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Mama Mia

It was with great anticipation I ventured down to Aurora’s Paramount Theatre to see the regional debut of the winning jukebox musical hit, Mamma Mia. Generally, this show is one of the most reliably delightful, raucous, foot stomping, guaranteed bang for your theater going buck spectacles. Featuring music from the genius disco Swedish pop band ABBA, Mamma Mia has grossed over 2 billion dollars to date during its global run. Initially premiering in London in 1999, then making its American Broadway debut in 2001, just one month after the horrific September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington DC. Mamma Mia came along just as the wounded nation required a healthy dose of healing and a much needed laugh. The glitter of the pop soundtrack matched the sparkle of the spandex sequin bell-bottoms each of the outrageous characters wore. This was no small debut. Mamma Mia concluded its 14 year run on Broadway, closing on September 12, 2015 after 5,773 performances, making it the eight longest-running show in Broadway’s history. I should also mention the 2008 film adaptation of the musical, featuring Academy Award-winners Meryl Streep and Colin Firth with Pierce Brosnan, Christine Baranski and  Amanda Seyfried, as well as its global box office of $609.8 million. It was the third highest grossing film of that year and one of the most successful movie musicals of all time. To say I am a rabid fan of this internationally successful, hit jukebox musical would be an understatement. Unfortunately, what is currently unfolding nightly on the stage at the Paramount is not the Mamma Mia I know and love.  It is a shell of its former self.

Mama Mia

Now beginning its sixth season of its Broadway Series, Paramount Theatre has been on quite a role. I raved about their previous hits, including a version of RENT that was Broadway transfer ready, a commanding The Who’s Tommy, a visually powerful Les Misérables and a West Side Story that should do very well during next month’s Jeff Awards. The grittier take on that particular American classic will most likely win Jim Corti a well deserved trophy for Best Director. With that said, Corti’s grittier spin on Mamma Mia is a massive misfire.  I can understand wanting to put a signature spin on the Midwest regional debut of a massive crowd pleasing hit, but so much of the fun has been meticulously and surgically removed, I was left scratching my head instead of giggling infectiously. As this is a Regional debut, there isn’t a requirement to faithfully follow the previous incarnation. Financially, I am certain it wasn’t feasible. However cut from this show; Donna’s signature overall’s, Tanya’s blow up mattress act one oral sex joke, the hysterical chorus line of male dancers in swim flippers performing “Lay All Your Love On Me”, the provincial Greek peasant back-up singers predominantly on stage, the side-splitting intricate chair maneuvering during “Take a Chance On Me”, and sadly all of Anthony Van Laast’s exuberant original choreography. Many of the production numbers are performed with the cast simply standing still, or just wiggling their hips in unison to the music. Chicago may have a reputation for talent that sings far better then they dance, but the troupe here wasn’t even given much of a chance to showcase their individual abilities. Much of the eye-popping costuming was gone too. Inexplicably, all of the cast’s shoes disappeared, performing barefoot for over 80% of the show. Clearly in this version, Donna’s hotel doesn’t have a No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service policy.

Mama Mia

The story itself has remain intact, commencing with ingénue, Sophie Sheridan (Kiersten Frumkin) and her two bridesmaids, Ali (Sara Reinecke) and Lisa (Janelle Villas) sharing an all important secret. Sophie has perused her mother’s diary from the year she was conceived and decided to quietly invite her absentee father to her wedding. Make that her three possible absentee fathers to fill that coveted role. Bookish banker, Harry (formerly known as Head-Banger) Bright (Michael GIllis), travel writer Bill Austin (Steve O’Connell) and American architect Sam Carmichael (Jeff Diebold).  What did her invitations read?  “Come to my wedding.  You might be my dad?” Sophie quips. No, instead Sophie has addressed the invitations from her mother, Donna Sheridan (Amy Montgomery) one time front person for the fictional girl-power group, Donna and the Dynamos. Donna shared a passionate summer of love, as it were, with each of these three men. As if history was repeating itself, Donna has invited her two Dynamo best friends, jet-setting, plastic surgery connoisseur, divorcée, Tanya (Jennifer Knox) and earth mother, feminist writer, Rosie (Sara Sevigny) to attend the festivities too. The rest of the story is set to the addictive, surefire hit soundtrack of Abba’s songbook, including “Dancing Queen,” “Thank You For The Music,” “Voulez-Vous,” and the title track, “Mamma Mia” all played with verve by musical director Tom Vendafreddo and the Paramount’s extraordinary orchestra.

