Four Christmas Carols


christmas carol

The drop curtain for “A Christmas Carol: The Family Musical with a Scrooge Loose”

How do two Americans keep themselves occupied when visiting Canada during the deepening cold of early December? Why take in four very different versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol of course. The initial plan was to see just one, but…well, you know how these things go.

First up was our original choice, a decorous and heartfelt reading of Dickens’ text at the Stratford Festival, presented as a benefit for the nascent Stratford-Perth Rotary Hospice. Using a version of the novella abridged by Dickens himself for just such recitals, six readers took turns telling the timeless tale of misery and redemption on the Festival Theater’s poinsettia-bedecked stage. The “staves” of Dickens’ story were punctuated with musical interludes ranging from madrigals to pop-folk.

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‘Angels in America’ at KC Rep – A Review

Angels in America

“Angels in America” (Photo KCRep)

What’s playing in Kansas City…

Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America is receiving a sturdy revival at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s downtown Copaken Stage.

This sprawling two-part epic, subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, is at turns surreal, whimsical, hallucinatory, bitchily funny, poetic, brutally blunt, and ultimately quite moving.  [Read more…]

Shaw Festival 2014

peach_celebrationThe picture-postcard-perfect town of Niagara-on-the-Lake was abuzz with shoppers and theatergoers when we arrived on a resplendent summer day. You could be very happy just strolling the streets of this upscale village, admiring homes straight out of a glossy magazine, or shopping in the chic boutiques, or dining in the many fine restaurants, or visiting the shore of Lake Ontario. But most people had come for the theater, as had we.

The Shaw Festival was founded in 1962 with the mission of paying homage to the prolific British playwright George Bernard Shaw. Perhaps one motivation was to provide a counterbalance to the older Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s concentration on “The Bard of Avon,” but that’s mere conjecture on my part. The Festival’s purview was later refined to encompass plays written during Shaw’s long lifetime (1856 to 1950), although lately the bounds have been stretched a bit with the inclusion of popular musicals of more recent vintage as well as some contemporary plays.

The Festival comprises four theaters, from the grand, 856-seat Festival Theatre to the compact, 200-seat Studio Theatre. All are within a short stroll of one another and the plays on offer rotate daily with frequent matinees so that during a short stay a visitor can see a good many plays.

For theater of this caliber, ticket prices are surprisingly moderate and, since prices are in Canadian dollars, American visitors in 2014 will enjoy a discount of about eight percent thanks to a favorable exchange rate.

For the 2014 season, the Festival is mounting ten productions, including two by Shaw, The Philanderer and Arms and The Man. We managed three in two days during a brief layover en route to Stratford.

Cabaret, the Kander and Ebb smash, is getting a solid revival under the direction of Festival veteran Peter Hinton. Deborah Hay is terrific as Sally Bowles and Juan Chioran’s Emcee is very much his own, borrowing nothing from his storied predecessors in the role. Not every element of the production works as well, however, and – let’s face it – the subject matter is downright depressing. So if it’s a lighthearted musical you’re looking for, look elsewhere.


Another offering on the heavy side is Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, about the trials and tribulations of a family during Ireland’s Civil War – not the one fought against the British but the one the Irish fought against each other after winning a peace that partitioned Ireland. Not everyone thought that was a good idea then; some still don’t think so.


If you thought the “dysfunctional family” was a recent invention wait until you get a load of the Boyles. Dad (the “paycock” or peacock) is a drunken braggart, son Johnny’s a shattered IRA veteran with PTSD, daughter Mary is looking for love in all the wrong places. Mother, the Juno of the title, is a tower of strength.

It helps to have a grounding in the history of the period and the program notes are a must-read for those who don’t. For those who think the Irish are a hard-drinking but jolly race, this play will be an eye-opener. It’s a glimpse into the darker side of the national character, one that continues to divide families to this day. A laugh riot it ain’t and because of its length it can be heavy going for some; a good number of folks packed it in at the intermission. Those who stick it out, however, will be rewarded with some truly solid acting.

