Arts & Entertainment » Theater


Shaw Festival opens with a 1-2-3 punch

I'm getting uncomfortable seeing lively revivals of Shaw plays that the audience loves but I'm pretty sure George Bernard Shaw would really dislike.

In the Shaw Festival's gaudy production of the charming comedy You Never Can Tell, director Morris Panych has turned what Shaw regarded as a comedy of manners into vaudeville. It's wild looking, with Ken MacDonald's bizarre sets (in something like Art Nouveau style) creating buildings, lights, and furniture that look like seashells and Disney pavilions.

But the cast includes some of the great Shaw ensemble's most accomplished players, which means some of the best actors anywhere. And the overall effect is certainly both entertaining and amusing.

As the central comic lover, a playful dentist, Mike Shara actually contributes a good deal of slapstick physical comedy of his own. An unusually handsome man, Shara tends to shy away from straight romantic leads and prefers unflattering, difficult roles; so he tempers his leading-man role with stumbles, falls, and silly gestures. The result is actually very winning.

Not so the way that Panych has directed the spoiled, intrusive young sister and brother. The script indicates that they are brats but bright and charming; Panych makes them so uncontrolled that one yearns to see them bashed --- at least until the final happy resolution.

Goldie Semple as their mother is elegant but almost shunted aside. The wise waiter gets traditional savvy charm from veteran David Schurmann. Ditto Guy Bannerman as the family lawyer and the masterful Norman Browning as the disgruntled, estranged father.

Anyway, the play is set at a seaside resort with lanterns and light displays and a costume ball in the script, so it should be pretty and colorful. But it could be a bit more like real life. The audience was most enthusiastic.

You should go if you are in the mood for an entertaining, showy piece of theater, one that may not be true to Shaw's more understated vision.

I needn't waste words on the ideal revival of Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife. Potently directed by Neil Munro, it doesn't even permit the question of whether this 1927 play about the role of women and the contract of marriage might be dated. With William Schmuck's usual impeccable designs, it boasts a super-pro cast led by the radiant Laurie Paton in the title role and is an unalloyed triumph. Peter Krantz as her longstanding adorer is subtly appealing. Blair Williams makes the less rewarding role of the cheating husband a sympathetic third. And they are surrounded by superb supporting roles perfectly cast.

You should go if you want to see the perfect revival of Somerset Maugham's 1927 play.

But what will surely be the season's smash hit (and probably the most difficult ticket to get) is Gypsy. A great musical anyway, with Arthur Laurents' dynamic storytelling, Jule Styne's score full of hit songs, and Stephen Sondheim's unforgettable lyrics, it's had many major revivals. This is the first musical on Shaw's big Festival Theatre stage instead of the usual small-scaled productions at the Royal George Theatre. And Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell has created a dazzling production.

But the big news here is Nora McLellan's thrilling performance in the lead role of Rose. She is the first woman I've seen since Ethel Merman who can really sing the role properly, projecting every syllable with pristine clarity and unmistakable dramatic intent. And she builds it with great finesse, so that Rose's final almost unbearably naked frustration, anguish, and yet triumphant self-affirmation in "Rose's Turn" comes like an awaited high point and yet still explodes with surprising power and pathos. This is a must-see, simply great performance.

A huge cast and staff of topnotch design and technical artists work at a level amazingly fine even for this great theater company. Space permits only a few mentions of work exceptional among these. Julie Martell is as good as I've seen in delineating the transition from awkward young girl to pretty but shy young woman to emerging talent to unmistakable star quality as sexy Gypsy Rose Lee.

Ric Reid is touching and absolutely right as Rose's long-suffering suitor Herbie. Jeff Lillico again changes age and appearance and becomes the gawky but wonderful young singer-dancer Tulsa. Valerie Moore choreographs with panache. And Paul Sportelli directs the music splendidly despite a less than full size orchestra. Order tickets early.

You should go if you like big, moving musicals with a strong story, songs, and lyrics --- and show-stopping singing (equal to Ethel Merman).

Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell, Shaw Festival's Festival Theatre, through November 26 | Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife, Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre, through October 9 | Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents' Gypsy, Shaw Festival's Festival Theatre, though October 30. | $20 to $82 Canadian ($16 to $66 US dollars). 800-511-7429,