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O Canada!

Two cool festivals up north

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When Cynthia Dale sings the role of Ensign Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, proclaiming that she's in love with "A Wonderful Guy," you won't hear echoes of Mary Martin or the timeless original cast recording. Dale really is in a "dither," shaking her head like a frisky colt as she says the word.

As the story develops, with Nellie fleeing from the urbane Emile de Becque upon learning that he has fathered two half-Polynesian children, the conventions absorbed in her Little Rock upbringing really do account for the temporary alienation of her affections. So the idea of a "conventional dither" acquires a double entendre I'd never noticed before.

That's not a unique phenomenon at Stratford Festival of Canada, I've found. In 2003, my wife Sue and I made our first visit to Stratford and the other great theater destination in Ontario, the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake. I came away mightily impressed with productions of Misalliance and The Plough and the Stars I saw at the Shaw and with Agamemnon, No Exit and Pericles in Stratford.

But the supreme highlight was a beautiful, touching production of The King and I at Festival Theatre in Stratford.

When the American Theatre Critics Association brought their annual meeting to the Shaw and Stratford for 2006, we had a generous sampling of five new productions at each of the festivals -- plus a sidetrip to Toronto for the gargantuan Lord of the Rings musical. You can easily do 11 shows in Ontario in six days when the festivals are in full swing. Or more.

Still, our ATCA itinerary didn't include a second dose of R&H to follow up the indelible impression of The King and I. Sue and I stayed over an extra three days, did a day trip to the shore of Lake Huron on a bright sunny day that peaked at 62 degrees Fahrenheit, and saw three additional shows before we flew home. For me, South Pacific was a must.

Put simply, the Stratford does Rodgers & Hammerstein the same way they do Shakespeare, with a healthy respect for the script -- and a keen interest in making it fresh. Just as important, they do Shakespeare the same way we do Kaufman & Hart, recognizing that it was created to entertain -- with a healthy profit motive.

With over 100 critics and their guests converging on the two Ontario festivals, both the Shaw and the Stratford were ready for their close-ups. Here's what we saw -- and what I thought:

Shaw Festival

Arms and the Man -- Beautifully presented at the Festival Theatre, this production shatters the canard that Shaw is tedious, talkative and bloodless. True, you can't miss the playwright's advocacy of pragmatism over valor, but it's packaged in a delightful comedy romance that begins late at night in a lady's boudoir when a fleeing soldier climbs through her window. By evening's end, I was wondering why this witty, exquisitely structured masterwork isn't seen at least as often as the lightweight frivolities of Shakespeare and Coward. Fine chemistry between Patrick Galligan as the "Chocolate Soldier" and Diana Donnelly as his ingÈnue. Mike Shara starchily -- but not stupidly -- completes the triangle. Grade: A+

High Society -- Playwright Arthur Kopit has reworked Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story into a bejeweled showcase for a cavalcade of Cole Porter songs. The concoction drew lukewarm Broadway reviews in 1998, but it's quickly paced and smartly acted at the Shaw. If Camilla Scott and Dan Chameroy can't eclipse Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant, they ably deliver "Ridin' High," "I Love Paris," "True Love," and "It's All Right With Me" to console us. Grade: B+

Too True to Be Good -- Critics who saw this pre-WWII fantasia instead of High Society complained that the three acts were unrelated. At best, this disputatious work, beginning with a germ's monologue at the foot of an invalid's bed, was a play one critic was glad he saw -- and resolved never to see again. I rather liked Acts 2 and 3, focusing on Private Napoleon Meek, the classic military underling who actually runs things. Yet beware: I'm a card-carrying Shavian. Grade: B-

The Heiress -- I found Tara Rosling to be much too attractive for Catherine Sloper, the Henry James heroine who blossoms from a shy wallflower to a stylishly cold-blooded and heartless matron. Washington Square should come off fairly ambiguous on the sincerity of Morris Townsend's affections toward Catherine, but Mike Shara is too clearly a fortune-hunter. Michael Ball, however, is wonderfully monstrous as Catherine's domineering dad. Grade: C-

Seen in Previews: ATCA members were piously warned against formally judging the three shows we saw prior to their official openings. Except if we have something good to say. Sue and I previewed Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Noel Coward's Design for Living and a new play, Magic Fire, about a multi-national family of opera lovers in the grip of Juan Peron's ruthless regime. I liked the design concept of Crucible and the novelistic sweep of Fire, but Design for Living is clearly the pick of the litter. Coward remains the urbane slickster but with a sly undertone of self-mockery. Nicole Underhay, David Jansen and Graeme Somerville portray the unholy trio of lovers with wickedness, wit and artsy élan, making Design a must-see.