Fortunately, we ended on a happier note with a blissful production of Arms and the Man, one of Shaw’s most popular plays, and deservedly so. This romantic farce requires a sense of high style to work just so and the cast, under the sure hand of Morris Panych, deliver nicely.

Man (and woman) does not live by great art alone, of course, so we were glad to get an usher’s recommendation for Il Gelato di Carlotta, a few doors down from the Royal George Theatre on Queen Street. This is the best gelato I’ve had this side of Rome. It’s on the pricey side, but once you tuck in, I doubt you’ll be complaining.

For dinner, we were lucky to chance upon Grill on King, which has a sidewalk seating area perfect for people watching and spotting the occasional Festival star at a nearby table. They adhere to the locavore aesthetic that seems to be de rigeur at most of Ontario’s better restaurants these days and their Village Salad, a sort of Greek salad minus the lettuce, was impeccably fresh.

I succumb too often to Tagliatelle Carbonara on menus and am usually disappointed. This was the best I’ve had since a memorable meal in Chamonix in the French Alps. My wife’s mahi-mahi was also tasty, with the lightly grilled vegetables giving the fish some strong competition. The lamb shank, meltingly tender, was roundly praised by a fellow diner.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of those ever so slightly out of the way destinations that keeps luring us off the Queen Elizabeth Way, the main route from Buffalo to Toronto. I have every expectation that it will do so again.

The Shaw Festival
Tickets from $35 to $113
(800) 511-7429

Il Gelato di Carlotta
59 Queen Street
(905) 468-8999

Grill on King
233 King Street, just off Queen.
(905) 468-7222

A Review: Psst! Feelthy Acrobats — Absinthe in Las Vegas

Absinthe at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas

Absinthe at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, NV – Everyone loves acrobats but not everyone will have a tolerance for the non-stop, filthy, vile, obscene, and often very funny patter that accompanies them in this sui generis offering on the Vegas Strip.

Absinthe is housed in what looks like a temporary storage shed in a courtyard at Caesar’s Palace. The interior looks every bit as ephemeral, with simple folding chairs packed around a stage (and I use the term loosely) that looks to be about the size of the average kitchen table.

In this postage stamp space, Absinthe showcases acrobatic acts from around the world and some of them are doozies. Acts change from time to time, but among recent acts four Russian guys, a speed skating duo from Germany, and two Amazonian aerialists from the Netherlands were especially gasp-worthy.

Check out this video clip:

The spectacle is intensified by your proximity to the action and the fact that these artistes work without nets or safety wires. If they fall, they fall on you.

Adding a bit of spice is a strip teasing chantoozie, the delightfully de-lovely Melody Sweets. But what has made Absinthe a Vegas sensation, I think, is its arch framing device.

The show is ostensibly being produced and emceed by ”The Gazillionaire,” a snaggle-toothed, brilliantined sleazeball played with great relish by Voki Kalfayan, a former Cirque du Soleil clown. His opening line is “If you are offended by words like f**k and s**t, you’re at the wrong f**king show.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

What follows is a constant stream of vulgarity and sexual innuendo as The Gazillionaire seems to bend over backwards to offend everyone in the audience. And it works. The night I caught the show an older couple (she never cracked a smile) were driven out, an event that The Gazillionaire took as a personal triumph.

Assisting the emcee is one Penny Pibbets (Anais Thomassian) who vies with the host in the vulgarity sweepstakes. At one point, she performs a crazed sock puppet routine that is breathtaking in its obscenity.

The saving grace in all this is that the repartee is often hilarious and most folks in the audience get with the program and thoroughly enjoy themselves. As did I.

By the way, the title is apparently derived from the absinthe-drinking acrobat whose chair balancing act opens the show.

Absinthe at Caesar’s Palace
Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas
(800) 745-3000
Tickets run from $99 to $134 plus tax and are available here.


