This marked my third year in a row of making the relatively easy trek to Ontario, Canada for the Stratford Festival, where classic plays (mostly Shakespeare) and at least two well-known musicals are performed in repertory by a large ensemble of actors at several different theaters.
While there are numerous regional companies throughout the U.S. that I’d love to check out, Stratford offers a scenic, peaceful atmosphere and the ability to attend six shows over three days. It also reminds me of the theater camp I attended as a teenager.
Just as this is the “Year of King Lear” in New York, with multiple productions popping up, Stratford has one led by Colm Feore, who has acted at Stratford for 30 years and has recently appeared in films like “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Staged by Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino in an Elizabethan style, their “King Lear” is refreshingly straightforward and balanced.
Less traditional is a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that is set at the backyard after-party of a same sex wedding where those in attendance decide to perform “Midsummer” right then and there for the sake of entertainment. Pop songs are also thrown in, as is a food fight.
So long as one can ignore the nonsensical concept, this “Midsummer” resembles the kind of no-frills, low-budget production that one would expect from a company like Shakespeare in the Parking Lot or New York Classical Theatre that offers performances in outdoor locations for free. As it happens, the divisive experimental director Peter Sellars is doing a separate production of “Midsummer” at Stratford with only four actors.
Although there has been a mini-renaissance of Brecht revivals in New York over the past two years, “Mother Courage and Her Children” has not been seen since the 2006 Shakespeare in the Park production with Meryl Streep. Stratford’s current production (led by the excellent Seana McKenna) successfully manages the inherent challenge in any Brecht play of being both dramatic and overtly didactic.
Stratford's biggest hit of the year is a revival of the Gershwin musical comedy “Crazy for You.” Like the more recent “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Crazy for You” is essentially a revised version of an antiquated Gershwin musical with a new book and more familiar songs pumped in. Stratford has even recorded its own cast album of the production.
Having been weaned on a videotape of the original Broadway staging (with Susan Stroman’s inventive choreography), I couldn’t help but find Donna Feore’s production to be inferior in terms of dancing as well as singing and acting. Plus, as was the case with Stratford’s recent revival of “42nd Street," it is very difficult to pull off an old-fashioned tap-dance musical on a modern thrust stage.
The less said about “Man of La Mancha,” Stratford’s other musical, the better. Both "La Mancha" and “Crazy for You” suffered from the loss of Chilina Kennedy, who was supposed to star in both but bowed out due to pregnancy. Kennedy played Mary Magdalene in Stratford’s acclaimed production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which transferred to Broadway two years ago.
Stratford’s 2015 season has yet to be officially announced but I’ve heard rumors that it will include the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals “Carousel” and “The Sound of Music.” On the basis of “Carousel” alone, you can count me in.
If you go: The Stratford Festival's 2014 season continues through Oct. 12. For more info visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.