Gopez and The Hotel Edison for their kindness and hospitality.

We are so proud and thrilled that Variety Entertainment News just named us one of Summer’s Best Picks in the category of Best Television, Radio, PodcastsThe company we are in, has made us so humbled, grateful and motivated to continue.

You can catch us on the following platforms:

Pandora:

https://www.pandora.com/podcast/live-from-the-edison-hotel-times-square-chronicles-presents/PC:1001084740

Stitcher:

https://www.stitcher.com/show/1084740

Spotify:

Amazon:

https://music.amazon.com/podcasts/e3ac5922-ada8-4868-b531-12d06e0576d3

Apple Podcasts:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/live-from-the-edison-hotel-times-square-chronicles-presents/id1731059092

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Out of Town

Stratford’s Romeo and Juliet Satisfies But Never Truly Finds its Originality

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Drumming up a goddess in white, she sings from the opening monologue that lays the groundwork for Stratford Festival‘s Romeo and Juliet. It’s a sparkling starry opening, drawing forth images of star-crossed lovers that look to the heavens for guidance. Captivating and engaging in its creation, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is getting the full treatment this year playing well and true. Directed with determination by Sam White (Stratford’s Wedding Band), the production digs its heels into the traditional, holding on to a visual that feels more historical than forward floating. It’s a pleasurable outing, giving these fine actors ample opportunity to do what they are trained to do, with the older guard finding an authentic connection to the material. At the same time, the younger, less seasoned souls deliver their lines compassionately and with respect, but did not manage to find an earthy grounded nature to their unpacking. They say lines cause they are written, not because they feel them moving through them.

Jonathan Mason as Romeo and Vanessa Sears as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

The famed star-crossed lovers, dressed in color-coded costumes by set and costume designer Sue LePage (Shaw’s Brigadoon), are utterly sweet and endearing in the first half of their love story. Romeo, played warmly and compassionately by the handsome Jonathan Mason (Stratford’s Little Women) finds ample opportunity to give us a youth who falls quickly in love with his Juliet, played wide-eyed and giggly by the lovely and captivating Vanessa Sears (Stratford’s Twelfth Night). Following the straightforward path to love and marriage, these two come together as if following the stage directions of the play, rather than us feeling the electricity in their actions. It does feel sweet and engaging when they talk about love to others, especially in the first half, but when the actually falling in love happens, it comes too fast and somewhat forced, saying lines about love, attraction, and devotion as if they know they are famous lines, long before we even feel the spark of lust or fascination flying between them. In the second half, filled with despair, grief, and anger, these two struggle to find the emotional truth hidden deep down inside their young hearts. They stay, following the text and emoting as instructed. The lines are delivered with force, but never feel like it is in their bones or their flowing in their red hot blood.

From left: Glynis Ranney as Nurse, Andrew Iles as Mercutio, John Kirkpatrick as Balthasar, and Steven Hao as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

The same can not be said of Glynis Ranney (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing) and Scott Wentworth (Stratford’s Twelfth Night) as the Nurse and Friar Laurence, who find clarity and deep connection to every line uttered. Ranney’s Nurse gives a well-rounded and clever portrayal that is both touching and lovely, making every line have a personal journey and meaning. And “Holy Saint Francis“, Wentworth’s Friar also unpacks frameworks and understanding into every movement he makes and every line spoken. It feels rooted in the here and now, and motivated by what is happening around him and what is being said to him. This can not be said of the majority of this production.

The same can be said of the always reliable and talented Graham Abbey (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing) as Capulet, Juliet’s father, who has to manage his emotional state through a range as large as a roller coaster. He first has to be open and accepting when he sees Mason’s Romeo at his masked party, a party that is filled with sexual tension and energy. Abbey’s Capulet must chastize the overzealous (and not all that believable) Tybalt, portrayed by Emilio Vieira (Stratford’s Grand Magic), to settle his fury down. He instructs him to just enjoy the party, as Romeo is doing no harm, and he hears he’s quite likable. Yet, later, he must shift to the father figure who is ready to throw his daughter down and away almost violently when she says she does not want to marry the good, somewhat bland, Paris, played by Austin Eckert (Stratford’s Twelfth Night). It’s a difficult and dutifully performed swing that Abbey must make, and we believe it, drinking the shift in authentically.