Mama Mia

Mysteriously missing, the gifted mockery and playful chemistry between the three mature female best friends, traditionally on display during the vulnerable “Chiquitita” and saucy “Dancing Queen.” William Carlos Angulo’s fleeting choreography is predominately saved for the final 10 minutes of the show, with the exceptions of the finger wiggling “Money, Money, Money” and dream sequence “Under Attack”, which had Sophie spinning, literally and metaphorically, through her nightmare escapade. The ladies mostly step side to side during “Super Trouper,” a number that usually “kills”, and that was about it. I was more wounded by this approach than killed. I was also dumbfounded during what is normally Tanya’s showstopper, “Does Your Mother Know.” Knox’s Tanya and the younger man of her dreams, Pepper (Patrick Craven) a body building beefcake boy toy, just stood there for the first third of the song, surrounded by another half dozen troupe members, also just standing there. Flexing muscles is not dazzling choreography. The Paramount has an expansive stage, fill it up! Thank goodness a couple lifts and one “death drop” were added toward the song’s end, else this number would have fallen completely flat.

Mama Mia

While specifically addressing the character of Tanya, a thrice-divorced woman of extraordinary wealth, I had one more serious issue with this interpretation. At the beginning of the production, she arrives with a dozen bags of luggage carried across the stage, a cute and inspired sight gag. Why in heavens’ name is she then barefoot for the remainder of the show?  What exactly was in those bags? No woman of means that I know or have traveled with would vacation without a half dozen designer shoes to wear and show off. Matt Guthier’s costume design fails the leading ladies terribly.  Each often visually lost in the scenes involving the large chorus. The wedding finale song, “I do, I do, I do, I do , I do” had 27 performers on stage at the same time. I counted.  All just standing there. Why pack a stage and then give the performers so little to do? Pretty, playful dresses does not an intriguing show make. As I write this review, it is currently fashion week in New York City.  Even those cat-walking characters moved more than most of this cast! Jettisoned, the original production’s flirtatious and whimsical concluding couples choreography, for reasons I just cannot comprehend.

All was thankfully not lost, the best thing about this particular rendition is the cast’s superlative vocals, nailing it every time. Montgomery’s “The Winner Takes It All” brought an emotional pathos, Diebold’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” was simply sensational and for comic impact, “Take A Chance On Me” was still a winner, although here staged with Sevigny laying on the stage floor, pretending to be a mermaid, while O’Connell dropped down to his hands and feet, illustrating a chuckle inducing crab’s walk. A subtle plug for Paramount’s next show, The Little Mermaid, perhaps?

What was undeniably enjoyable and delightful, the disco dripping frenzied curtain call finale of Mamma Mia! Thankfully still intact in its entirety and delivered, concert style, with an enthusiastic mash-up of “Mamma Mia”, “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” Of course you leave the show smiling, having just experienced that rousing conclusion, but a fabulous close does not a great show make. It troubles me to say the original gusto and zest has been painfully whittled out of a production which should shine so much brighter than it does. Mirrored disco ball brighter. The best part of this Mamma Mia was the mega-hit, pop music and lyrics composed by two of the four masterminds behind the global ABBA phenomena, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Catherine Johnson’s book may borrow a page (or two) from British novelist Shirley Conran’s popular beach read novels, Lace and Lace 2, of the scandalous lines “which one of you bitches is my mother” and “which one of you bastards is my father” that titillated readers throughout the 1980’s. My final question, which bozo decided to take most of the fun out of this Mamma Mia?

