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Stratford gets musical

The financially ailing Canadian festival's program this year -- more singing, less Shakespeare -- is paying off at the box office.

July 12, 2009|Chris Jones

STRATFORD, CANADA — Antoni Cimolino and Des McAnuff, the duopoly in charge of the beloved Stratford Shakespeare Festival, began their annual letter to patrons with a fervent declaration: "Shakespeare is at the center of our dramatic universe." True, this charming and hospitable Ontario town has hosted North America's most prominent, classically based theater for more than half a century. But like all savvy administrators, Cimolino and McAnuff are also doing some get-ahead-of-the-story damage control.

In fact, Shakespeare is noticeably less at the center of the Stratford universe in 2009. This year, it's mostly about the musicals.

In 2008, Stratford produced five Shakespearean productions; this year, it is producing three. Last year, none of the musicals was in the main Festival Theatre, the showcase venue. This year, director Gary Griffin's intensely moving production of "West Side Story" is the marquee, top-selling production there. And whereas last year's musicals felt like no more than solid regional productions, this year's boffo pair of tuners, "West Side Story" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," are richly innovative affairs, respectively packed with great emotional power and side-splitting shtick.

With the help of his choreographer, Wayne Cilento ("Wicked"), McAnuff mines more sight gags during "Comedy Tonight" than you'd have thought possible in a single opening number.

And in terms of delivering heart, truth and sexual intensity, Griffin's beautiful, gut-wrenching "West Side" is far, far superior to Arthur Laurents' current Broadway revival.

And the Shakespeare?

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens this summer. And "Macbeth" and "Julius Caesar" have their arresting moments, especially those involving the Canadian star Colm Feore's compelling Thane of Cawdor. But this pair of shows is strangely similar in conceit (both involve a lot of combat fatigues and gunshots). And although "Macbeth" is the better of the two by far, neither is able to forge a cohesive worldview or to carry its conceptual ideals to a fully satisfying conclusion.


Government funding

There are good financial reasons for a shift in focus -- that clearly has been pursued with great caution, this being Stratford, where every programmatic decision is parsed by dedicated American and Canadian theatergoers who've been coming every summer for years.

Last year, the mercifully well-endowed festival ran an operational deficit of $2.6 million and saw a 4% decline in attendance. Its leaders blamed the sour economy, especially in the Midwestern markets that traditionally provide the bulk of the festival's pivotal U.S. audience.

As a result, 11 employees were laid off in early 2009. And in early April, the heavily unionized festival said it was going to put several of its scheduled performances "on hold" because of weak box-office demand, especially from the U.S. side of a border that, effective June 1, requires a passport to cross.

But aptly enough, there was a deus ex machina.

Just a couple of weeks after that announcement, the Canadian government announced its unprecedented and hastily conceived Marquee Tourism Events Program, an economic stimulus package that delivered $3 million to Stratford's coffers. (The smaller Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake got more than $2 million in stimulus funds.) Notably, this wasn't traditional funding from the cultural-support wing of the Canadian government but from the Canadian minister with a responsibility for cultivating Canadian businesses.

The funds came with the caveat that they be used to attract new visitors, and the festival quickly reinstated most of its canceled shows and beefed up advertising in Canadian and U.S. newspapers.

A festival spokesman said last weekend that the effect of all those government-funded marketing endeavors had been large and immediate, stemming the decline in attendance and bringing cheer to a hitherto nervous town utterly dependent on visitors to a multivenue festival that runs from June through October.

The visitors are surely enjoying "West Side Story." The metallic and deeply imaginative set from Douglas Paraschuk -- Doc's drugstore is a streamline sight to behold -- allows Griffin to forge some gorgeous transitions, including a show-stopping moment when gently illuminated dressmaker's dummies slide into place from the rear of the theater.

Griffin and his choreographer, Sergio Trujillo ("Jersey Boys"), use the thrust stage to magnificent effect, allowing the Jets and Sharks to propel themselves toward the audience, leaping in thrilling fashion to and from Paraschuk's balconies and using the vomitoria as speed ramps.

But the real revelation here is in the intimate scenes, which ooze originality and passion.

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