A Review: ‘Love,’ Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles Show at the Mirage, Las Vegas

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from The Beatles LOVE, Cirque du Soleil

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from The Beatles LOVE, Cirque du Soleil

LAS VEGAS, NV – I entered with high expectations but, alas, I found myself merely in like with Love.

Cirque du Soleil’s high-powered homage to the Fab Four is chock full of Cirque’s trademark glitz and over-the-top surreal creativity but oddly lacking in the circus style acts that make most Cirque shows such crowd pleasers. It’s a lot of Soleil with little Cirque.

What we get instead can best be labeled interpretive dance. Unfortunately, while it is performed with Cirque’s customary excellence, the choreography has an unfortunate tendency to lapse into the overwrought and pretentious.

Here’s a Youtube preview:

The creators have peopled the ingenious and hyperactive set at the Mirage Resort and Casino with the usual array of post-modern oddities, many of whom seem to bear little relation to the Beatles canon. Yes, there is a briefly glimpsed Father McKenzie, but what’s with the little fat guy, or the tall bald guy in the white frock coat, or the muscular dude in the Michelin-Man rubber pants?

Like the intense intellectual artistes one imagines the Cirque creative team to be, they have placed heavy emphasis on the darker and more “poetic” pieces in the Beatles’ songbook. I, for one, would have liked to have seen and heard more of their earlier, bouncier, subtextless songs. The later, more surreal songs gain little from having their bizarre imagery translated into concrete form.

On the other hand, this approach gave the costume designers an opportunity to showcase their considerable skills. I thought at more than one point that they had more fun creating the show than I was having watching it.

The result is a musical mish-mosh that jumps backwards and forwards in time accompanied by a swirling blur of seemingly unrelated characters and imagery. More than once I was reminded of Shakespeare’s line about sound and fury signifying nothing – although to give the artists their due, I am sure a great deal of effort went into imagining every little thing that goes on during the show.

Still, the show has its moments. There is a bewitching dance featuring a lone male dancer and four white-clad women swirling about him on wires. The best numbers were the most circus-like, including an act featuring four furry-booted roller skaters and two half pipes, and a trampoline free for all reminiscent of a similar bit in La Nouba in Orlando.

Fortunately, the show closes on a high note with energetic renditions of Hey, Jude and All You Need Is Love. Which reminds me, did I mention the music? There’s lots of it, projected on a sound system to die for, and it was all written by perhaps the most talented pop group of the twentieth century. If the production fails to captivate you, you can always just close your eyes and let that magnificent music wash over you.

Tip: Those who didn’t damage their hearing during the Beatles’ heyday will be well advised to bring earplugs.

Cirque du Soleil – The Beatles LOVE
The Mirage Hotel & Casino
3400 Las Vegas Boulevard S
Las Vegas
(866) 963-9634
Tickets for the show range from $86.90 to $198. Click here for details.

Craving For Travel Off Broadway: A Review


Michele Ragusa plays Joanne, a travel agent among other characters, in “Craving For Travel.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There are plenty of laughs for everyone in Craving For Travel, the delightful comedy at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on New York’s Theater Row, but travel agents will take special delight in the savvy inside jokes that lay bare the hidden aspects of the profession.

Co-writers Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg (Sandberg also directed) have no apparent background in the travel industry, but they’ve done their homework well. They present us with Joanne and Gary, two high-powered luxury travel agents, formerly married, who are engaged in a bitter struggle to be named Travel Agent of the Year. Both are blessed (or perhaps cursed) with rosters of vastly wealthy clients who are insanely demanding as only the one percent can be.

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Richard III and Twelfth Night on Broadway: A Review

Richard III and Twelfth Night are staged under "original practices."

Richard III and Twelfth Night are staged under “original practices.”

At the Belasco Theatre, New Yorkers are being treated to an all-too-rare opportunity to see Shakespeare’s Richard III and Twelfth Night performed under the “original practices” rubric favored at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.