Mamma Mia! is now playing at the Paramount Theatre through October 30, 2016

Stephen S. Best is currently a freelance writer for the Times Square Chronicles, covering the performing arts scene in the greater Chicagoland area. He has been a theater aficionado for years, attending his first live production, Annie, at the tender age of six. After graduating from Purdue University, Stephen honed his skills attending live theater, concerts and art installations in New York and Chicago. Stephen's keen eye and thorough appreciation for both theater patrons' time and entertainment dollar makes him a valuable asset and his recommendations key. Stephen currently lives in downtown Chicago.

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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Events

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.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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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.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

 

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Out of Town

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: Illuminated Majestically at the Stratford Festival 2024

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Tom Patterson was a man of great vision. He was a Stratford, Ontario-born journalist who founded the Stratford Festival, then called the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, the largest theatre festival in Canada. He saw something in this small town that maybe no one else saw. Now his namesake theatre, the lovely Tom Patterson Theatre is home to two ultra-captivating and illuminating revivals, shedding light on two classics that sometimes can overwhelm and conquer others. But not here. Both productions; Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, are epic and transformative, digging into complex themes steeped in intrigue, with battles for control and power over others at their core. And both are delivered forth with a vision and preciseness that astounds and illuminates, ricocheting light and understanding that is seldom felt when watching these timeless tales.

Members of the company in Cymbeline. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Directed with a magical force of nature by Esther Jun (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs), Shakespeare’s complex and daunting Cymbeline, contains plot points that could easily overwhelm and entangle those in charge. They twist and envelope, like tree roots in the earth, but here at the Stratford Festival, Jun expertly finds a way to unravel and expand the many threads that are so thick and entwined. So clear and determined is her stance that the resolution in the final scene, which generally feels endlessly complex and never-ending, is greeted with clever wit, so much so that the main queenly character voices the overwhelming onslaught of information with an exasperation that almost every audience member can fathom and engage with. Yet we are in it, giving ourselves over almost immediately after the first whispers that come within the smoke.

Oh lady, weep no more,” we hear, tunneling in from the depths of mystic destruction, as the play pulls us under its spell, thanks to the other-worldliness of both Jupiter, played by Marcus Nance (Stratford’s Frankenstein Revived), and Philarmonous, the Soothsayer, portrayed by Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks (Neptune’s The Play That Goes Wrong). We are enraptured in those first sharp strains of white light, detailed and dynamically delivered by set and lighting designer Echo Zhou (Tapestry Opera/Crow’s Rocking Horse Winner), and we bow our heads to their power.


Allison Edwards-Crewe as Innogen and Jordin Hall as Posthumus Leonatus in Cymbeline. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou

Based on parts of the Matter of Britain, the dense legends that focuses their eye on the early historical Celtic British King Cunobeline, this Shakespearian tragedy (although some refer to it more as a romantic comedy) is crafted and ushered forward with full-blown epic style, worthy of a stage production of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, thanks to costuming by Michele Bohn (Stratford’s King Lear), the composer Njo Kong Kie (TPM’s The Year of the Cello), and sound designer Olivia Wheller (Factory’s Here Lies Henry). It feels as powerfully big and dense as its source, legendary and mystically, while unpacking emotional truths that feel authentic and human.

