Theatre Review: ‘The Crucible’ at The Stratford Festival

Members of the company in The Crucible. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Many of us can recall reading Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in high school, spending a few weeks reading lines out loud and talking about its themes for the purpose of education. While reading as a young person was a memorable experience, there is something terrifying about being swept into a live version of this pertinent story based on the most notorious American example of mass hysteria in the gorgeous Avon Theatre at the Stratford Festival.

haunting and horrifying…

Inspired by actual events, the play opens with various Salem townsfolk convening at Reverend Parris’ house inquiring about his daughter, Betty, who has fallen suspiciously ill. Knowing Betty was seen with a group of young women dancing naked in the forest with Parris’ Barbadian slave Tituba, it doesn’t take long for rumors of witchcraft to swirl. As people take turns trying to diagnose Betty, accusations start flying. By the end of the first act, men and women of all ages and even spotless reputations are being arrested and tried for witchcraft. Amongst these accusations, the young and driven Abigail Williams tries desperately to reconnect with her former employer and one-time lover, the farmer John Proctor. 

Straford’s production tells the story phenomenally well, making it one of the most frustrating, uncomfortable and, at times, horrifying things you will sit through in a theater. Director Jonathan Goad has taken great care to avoid easy, predictable theatrics during Miller’s many speeches in favor of saving wild outbursts for only the show’s poignant moments.

The production design as a whole is stellar, backed by a simple, dynamic set by Michael Gianfrancesco and shrouded in utterly harrowing lighting designed by Bonnie Beecher. Complete with haunting and at times heart-stopping sound designed and composed by Debashis Sinha, “The Crucible’s” technical elements will stay with you long after the show concludes.

Every actor has a moment to standout throughout this staging of the Crucible, allowing the audience to morally question each character, wondering whether their accusations or the accusations against them are remotely credible. 

Leading the cast is Tim Campbell as the strong, increasingly frustrated and passionate Proctor. As one of the tallest actors in the show, he commands the room as he steps in wearing his tall boots and dirty leather trench coat. Without giving away how the story ends, his character arc is one of the most powerful and frustrating to watch.

Katelyn McCulloch is the notorious Williams, the ringleader of Salem’s young ladies at the center of the witchcraft accusations. What she says goes, and McCulloch makes that terrifying truth clear from the start. She’s manipulative and smart, and, no matter how unlikable, her powers of persuasion can’t be tamed.

This production also opened my eyes to two other characters who I think the audience resonates the most with as the story develops – the Proctors’ employee, Mary Warren (Mamie Zwettler) and Reverend Hale (Rylan Wilkie). They begin the story the same way – horrified at the possibility of witches in Salem and anxious to do their part to stop it. As Warren starts to realize what Williams is up to, with the help of John Proctor, she tries to stand up for herself in court, with Zwettler delivering a stunning performance as Warren is questioned and threatened.

Hale is committed to ridding the world of witches as well, and despite being one of the more level-headed people in power, doesn’t budge on his beliefs until Warren and Proctor arrive at the court. When Hale truly begins to realize the horror of what he’s assisted in accomplishing and is unable to stop it, it is a truly heart breaking moment for the audience.

Stratford’s “The Crucible” is haunting and horrifying, especially in a world where people put strong stake in things they believe to be true, no matter how outlandish, just because they heard them from a source they trust. It is a truly thought-provoking and unforgettable time at the theater well worth the drive to Stratford.

Running Time: Three hours including a 20-minute intermission.

“The Crucible” runs through October 25 at the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Mother’s Daughter’ at The Stratford Festival

From left: Irene Poole as Catalina, Shannon Taylor as Mary and Jessica B. Hill as Anne in Mother’s Daughter. Photography by David Hou

“Mother’s Daughter”, currently playing at the Stratford Festival, is the third installment of playwright Kate Hennig’s Queenmaker series, in which she offers a closer and more substantive examination of various Tudor-era women connected to Henry VIII. In preparation of seeing “Mother’s Daughter”, which focuses on Mary I (England’s first queen regent, often referred to as “Bloody Mary”) I read the first two installments in Hennig’s series; “The Last Wife”, which focuses on Catherine Parr, and “The Virgin Trial”, which examines Elizabeth I and her involvement in a coup attempt against her younger brother, King Edward VI. Each play in this magnificent series is thoughtful and cutting in the ways it explores the humanity, motivations, and depth of these oft-overlooked historical women, and while “Mother’s Daughter” is ultimately my least favorite of the three plays, it’s still a gripping and intelligent piece of theatre that’s absolutely worth seeing. 