Unfortunately, Jessica B. Hill (Stratford’s Richard III) as Lady Capulet doesn’t achieve the same level of understanding. She, like the somewhat forgettable 郝邦宇 Steven Hao (Tarragon’s Cockroach) as Benvolio, the underused Michael Spencer-Davis (Stratford’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) as Montague, and Antonette Rudder (Stratford’s Hamlet-911) as Lady Montague, never really finding a strong footing within this rendering. They all, like the two leads, deliver fine presentations, without discovering a unique framework or motivation for them to actually speak those famed lines. [On a side note, I’ve always been curious about the disappearance of Lady Montague in the second half for reasons of plot. leading me always to question why Shakespeare doesn’t include her for that emotional final scene when all the other parents and players arrive. I wonder if some double-casting complications prevented Romeo’s mother from being present in that final scene. Did the same actor also play the Friar? Or Paris? The reasonings are there and reported by Montague, but they don’t seem necessary to the plot or the play, and are somewhat imposed upon.]

Andrew Iles as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

One of the better performances of this production lies within Andrew Iles (Stratford’s Three Tall Women) and his double-duty portrayal of Mercutio and another hooded role that surprisingly makes us sit up and take notice in a production that does not have a lot of surprises within. The sword scenes are generally thrilling, produced by fight and intimacy director Anita Nittoly (Stratford’s The Rez Sisters), although the epic battle between Romeo and Tybalt felt awkward and misrepresented. Romeo doesn’t actually stab the fiery cousin of Juliet, but strangles him in a way that looks more like a neck and shoulder rub than anything remotely deadly, yet they continually speak of blood being shed. Now in a production that took a lot of liberties with the language, this could be forgiven, but this is not the construction of this Romeo and Juliet. It’s literate and determined to follow the text to a level that almost hurts their unpacking. And speaking of literate, Thomas Duplessie (Stratford’s Grand Magic) as the illiterate servant Peter also manages to find moments of charm and engagement that feel honest and clever. I wish the production took more chances like it did with these two, delivering moments of unique thoughtfulness and earthiness that live deeper in the soul and soil of the play. Many in the cast, thanks to White’s direction need to dig down much deeper below the obvious surface to create more complex formulations, contemplations, and emotional states that would make us sit up and pay more attention. Giving us a slightly different vantage point to unpack, Like they did with the apothecary casting.

But as delivered here on Stratford’s Festival Stage, with lighting by Louise Guinand (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs) and musical composition and sound design by Debashis Sinha (Stratford’s Casey and Diana), this Romeo and Juliet delivers a Shakespearean staple that isn’t all that deep or unique. It’s genuinely straightforward and unpacked in a clear obvious manner – beyond the seasoned pros who find some captivating weight. It keeps us tuned in but not dazzled or fascinated by this well-known story. This Romeo and Juliet needed some freshness and a formula that didn’t feel so standardized. It needs some originality stitched inside its well-wornness. The Stratford Festival can do better than this. It’s definitely not unwatchable nor is it terrible, but it does hang out in the world of fine and functional, and I was hoping for more. I guess I’ll have to hold my breath and wait to see what is in store for me this week when I see the new West End production of Romeo & Juliet, directed and produced by Jamie Lloyd, and starring Tom Holland as Romeo and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as Juliet.. It just opened a week or so ago at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and I’m seeing it tomorrow. Cross your fingers for me. And for these two star-crossed lovers.

