Friday, July 22, 2011

Shaw Festival--2011 reviews

THE SHAW FESTIVAL quality theatre in a lovely setting

The Shaw Festival, which is located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada is celebrating its 50th season. The “most beautiful city in Canada” is in full bloom.

Here are my reactions to the shows I saw. There are others which I couldn’t fit into my schedule.

Marvelous MY FAIR LADY

It is only appropriate for The Shaw to stage a production of MY FAIR LADY for it is based on PYGMALION, which was written by the Festival’s namesake. With memorable music by Frederick Loewe and vivid lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, the show is generally regarded as one of musical theatre’s greats.

My Fair Lady centers on Eliza Doolittle and her quest to become a proper lady under the tyrannical tutelage of Henry Higgins, a phoneticist, who, like Shaw himself, believed that one’s class in society was determined by the language one spoke and how it was spoken. Of course, as is the case with most Shaw plots, the British educational system, politics, and class system all come under attack.

The score includes such memorable songs as With a Little Bit of Luck, I Could Have Danced all Night, On the Street Where You Live, Get Me to the Church on Time, and I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.

The musical opened to unanimously glowing reviews, one of which said “Don't bother reading this review now. You'd better sit right down and send for those tickets.” My review of the Shaw production would have said the same thing if the lines hadn’t been used already.

With one exception, the production, under the creative and watchful eye of Molly Smith, is marvelous. Wouldn’t It Be Loverly if all musicals had such a score, lyrics, book and production quality!

The choreography, set design, musical sounds, lighting, and chorus blends are all spot on. Only the costumes, specifically the Ascot scene, were off hue. Instead of stuffy, prim and proper British, we were instead confronted by reggae Mardi Gras garish colors and patterns.

Benedict Campbell makes Higgins all his. No Rex Harrison imitation here. He has a tender underside to his cantankerous outer self. And this is a Higgins who sings, rather than talks the songs. Deborah Hay, though not the visual image of the traditional Eliza, sings, acts and creates a feisty cockney who becomes a believable fine lady. Patrick Galligan (Pickering) makes for a perfect contrast to the erupting Higgins, and Neil Barclay is a hoot as Liza’s free-will father. The rest of the cast is of equal quality.

Capsule judgement: A message to The Shaw: “You Did It,” you created a MY FAIR LADY that is memorable and will delight audiences who, “With a Little Bit of Luck,” will be traipsing “On the Street Where You Live.”

THE PRESIDENT, delightful satirical mockery of the business world

What does a person do when you are a British guardian of a young heiress and she announces her secret marriage to a communist taxi driver shortly before her parents arrive for a visit? If you are the all powerful president of a large bank, you totally remake the bloke. You dress him in the finest clothes, give him a high position in the bank, and provide him with lots of money. In other words, create an egomaniac with new found power and wealth.

THE PRESIDENT, Ferenc Molnár's comedy, which was a hit in the Shaw Festival's 2008 season, has returned with many of the original cast, including the delightful Lorne Kennedy as the bank president.

How Kennedy remembers, let alone perfectly orally machine gun fires all of his lines, is amazing. The rest of the cast is up for the rollicking happenings.
Capsule judgement: THE PRESIDENT is an hour of total hilarity and a must see!

THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON---a slight pastiche

Though he wrote many plays and other pieces of literature, J. M. Barrie is probably best known as the author of PETER PAN. The ADMIRABLE CRICHTON, one of his fantasies, is Barrie's slight satirical jab at class consciousness.

Although the play deals with serious issues, it is so mild in its rebuke, doing little to seriously advance the cause of changing the social structure of England. As a play it is a slight piece of pastiche, neither compelling attention nor gaining much laughter. It’s G. B. Shaw lite!

The story centers on William Crichton, an efficient butler in the London household of the Earl of Loam and his family. Though Crichton is the true master of the household, he knows his place, honoring the structure of the highly regulated social structure of late-nineteenth century England.

On a trip to the South Seas, on the Earl's yacht, the family and its servants are shipwrecked. They are marooned on an island, and only Crichton has the skills and resourcefulness to keep everyone alive. Within a few months, the social order has been reversed with Crichton taking control, while his former employers become his willing servants. Eventually they are rescued, return to London, and the master-servant status quo is restored. The moral of the tale is questionable, and that’s the major problem with the script.

The Shaw production is pleasant. The acting is efficient, though Steven Sutcliffe (Crichton) could have been a little more pompous in the earlier scenes thus making his transition to the “guv” more ironic.

There are clever bits with various animals leading the audience through song and dance through the tale. The highlight of the production is the rollicking curtain call.

Capsule judgement: Shaw’s THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON is a pleasant evening of theatre which says little to modern day audiences. It’s the kind of theatrical experience
that fifteen minutes after its over, you’ll forget you saw it.