In “Mother’s Daughter” Mary I (Shannon Taylor), daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon (Irene Poole), is pulled by the opposing forces of mercy and strength (or cruelty?), as well as her duties as both queen and sister as she scrambles to keep her kingdom, her crown, her family, and her line of succession in order. Upon the death of King Edward VI, thirty-eight-year-old Mary wrests the throne from Edward’s deemed heir. But Mary’s mother appears from the vaults of memory, and adamantly questions the motives of Mary’s cousin Jane (Andrea Rankin) and her half-sister Bess (Jessica B. Hill), despite Mary’s affection for them both. As the kingdom splits along Roman Catholic and Protestant lines, Mary walks a tight rope of squabbling ethics and politics, and is forced to make some tough decisions. Should she mimic the savagery often exercised by her father and start sending opponents—in this case, her own kin—to the guillotine? Should she scramble to find a husband who can give her a rightful heir, thus securing the line of succession and averting rebellion? 

The minimalist set (just a table and chair) and production design leaves the narrative propulsion of “Mother’s Daughter” in the hands of its small, predominantly female cast; and propel the story they sure do. At the center of the story, Shannon Taylor gives a powerhouse performance as Mary, who is just as comfortable delivering quippy sarcasm and wit (Hennig wrote “Mother’s Daughter” in modern vernacular) as she is searing, tear-jerking monologues. Her Mary is relatable and familiar, presented as a flawed and imperfect woman doing her best to navigate the impossibly complex worlds of royalty, war, and religious conflict. Rather than being stuffy or aristocratic, Taylor’s Mary is funny and sharp, but also sweaty and confused and overwhelmed. She’s a queen whose every fiber screams, “What the hell am I doing here?!” rather than, “I deserve this, bow to me.”

Equally powerful is Irene Poole as the ghost (or memory? or ethereal manifestation?) of Mary’s mother Katherine of Aragon, who is constantly urging Mary to choose the crueler, more violent path, often against Mary’s better instincts. She balances her role as mother against her duty as a wartime consigliere, and does so with the presence and booming certainty that we would expect from one of the most famous Tudor queens, but also finds moments of delicacy and love. Like Mary, Poole’s Katherine is complex and endlessly interesting.   

In possibly the most impressive acting performance, Jessica B. Hill doubles as both Mary’s sister Elizabeth (or “Bess”) and Bess’ mother Anne Boleyn. Hill’s Bess fluctuates between snarkiness and sincerity, fear and loyalty, leaving the audience to wonder if she’s truly capable of the conspiratorial plot that Catherine is determined she’s scheming, or if she’s just a concerned younger sister. In the flashback scenes she brings a cunning, sexual energy to Anne Boleyn that makes you double-take when realizing she was portraying Bess moments previously. 

“Mother’s Daughter” is a powerful and important play about authority and humanity, mercy and love, and particularly about being a powerful woman. It gives nuance and depth to a character who’s mostly written-off by history as a savage tyrant, and while Mary is almost certainly not a hero or someone to be canonized, she was complicated and intensely human. Thanks to Hennig, audiences and readers have a more multi-dimensional idea of the ruler Mary may have been. 

“Mother’s Daughter” is approximately two hours long with a twenty-minute intermission. It’s playing at Stratford’s Studio Theatre until October 13th. For tickets and more information, click here

Theatre Review: ‘The Front Page’ at The Stratford Festival

The cast of “The Front Page” at The Stratford Festival. Photo by Emily Cooper.

