The Stratford Festival has opened its production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Avon Theatre. Director Jillian Kelly allows the cast to introduce itself b before the play begins as she tries to connect today to seventy years ago, when two Jewish families hide in an Amsterdam attic. Their year-and-a-half ordeal in avoiding the Nazis and a train trip to the east and death, occurs in two hours of good performances. The play takes place in a set with endless possibilities, where staircases and beds emerge from the walls and where even the walls turn into cattle cars.
The production features a chorus under the direction of Franklin Brasz, situated off-set, but ever present as it weaves a Capella melodies that underscore the drama in a subtle, compelling fashion. It builds the moods land adds a new dimension to a good production. Jonathan Munro’s compositions are beautiful and brooding, and as in Greek plays the chorus becomes a character unto itself.
Sara Farb is a beautiful Anne, trapped not only in the attic, but inside a maturing body that signals her approach to becoming a woman. Her thoughts and beliefs are written daily into a diary that describes the difficulties of two families trying to co-exist in close quarters with unmet needs. Anne’s parents are played with compassion by Joseph Ziegler and Lucy Peacock, while Shannon Taylor shines as her sister Margot in a quiet performance that contrasts with Anne’s sometimes annoying exuberance. The van Daan family features Kevin Bundy as a father whose resolve dissolves with hunger and leads to shameful behaviour. Wendy Kesselman’s adaptation of the diary retains the dramatic impact of the story. The Diary of Anne Frank is rendered with feeling and power and is well-worth seeing.
While the Stratford Festival is renowned for delivering popular classics, they occasionally find a hidden gem which was rare and seldom performed, despite its qualities. Such a play is The Physicists, by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. It is a dark comedy littered with dead bodies and featuring a rough-spoken police inspector played by Randy Hughson in a ruffled manner like Colombo, and with the logic of Hercules Poirot. He is called to an Insane Asylum for the investigation of three murders over a short period of time. The Asylum has only three patients, all noted physicists, and he wants to question them but is stopped by a dogmatic, hunchbacked director, played with mad intensity by Seanna McKenna.
The three suspects, all noted physicists, all believe they are famous theorists, Newton, Einstein and Mobius. Each performance is well-crafted and totally entertaining, often funny. There is a dry wit from each of Geraint Wynn-Davies, Mike Nadajewski and Graham Abbey and the audience is left to piece the clues together in hopes of finding the killer. The author uses the story as a warning that society is heading for disaster. The play was written in the early atomic age at the depths of the Cold War and Durrenmatt gives warning that there is more to fear in our future than runaway science.
The supporting cast is strong, particularly Karen Robinson and Claire Lautier as nurses looking after the oddball trio. Design is very practical and shows that the asylum is created from a huge fortune and created as a gilded cage for the physicists. Lighting and costumes set a good mood and Miles Potter continues to be one of Stratford’s most effective directors. If you like mysteries, comedy and good performances, you won’t be disappointed in this show at the Tom Patterson Theatre. It may be many years before someone puts in on the stage once again.
I have seen The Sound of Music several times, but none quite so complete as the current production at Stratford’s main stage. Director Donna Feore also choreographed the show and dance plays an important role in this particular production. All the numbers were imaginative, sometimes funny and sometimes entrancing.
The musical is so well known that I don’t need to tell the plot, but I will say that the entire cast was world class, with Shane Carty as the morally ambiguous Max Dettweiler, Robin Evan Willis as an ambitious woman seeking to become mother to seven delightful children, Anita Krause as the Mother Abbess with the magnificent singing voice and a powerful performance by Ben Carlson as Captain von Trapp. The centrepiece of the production is Maria, the orphan who turns from governess to mother in less than three hours of riveting theatre. Stephanie Rothenberg has performed on some of North America’s finest stages and if we were lucky, she would leave her New York roots and make Stratford her home. She has a wonderful voice with wide range and emotional power. As a triple-threat performer, she pulls the audience into theatre magic and they responded with a loud and long standing ovation for her and the company.
There were a large number of children in the opening night audience, mostly little girls dressed in bright outfits. They, too were drawn into the story of the seven von Trapp children, all played with confidence built in other shows. They are all troupers and are likely heading for a lifetime in the theatre. I would gladly adopt Zoe Brown, whose Gretl was captivating. Good design and Laura Burton’s musical direction brought about a seamless night of enjoyment. It will likely be a tough ticket to get, but keep trying. You won’t be sorry.
The Stratford Festival continues its theme of violence against women with a moving production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel”. Under the direction of Susan Schulman, the show covers the Avon Theatre stage with lively dance, intense drama and unforgettable songs. There isn’t any person in the ensemble who could not sing as a soloist, so the chorus brings huge musical presence to numbers like “June is Bustin Out All Over”. The story concerns a carnival barker and a young girl who falls for him, even though he has no apparent future. Julie Jordan is played with depth and passion by Alexis Gordon in her Stratford debut. Jonathan Winsby is Billy Bigelow in this wonderful, but flawed relationship. His singing is strong, dynamic and sensitive, particularly the Soliloquy that ends the first act.
The townspeople are well-described, and not above bursting into song and dance at a moment’s notice. Robin Evan Willis is outstanding as Julie’s friend Carrie, with a beautiful voice and a delightful comic sense. She provides a contrast with Julie, whose love seems misplaced. As Nettie Fowler, Alana Hibbert anchors the chorus with her powerful singing and Robin Hutton as the widow who is Billy’s boss at the carousel, is what people of the time would judge as “common”. Evan Buliung is Jigger, a man who is always seeking riches, even if he has to kill to get them.
Jaqueline Burtney as the daughter of the two lovers, delivers a wonderful performance, capped by a ballet that would make Agnes DeMille proud, Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography is exuberant and skilled. It’s a great thing that the Festival has access to so many fine dancers. The total package is filled with world-class entertainment and again shows the Festival as a great centre for music. Bring a hanky or two.