The gender shifting from King to Queen Cymbeline, played majestically by the always fascinating Lucy Peacock (Stratford’s Three Tall Women), now married to the evil conniving Duke, portrayed by Rick Roberts (Stratford’s R+J) in full fiendish delight, finds weight and credence in their mutual unraveling, dismantling concepts that go far beyond even Shakespeare’s grand and complex ideas. Emotionally centered around the secret marriage between the Queen’s daughter, Innogen, sharply portrayed by Allison Edwards-Crewe (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing), and the worthy, but low-born Posthumus Leonatus, dutifully played by Jordin Hall (Stratford’s Grand Magic), their act of love upends the court, as Innogen was orchestrated to wed the Duke’s only son, her stepbrother, Cloten, played flamboyantly by Christopher Allen (Tarragon’s Redbone Coonhound), and rally the land against the tribute-demanding Roman Empire.


Irene Poole as Pisanio with Rick Roberts as Duke in Cymbeline. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

And that’s just the beginning of this complicated upheaval. By telling the interwoven tale of love, forgiveness, and the interconnectivity of all, “like the roots of trees“, Stratford’s Cymbeline, overflowing with the most talented of actors, magnificently finds clarity, as it speaks to the world at large. Moving through the in-humanity (and humanity) or trauma, war, misogyny, decolonization, and this abstract code of patriotism and nationalism, the cast; particularly the incredible Irene Poole (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs) as the mindful servant Pisanio; the seductive Tyrone Savage (Stratford’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) as the Roman schemer, Iachim; and Jonathan Goad (Stratford’s Spamalot), Michael Wamara (CS/Obsidian/Necessary Angel’s Is God Is), and Noah Beemer (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time), as the three honorable cave dwellers, Berlarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, dig into the melodrama, as well as the authentic emotional attachment required to make this 3-hour play tick forward and engage. The play is unpacked with the boldness of separated lovers and stolen sons, imprisoned and banished, seduced and assaulted for chastity and heroic honesty.

Faith plays a tenuous part in the unraveling at hand, with the two lovers forced apart by parents unwilling to hear or engage, paralleling the soon-to-be-seen Romeo and Juliet, right down to the poison that isn’t exactly deadly. But the true art in this presentation is how smoothly and wisely it moves forward through the difficult web of plots and failures. The more seasoned company members know how to find the deeper subtleties within that knotty text, while the newer, younger members sometimes struggle with the emotional complexities tied within, but only slightly and in comparison. Yet it comes together, binding us into the ideas of forgiveness, compassion, and understanding, even as we swirl alongside the Queen in those last few moments of untangling and debriefing.

Lucy Peacock as Cymbeline (left) and Allison Edwards-Crewe as Innogen with from left: Julie Lumsden as Helen, Tara Sky as Queen’s Guard, and Caleigh Crow as Lady in Waiting in Cymbeline. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Sara Topham as Hedda in Hedda Gabler. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

In the same manner that Jun orchestrated a compelling and understandable Cymbeline, director Molly Atkinson (Shaw’s Prince Caspian) unwinds the detailed Henrick Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler with a gentle force worthy of the epic guns unloaded and lent. Utilizing a compelling new version by Patrick Marber (“Notes on a Scandal“) from a literal translation by Karin and Ann Bamborough, this Hedda carries a bitter rage that rarely stays hidden or held but is casually shot out with a direct aim and purposefulness by a privileged beauty used to getting her way. Sharply defined by the wonderful nuanced Sara Topham (RTC/Broadway’s Travesties), Hedda, if she has to suffer in any way, shape, or form, will not do it in silence or on her own. Her boredom burns her from the inside out, shifting the light of frustration on two pistols in hand, fired casually at anyone she chooses to play with or against.

Dressed impeccably by set and costume designer Lorenzo Savoini (Soulpepper’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail) and drenched in epic light and shadows by designer Kaileigh Krysztofiak (Soulpepper’s Wildfire), the malice and rage find their home in the bare room and the precise stitching of the fabric of her creation, pulled at by outside passion, betrayal, devotion, and internal disappointment. Hedda is trapped, happily at one time by her father, but more then unhappily by her husband, the loving Tesman, portrayed simply and compassionately by Gordon S. Miller (Stratford’s Grand Magic).

