After four consecutive nights of excellence, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s winning streak came to an abrupt end. Maddeningly, it was the flagship musical that failed to pass muster despite the hard work and noble intentions of those involved.
The chief problem is location. More than ever before, the Festival Theatre demonstrated conclusively that it is no friend of musicals (and wasn’t designed for that purpose in the first place). With the orchestra heard but not seen by both the audience and the performers, the chances for razor-sharp ensemble and phrases that begin and end together are slim at best. Years back (during my playing days), the orchestra was, likewise, backstage: the singers followed our conductor via a television monitor. All went swimmingly (it seemed; we players, as a matter of course and acoustics never did hear the final mix) until opening night. About half-way through Act I, we noticed that our maestro’s gestures had become more frantic and that he gradually moved out of “hiding” onto the stage to salvage “America” until the ailing video camera could be repaired. At yesterday’s opening, the “togetherness” never slipped into a complete train wreck, but the snap, crackle and pop of Leonard Bernstein’s rhythmic score couldn’t find its groove much less any scintillating sizzle—definitely not “cool.”
To add insult to aural injury, the dreaded body mics were out in full force, filling the speakers with unwanted heavy breathing and an edgy tone that unassisted voices do not produce. Worse still, even with the reinforcement, many lines of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics had to be remembered instead of heard.
Why is it that nearly none of this week’s plays had the “benefit” of an electronic boost for the actors (the exception coming in Nightingale’s “Ode to the Cutpurse” ballad in Bartholomew Fair), but if there’s music in the air, it has to be doctored? Happy to report that the Shaw Festival banished their mics for Sunday in the Park With George (cross-reference below) and the music has never sounded better. Could there be a “must have mic" clause in one of the union agreements in Stratford?
With so many changes afoot here, shouldn’t this vexing issue also have a rethink? Sadly, most of the audience seemed content, but perhaps they’ve not been spoiled by a naturally produced musical in recent years (rare as an accurate federal budget projection). What ho! There’s an environmental tie-in: Who will be the first major music-theatre producer to offer green productions? (Opera companies seem to struggle on without a mixing board, nonetheless; the notion that their trained voices can project and those doing musicals cannot is an artistic myth.)
Back to the venue rant. The Avon Theatre is best equipped for musicals (a real pit offers a conductor and his charges that key ingredient for superb song and dance results: direct eye contact. No doubt, economic considerations (number of seats/sure-fire sellers such as West Side Story) have much to do with theatre selection, but shouldn’t the benefits of an improved artistic result trump the box office receipts? In the long run, if more companies go back to “au natural” performances, this sort of artificial meddling will clearly diminish by comparison. Will there be the courage to try?
Back to the show.
Microphones or not, vocally it’s disappointing. Forced tone and frantic vibratos mar the otherwise good-looking performances of Brandon Espinoza (Riff) and Paul Nolan’s Tony. Chilina Kennedy fairs better as Maria, yet her most intimate moments (e.g., “One Hand, One Heart,” replete with a Michelangelo-like lighting cue which ruins the emotional atmosphere) lack fully formed contours. Kolton Stewart’s (the conscience of the production, Boy) noble contributions show promise but require further coaching.
For a show that is famous for its choreography, Sergio Trujillo has taken a decidedly conservative approach. The pent-up excitement of brawling youth—like the snare drum’s back-beat brushes and the purposely offbeat finger snaps—have to settle for close-but-no-cigar delivery rather than infectious, riveting rhythm.
The most consistently enjoyable number was “Gee, Officer Krupke.” For a few too brief moments, everything came together only to demonstrate what should have been the rule—not the exception.
Douglas Paraschuk’s dance-friendly, minimalist set was efficiently effective. Flying in the dress shop was a marvellous moment initially, but the exact replication for the encore only weakened the effectiveness of both.
Director Gary Griffin seemed to do the best with what he had, but hopefully he, too, will look for a stronger foundation upon which to build next time out. JWR