July 21 (Bloomberg) -- For sheer, grin-inducing pleasure, it’s hard to top the tongue-twisting vocal marathon that is “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”
“I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s/I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,” Major-General Stanley sings in that show-stopper from “The Pirates of Penzance.”
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s fabulous-looking production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta interpolates a note of poignancy into the number with some homegrown history.
Swinging around a chalkboard at the end of the number, C. David Johnson’s Stanley reveals a pictogram of Stratford’s family tree, beginning with the founder, Sir Tyrone Guthrie and coming up to the present artistic leadership of Des McAnuff.
Having made Stratford and its four theaters his home for the last five years, McAnuff turns the reins over to his talented lieutenant, Antoni Cimolino.
McAnuff’s powerful staging of “Henry V” is on Stratford’s mainstage, the Festival Theatre.
Robert Brill’s brooding set consists almost entirely of dark wood beams with an immense drawbridge at center. McAnuff uses it to astonishing effect, conjuring the British fleet by having the company parade through the bridge into the audience with an armada of sails, making the pageant at once sumptuous and intimate.
He closes the first half of this play about war, power, character and a manipulative young king with the jarring image of Bardolph (Randy Hughson) swinging from the gallows.
Having already discarded Sir John Falstaff, Henry further declares the end of his youth by sentencing to death his former chum.
There’s a regal sense to all of this (Paul Tazewell’s costumes are magnificent, as is Michael Walton’s spectral lighting), along with a thoughtful mournfulness.
McAnuff uses body bags and the Canadian flag to draw parallels between the play’s period and today, though he does so without pushing too hard.
Aaron Krohn could be more charismatic as a young Henry who rouses his weary troops to victory at Agincourt. As his new French Queen-to-be, Bethany Jillard is delicately funny.
Cimolino shows his own deft hand with a captivating and lucid staging of “Cymbeline,” a romance about love and forgiveness jammed with enough intrigue, coincidence and plot convolutions to make your head spin.
The title role, one of several Shakespeare monarchs ultimately thwarted by a loving but willful daughter, is played by Geraint Wyn Davies, a treasure of this company.
Equally fine is the daughter, Innogen, of Cara Ricketts, whose determination and fidelity are beautifully balanced.
Cimolino has a light touch in letting the plot -- in which Innogen pines for her exiled husband while her mean stepmother plots a different course for her -- unfold with grace and humor. There are character roles galore for such Stratford veterans as John Vickery and Peter Hutt.
In fact, the Stratford bench is awesome. “Pirates of Penzance” is exuberantly staged by Ethan McSweeny, a newcomer to Gilbert and Sullivan, though you’d never know it. And Amy Wallis is spectacular as Mabel, the major-general’s daughter who falls in love with Sean Arbuckle’s goofy Pirate King and tosses off high notes with alacrity.
But the real star of the production is Anna Louizos’s set, a wonder of wooden planks, winches, gears and ropes that evoke the Victorian era and remind us of the power of stage magic even when we see how it all works.
Less convincing is Gary Griffin’s “42nd Street” production, though not for want of trying. It looks great and features fine tap dancing and that great Harry Warren/Al Dubin score (“We’re in the Money”). But the conceit -- as if it’s being done in a nightclub -- only highlights how under-populated it all seems. A new musical, “Wanderlust,” based on the Rudyard Kipling-like poetry of Robert Service, is a total misfire.
The season is suffused with the theater’s history. “Hirsch” -- a solo show co-written (with director Paul Thompson) and beautifully performed by Alon Nashman -- pays moving tribute to John Hirsch, one of Stratford’s more complicated artistic directors.
The weekend I visited, the town gathered to pay tribute to John Neville, the great actor-manager who succeeded Hirsch and brought considerable luster to Guthrie’s theater.
And in a few weeks McAnuff closes out his reign with “A Word or Two,” featuring Christopher Plummer, that very model of a modern major star.
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival season runs through October. Information: +1-800-567-1600; http://www.stratfordfestival.ca.
(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.
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