Sunday, July 24, 2005

Shaw Festival--2005 reviewed #1

SHAW FESTIVAL’S 2005 season reviewed!

Every trip to the Shaw Festival, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, convinces me that it is the premiere theatre venue in North America. The plays are generally excellent, the acting company superb, the show variety allows for something for everyone, and the settings and costumes are creatively and lavishly conceived.

The Shaw Festival is conducted in three theatres. The shows are performed Tuesday through Sunday. Each day has matinee, evenings and even some lunch time productions. For real theatre buffs that means a three-night/four-day stay can result in experiencing seven shows. The festival is an easy four-hour trip from Cleveland on roads which pass through the wine countries of Ohio, New York and Canada. Niagara on-the-Lake is a lovely city brimming with flowers, classical architecture and inviting shops. This is like going to theatre heaven.

Jackie Maxwell, Shaw’s Artistic Director, each year chooses a focus for the plays. This season its the family. It is carried out with a blend of comedies, musicals and dramas.


George Bernard Shaw's ‘MAJOR BARBARA’ has been called the most controversial of Shaw's works. The play, which was first produced in 1905, is filled with Shaw's criticism of Christianity and society as a whole. The play was an instant success and has remained popular because of its compelling plot and strong philosophical statements. Theatre critics consider the script not only among Shaw's best but as one of the greatest plays in modern theatre.

The central conflict of the play is between the extremist ideas of Andrew Undershaft , an armaments dealer, and the thoughts of his aristocratic relatives, representing the ideals of society. Undershaft’s devilish power and wit make the outcome inevitable. By closing curtain the audience is well aware of Shaw’s view of the fusion of money with morality.

One of Shaw’s most powerful statements in ‘MAJOR BARBARA,’ is that “the greatest of our evils and the worst of our crimes is poverty.” Shaw is saying that the Church and the state should eliminate poverty as if it were a crime instead of praising it as a virtue (i.e., “blessed are the poor”).

‘MAJOR BARBARA’ illuminates Shaw’s statement that “I am and shall always be a revolutionary writer, because our laws make law impossible...”.

Don’t get the idea that this is an overly abstract and boring play. It definitely is not. This is a Shavian comedy. It is filled with irony, humor and plot twists. In the case of the Festival production, under the wondrous direction of Joseph Ziegler, it is engrossing. Shaw uses the play to entertain his audience, to make people laugh, while examining issues that are as important today as they were when the play was first written.

Ziegler has perfectly cast and interpreted the show. He carries the audience along willingly on his focused journey.

There is not a weak acting performance. Everyone from leads to supporting cast are emotionally and physically enmeshed in the happenings. Special praise must be given to Mary Haney, as Lady Britomart Undershaft representing the upper class British, Diana Donnelly as the well-intentioned Major Barbara, Evan Buliung as the bumbling Charles Lomax, and Benedict Campbell as the humanly demonic Andrew Undershaft.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The production of ‘MISS BARBARA’ is flawless. Everything works. The sets, the costumes, the musical interludes and the acting are perfectly keyed. This is theatre at its best! If you have only one production to see at Shaw this season it is a flip-up between this and the equally superb ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE.’


The ingenious and creative wordsmith, Somerset Maugham, gives great advice about love in his play ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE.’ He states, “How do you know if you are in love?” His answer, “If you are willing to share your toothbrush with the person.” Gee, and you thought love was complicated.

‘THE CONSTANT WIFE’ is set in a 1920s drawing room. As the play starts, Constance Middleton, Maugham's heroine, who is an attractive, intelligent, and remarkably level headed woman, is confronted by a friend who bursts into her drawing room and says, "I thought you might like to know that your husband is my wife's lover." Unfazed, Constance, who has known all along, states, “Of course, a good wife always pretends not to know the little things her husband wishes to keep hidden from her." And so, starts a delightful bonbon of theatrical delight.

Adultery has been a theme of comedy for as long as there has been theatre in the Western world. It remains funny because it generates secrets, which generate lies, and nothing is funnier than a stage full of people lying their heads off. And Maugham is a master at inventing lies, discoveries, and surprises. His writing style and his ability to play with words allows him to lead the audience to an obvious conclusion. Then, with a few well chosen utterances he surprisingly changes the course of action.