There are many instances when a play written almost 100 years ago is still as topical in 2019 as it was when it was written in the late 20’s. Politics, greed, corruption, murder, it all makes an appearance in the 1928 dramedy “The Front Page” now showing at the Stratford Festival. This show makes the newspaper relevant again, it is just a shame no one could find one that was still in business to celebrate it’s greatness…in print!

. . .top notch. . .a must see . . .

“The Front Page” written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, is adapted for the Stratford Stage by Michael Healey. It tells the story of a press room in Chicago, where the actual story is not necessarily the important thing and real journalism is tossed out the window. All that is wanted is to sell papers, the heck with the facts. While the boys from the other papers are playing poker, Hildy Johnson (Ben Carlson) is quitting. He met a girl, and is going off to New York City to marry her. The problem? He is the best reporter the ‘Examiner’ has. As he is packing his bags, a murderer is scheduled to be hung for shooting an African American cop and killing him. Just as Hildy is ready to leave for the train station, shots are fired into the press room, and the killer is on the loose. Hildy is back on the beat, getting the story, and giving the ‘Examiner’ the break it needs.

First things first, this story takes a while to get cooking. Three acts. Three acts!! This is a long show and to be honest, it felt long at the beginning. At the end of act one, and the rest of the acts, the story is fantastic and will really captivate your attention. The comedy, the drama, the emotion, it makes for a fantastic production. The unit set of the grungy press room in the County Court building is aesthetically phenomenal. Trash litters the floor. Phones are set up everywhere. Lorenzo Sacoini creates a fun set that is a character on it’s own.

Dana Osborne’s costumes are perfect and they really captivate the essence of each character’s personality. It’s nice to see costumes that really emulate what the character would wear and not just giving them something to put on.

Director Graham Abbey assembles a fantastic cast of character actors to make this story fun and exciting. Ben Carlson leads the show as Hildy Johnson. Carlson has a great hold on the Hildy character. He is funny, he is full of heart, he is relatable, and he has a quick wit that brings some of the greatest one-liners to life in this script. Carlson is great to watch. A master at work.

Mike Shara plays one of the funniest characters I have ever seen on stage, Sheriff Hartman. Shara plays a caricature of a tough talking, gun toting, air head. The dynamic between Shara and Juan Chioran’s Mayor are priceless and take an at time dense story and make it hilarious. They provide the comic relief in this show. Shara has a Will Ferrell demeanor that is so entertaining, you will have trouble breathing from laughter.

Maev Beaty is a firecracker as the outspoken Cookie Burns. She does a wonderful job countering Carlson’s Hildy Johnson. The back and forth between the two is a dance that you love witnessing. They have a love hate relationship that works wonders on stage.

Their are those who say that if you are going to revive a show or mount a new production, that you need to make it relevant to the modern age. I think that is ridiculous. Of all the wonderful things that this show incorporates into it, every time I heard a reference to “fake news,” or “Russian Collusion,” I rolled my eyes. I want my theatre to take me away and tell me a story, I don’t want to have my theatre reiterate what the media is throwing at me everyday. Other than this small irritation, this production is top notch and is a must see before it closes on October 25.

Running Time: 2 Hours 45 Minutes including two 15 minute intermissions.

“The Front Page” runs until October 25, 2019 and is presented as part of the Stratford Festival in Canada. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Billy Elliot: The Musical’ at The Stratford Festival

Nolen Dubuc (centre) as Billy Elliot with members of the company in Billy Elliot the Musical. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I only knew three things about “Billy Elliot: The Musical” when I sat in my cushy Festival Theatre seat one Saturday afternoon. One, that a very talented young actor was about to do a lot of impressive ballet; two, that Elton John wrote the music and; three, that it featured a super catchy song called “Solidarity” that one of my college roommates got me hooked on nearly a decade ago.

With that same roommate by my side in the Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival, I spent the entire two hours and 41 minutes of “Billy Elliot” with my mouth agape at this truly stunning production.

. . .truly electrifying. . .

