Once the Shaw Festival accepted the idea that the audience wanted to see musicals along with Shaw’s many spoken words, the pattern was to revive little-seen shows that the discerning might want to travel miles to see. Last year Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel, a bust in New York City, became a huge success. This year there are three musicals, two by Stephen Sondheim, who’s generally shunned by community theater, but is worshiped by a large swath of the cognoscenti. His A Little Night Music is enjoying a small-scale revival through Oct. 4 in the Court House, and Follies lights up the Festival Theatre on Aug. 29, Sept. 12 and 27, and Oct. 4.
That means the major musical, this year’s Mack and Mabel, is Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town (through Oct. 5 at the Festival Theatre). Well, not quite.
Sister act: Lisa Horner gets happy with cast members of the Comden-Green-Bernstein musical Wonderful Town. Emily Cooper photo.
The potential is indeed arresting. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were running high when they completed the book for Wonderful Town in 1953. Their movie script for Singin’ in the Rain (1952) had won an Academy Award, and Wonderful Town took in a shelf full of Tonys. Their pal Leonard Bernstein was coaxed back to the theater nine years away from the success of On the Town (1944), but was heading for his double triumphs of Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957). And the premise was Ruth McKenney’s stories of two Ohio sisters’ cross-cultural adventures in 1935 Greenwich Village, which had charmed readers of The New Yorker in the early 1940s and had already been adapted into a successful non-musical film with Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair, My Sister Eileen (1942).
If it’s a matter of seeing this little-performed confection given a poshest possible revival, with Judith Bowden’s comical period costumes, William Schmuck’s mobile and witty set, Jane Johanson’s Tharpian choreography and Paul Sportelli’s glorious musical direction (the Bernstein heirs should be thrilled), then Wonderful Town is a must-see. Lisa Horner as older sister Ruth is mordant, self-effacing and droll, while Chilina Kennedy is adorable as younger sister Eileen.
The show itself, alas, turns out to be blander than everyone remembers. Comden and Green bleached the story of ethnicity and actuality. Perhaps because Sen. Joe McCarthy was riding high then, the show loses the political edge of the original. In real life, Ruth McKenney’s sister Eileen was an Irish-Catholic girl who married lefty Jewish novelist Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), which you’d never guess here. Both died in a car accident in December 1940, just days before the Broadway opening of My Sister Eileen.
Worst of all, the music just doesn’t sound like Bernstein. Comden and Green brought Bernstein to replace the original composer, Boston Pops tunesmith Leroy Anderson (“Sleigh Ride”), and nothing you hear would think “Tonight” or “Somewhere” was in the offing. The big song is “It’s Love,” reprised in the last scene, and the most diverting number is “My Darlin’ Eileen,” a mock anticipation of Riverdance with a male chorus of cops.
Aside from Getting Married, the other Shaw production at the Shaw Festival (there are only two) is an early scandalous success, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, through Nov. 1 at the Festival Theatre. Maxwell directs company veteran Mary Haney about a powerful but self-sacrificing woman and her feminist but ungrateful daughter (Moya O’Connell). Once banned because of the revelation of what Ms. Warren’s profession was, the dialogue is largely a debate about sex, love, money and morality.
The Little Foxes
There’s a lot of Shavian polemic buried beneath the skin of Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), generally regarded as America’s greatest female playwright. The Little Foxes (running through Nov. 1) is usually ranked her top work, and of the five productions covered in this sweeping overview, it’s the one you’d most want to see. Hardly an obscure work, Foxes is often performed, and the excellent 1941 film version, with Bette Davis under the direction of William Wyler, is well-remembered. Familiarity should never breed heedlessness, however. Hellman’s portrait of New Orleans’ greedy Hubbard family features the monstrous Regina, one of the towering female roles in the American theater, even if she is a nasty piece of work (so much for sisterhood).
Power and money trump gender as issues in the action. The Hubbard brothers, bullying Ben (Ric Reid) and weakling Oscar (Peter Krantz), want in on a deal that will make them millions, along with exploiting impoverished local labor, most of it black. Their married sister Regina Giddens (Laurie Paton) lacks the money to be a player, unless she can secure the railroad bonds belonging to her wheelchair-bound husband Horace (David Jansen). His sickly body never obscures his moral clarity, which brings a dazzling encounter of their opposed wills.
Family matters in the Big Easy: Sharry Flett and Krista Colosimo in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. David Cooper photo.
We see the hand of a feminine playwright, augmented by Ms. Eda Holmes’ direction, in the portrayal of inter-family relations, like the denigration of the weaker, if well-born, wife, Birdie Hubbard (Sharry Flett). Or the way the always-smiling Ben walks into a room and shakes his rolled newspaper, signaling that Oscar must get up and give Ben his seat.
