STRATFORD, Ontario – For the best play, why not the best theater? So for “King Lear” (my choice of best), I had the good fortune of being at London’s National Theatre in March and at Canada’s Stratford Festival a couple of weeks ago. Don’t ask which was better: each illuminated different mountain tops and valleys of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, which is to say that the wonder comes from the play.
But we do not live by tragedy alone, as I’ve observed from time to time, so on this Stratford trip, we Post-Gazette theater tourists lightened the dark, tear-stained wonders of “Lear” with the musical comedy riches of the neo-Gershwin musical, “Crazy for You,” and the comic silliness of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever.”
Those three are just a taste of this year’s 12-play festival. Every year I hope to get back: this year I’d be especially drawn by the rarely seen 18th century comedy, “The Beaux Stratagem,” by Shakespeare’s even more rarely seen “King John” or by the never-before seen “Christina, The Girl King.”
So much theater, so little time.
“Crazy for You”
Let’s take comedy, first, which is what we did, in the evening following the bus trip from Pittsburgh. I don’t think we could have handled “King Lear” just then, but “Crazy for You” was the appropriate tonic, with all that dancing to energize us after a long day.
This is the 1992 musical with an appealing book by Ken Ludwig, based very loosely on the Gershwins’ “Girl Crazy” (1930) and stuffed to the gills with their great songs. You might even consider it a jukebox musical, i.e. an excuse to link “Bidin’ My Time,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm” and “But Not for Me” (all from “Girl Crazy”) with songs from a half-dozen other shows, including “I Can’t Be Bothered Now,” “Things Are Looking Up,” “Shall We Dance,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
That’s a whole hall in the songwriting Hall of Fame. But “Crazy for You” goes way beyond jukebox because it has a good story, lots of laughs and dancing galore.
To me, it’s still a shock seeing a Broadway musical on the great Tyrone Guthrie-Tanya Moiseiwitsch Shakespearean thrust stage. To make it work, they have to platform over the thrust, and even so it’s tight quarters for all those spinning dancers. But 10 minutes into the show, we feel we’re right on Broadway – doubly so, because that’s where the story begins.
Soon enough it moves to Deadrock, Nevada, where Bobby pursues Polly, saves a theater and reinvigorates a town – but only in the nick of time, by the skin of his teeth, etc.
The ensemble work is what blew me away, both dancing and singing, for which thanks to director/choreographer Donna Feore – wife of Colm Feore, who plays King Lear. What a household that must be this summer!
Josh Franklin is a hard-working, exultant Bobby. Special cheers for him, Tom Rooney (Bela) and Ms. Feore for their sublime “What Causes That?” drunken mirror number, completely reimagined from the Broadway original. Natalie Daradich is a mellifluous Polly, but maybe too Debbie Reynolds and not an imaginative actor. Some of the others also aren’t up to those I’ve seen on Broadway or on tour, but it doesn’t really matter, because the ensemble is the heart of this heart-warming, heart-lifting show.
Oddly, Shakespeare’s great tragedy also lifts hearts, but it does so by exploring the extremes of tragic despair. At the end, depleted by shared grief, we can only feel inspired by the magnificence with which the story is told.
It all depends on Lear, of course. As Gielgud or one of those acting gods said when asked how old you had to be to play the octogenarian king, “young enough to still carry Cordelia.” The serious point is that you need something of the wisdom of age but also plenty of the energy of youth. At 55, Colm Feore seems a good age, running the gamut from defying the heavens (did I catch a hint of a hint of remembered incest?) to plucking our heartstrings.
In support, Maev Beaty finds as much sympathy as I’ve ever seen in Goneril, the oldest daughter. Stephen Ouimette is a properly pathetic, needling Fool. As subplot heroes, Scott Wentworth and Evan Buliung as Gloucester and Edgar, father and son, deserve a separate tragedy of their own. Mr. Buliung is first seen chasing a girl – nice touch! – but darkens as needed. Wentworth is almost inaudible to start, but he gradually warms to his task, and in the scenes on the heights with Edgar (verging also on recognition) and on the beach with Lear, he breaks hearts to match the king.