Billy Elliot is the son of a widowed miner during the 1984 miner’s strike in a northern English mining town. While his father and brother are out on the picket lines, Billy disdainfully attends boxing lessons. When he is forced to stay late one night to finish his reps, he is thrown into the ballet class that takes over the same gymnasium where he discovers his passion for dance and wows the instructor and students with his incredible raw talent.

As a dancer myself and knowing how central dance is to “Billy Elliot,” I was ecstatic to see Donna Feore at the helm as director and choreographer after being blown away by her work in “The Music Man” last year. This show was no different in terms of its impressiveness, featuring intricately powerful ballet sequences and tap combinations performed by both veteran Stratford actors and the incredible cast of young people.

Now, it was the only song I knew going in, but “Solidarity” was just unbelievable. The ballet class where Billy truly shines for the first time shares the stage with a standoff between the miners’ picket line and the police force. The juxtaposition is visually stunning, and makes for some great choreography opportunities that Feore was not shy about taking advantage of.

Nolen Dubac is Billy Elliot, marking his Stratford debut. He’s sassy, expressive and endearing, not to mention an outrageously talented dancer. He shines especially in “Angry Dance,” a charged number backed by loud music and cries of frustration, and “Electricity,” a beautiful song and dance describing what it feels like to dance.

Blythe Wilson is Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s ballet teacher. Wilson struts out in the ideal 80’s workout look complete with leotard and leg warmers complete with biting criticisms and a cigarette. Her convincing coldness is harsh enough to make us believe she’s nothing more than a bitter has-been and then Wilson truly shines, letting Wilkinson’s passion for dance re-ignite as Billy discovers his.

Dan Chameroy is great as Billy’s father, shining especially during the beautiful and slightly heart-breaking “Deep Into the Ground.” Emerson Gamble is also hilarious as Billy’s best friend Michael, shining brighter than the sun in “Expressing Yourself.”

The explosion of dance and feeling that is “Billy Elliot” is also heavily supported by the incredible talents of lighting designer Michael Walton, projection designer Jamie Nesbitt, sound designer Peter McBoyle and set designer Michael Gianfrancesco. Those production elements need to fill a lot of space in the Festival Theatre and they all worked seamlessly to surround the cast, presenting the audience with stunning theatrical imagery.

Stratford’s “Billy Elliot” is a truly electrifying production. Grab your passport and head North to see this remarkable cast – you won’t regret it.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 41 minutes including a 20 minute intermission

“Billy Elliot: The Musical” runs through November 3 at the Festival Theatre at Stratford Festival. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’ at The Stratford Festival

Steve Ross (left) as Mr. Mushnik and André Morin in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I’ve seen “Little Shop” at least 5 times, I’ve been in it, and I am a huge fan of the movie. To say that I know the story inside and out would be an understatement. “Little Shop” is always a goofy good time, no matter where it is produced. The awesome thing about this show, is when a professional theatre organization produces it, it take the story to a new level, and creates an exciting theatrical experience for the audience. When The Stratford Festival produces it, a show that rivals a Broadway production is what you get.

. . .an exciting production. . .But remember, whatever you do, don’t feed the plants!

“Little Shop Of Horrors” is the brain child of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, you know, the two guys that brought Disney back into the black in the 90’s, and is based on the 1960’s cult classic film of the same name. When Seymour (André Morin) a young florist discovers a strange and interesting plant during a solar eclipse, fame and fortune find him and the little skid row flower shop where he works. Mr. Mushnik (Steve Ross) finds the once annoying good for nothing Seymour to be worth while now that his plant it bringing in the big bucks, and co-worker Audrey (Gabi Epstein) finds a spark of interest in Seymour, after her bully of a boyfriend Orin Scrivello, D.D.S (Dan Chameroy) mysteriously disappears. The plant’s mysterious growth, and the interesting disappearances of the denizens of skid row, cause for a zany and over the top story that is a bloody good time!

