A day after the 65th Stratford Festival failed to present an opening production (The Tempest, featuring Martha Henry as Prospero)—due to what appears to be a hoax bomb threat—the Festival Theatre positively glowed (even the anthem was sung with unusual gusto) as the sold-out crowd cheered, applauded and stood while Donna Feore’s production was mightily embraced on both sides of the footlights, silently proclaiming, “We are back with a vengeance: fine art trumps malicious mischief every time.”
To be honest, not a few of us grimaced in apprehension when the firecracker then—later—thunderstorm sound effects exploded into the hall. Seeing law enforcement officers at the entryways, security guards in the lobby and a canine-unit vehicle parked discreetly in the adjacent parking lot, reminded one and all that a new normal is afoot at Canada’s finest repertory company.
The well-loved creation of Meredith Willson was served up with—by now—typical Feore style: movement rules, the music is strong and the acting dutifully supports both.
The two showstoppers—“Seventy-six Trombones”, “Shipoopi”—were both similarly structured: begin with enthusiasm, literally kick things up a notch and then let the most athletic members of the ensemble—led this time with infectious exhilaration by Devon Michael Brown as Tommy—tossing off leaps, spins, cartwheels (the double body was sensational) and acrobatics that would not be out of place at any Cirque du Soleil performance.
As Professor Harold Hill, Stratford newcomer Daren Herbert proved to be an excellent choice: his dancing was smooth as silk and wisely not pushed beyond his skills, the characterization of the fly-by-night salesman was a joy in its metamorphosis from huckster to hero. Only his songs—unremarkable voice, generally pitch accurate—caused any brief moments of concern.
As Marian the Librarian, Danielle Wade’s début appearance here was a gem of haughtiness, understatement then genuine, unabashed love. “Till There Was You” was superb. Just some of the forays into the upper register could be improved with more breath support rather than dynamic push.
Of course, all of the vocal/instrumental contributions will have far better outcomes if—someday—a director has the courage to turn the microphones off and let the theatre’s natural acoustic, alongside the considerable talents of the cast and musicians be allowed to truly show just how good they are. For his part, conductor Franklin Brasz did a commendable job of keeping the “heavenly” pit and the on-stage artists in the same postal code.
Other performances of note came from Steve Ross, playing the blustering, vocabulary challenged Mayor Shinn, while his purposely over-the-top wife, Eulalie, had an ideal advocate in Blythe Wilson (“Balzac” will never sound the same).
The feuding school trustees, having found, er, real harmony after Hill morphed them into a stylish barbershop quartet were given convincing visual life thanks to George Krissa, Robert Markus, Sayer Roberts and Marcus Nance, but the exacting arrangements still have a ways to go to ring true in all four parts.
The horse, with its sassy tail was a sight gag for the ages: three cheers to all concerned.
Brilliant lighting (Michael Walton) and a set to beat the band (Michael Gianfrancesco) added much to this production that hadn’t planned to lift off the 2018 season, but was appreciated in far more ways than just a great night at the theatre by all of those present and many, many others who—like me—continue to wonder just why we can’t all get along. JWR