As with “Crazy for You,” some of the supporting roles don’t quite measure up, but in such a megalith of a play, that must always be true. (I said something similar about the London production in March.) Here, I don’t think Liisa Repo-Martell’s Regan or Brad Hodder’s Edmund have the sexy edge you expect, and Sara Farb lacks Cordelia’s inner light.
Director Antoni Cimolino commands enough ensemble members (perhaps it helps that he’s also artistic director) to provide epic scope. On the whole, this is no Beckettian tragedy, except on the beach, which is as heartbreakingly spare. Ultimately, we feel it most intensely as a personal tragedy of a family and a foolish man who finds his true heart only on the edge of death.
Now for something completely different, “Hay Fever,” a comedy that’s light even for Noel Coward, who sometimes interweaves his comedies with darker stuff. Not so here, in his swift tale of the family of stage star Judith Bliss. Now in temporary country retirement, she, her writer husband and two very precocious young adult children all invite houseguests on the same weekend and chaos ensues.
The chief fun for regular Stratford visitors is to see Lucy Peacock as Judith — she of the megawatt smile, who just yesterday was playing Shakespeare’s young heroines. Seeming young for Judith, she pulls it off, since why shouldn’t Judith seem young? That’s what actors do – seem what they choose. Cynthia Dale, star of several Stratford musicals, shows up as sharp-nailed socialite Myra. And relative newcomer Tyrone Savage is all snotty sophistication as son Simon.
Did I mention that seeing actors in different roles is one of the attractions of Stratford (and of the Shaw Festival, too)? Plan right and you could also see Mr. Feore (Lear) as an amorous spark in “The Beaux Stratagem.” But no matter what, you can hardly go wrong at Stratford.
If you go ... Stratford
The basics: 350 miles by car from Pittsburgh; 62nd season; artistic director Antoni Cimolino. A visitors guide, including schedule and info on hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and more, is available from the Stratford Festival, Box 520, Stratford, Ontario, Canada N5A 6V2; 1-800-567-1600; firstname.lastname@example.org; Facebook; www.stratfordfestival.ca includes trailers of shows.
Tickets: Prices vary according to play or musical, theater and day of the week, and beyond that, Stratford employs dynamic pricing, which means specific seats may go up or down in price depending on demand. The overall range is $25 to more than $100 Canadian (U.S. $23-$92 plus; the Canadian dollar is worth about $0.92 U.S.) Discounts for students, seniors and children.
Patron services: Accommodation bureau (1-800-567-1600, www.stratfordaccommodations.com). Stratford Tourism lists accommodations and more (800-561-SWAN, www.welcometostratford.com). The festival visitors guide lists several more B&B associations.
Schedule of plays
Festival Theatre (1,833 seats): Ludwig, Gershwin & Gershwin, “Crazy for You: The New Gershwin Musical”; Shakespeare, “King Lear” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; George Farquhar, “The Beaux’ Stratagem” (all through Oct. 10, 11 or 12).
Avon Theatre (1,079): Wasserman, Leigh & Darion (after Cervantes), “Man of La Mancha”; Schulich Children’s Plays presents James Reaney (after Lewis Carroll), “Alice Through the Looking Glass”; Noel Coward, “Hay Fever” (all through Oct. 11 or 12).
Tom Patterson Theatre (480): Shakespeare, “Antony and Cleopatra” (previews Aug. 3; opens Aug. 14), and “King John”; Bertolt Brecht, “Mother Courage and Her Children” (all through Sept. 20 or 21).
Studio Theatre (260): Michel Marc Bouchard, “Christina, The Girl King” (previews July 29; opens Aug. 14-Sept. 21).
Stratford Masonic Concert Hall: Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a chamber play” (now in previews; opens July 24-Sept. 20).
Beyond the stage
“The Forum”: A large range of programs, from discussions and talks to frequent visits by experts in subjects related to the plays.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.