Having been so close to the source material, it was nice to see some of the changes, ad-libs, and an odd new song in act two, that The Stratford presented last night at the opening performance of the show. The energy, music, and singing is fantastic, and the visual aesthetic of the production is a treat for the eyes.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design is fabulous and is a character in it’s own right. Mushnik’s florist shop hits the nail on the head as a run down shop. So many times you will see productions of “Little Shop” where the shop is beautiful when in reality it should look like it is falling apart. Peeling wallpaper, broken shelves, and crooked letters on the facade all add the the illusion of the down on it’s luck shop. The brick walls that surround the proscenium are also fantastic and frame the story perfectly.

Jamie Nesbitt’ projections are fun. I love Nesbitt’t work, having been introduced to it last season during “The Rocky Horror Show” and in “Oh What A Lovely War” at the Shaw Festival. He has a tendency of putting little surprises in his work which, as an art teacher, I fully appreciate. Look for the people cleaning the windows on skid row, my God are they clean, and the fun advertisements that appear during the show. I love his style. It is very comic book like, and it fits the 60’s time period well.

André Morin leads the show as the lovable loser, Seymour. Morin is a powerhouse. His voice is fantastic, and his performance of “Feed Me/Git It” is stellar. He truly understands the idiosyncrasies that make Seymour tick, and he hits each one of them on the head. He is a perfect choice for this role.

Dan Chameroy plays a slew of characters in this production, starting off with Orin the Dentist. I absolutely love the artistic choices that Chameroy brings to this character. Most of the time you see Orin portrayed as a very nasty, very overly mean and abusive man. This happens because you want to see Seymour feed him to Audrey 2, but Chameroy goes for the more goofy route here, and while I really like it, I don’t feel that his Orin deserves to be fed to a hungry plant, but this production aims for kitsch and meets it! During “The Meek Shall Inherit” Chameroy plays three different characters in the same song, implementing quick costume changes, and nodding that he is doing so to the audience, as he runs away taking off costume pieces. This part is very entertaining.

Gabi Epstein does a wonderful job as Audrey. There is a unwritten rule that those who play Audrey need to sound just like Ellen Green, the original Audrey from the 80’s. Epstein breaks the convention slightly, and it is fantastic. She makes Audrey new, and I loved it! Her performance of “Somewhere That’s Green” is wonderful, even if it is my least favorite song in the show.

Steve Ross is very funny as Mr. Musnik. His accent is humorous, his mannerisms are perfect, and his comedic delivery is very dry. You will not be disappointed.

Matthew G. Brown does a great job as the voice of Audrey 2, that man-eating plant.

Starr Domingue, Vanessa Sears, and Camille Eanga-Seienge, play the three Do-Wop girls who act as the greek chorus in this show, keeping the story flowing, and provide fantastic vocals. They start the show on a high note, and keep it rolling all throughout.

Overall, this is an exciting production, and does the material justice. You will not be disappointed! You’ll want to go back! But remember, whatever you do, don’t feed the plants!

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“Little Shop Of Horrors” runs until November 2, 2019 and is presented at The Stratford Festival in Ontario. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Music Man’ at The Stratford Festival

The Music Man – On The Run 2018

Members of the company in The Music Man. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” is just one of those classic musicals. There’s comedy, romance, dance breaks, a traditional soprano leading lady and a score full of catchy songs performed by a large orchestra. Thanks to electrifying choreography and phenomenal performances, the Stratford Festival breathes new life into “The Music Man” with its unforgettable production.

. . .simply extraordinary.

The show opens with a group of traveling salesmen complaining about the bad rap they get when they arrive in a town that’s been swindled by Harold Hill, a salesman who claims to sell boys’ marching bands without having any musical knowledge. When he arrives in River City, Iowa, quite possibly the most stubborn group of everymen is there to welcome him. There’s the mayor, the grumpy shop owners, the gossiping group of women and the librarian, Marian Paroo. As Harold begins to work his magic on the townspeople, he raises the suspicions of Marian, who desperately tries to figure him out.

There is not a single part of the Stratford production that isn’t excellent. From the harmonious orchestra and Michael Gianfrancesco’s intelligently designed set to Dana Osborne’s flawless costumes and Michael Walton’s creative lighting plot, all of the technical elements perfectly highlight each amazing performance.

