How hugely disappointing as I looked forward to The Front Page with an all-star Stratford Festival cast only to have Michael Healey’s adaptation make me wonder if next year’s announced Spamalot was already on stage.
In recent years, there seems to be an epidemic in the redo world of playing to the crowd (a.k.a. LCD), giddily filling seats while losing the inherent power of such magnificently crafted works as this (cross-reference below).
Some maestros have also been known to “improve”, for example, Beethoven’s symphonies by allowing the French horns to play notes not yet possible when composed, but Healey’s result is more akin to changing the time signature of the Eroica’s opening salvo from 3/4 to 4/4. Clearly the emphasis is on the wrong syllable when—in this version—farce overpowers all other elements to the point where Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s savvy understanding of their time and expert use of biting satire get lost in the shuffle of ripped trousers, spittoon wash, slippery gun follies and figure skates.
For years, gender-blind casting has been a considerable strength in Stratford (cross-reference below). But changing the sex of one of the play’s main characters(Chicago Herald and Examiner’s publisher, Walter Burns) to a woman (Penelope “Cookie” Burns—the merry widow) spoils the narrative broth of the era and causes unneeded and unwanted backstory. In the more usual way, transforming MacLaren into a woman doesn’t jar at all.
To their credit, the cast members do everything asked of them, but left many in the audience confused as to when, if, or how hard to laugh. The original is most certainly not devoid of yuks, but never loses site of its raison d’être. In this production cheap laughs trump (in all senses of the word) stellar writing and wit.
Director Graham Abbey seems quite content to go along with putting new—if ill-fitting clothes on this classic play—but too many will leave the theatre (especially if they have never seen or read the original) delighted with the comedy and ever so pleased with being able to pick up on the Red/Russia menace references—so like the White house these days. The rest of us will mourn the waste of an opportunity to experience just how the original authors’ vision and insights still live with us every day from Hong Kong to Kashmir to Syria to…. JWR