Jonathan Mason as Romeo (left) and Vanessa Sears as Juliet with Scott Wentworth as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

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Out of Town

Stratford Festival’s “La Cage Aux Folles” Is The Pride and Joy of This Ontario Town

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Surrounded on all sides by an excited opening night crowd, that’s not exactly gaudy, but certainly glittery, Stratford Festival gloriously presents a thrilling production of the 1983 Tony Award-winning musical, La Cage Aux Folles. With a delightful endearing book, written by the wonderful Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song), showcasing all those memorable songs by Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!), the production soars with just the right balance of comedy and tragedy, dressed up in heels and draped in sequins. Based on the 1973 French play and 1978 film by Jean Poiret (Douce Amère) of the same name, the show hilariously and tenderly tells the story of an older gay couple hopelessly in love and trying to survive change and hurtful propositions. All the while forever trying to hold it all together for the sake of family and their Saint Tropez nightclub which features a cascade of drag queens that will amaze and entertain.

Steve Ross as Albin playing Zaza (centre) with from left: Jordan Goodridge as Mercedes, Josh Doig as Chantal, David Andrew Reid as Bitelle, Eric Abel as Hanna, David Ball as Phaedra, and George Absi as Angelique in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Opening up the stage like a glorious, glamorous French version of that dirty M.C. at Cabaret, Georges, played lovingly by Sean Arbuckle (Stratford’s Casey and Diana), gestures us into the glittering space, dazzlingly designed by set designer Brandon Kleiman (Theatre Rusticle’s The Tempest), with spectacular lighting by Kimberly Purtell (Crow’s The Master Plan) and a solid sound by Brian Kenny (Musical Stage’s Kelly v. Kelly), with gentle loving coaxing. When not leading the show forward, Arbuckle’s Georges spends his days and nights taking care of his self-created family; namely a stable of queens called the fabulous Les Cagelles, played electrically by Eric Abel (Stratford’s Frankenstein Revived), George Absi (Toronto’s Chris, Mrs), David Ball (Shaw’s Sweeney Todd), Josh Doig (Stratford’s Spamalot), Jordan Goodridge (Drayton’s The Music Man), and David Andrew Reid (Shaw’s Brigadoon), kicking it up high and hilarious during every spectacularly show-stopping number. The dancers, masterfully giving it their all in acts choreographed by Cameron Carver (Stratford’s Richard II), are a special kind of tucked treat, dressed deliciously by costume designer David Boechler (Stratford’s Spamalot). They are fierce and funny, finding unique characterizations within each, but the true star of their stage is Albin, or should we say, Zaza, Georges’ romantic partner and the club’s premier attraction. And a lot of Georges’ work is managing, loving, coaxing, and fawning over the delicate demeanor of his temperamental but captivating star.

Sean Arbuckle as Georges (left) and Steve Ross as Albin in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Now “chase me!” Albin cries out in the giddiest of girlish ways possible as Steve Ross (Stratford’s Something Rotten!) gives us a touching and vulnerable Albin this is as impossible as he is adorably sweet. Ross sensationally shows us what a wonder he is, playing it wild and free, while also finding a way to sneak into our emotional hearts. The show is ultimately a farce of epic sweet, gay proportions, that unwraps the emotional truths of these two behind a story stitched with some very solid ideas about shame and the pain of hiding oneself authenticity. With Albin at the core of this show, feeling vulnerable and hurt, but standing tall for his truth, the show unpacks layers upon layers of emotional truth, pain, maternal love, and disappointment, while also gifting us a whole lot of reasons to laugh.

Outrageously funny and deeply lined in love, La Cage Aux Folles gets this high-wired balancing act right, not only in its great one-liners, but in its gentle unwrapping of homophobia and the farce of the straight ‘normal nuclear‘ family. Thanks to the fine work of music director Franklin Brasz (Stratford’s Chicago) bringing it all solidly to life, the show, the ideas, and the musical numbers blend in and shine as bright as can be. “I Am What I Am” is no accident, it’s a rallying cry and a song of determined visibility that feels as powerful today as it did when it first made its way to the stage. And the song “The Best of Times” feels as solidly engrained in our culture as any other.

Opening on Broadway in 1983, La Cage broke all kinds of barriers, giving over the center stage spotlight to a gay couple, the first of their kind in a hit Broadway musical. The show lovingly focuses its heart on a long-term homosexual gay couple who aren’t dealing with tragedy or sickness. They are a couple like any other, in a way, just living their love in full support of one another. Georges and Albin are presenting their gay lives as authentically as possible, being as glamorous and feminine as they so desire. It might not feel as radical as it must have back in 1973 when the original play premiered in France. But the grand anthem and the emotional truth still hit home, reminding us all that hiding and disguising who we are is as relevant and as hurtful as ever.