Stratford Festival of Canada

South Pacific -- Cynthia Dale and Theodore Baerg redefine the relationship between Nellie and Emile. Director/choreographer Michael Lichtefeld exploits Dale's dancing prowess, reimagining "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" as a splash dance with a whole line of lovelies kicking up the shower water. Douglas Paraschuk's set design, an adoration of bamboo, captures all the exotic notes and leaves room for the Seabees' vulgar lustiness. Grade: A+

Coriolanus -- Stratford's marquee performer, Colm Feore, proves his mettle in Shakespeare's final tragedy. This arrogant, petulant warrior is not the easiest Bard hero to warm up to, but Feore humanizes him, gives him the occasional smile and supercharged hesitations. Our sympathies extend toward him largely because of the craven, capricious and unsavory characterizations Shakespeare applies to the rabble that Coriolanus disdains. Director Antoni Cimolino brilliantly navigates the complexities and Martha Henry stands toe-to-to with Feore as Coriolanus' imperious, manipulative mom. Grade: A-

London Assurance -- Brian Bedford holds court as the king of fops in this hilarious Victorian farce, regally oblivious to the ravages of old age. Breaking all rules of stage decorum, Bedford is supremely aware of his own ridiculousness, stopping the show on numerous occasions to dish out fresh helpings. Watching this Sir Harcount Courtly receive his cavalcade of comeuppances -- from the son who bewitches dad's fiancée as well as the married woman Harcourt stupidly pursues -- is definitely a delicious way to spend an evening. Grade: B+

The Duchess of Malfi -- Lucy Peacock brings a finely honed mania to the title character of John Webster's seething 17th century tragedy. But it's Paul Essiembre who brings the corrosive corruption of Spanish nobility to a boil, positively animalistic in his portrayal of Duke Ferdinand, the brother who torments the Duchess -- out of arrogance, protectiveness and frankly incestuous lust. Bring the kids to the bloody finale for a truly unforgettable experience (no, don't). Grade: B

Oliver! -- Feore stumbles in his reinterpretation of Fagin, turning the wily, greedy corrupter of little boys into a pragmatic, paternalistic businessman leading a grubby bunch of Cub Scouts. There's a pure-voiced Oliver and a demon-driven Bill Sikes, but director Donna Feore doesn't allow any genuine bond to form between Oliver and Nancy, Sikes' paramour. Grade: C+

Much Ado About Nothing -- If you've never seen Beatrice and Benedick trading their barbs before, this version, transplanted to 1910, will serve as a likable intro. For the rest of us, the freshness of this new Stratford version begins and ends with Peacock's saucy Beatrice. Grade: C-

The Stratford Festival (www.stratfordfestival.ca) folds its tents on October 29. The Shaw Festival (www.shawfest.com) lingers on through November 19.

Dropouts on Parade

A couple of grim lessons were learned on opening night of CPCC's Parade at Halton Theater last Friday night. When you're buying sound equipment for your new palace -- or installing a computerized ticketing system -- don't go with the lowest bidder.

The faulty ticketing delayed the Charlotte premiere until 8:22pm. Then the sound system took over, plaguing the rest of the evening.

Alfred Uhry's retelling of the scandalous Leo Frank affair of 1914 -- sensationalized press, anti-Semitism, suborned and coached witnesses, bogus conviction for the murder of Mary Phagan, commutation of a death sentence and the hooded lynch mob -- deserves a better hearing. So do the performances of Billy Ensley and Katherine Lauer as Frank and his valiant wife Lucille. Other buried treasures in this beleaguered production include Marc Bastos as the Young Confederate Soldier, Patrick Ratchford as the Georgia Governor, Carey Kugler as wacko preacher Tom Watson, James Duke as the incompetent defense attorney, and James K. Flynn as both Judge Roan and the Old Confederate Soldier.

Quite disheartening, all in all, after the season started so promisingly yonder in Oz. Perhaps the sound crew will uncross the wires so the mikes will sound better this week. Or perhaps there has been too much backstage swapping of too few mikes. Buy more.

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