The Shaw Festival begins its second century with an exemplary roster of entertainments, including at least one show that deserves to make the journey from pretty Niagara-on-the-Lake (Ontario, Canada) to Times Square.
That would be “His Girl Friday,” which John Guare has updated from the 1920s to August, 1939 and the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
The portentous shadow takes nothing away from the sharp humor.
The setting is the press room of the criminal courts building in Chicago (nicely rendered in shades of grime and dust by Peter Hartwell, sets and costumes, and Kevin LaMotte, lights).
It’s so filthy that the windows block out light, but not the grim thump of sandbags hitting pavement as the gallows outside is being tested before a hanging.
Toiling inside are hacks and layabouts as befits a comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who knew their subject all too well.
Their 1928 play, “The Front Page” focuses on the imminent execution and the slobs covering it. It was also a love letter to the one intrepid journalist among them, a gonzo guy named Hildy Johnson.
When the condemned man escapes, editor Walter Burns -- a charming blowhard -- pleads with Hildy to ditch his plans to retire and cover one last story. He can’t resist.
For the 1940 film, director Howard Hawks gave Hildy a sex change and added romance to the comedy, casting Cary Grant as Walter and Rosalind Russell as Hildy -- his ex-wife as well as star reporter.
Guare draws on both the screenplay and the Broadway original.
Now the corrupt mayor and his cronies are looking to exploit the hanging to take voters’ minds off unemployment and the looming threat of war in Europe.
The convict, a poor zhlub named Earl Holub, has been collecting anti-Nazi propaganda, allowing the pols to add xenophobia and anti-Semitism to their pandering rhetoric.
“If we didn’t have the election on Tuesday, I’d have this on my conscience,” the sheriff says without irony.
Guare’s adaptation had some detractors at its London outing in 2003, but Jim Mezon’s gritty, rapid-fire production, which I caught at a preview, makes a strong case for a Broadway outing.
Nicole Underhay’s Hildy is a peroxide blonde with a gum-cracking smirk and eyes that pierce. She can outsmart everyone (it’s a low bar) but Benedict Campbell’s Walter, who preaches activist journalism like the Gospel. The rest of the ensemble is outstanding.
Guare captures Hecht and MacArthur’s soft-touch satire with the skill of one who shares a love for scalawags and losers.
“Friday” isn’t the only reason a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake deserves special consideration this summer.
Jackie Maxwell, now in her 11th season as artistic director, stages a fine, intimate production of “Ragtime,” an earnest musical that never quite reaches the heights of the E.L. Doctorow novel.
Shaw is represented with two shows, a Swinging Sixties “Misalliance” and “The Millionairess,” both of which spotlight the festival’s talented acting company.
But the most unexpected gem of the early Shaw season is “Trouble in Tahiti,” Leonard Bernstein’s prescient meditation on marital strife and suburban ennui from 1952.
Performed in the 300-seat Court House Theatre, “Trouble” has the concentrated power of a John Cheever short story. The scenery is minimal; a few miniature homes suggest the numbing sameness of life.
The leads, married Dinah and Sam, are compellingly sung by Elodie Gillett and Mark Uhre. In the most memorable scene, they run into each other on the street and awkwardly make excuses for why they can’t have lunch together, even though both are alone.
Bernstein’s snappy score -- he loved advertising jingles - - is played with great depth of feeling by a jazz quartet. The confident direction is by Jay Turvey and the smoothly integrated choreography is by Linda Garneau.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, you’ll find everything from bed-and-breakfasts to luxurious spas like the Oban Inn, which offers a hot stone massage between shows. Don’t miss the beautifully prepared fish at Epicurean and great steaks at the Stone Road Grill.
The Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, continues through Oct. 27. Information: +1-800-511-7429; http://www.shawfest.com. For information about accommodations, go to http://www.shawfest.com/plan-your-visit/accommodations/packages. Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Greg Evans on movies and Lewis Lapham on books.