The success of the Shaw Festival production is not alone. ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE’ has been running on Broadway with Lynn Redgrave in the starring role. The production has been so triumphant that its run has just been extended. As much as I admire Miss Redgrave, I can’t believe that the Big Apple production can be better than that at Shaw.

Deftly directed by Neil Munro, the production proves that Maugham has not lost his power to amuse, while intriguing an audience and teaching them some valuable lessons.

Laura Paton is wonderful as Constance. She lights up a stage. Her long monologue concerning her husband’s affair is mesmerizing. Patrica Hamilton is delightful as Ms. Culver, Constance’s mother. Catherine McGregor is properly uppity as Catherine’s sister. Blair Williams, as John, Constance’s husband, bounces between cad and victim with delightful ease. Glynis Ranney makes for a perfect twit as John’s paramour.

William Schmuck’s gorgeous drawing room set and the elegant costumes enhance the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE’ is a charming, light hearted satirical comedy, jam-packed with the wit for which Maugham’ is famous. It’s a must see at the Shaw Festival.


The word on the street in Niagara-on-the-Lake was that ‘GYPSY,’ the big, brash, bouncy musical was the “must see” of the season. It was, therefore, with great anticipation that I went to the production.

Though commonly referred to as ‘GYPSY,’ the true name of the show is ‘GYPSY: A MUSICAL FABLE’. It has music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. and a book by Arthur Laurents. It is loosely based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist.

The focal point of the show centers on Gypsy’s struggle with her mother, Mama Rose, whose name has become synonymous with "the ultimate show business parent." The musical has a wonderful score which contains such standards as "Small World," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "You'll Never Get Away from Me," and "Let Me Entertain You."

The show originally opened on Broadway on May 21, 1959 and starred Ethel Merman. A 1962 film version starred Rosalind Russell. Few know that they were really listening to Lisa Kirk dubbing Russell’s voice. The musical has been revived three times on Broadway, running from 1974 to1975 with Angela Lansbury, from 1989 to1991 with Tyne Daly and in 2003 with Bernadette Peters. A television movie in 1993 starred Bette Midler as Rose.

In the pre-show discussion it was revealed that Nora McLellan, who normally plays Mamma Rose was ill and Kate Hennig, her understudy, would stand in. We were assured that Hennig had played the role before. In fact, due to the demanding vocal requirements of the part she is scheduled to perform more than twenty times during the season. The speaker’s conclusion, “Don’t worry, she is excellent.”

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mamma Rose is the center piece of the play. Without a big, brassy, belter with chutzpa the show sinks. Hennig has none of those qualities. She has a pleasant but not belting voice and develops a character lacking in dynamism. She sings words, not meanings, so many of her songs lack clarity of purpose. She often speaks to the audience rather than the actors to whom the lines are directed. Her version of “Rose’s Turn” had none of the heart-wrenching self discovery that should bring the show to a climax. This is definitely not a stellar performance.

The rest of the cast is excellent. Julie Martell makes the transition from plane-Jane Louise to seductive Gypsy Rose Lee with style. She has a beautiful singing voice. Her duet “If Momma Was Married,” as sung with Trish Lindstrom (June), is a show highlight. Jeff Lillico (Tulsa) lights up the stage as he sings and dances “All I Need Is the Girl.” Ric Reid is a perfect nebbish as Herbie, Rose’s long suffering suitor. Gabrielle Jones, Patricia Vanstone and Cathy Current stop the show with their stripper antics in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

The sets, costumes, orchestrations and the show’s technical aspects are excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘GYPSY’ could be a wonderful production. The version I saw wasn’t. My advice is: If you are scheduled to see a performance in which Ms. Hennig is going to be featured as Mamma Rose, or they announce that she is replacing Ms. McLellan, run, don’t walk to the box office and trade in your ticket!


Besides the plays themselves, the Festival includes a reading series, Sunday coffee concerts, a Village Fair and Fete, seminars, backstage tours, pre-show chats, Tuesday Questions and Answers and Saturday Conversations.

For theatre information, a brochure, lodging suggestions or tickets call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers Sunday night specials, day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

In a forthcoming segment of my reactions to the 2005 Shaw season, I’ll discuss four more plays and make some recommendations on things to do and places to stay and eat.