From left: Chris Vergara as Jacob, Sara-Jeanne Hosie as Mme. Dindon, Sean Arbuckle as Georges, James Daly as Jean-Michel, Heather Kosik as Anne and Juan Chioran as Edouard Dindon in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

The framing never feels overly pointed or heavy-handed, yet when Georges’ grown son, Jean-Michel, solidly portrayed by James Daly )Off-Broadway’s Dracula – A Comedy of Terrors), returns to his familial home to the two parents who raised him, he comes in with an announcement that is embraced, after a bit of wrangling, and an ask that is sharper and more hurtful than most kitchen knives. Jean-Michel finds himself in a bind, announcing to his father Georges that he is engaged to be married. And announces that the woman, Anne, gorgeously portrayed by Heather Kosik (Toronto’s Chris, Mrs), he has fallen in love with is the daughter of a dangerous close-minded, right-wing politician by the name of Edouard Dindon, played well and clear by Juan Chioran (Stratford’s Something Rotten!). Dindon, his Puritan wife, Marie, played obediently and wisely by Sara Jeanne Hosie (Musical Stage’s The Wild Party), and their lovely daughter are on their way to meet Jean-Michel’s parents so they may give their blessing.

Naturally, there are more jokes and jabs than one can imagine on all sorts of reversed formulations that keep us laughing along the way, but it’s also hard not to notice, and feel, as the son stabs forth the kicker of the evening. Jean-Michel wants and thinks he needs Albin, who basically raised this young (now very handsome and tall) man as his own, to hide himself away from the judgmental eyes of the overly righteous parents of the woman he loves. Daly does a fine job presenting this cruel idea to Georges as if he’s asking for a small simple favor. But for his true parents, and for anyone who knows, it’s a shameful, cruel thing to ask. For a moment or two, mainly because of some fine performances, we only mildly hate this young man for asking the impossible, of his father Georges, and his pseudo-mother, Albin.

Members of the company in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

To further shove the knife in deeper, he requests George to ask his biological mother, “Sybil who?” to come to the dinner party and stand in for Albin when Ann’s parents arrive. And when she cancels at the last minute, as she always does, it seems, Albin finds the courage and determination to rise up and engage. And for anyone, which is almost all of us who has seen the magnificent film adaptation, “The Birdcage”, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, we have a good idea how this will all play out and end. There will be gorgeous laughs from within and from us, centered around inappropriate dishes flying through the air, courtesy of their faithful and fierce manservant, Jacob, effervescently portrayed, sometimes a bit too big, by Chris Vergara (Rainbow Stage’s Rent), and automatic physical reactions to moments that give it all away, thanks to their neighbor, Jacqueline, played gloriously well by Starr Domingue (Stratford’s Something Rotten!). And the whole thing will be quite the drag, in the best and most glittery way possible.

With all that glamorous glitter and high kicks by men in heels, those fiendishly fun flashy numbers, and all those wild laughs delivered by a pained pseudo-mom (and ourselves), La Cage Aux Folles still rings engagingly honest, touchingly endearing, and endlessly entertaining as it plays itself out, beautifully and hilariously, on the Stratford Festival stage. I’m not sure what the old-time festival audiences will think of it all, but, as directed by Thom Allison (Stratford’s Rent) with care and a grand eye for fun and all those complex feelings, it would take one cold dark heart to not walk out of Stratford’s Avon Theatre singing those songs and feeling completely invigorated by their visit to La Cage Aux Folles. The cabaret might be the pride of Saint Tropez, but this revival has to now be one of the joys of Stratford. It truly is the best of times in this small Ontario town, with this show and that other hilariously well-done musical, Something Rotten!, together, walking down Ontario Street arm in arm, feeling as handsome and tall as a Festival could.

Steve Ross as Albin playing Zaza in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

For more information and tickets, go to the Stratford Festival website, or click here.

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