Even though The Little Foxes is sumptuously staged in one of the festival’s smaller venues, the 328-seat Royal George Theatre on Queen Street, the casting of the cream of the regular troupe sows the confidence Maxwell has in the show. These include Krantz, Flett and also stentorian Norman Browning as William Marshall, the crafty Northern catalyst to the intrigue.
In recent years Laurie Paton has emerged as the authoritative leading lady for the festival’s weightiest parts, such as the title roles in Shaw’s Candida and Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife and also as the corrupt Vera in Pal Joey, warbling “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” (For more about her versatility, read on.) Her husky Southern accent in The Little Foxes delineates a compelling embodiment of remorselessness and ambition; her Regina is a villainess we love to dread.
George Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (through Nov. 1 at the Royal George) is one of those plays you’d better see in Niagara-on-the-Lake because no one else is going to revive it. That does not mean it isn’t plenty of argumentative fun, despite being talky and close to plotless. In the first act we meet 10 people of interlocking relationships representing widely disparate attitudes toward marriage and love. Among them are a love-struck couple about to get married, a lovesick red-coated officer who is continually refused by an independent woman named, subtly enough, Lesbia Grantham (Fiona Byrne), a securely old married couple, a cuckolded husband who has publicly struck his wife to ease her divorce, assorted adulterers and a celibate.
What makes this fun is that everyone speaks in witty paradoxes, often taking points of view opposite what their roles imply. Since Shaw wrote the dialogue, Getting Married is one of his quotable efforts, such as, “She was such a good mother, that’s why all our children ran away from home.” Or, “What sort of prime minister would we have if we took them for life: better or worse?” Or, “The whole strength of England lies in the fact that the enormous majority of the English people are snobs.”
Still relevant after 100 years: Martin Happer and Laurie Paton in Getting Married, Shaw’s 1907 comedy of ideas. David Cooper photo.
Although it may sound off-putting to observe it, the first act of Getting Married sounds like Plato’s symposium on the meaning of love, where everyone gets a crack in until a wise woman, Diotima, summarizes the argument for Socrates and everyone. She is the much-talked-about Mrs. George Collins (Laurie Paton again), who dominates the second act, saying many of the things Shaw himself would have, if he ever deigned to appear in drag. Never so solemn as to be preachment, Getting Married is a comedy of ideas, most of them still sufficiently current (the play is 100 years old this year) to enliven post-curtain conversation over drinks for your party.
Once again, the peerless company regulars are all in top from, especially David Schurmann as the bishop who shares Mrs. Collins’ second-act dialogue, Peter Millard as the cuckold, Norman Browning as the celibate, Michael Ball as one of those wise servants and Sharry Flett as the bishop’s ironic wife. Especially impressive among the newcomers are Krista Colosimo and Gray Powell as the betrothed Edith and Cecil, who deliver a rare on-stage Shavian kiss, and Martin Happer as St. John Hotchkiss, an earnest, lecherous adulterer.
But it is actress Paton who again dominates the action, under Joseph Ziegler’s clipped direction. Phenomenally different in accent and class from Foxes’ Regina, Paton is here expansive, dominating and convincing.
The major discovery of the season, a play that none of your friends has ever heard of by a playwright maybe even you have never heard of, is Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother (through Oct. 4 at the 327-seat Court House Theater on Queen Street). Maxwell rediscovered Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son (1911), set in the industrial north, which had been a hit in its day, and produced it to great acclaim four years ago. The Stepmother, set among sophisticated urbanites after World War I, was produced exactly once by a private theater club in 1924 and then forgotten, until now.
Sowerby’s plot, with a caddish villain and a plucky, innocent victim, will sound less attractive in summary than it comes off on stage. The playwright’s real talent was in creating scenes where performers can strut their stuff, be it shimmering hypocrisy or determined trust. The Stepmother is by no means a thriller, but it offers some of the same sexual politics, and dramatic rewards, of Patrick Hamilton’s Angel Street.
Rediscovered gem: Marla McLean (left) and Claire Jullien in Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother. Emily Cooper photos.
Sweet-talking Eustace Gaydon (Blair Williams) is understandably stung when his deceased affluent sister, whom we never see, cuts him out of her will, leaving all the cash to a lovely governess/tutor, Lois Relph (Claire Jullien). Resourcefully, if not romantically, Eustace proposes marriage to Lois, which she accepts, giving him power of attorney over the inheritance. In an act of false munificence, Eustace buys an upmarket dress shop (with her money!) to allow Lois a measure of independence, while he tends to matters elsewhere, spending even more of her money. In the deal Lois also becomes the stepmother to Eustace’s two daughters, Monica (Marla McLean) and Betty (Robin Evan Willis).
While the relationship between Lois and Eustace will not come to its delicious conclusion until the end of the third act, we meanwhile learn more about Lois as the title character, the stepmother. Stepdaughter Monica is engaged to well-born but impecunious Cyril Bennet (Jesse Martyn); the couple cannot marry without an appropriate “settlement” (i.e. dowry) that the Gaydons should provide. Cyril seems a decent-enough chap except for his now wince-inducing dialogue, like “Come over here!” (said to Monica), or “When you belong to me.”