Director and Choreographer Donna Feore has done some incredible work with this production. In addition to stellar direction, her choreography is out of this world. “Seventy-Six Trombones” in particular offers countless unforgettable, show-stopping sequences, showcasing a highly skilled, diverse ensemble of dancers.

Daren A. Herbert is an incredible Harold Hill. With smooth dance moves and an even smoother voice, he brings a long overdue liveliness and new acting choices to a sometimes predictably played character. Herbert especially shines when first charming River City citizens (and the audience) in “Ya Got Trouble” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.”

Danielle Wade is perfect as the strong, independent Marian Paroo, especially in moments of balancing tender conversations with her younger brother Winthrop (an unbelievably good Alexander Elliot) and dishing out the sass with her mother (an endearing Denise Oucharek). Her lovely, rich voice soars on “My White Knight” and “Til There Was You.”

One important update the Stratford team made to the production is one of the musical’s early scenes when the town is celebrating the Fourth of July. In the published production and musical film, Mrs. Shinn leads a band of girls known as the “Wa-Tan-Ye Girls” in a shamefully racist skit. In a long overdue update, Stratford’s Mrs. Shinn glided onto the stage dressed as George Washington, with the girls (known as the River City Girl’s Historical Society) dressed as various patriotic characters, reenacting Washington crossing the Delaware River.

Stratford’s “The Music Man” is simply extraordinary. Thankfully, there are plenty of chances left to catch this incredible production, which is well worth a trip across the border.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 41 minutes including a 20 minute intermission

“The Music Man” runs through November 3 at the Festival Theatre at Stratford Festival. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show” at The Stratford Festival

The cast of “The Rocky Horror Show” at The Stratford Festival. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I have seen a few amateur productions of “The Rocky Horror Show” that were. . .painful. I remember after the last production I saw of it, I wished that the day would come when I could see a full out professional production of the show. I knew that the script wasn’t that great, but I wanted to be amazed at what could be accomplished with a theatre company had the means to make it a real spectacle. After years of waiting and hoping, my prayers had finally been answered. That is when I traveled to The Stratford Festival in Canada and gave myself over to absolute pleasure.

. . .a perfect production.

“The Rocky Horror Show” with book, music, and lyrics by Richard O’Brien, tells the loose story of two newly engaged sweethearts, Brad (Sayer Roberts) and Janet (Jennifer Rider-Shaw), who are on their way to visit Doctor Scott (Trevor Patt), a former teacher and now friend. Their plans are put on hold when they get a flat tire and must seek refuge in a castle that they passed a few miles back. There, they find a group of odd-ball, sex-crazed, characters, including Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Dan Chameroy), a mad scientist who is creating a man named Rocky Horror (George Krissa), for his personal pleasure, Riff-Raff (Robert Markus), Magenta (Erica Peck), and Columbia (Kimberly-Ann Truong), who are all his servants, or borders as they appear. The story has plot twists, and many holes, but if you have ever seen the movie, the play actually makes more sense believe it or not. 

Theatre is suppose to create a connection between the audience and the actors on stage, and an experience is to be created that will never be remounted. Each and every performance is unique, and I can only imagine how unique the performances of “Rocky Horror” can be here. Not only are we as audience members entertained by the brilliant cast, and musicians, but the audience participation is just the icing on the cake. The smile never left my face. Listening to members of the audience yell out perfectly timed one-liners, and seeing the actors take what the audience was dishing up and work with it was magical. Sure, most of the audience contributions were raunchy and sexual, but that is all the fun! This is not a show for the meek mannered. It never has been and it hopefully never will be.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design is breathtaking and has so many hidden gems of excitement that you have to go see the show more than once because it is impossible to see everything that is hidden around the set the first time. The caliber of thought and quality is awesome, and it pays homage of bad 1970’s B-movies. The aesthetic is brilliant.

