Although Thornton Wilder wrote his quick-witted comedy The Matchmaker while in residence at Stratford and under the tutelage of its first artistic director Tyrone Guthrie, this timeless, vigorously entertaining play is only now making its debut at the festival in Chris Abraham's lively production.
Those familiar only with its musical version Hello, Dolly!, might be surprised by just how many ingenious lines never made it into the musical -- or that two key supporting characters from The Matchmaker were entirely excised from it. And for those who think they will miss those great Jerry Herman songs, there's a small compensation: the show is framed with actors singing "The Sidewalks of New York."
Most importantly, the cast has nailed the fast-paced delivery necessary for a farce. As the matchmaker herself, Dolly Levi, Seana McKenna is a busybody full of pep, while Tom McCamus brings a blustering personality to the aging and foolish store owner Horace Vandegelder, who gets caught in Dolly's irresistible trap.
Gary Griffin, who has directed The Color Purple and The Apple Tree on Broadway, has regularly staged large-scale revivals of classic musicals at Stratford. So it's no surprise he's chosen to tackle the tap-dance spectacle 42nd Street, which chronicles the rise of young Peggy Sawyer (played by Jennifer Rider-Shaw) from anonymous chorine to overnight musical comedy sensation.
Unfortunately, Stratford's Festival Theatre has a large thrust stage (similar to Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre), which forces choreographer Alex Sanchez to devise dance routines that involve lots of circular movements and lack the controlled, eye-popping effect you might find on a proscenium stage. And compared with the musical's sumptuous 2001 Broadway revival, the scenery is limited and the cast looks pretty small. One also wonders why Griffin cut the bittersweet act two opener "Every Situation Has a Sunny Side."
These issues aside, however, this lively production provides a great dose of fun and proves to be very well-acted all-around. Sean Arbuckle gives a very convincing performance as director Julian Marsh, adding details which hint that he may have once been a dancer in the chorus himself, while Cynthia Dale manages to both convey leading lady Dorothy Brock's diva attitude as well as a sensitive fragility to concerns that she is not up to the challenge of carrying a big Broadway musical.
Tony Award winner Des McAnuff ends his run as Stratford's artistic director with a visually spectacular revival of the Bard's war drama Henry V. During the opening "O for a muse of fire" speech, the cast simply sits around on the stage in contemporary clothing; but pretty soon, they reappear in period costumes (by Paul Tazewell) in a decidedly medieval setting. Meanwhile, Robert Brill's set, which looks as if it came out of Man of La Mancha, is dominated by a huge drawbridge operated by rope.
In depicting King Henry's crusade to conquer France, productions of Henry V tend to either be patriotic and upbeat (as in the 1944 Laurence Olivier film) or dark and ominous, like McAnuff's production. He presents an atmosphere of violent butchery and warfare with pounding drums, trumpet flourishes, stark lighting, clanking armor, and very graphic fight sequences. The first act ends with the drunkard Bardolph swinging mid-air from a noose. Not surprisingly, many of the comic scenes do not come off as well as they might.
Aaron Krohn gives an unsympathetic but impressively intense performance as King Henry that anchors this aggressively theatrical staging. The boyish actor portrays Henry rather like a strutting playboy who is full of bombast and cockiness, and it works.