All costumes are authentically Elizabethan, meaning no zippers, no Velcro, no artificial anything. The sets are period as well; in this case mimicking a university dining hall where Shakespeare’s troupe sometimes performed with a minimum of props and scenery. Some seats are on stage recreating the intimacy of The Globe. And, of course, all the female roles are played by men.

If the historical recreation was all there was to these two productions it would probably be worth the price of admission. Fortunately there is much more on offer.

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‘The Nance’ On Broadway, A Review

"The Nance" is playing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York.

Broadway used to be awash in larger than life comic talent – Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers, Zero Mostel, the list goes on. Today we have Nathan Lane and we should be grateful we do.

Mr. Lane’s considerable talents are being lavished on “The Nance” at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. A fascinating if ultimately disappointing tale of the waning days of burlesque in New York City in the late 1930s, the play is set against the background of a rather nasty brand of homophobia that, alas, didn’t wane until much later.

Chauncey Miles (Mr. Lane) is the “nance” at a seedy burlesque house in what is now one of Gotham’s prime neighborhoods. A nance was an effeminate or sexually ambiguous stock character (think commedia dell’arte) used for double entendre sexual humor. The part was often played by a straight male (not to be confused with a straight man), but in Chauncey’s case, life imitates art.

The play, then, opens a door into two worlds: the raunchy, tawdry, low-brow burlesque milieu, at once quite funny and rather sad, and the gay demimonde that Chauncey navigates with one eye cocked for the cops. These guardians of public morals have a disturbing penchant for harassing homosexuals and raiding their meeting places, even those as seemingly innocent as the Automat.

Of the two, the world of burlesque is the far more entertaining. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane has clearly done his research and I have no reason to believe that the comic routines he has recreated (or perhaps exhumed) are not completely authentic. Mr. Lane and the superb Lewis J. Stadlen, as the theatre’s top banana, pull them off with great style and verve. Many of them are truly funny.

The girls of burlesque, the well-cast trio of Jenni Barber, Andréa Burns, and Cady Huffman, are not glamorized but presented as salt-of-the earth working girls, in the best sense of that term. Their tacky burlesque costumes, provided by Ann Roth, are spot on, as is Joey Pizzi’s choreography. Ms. Huffman, by the way, played the blonde bombshell Ulla in “The Producers” opposite Mr. Lane’s Max Bialystock; both of them got Tonys. Here she is commendably beefier and less idealized.

Also enjoyable in these scenes is the easy-going camaraderie of the company. However clichéd it may be, it lets us believe that there are indeed no people like show people.

We also learn less heartwarming things about this world, such as the fact that gay men frequent the theatre’s balcony hoping to service straight men aroused by the girls on stage. No wonder the prudes got their knickers in a knot!

Which brings us to the flip side of “The Nance,” the closeted world of gay New York in the 1930s and the campaign against burlesque. Here Mr. Beane is less successful, although it must be said he is never less than heartfelt.

Like the depiction of burlesque, this side of “The Nance” is something of a history lesson. We learn of the strained codes and rituals with which gay men were forced to court (if, indeed, that is the right word) in a hostile world all too willing to imprison them on the flimsiest of charges. No wonder the rather improbable (and unsought after) romance Chauncey enters into with the handsome Ned is so fraught. Ned is smitten and seeks the kind of long-term relationship that is becoming so common today. Chauncey is horrified and holds up the brief and sometimes brutal liaisons with which he is familiar as a kind of badge of honor.

Beane has stacked the dramatic deck a bit too tidily to make some ironic points. Chauncey is a staunch conservative Republican who maintains that Mayor LaGuardia’s crusade against “filth” in general and burlesque in particular is simple campaign posturing, which will evaporate after the election. Then, when the crackdown lands Chauncey in the dock, he unconvincingly morphs from below-the-radar queen to poster child for the cause.