Intertwined into Gianfrancesco’s set is Jamie Nesbitt’s video projections. Now, projection design is a tricky business because it is easy to pull focus from the actors, but Nesbitt uses subtle imagery that is impactful and hilarious. There is a bit of a Terry Gilliam motif present in Nesbit’s design, and it is incredibly enjoyable. I also love the Pop art theme that appears as well.

Dana Osborne’s costumes are fitting (get it) for the show and uphold the expectations that are brought forth when an audience member thinks ‘Rocky Horror’ but are also new. They are fun, especially the Phantom costumes, and the Usherette who appears at the beginning to sing my favorite song “Science Fiction / Double Feature.”

Laura Burton had her work cut out for her as Music Director. Her actors have magnificent ranges and she has them show them off. Notes that I didn’t think were possible are hit in this show, as if you needed anymore reason to be blown away by this fantastic production.

It is rare that I mention the band in a review, but these musicians know how to rock out. Especially Ian Harper on Tenor Saxophone. Harper whales on that sax throughout the show and it is some of the most beautiful sax playing I have heard in a show ever. Kudos.

You couldn’t wish for a more perfect cast in this production. There is not one person who does not deserve to be on that stage. Each actor takes their character and makes it unique, but we as the audience still love it. Leading the show as Brad, Sayer Roberts is hilarious as the dorky point-dexter, and has the comedic chops to make his act two bedroom scene with Frank, one of the funniest things I have ever seen. His performance of “Once in a While” is admirable. Paired with Jennifer Rider-Shaw’s Janet, who is funny, naughty, and lovable, the two take the stage by storm and give us a performance that we are happy to witness.

Robert Markus kills it as Riff-Raff. His vocal range is so spectacular that your ears have trouble understanding that his is singing so high. His performance in “Over By The Frankenstein Place” and in “Time Warp” brought the crowd to their feet.

Erica Peck opens the show as an usherette who sings “Science Fiction / Double Feature” and returns to play Magenta. She has wonderful comedic timing and I would say she also gives Patricia Quinn (the original Usherette / Magenta) a run for her money. She is fantastic.

Steve Ross handles the audience’s heckles well as The Narrator. His facial expressions and timing are perfect for this part. Although you “boo” when he enters the stage, you are always happy to see him.

Kimberly-Ann Truong as Columbia is a great choice. She is a firecracker and is a true audience favorite. Her tap-dancing during “Time Warp” is very entertaining.

Dan Chameroy was made to play Frank-N-Furter. Not only does he possess wonderful comedic abilities, but he also hams it up on stage so incredibly well. He is able to make us laugh by the smallest physicality, especially when an audience member asked him to describe Justin Bieber during “The Charles Atlas Song.” I’m still laughing at that. His performance of “Sweet Transvestite” is top-notch. He deserves to wear those fishnets.

Director Donna Feore has mounted a perfect production. This show will go down in Stratford history as being one of the best. Take the trip to Stratford, ON, and get ready to do The Time Warp again!

Running Time: 1 Hour 56 Minutes with one 20-Minute intermission.

Advisory: Suggestive Sexual Content, Adult Themes, Language

Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show” runs until November 11, 2018 and is presented at The Stratford Festival in Stratford Ontario. For more information, click here.

Theatre Reviews: ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ and ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at The Stratford Festival

Amy Keating (left) as Cathleen and Seana McKenna as Mary Cavan Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Photography by Emily Cooper.

I had the pleasure of traveling into the heart of Ontario, Canada on Saturday to attend the Stratford Festival for a day. Stratford, named after Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, hosts the Stratford Festival from April to November each year, which is one of the most celebrated and top-caliber theatre festivals in North America. The festival features nine productions this season, though only being in the Great White North for one day, I was able to catch only two: the Eugene O’Neill opus “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, and Shakespeare’s whimsical farce “The Comedy of Errors,” both presented in Stratford’s Studio Theatre. Though shows of polar opposite tone and content, both are connected through the festival’s theme of “freedom.” Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino marshalled a diverse collection of theatre pieces that all share this theme, from “Coriolanus” to “ The Rocky Horror Show” to “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Freedom is being explored deeply and comprehensively in Stratford, through characters and stories old and new.

