The Front Page at The Stratford Festival – A Review

In 1928, The Front Page was a huge Broadway hit for the legendary writing team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Set in the Press Room of a Chicago courthouse, it tells the story of how rapacious newspaper editor Walter Burns tries to retain the services of his star reporter, Hildy Johnson, who perversely has decided to get married and go to New York to work in advertising. All this against the background of the unfolding story of the pending execution of the hapless Earl Williams, accused of the murder of a black cop on the eve of an election in which the corrupt Chicago political machine desperately needs the black vote. Hildy’s plans are sabotaged when Williams mysteriously escapes and the Chicago police department goes nuts trying to find him. Needless to say, it’s a comedy.

The play is a sprawling ensemble piece (the current production boasts a cast of 23).  That may be why it is seldom revived, but it makes it an ideal choice for the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage. In addition to the colorful assortment of hack reporters, including one given to fastidiousness and poetry, there is the corrupt mayor and the incompetent buffoon of a sheriff; the condemned man, Earl Williams, and Mollie Malone, the shopworn prostitute who has befriended him; Hildy’s betrothed and her starchy mother; and a Runyonesque criminal whom Burns uses to do the dirty work.

Most people today are familiar with the story thanks to the rollicking 1940 film adaptation, His Girl Friday (on which Hecht collaborated). The film starred Cary Grant as Burns and Rosalind Russell as a gender-swapped Hildy. The current Stratford Festival production is an adaptation by Michael Healey of the original stage play in which the genders are switched once again. This time around, Hildy Johnson reverts to his male persona, while Walter Burns becomes Penelope “Cookie” Burns, Walter’s widow.

Healey has also brought the racial dynamics into the foreground. According to the program notes, the character of Alderman Willoughby, a black politician, that was eliminated before the original play opened, has been “reconstructed” in the present version. It works well as Abernathy turns up the pressure on the mayor by threatening another race riot if Earl Williams isn’t executed on schedule. There is also a black reporter in the Press Room who maintains his dignity amidst the casual racism of his peers (and, yes, the n-word is spoken).

Those who tremble when they hear that a great classic play has been “updated” or “adapted” (I am one of them) can relax. The sturdy bones of the story are intact and Healy proves himself to be a comic writer with whom Hecht and MacArthur would have been happy to get drunk. The plot remains a magnificent Rube Goldberg device that, once set in motion, careens wildly and improbably to its conclusion.

The play has been given a perfect period feel by set designer Lorenzo Savoini and costume designer Dana Osborne. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and John Gzowski’s sound design are appropriately unobtrusive.

Of course, material like this can fall flat unless it is carried off by an impeccable cast and that is where this production, under the astute eye of actor-turned-director Graham Abbey, excels. (Abbey, not so incidentally, is delivering a star turn as Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor this season.)

Although Hildy Johnson is considered the co-lead in the play, and Stratford veteran Ben Carlson is rock solid in the role, Hildy is pretty much the straight man in the play, the fixed center around which the comedy swirls. The real star part belongs to Cookie Burns and Maev Beaty is nothing short of incandescent in the role. Hers is easily the funniest performance at Stratford this season, and she has some stiff competition. Her flat Chicago accent is as impeccable as her comic timing. Her takes and asides are mini master classes in the art of comedy. In fact, the only thing wrong with Beaty’s performance is that it doesn’t begin until the second act.

What makes the play and this production a total joy are the performances of the featured players. As Mollie Malone, Sarah Dodd is heartbreaking, while Johnathan Sousa brings an original take to the small role of the condemned man. Mike Shara hams it up shamelessly (and perfectly) as the bumbling sheriff while Juan Chioran is majestically slimy as the dressed-to-the-nines mayor. Michael Blake is impeccable as the flashy crook Diamond Louis; he is an actor who seems to be able to change voices as easily as he changes costumes. Amelia Sargisson and Rosemary Dunsmore are perfect as, respectively, Hildy’s fiancée and her mother. Of the gang of reporters, Michael Spencer-Davis is first among equals as the prissy Bensinger.

The Front Page is a solid hit for the Festival, one which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

The Front Page  will play in repertory at the Festival Theatre through October 25, 2109.

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