In the end, with burlesque banned in New York, Chauncey can’t join his fellow troupers as they flee to the less restrictive New Jersey because he is a convicted “pervert,” condemned by the terms of his parole to stay in Manhattan. Not only that, but he throws away Ned, his best hope for happiness, to embrace the demeaning and dangerous world of anonymous encounters.

If this sounds a bit like soap opera, it is. And the play’s startling final image, while rather effective, is not earned by the script.

John Lee Beatty has contributed a large and ingenious revolving set that takes us from the stage of the burly-Q to backstage, to Chauncey’s semi-subterranean apartment and back again, with the occasional detour to the Automat. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the set underscores the fact that the world it depicts seems so under-inhabited.

I found myself wishing that Mr. Beane enjoyed the luxury of a larger cast so he could introduce us to more of the denizens of both worlds. But Broadway economics being what they are, that was probably never an option. The piece might have been more effective in a smaller Off-Broadway space on a smaller budget, but then could we have had top-flight performers like Mssrs. Lane and Stadlen and Ms. Huffman?

Small though the cast may be they perform admirably under the steady hand of triple Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien. And if ultimately Mr. Beane’s script is less than perfect, it is packed with funny lines and endearing moments, and it is clearly written from the heart. Then, of course, there is Nathan Lane.

I quite enjoyed myself.

‘The Best Brothers’ and ‘Hirsch’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

I am fond of saying there is a Poutine Curtain that prevents Canadian culture from penetrating south of the border. So

"The Best Brothers" and "Hirsch" are playing at the Studio Theatre.

one of the pleasures of visiting the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is the chance to see the work of Canadian playwrights who otherwise might have gone unnoticed. Most often, these plays are presented in the small black box space of the Studio Theatre.

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‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

Beatrice and Benedick are the fun couple of the Shakespeare canon. As seemingly incompatible as oil and water they are nonetheless fated for each other and the pathetic fallacy of their inevitable coming together, engineered with a clever trick by their friends, is what makes them so indelible in our memories and makes Much Ado a perennial favorite.

It’s a special treat when we get to see the parts played by a real-life married couple and in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s delightful production at the Festival Theatre the couple in question is Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson, both Festival stalwarts. It’s an interesting choice.

Perhaps because neither of them are in, shall we say, the first bloom of youth, director Christopher Newton seems to have chosen to emphasize their age. So Beatrice becomes a sort of old-maid-in-training, all flutters and dithery indecision. I found it a bit distracting, especially since Ms. Hay is more than capable of turning in a far more sophisticated portrait.

Still, one can’t fault her comic timing and a pratfall on the curving staircase that dominates Santo Loquasto’s set is sheer brilliance. Once I got past my initial misgivings, I found her performance quite enjoyable.

Ben Carlson gave his usual solid performance, but the fact that it seemed barely indistinguishable from the one he gave in last season’s Misanthrope was vaguely disconcerting. His delivery tends to be precise and emphatic giving his sparring with Beatrice something of a donnish quality.

If one can quibble with the central performances, the rest of the cast is above reproach. As the young lovers torn asunder by a vicious slander, Hero and Claudio, Bethany Jillard and Tyrone Savage are near ideal. Savage even makes Claudio almost sympathetic, a feat many feel is impossible. Juan Chioran as Don Pedro and James Blendick as Leonato are impeccable and, under Newton’s deft direction, they turn the scene in which they make an eavesdropping Benedick believe Beatrice is madly in love with him into comic bliss. And Timothy D. Stickney manages to stand out in the small role of Friar Francis.

For reasons that remain opaque to me, Newton chose to set his production in early twentieth century Brazil, but at least it doesn’t distract from the goings on and it allowed Loquasto to create some spiffing military uniforms.

This production of Much Ado may not be the best the Festival ever mounts but for now ‘twill serve.

Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Festival Theatre though October 27, 2012.
For more information visit