First up was “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical 1941 play which is commonly considered to be his finest work, and one of the 20th century’s most important pieces of theatre. The play spends one day and night with the dysfunctional Tyrone family. Mary Tyrone (Seanna McKenna) is an unstable mother addicted to morphine that recalls moments of her life in the past to escape from her reality. The Irish patriarch James Tyrone (Scott Wentworth) is a cheap and alcoholic man and former successful actor. The older son Jamie Tyrone (Gordon S. Miller) is an alcoholic idle man that loves and envies his brother and is blamed by his mother for the death of his younger brother. Edmund Tyrone (Charlie Gallant) is an aspiring writer that has consumption (tuberculosis) and tried to commit suicide. Throughout the course of the play (a marathon three and a half hours), the Tyrones grapple with the morphine addiction of Mary, the illness of Edmund, and the alcoholism of Jamie. As day turns into night, guilt, anger, despair, and regret threaten to destroy the family.

Director Miles Potter presents this iconic masterpiece in the mostly conventional manner that the show is seen everywhere; after all, the show’s content is so rooted in the early-20th century Northeast U.S that it’s nearly impossible to take liberties with setting or time period. The entire show was set in the living room of the Tyrone’s Connecticut home, with minimal set pieces and extravagance. The intimacy of the Studio Theatre allowed the audience to really get to know the Tyrones, and was essential to the chemistry that these characters displayed, particularly McKenna and Wentworth, who were both mesmerizing.

“Long Day’s Journey” often elicits groans from theatre-goers, as it is astoundingly long and the themes are unrelentingly grim. However, in the right hands this show soars, which is the case with Stratford’s production. The audience was captivated from beginning-to-end, through two intermissions and the family’s deep dives into their past, their relationships with each other, and ultimately their place in the world. Mary says it best: ““The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”

After spending the afternoon immersed in O’Neill I grabbed a bite to eat (try the Bacon Avocado Burger at Downie Street Burgers, it will change your life), strolled through Stratford’s scenic downtown shopping district for a bit, then headed back to Studio Theatre at 8pm for “A Comedy of Errors”, presented on the same stage that “Long Day’s Journey” was.

Full disclosure: I am not a Shakespearephile. Though my love for theatre and drama are strong, I’ve always struggled with the language of Shakespeare (which is my fault, not his), and seeing a Bard play has always felt more like homework than pleasure. It’s my own cross to bear, and I try my best to see Shakespeare whenever I can, hoping one day that he’ll grow on me like he has for so many others.

Members of the company in The Comedy of Errors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

That being said, I’m happy to report that Keira Loughran’s production currently running in Stratford is a riot, bizarre, and tremendously fun.  “The Comedy of Errors” tells the story of two sets of identical twins who were accidentally separated at birth. (Shakespeare was father to one pair of twins.) Antipholus of Syracuse (Jessica B. Hill) and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse (Beryl Bain), arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus (Qasim Khan) and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus (Josue Laboucane). When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities lead to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus, and false accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession.

The production weaves together a tapestry of conventional Shakespearean language and staging with 80’s techno music, chaotic lights, dancing, and drag costuming, in what culminates in an oddball 80’s slapstick Rocky Horror-in-pantaloons production that was distinctly unique, full of great physical humor, and hilarious performances. While the whole cast was great, notable standouts include both Dromios (Bain and Laboucane), Angello the jeweler (Rodrigo Belfuss), and Adrianna (Alexandra Lainfiesta). If a dense Shakespeare-adverse shlub like me has a ball at this performance, everyone will.

While it’s a bit of a hike for us WNY-ers (around 2 hours 45 minutes), the Stratford Festival is worth every minute that it takes to get there. Theatre is in the air in the small tucked-away town, and while I can only speak for the two performances that I saw, the artistry that the actors, directors, producers, and technicians bring to the festival’s shows is unparalleled.

The Stratford Festival is running until mid-November (with some shows ending sooner), with “The Comedy of Errors” and “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” playing at the festival’s Studio Theatre. For more information and tickets, click here.