ON THE ROCKS rocks politics

ON THE ROCKS, G. B. Shaw’s rarely performed political comedy, finds a Prime Minister in the grips of economic forces that are beyond his human control and, because of his caring concern, is heading for a personal emotional collapse. His views are out of sorts with the conservatives who are an integral part of his coalition cabinet. He goes on a self-imposed retreat. On his return, refreshed and invigorated, he embarks on a wholesale liberal agenda of nationalization, with jarring consequences.

Watching this play, a U.S. citizen can only make an immediate transfer to the present governmental stalemate. With a few minutes of time, a writer could change the names of the players, substitute Obama and Boehner, and make the first act of ON THE ROCKS into a reflection of the inside of the Beltway’s ridiculous goings on.

As is often the case with Shaw, he argues that English politics does not bear thinking about; and since democracy is a myth, it would be better to embrace Fascism and dictatorship wholeheartedly.

One of the show’s major criticisms is that the characters mainly sit around and talk. But they also scream, pontificate and clearly illustrate the folly of politics. The second act gets bogged down with Shaw’s obsession with communism, based on the fact that he had recently returned from a trip to Russia, where he developed a love-affair with the Soviet system.

The prime minister role is well played by Peter Krantz and Steven Sutcliffe is dogmatically scary as Sir Dexter Rightside, the conservative minister. They are surrounded by an excellent cast.

Capsule judgement: Though it is well done, ON THE ROCKS will be of interest to a select few….political junkies and Shavians.

CANDIDA delights as a woman reigns supreme

George Bernard Shaw was a man of convictions. He strongly expresses his views of the Victorian notions of love and marriage and the role, power and intelligence of women, in his delightful and well-crafted CANDIDA.

This is the story of Candida, the wife of a Christian Socialist clergyman, who is adored by his parishioners and is the constant guest speaker at political functions. Candida returns home briefly from a trip to London with Eugene, a teenage romantic poet who is not only in love with her, but wants to rescue her from what he presumes to be her dull life. Ultimately, Candida must choose between the two men and, in a typical Shaw speech, selects the "weaker of the two." During the dialogue Shaw weaves his political and sociological attitudes.

Clair Jullien is charming as Candida, Nigel Shawn Williams is excellent as The Reverend, but it is Wade Bogert-O’Brien who steals the show as Eugene. His is role which could easily become farcical, thus ruining the meaning of the play. Bogert-O’Brien textures the characterization, drawing a clear line between smitten love and the out-of-control feelings of a hysterical, hormone driven teen.

Capsule judgement: CANDIDA is a meaningful script that gets a delightful production at The Shaw. Go see Wade Bogert-O’Brien weave his boyish angst.

HEARTBREAK HOUSE, a very long sit!

On the eve of World War I, Ellie Dunn, her father, and her fiancé are invited to one of Hesione Hushabye’s infamous dinner parties. Unfortunately, her fiancé is a scoundrel, her father is well meaning but ineffectual, and she’s actually in love with Hesione’s husband.

Shaw’s HEARTBREAK HOUSE is a dream play, a mystery, a fantasy and a puzzlement, which contains inane and seemingly insane banter, yet is prophetically real. Shaw spends sixty-five pages of introductory material explaining his views and what he is trying to say. He spends a long three hours writing about these ideas in the script.

Shaw warns that at this point in history, just at the start of World War I, "cultured, leisured Europe" was drifting toward destruction, and that "Those in a position to guide Europe to safety failed to learn their proper business of political navigation". The script, a mix of low comic farce and tragedy, is an indictment of the generation Shaw thought was responsible for the First World War.

Michael Ball is wonderful as the cantankerous Captain Shotover, Benedict Campbell is appropriately obnoxious as Boss Mangan, and Robin Evan Willis is spot on as Elle, who is the queen of innocent manipulation. The rest of the cast is also excellent.

The house/boat set is appropriate, but creates movement problems for the actors who are constantly climbing up, down and over stacks of books and ladders and makes for some confusion in the second act.

Capsule judgement: HEARTBREAK HOUSE is a long, very long sit. In spite of being a good theatrical production, and containing many of Shaw’s prophetic messages, there isn’t a lot to appeal to a present day audience.

The Niagara area is dotted with wineries, many of which, besides offering wine tastings and sales, have fine dining facilities.

There are some wonderful restaurants including the Dining Room located at the Niagara Culinary Institute ( And my in town favorite, The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King St.)

The area has many excellent hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (, directly across the street from The Festival Theatre. For information on other B&Bs go to

For theatre information, a brochure 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 day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Helpful hint: A passport is a border crossing requirement!

Go to the Shaw Festival! Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are, and see some great theatre!