Brad Hodder as Lovborg (left) and Gordon S. Miller as Tesman with Sara Topham as Hedda in Hedda Gabler. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Their marriage is one-sided and corrupt, created simply because Hedda felt it was time.Now, trapped in a marriage and a house that she does not want, feeling the mistake in every bone of her bored body, the soul of Hedda Gabler, now Hedda Tesman, the married woman, believes herself to be more the regal father’s daughter than her intellectual husband’s wife. She was once the detached privileged woman who enchanted the men of this town with her beauty and cool exterior, but now, disturbed by and within her marriage, she finds herself caged in a new house that, while being more extravagant than they can really afford, “smells like old lady” and death. And it will never bring her any contentment unless she seizes control.

Backed by a compelling soundtrack crafted by composer Mishelle Cuttler (Arts Club’s Someone Like You), the unbearable heaviness of her new life is dragged out slowly and cautiously, noted and displayed in the photos of a honeymoon that was more trying than passionate. The housekeeper Berta, played with a great attention to hesitant details of subservience by Kim Horsman (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time), and Auntie Juliana, meticulously portrayed by Bola Aiyeola (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs), showcase a realm and stature that Hedda can not tolerate. Newly married, unhappy, yet brilliantly bored and frustrated, this power-hungry and ultimately powerless Hedda finds silly pleasure in manipulation, cruelty, and belittling others, but on a more complex terrain, twisting and torching the hearts of women like Mrs. Elvsted, played compassionately by Joella Crichton (Stratford’s Wedding Band).

Tom McCamus as Judge Brack and Sara Topham as Hedda in Hedda Gabler. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

It’s shocking that people like Mrs. Elvsted keep returning to the abusive parlour, as if they might be greeted by a more mature and caring soul, but that kind of punch is rarely served here honestly. Other women are playthings to this Hedda, as it is clear to her that they hold no real power over anything that matters. Judge Brack, played to subtle perfection by Tom McCamus (Soulpepper’s King Lear/Queen Goneril), on the other hand, holds a triangular association to something more akin to excitement and advancement. She adores the offensive and defensive fencing that occurs in the presence of these self-important powerful men, particularly McCamus’ deliciously delivered Judge who never fails to find the base truth. But her passion is completely enflamed by the wildness and intellectual freedom that lives, drunkenly, inside Lovborg, played compellingly by Brad Hodder (Mirvish’s Harry Potter…). It’s so connected to her personage and her power that it engulfs her focus, and she must either control it by having or destroying its nature. There are few in-betweens.

Topham’s Hedda carries cowardice hidden just below her haughtiness magnificently, masked by a bravery that doesn’t exist authentically inside her. It appears she holds herself tall and determined, but only if she feels she has the upper hand on those around her. She’s desperate and impulsive, selfish and ungrateful. Her true calling, as she tells us with a laugh, is to “bore myself to death“, with a stance that is defiantly fueled by rage, fear, jealousy, and helplessness.

She tests the waters of her sweeping control, trying to distract and entwine. Yet, when she discovers that her ability to enthrall has evaporated before her very eyes, thrown to the sidelines by the man she thought she had unlimited hold over, that demise is overwhelming. Everything she believed in and held on to just went up in smoke, granting us an ending that is as sharply defined and shocking as it is beautifully staged. There is no saving in this space for her, and even though the last line, delivered almost too casually by the Judge lingers in the complicated air feeling cold, distant, and detached from emotion, the overall darkness cuts sharp and true. It hits like an angry Hedda slap out of nowhere, in a way that this play hasn’t hit in a long time. Burned from the act that just played out before us, the sneak bullet attack in a way, fires out into our souls without warning. “I can’t live like the others,” and so she doesn’t. That idea, and the way this Hedda takes control of her one parloured arena, gets embedded in our hearts as painfully as it does her temple, leaving its mark and its emotional disturbance for us all to carry home with us.

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

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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