Wednesday, 14 September 2011

My 2011 Summer Theatre Travels

by Tim Chapman, Professional Theatre Coordinator

As usual I have been making the rounds of summer theatres which belong to the Association of Summer Theatres ‘Round Ontario (ASTRO).   It is so much fun to get out of the city and see the vast variety of theatre in this province.

Dance Legends at Drayton Entertainment
The first out-of-town show I saw this summer was Dance Legends at Drayton Festival Theatre.  I love show dancing and this show offered a history of the great American choreographers and dancers.  And it went beyond show dancing to include ballet, modern dance, and many of the memorable dancers of the movies and the music industry.  It was a big show with fourteen dancers, two singers, and four musicians—something few theatres in Ontario could afford to produce.   I loved it and so did my brother-in-law who joined me.  In fact, he loved it so much he saw it a second time with my sister.  And she loved it too.  The dancing was fantastic and I thought the whole show was first-rate the way it was put together and produced.

Next I saw the first two of three shows at the Shaw Festival this summer: Shaw’s Heartbreak House, and Drama at Inish, a gentle Irish comedy of the 1930’s.  Shaw recently announced that Inish’s run has been so successful that the run has been extended.  Heartbreak is one of George Bernard Shaw’s best plays and I had not seen it since Christopher Newton’s seminal 1985 production at the Festival.  Christopher took it on again and it was a fascinating re-visit with the always superb Shaw company of actors and designers.  Later in the summer I caught up with the much lauded Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  What a triumph!  Director Eda Holmes has mined terrific performances from the entire cast.  It was thrilling to see this Tennessee Williams classic so superbly realized.

In early July I was down to see John Gray’s new musical Amelia.  Festival Players of Prince Edward County produced the premiere of the show last summer directed by Artistic Director Sarah Phillips.  They revived it this summer prior to the production going to the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa in September.  It is a three-hander musical about the iconic flyer Amelia Earhart, a companion piece to Gray’s Canadian classic, Billy Bishop Goes to War.  Sarah and the cast, including Eliza Jane Scott in the title role, do a bang-up job delivering a fine production.  I also journeyed to Perth in Eastern Ontario for the first time to visit the Classic Theatre Festival now in its second season.  Artistic Director Laurel Smith has carved out an interesting mandate to produce the classic hits of Broadway and the London Stage.  In her first two seasons she has concentrated on shows from the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I saw Bell, Book and Candle by John van Druten.  You may remember it from the 1950’s Jimmy Stewart/Kim Novak movie.  I thought the show worked well in the summer theatre context.  It drew a good crowd the performance I saw, and they appeared to be totally absorbed with this pleasing production.

Theatre Collingwood opened its season in July with Maryjane Cruise’s Separate Beds.  I had never seen the play, though it has received over twenty-five productions since it was first produced at Theatre Aquarius in 2002.  Arlene Mazerolle and Brian Young adeptly stick-handle the many laughs in this comedy about married life.  The show definitely got Collingwood’s summer season off to a good start.  But I am sorry I missed Dan Needle’s—author of the Wingfield plays—new multi-character show, Fair Play, which premiered at Collingwood in August.

In late July I went out to see Humber River Shakespeare’s outdoor touring show A Comedy of Errors.  Well, twenty minutes into the show, it started pouring rain and the performance had to be cancelled.  Unfortunately, I was leaving for a holiday in the U.S. a few days later and I never had another opportunity to see the production.  Too bad—the show got off to a promising start.

The Cavan Blazers at 4th Line Theatre.
Photo by Wayne Eardley
I made it out to Millbrook to see the opening of 4th Line’s The Cavan Blazers in early August.  I had never seen it before.  It was 4th Line’s inaugural production in 1992, and they have produced it another four times—the last time in 2004.  I had always wanted to see it as I knew there were characters riding real horses in the show: perfect for outdoor theatre.  It’s a monumental undertaking with a cast of nearly sixty (led by Richard Greenblatt, Edward Belanger and Artistic Director Robert Winslow) and a gripping 19th century local story.  It is the type of big show which 4th Line produces so superbly.  They just announced that the 2011 20th anniversary season was its most successful ever, with record-breaking attendance from across Ontario and as far away as Quebec, Manitoba, B.C. and the U.S.

Derek Ritschel is in his first season as Artistic Director of Lighthouse Theatre in Port Dover so I really wanted to see a show there.  Derek just finished directing the Norm Foster classic The Melville Boys.  I could not get down to that show, but I was able to see Uwe Meyer’s Dating by the Book.  (Uwe is the Artistic Director of the Port Hope Festival Theatre.)  It may be the first ‘viagra’ comedy I have seen.  It is very funny, and Derek had told me it had been the hit of the Lighthouse season thus far, with two productions remaining.

Peter Van Gestel as Macbeth at Driftwood Theatre.
Photo by David Spowart.
In Withrow Park in Riverdale, about a 15-minute walk from my house, I caught Driftwood Theatre’s touring Macbeth.  Artistic Director Jeremy Smith consistently offers interesting and well-produced outdoor productions of Shakespeare, and this production continued that history with an exciting, smartly-executed show.  Driftwood has been coming to Withrow Park for a number of years but I have never seen such a large crowd as this year.  It was well-deserved.

I still hope to get to Stratford and I will be going to Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque later in September but, thus far, that concludes my summer theatre travels in 2011.  My colleagues at Theatre Ontario, John Goddard and Brandon Moore, also traveled to some other ASTRO theatres this past summer.  John enjoyed shows at the Blyth Festival, the Port Hope Festival Theatre, the Orillia Opera House where LaughOutLoud Productions produced their second summer season and at the Straford Shakespeare Festival.  Brandon went down to Port Colborne to see Showboat Festival Theatre’s 2 Across, a charming production of an American comedy of crosswords and romance, directed by Artistic Director Thom Currie.

Another summer season is coming to a close.  But our artists will continue to “trod the boards” across this province.  From Niagara-on-the-Lake to Bobcaygeon, from Morrisburg to Sarnia, from Haliburton to Port Stanley, there will always be summer theatre close by.

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