Never the helpless victim, Lois learns that her husband’s management of the inheritance may be shaky. A helpful neighbor, Peter Holland (Patrick Galligan), admits that Eustace has mortgaged the dress shop to him, taking the extra money for club fees and foreign adventures. Deeply consoled by the charming Holland, Lois eventually takes him as a lover. This could be the sharpest break with Victorian convention, having the people we’re rooting for be the adulterers.
As mentioned earlier, no summary of the plot, especially with juicy bits left out, can convey how effective The Stepmother is on stage. Director Maxwell has demanded that the troupe pull up feelings and emotions to enhance each performance. Her introduction of risky, Pinteresque silences puts much of the dialogue in italics. Also effective is a musical score taken from the minimalist piano of Philip Glass.
As Lois, Claire Jullien, long at the rival Stratford Festival and a late substitute in the role, makes a smashing company debut. Her expressive cheekbones can pull resolve out of vulnerability. Blair Williams’ Eustace gets more with less, underplaying the bully’s serene self-assuredness.
An Inspector Calls
The central female in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (through Nov. 2) is a dead woman named Eve Smith, whom we never see. Although the play opened in 1945, the setting of the action is 1912, the fashionable dining room of the factory-owning Birlings. Lovely daughter Sheila (Moya O’Connell) is affianced to well-spoken Gerald Croft (Graeme Somerville). Brother Eric (Andrew Bunker) seems something of a cynic, but the parents Arthur (Peter Hutt) and Sybil (Mary Haney) are just the sort to win immediate entrance to any private club.
The inspector of the title, Goole (Benedict Campbell), never makes clear just which agency has sent him, but he begins to ask uncomfortable questions, like did anyone present know the late Ms. Smith. When they respond that they did not know her, nor anyone of her lower social station, the inspector takes pains to point out that in fact each member of the household has directly affected the life of the recently deceased.
Once immensely popular, Priestley (1894-1984) shared many of the social views of Shaw as well as those of the British Labour Party ascendant in Britain in the late 1940s. A champion of social justice, he saw the lives of all citizens as interconnected, with the affluent and strong not realizing how their actions profoundly affect the impoverished and the weak. In some ways he could be compared with the John Guare of Six Degrees of Separation. Not entirely neglected, his Dangerous Corner appeared at Syracuse Stage in 1990, and several of his works have been revived in Niagara, including an earlier An Inspector Calls in 1989.
Class-conscious mystery: Moya O’Connell (center) and Peter Hutt (left) in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Emily Cooper photo.
Under Maxwell’s tenure Priestley appears to enjoy more favor than he did previously. The earlier production was a more modest affair in the 328-seat Royal George, whereas this year’s A-list version, directed by the much-admired Jim Mezon, is staged in the 869-seat Festival Theatre on Picton Street. The poster of actor Campbell in costume as Inspector Goole is featured in the Shaw Festival’s national advertising campaign, such as the ads in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine.
This asks too much of a slight work. Campbell’s probing if enigmatic inspector, O’Connell’s richly layered Sheila and Peter Hartwell’s solid and reassuring set design give the pleasure culture pilgrims demand from destination theater. But once we realize how father Arthur Birling’s labor policies contributed to the late Ms. Smith’s misery, An Inspector Calls recedes as a whodunit because, we quickly surmise, everybody done it.
A witty program note reminds us that Margaret Thatcher rejected Priestley’s thinking when she said, “There is no such thing as society.” In the comforting confines of a first-class production, however, Priestley’s argument for our greater interconnectedness persuades.
Also on the Shaw Fest slate is Ann-Marie MacDonald’s comedy Belle Moral (through Oct. 5 at the Court House), which premiered in Niagara in 2005 and is brought back by popular demand. Still anonymous in the United States, MacDonald is a multi-threat talent in Canada as an actress (Better Than Chocolate), playwright (Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet) and novelist (Fall on Your Knees, an Oprah Book Club selection).
Rounding out the schedule are two more productions at the Royal George: Terrence Rattigan’s little-known interwar drama After the Dance (through Oct. 5) and lunchtime matinees of Ferenc Molnar’s fast-paced, one-act comedy The President (through Oct. 4).
The shows will be performed in repertory, Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 and 8 p.m., with performances of The President at 11:30 a.m. Admission is $45 to $105 (Canadian), with discounts for seniors, families, students and groups; tickets for President are $27.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is about 180 miles from Syracuse, close enough to allow a party leaving Syracuse at 9 a.m. to make a 2 p.m. matinee with ease. Good sales on shoes plus tight accommodations in this tightly regulated showplace town require extensive planning before considering a visit. Call (800) 511-SHAW or visit www.shawfest.com for details.