Return to Stratford

| July 02, 2003
Ingnue or soubrette? Jennifer Gould as Gigi.
Ingnue or soubrette? Jennifer Gould as Gigi.

The last three plays of Stratford's opening week were less spectacular but more unusual than the opening three. Two are seldom seen onstage, and I wish I could say that about the third. Although the smaller musical's title might evoke a show as lovable as The King and I, its French belle époque amorality comes through more realistically onstage and feels creepy.

            Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe'sGigiwas adored as a charming film. The stage musical they adapted from their movie is perhaps closer to Colette's cynical tale of a young girl being groomed to be a courtesan. Their additional songs aren't worth the trouble, but the original ones --- "Gigi," "Thank Heaven For Little Girls," "The Night They Invented Champagne" --- are worth cherishing. And Richard Monette gives it a bubbly production with artful sets and costumes by Cameron Porteous, high-spirited choreography by Donna Feore, and musical direction by Berthold Carriere, the best in the business.

            This time the only flaw is in casting. The cast is adroit and stylish in its roles, but I couldn't accept the romantic lead. What has happened to Dan Chameroy? He was a rich-voiced Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and Lancelot in Camelot, and he sings some songs like the title-ballad beautifully here. But he not only overacts in a florid manner as Gaston Lachailles, the man Gigi loves, but uses a nasal speaking voice that sounds distressingly like a good imitation of Charles Nelson Reilly --- not the voice one wants for an irresistible roue.

            James Blendick holds the show together and reveals a creamy baritone as Honore, the role famously played by Maurice Chevalier in the film. Domini Blythe is soft-spoken and charming as Mamita, Gigi's grandmother. Patricia Collins is a hoot as Aunt Alicia, a former courtesan who seems to be morphing into Edith Evans' trumpet-voiced Lady Bracknell. And Jennifer Gould is pretty and sweet enough as Gigi, though her ingénue seems to be shading into soubrette a tad too rapidly.

            The sweet story is about a dirty old man who thanks heavens for really little girls and encourages his playboy nephew, Gaston, to seduce every young demimondaine in Paris. When the innocent young girl Gaston regards as a refreshing playmate begins to blossom into adolescence, he finds himself smitten and finally agrees to work out financial details to make her his mistress. Everyone happily assents to this despoiling, including Gigi, until Gaston suddenly sees the final act coming to an end and therefore proposes marriage. Who's to say that Cinderella's fairy godmother wasn't a bawd?

The Hunchback of Notre Dameisn't a very pretty story either, but playwright Rick Whelan is to be congratulated for following the Victor Hugo novel (Notre Dame de Paris) rather faithfully. Alexander Dodge's huge, suggestive sets are mostly details of the Cathedral's Gothic architecture, and Kelly Wolf's period costumes look like costumes made for the stage, not for real people. But their dark palette is given dramatic variety and nuance by Michael J. Whitfield's stunning lighting designs. Dennis Garnhum directs with a panache that suggests old movie melodramas, and Gregg Coffin's melodramatic original music not only underscores the drama, but several times creates what drama there is in the slower-moving scenes.

            The large cast is a uniformly fine ensemble. If Jennifer Gould is a little too adult for the childlike Gigi, she's a perfect heroine, lovely and fiery, as La Esmeralda, the Gypsy girl foolishly in love with the vapid, handsome Captain Phoebus. David Snelgrove makes Phoebus a more dimensional character than you would expect.

            Brigit Wilson makes a nice transition from cliché madwoman to heartbroken mother. Dan Chameroy uses that nasal delivery to good advantage as the stupid poet. Stephen Russell brings real menace and triumphant conviction to the evil Archdeacon Frollo, who convinces himself that his motives are holy and his vices the wicked temptations that are visited upon a holy man. And Nicolas Van Burek is remarkable as Quasimodo, losing himself, his youth, and good looks in the character of the deformed hunchback, yet retaining his acrobatic athleticism and ability to gain sympathy without sentimental tricks.

Shakespeare's The Adventures of Periclesties in with the exotic storytelling of this season and the dramas based on Greek legends that open later this month. It isn't good Shakespeare, and it isn't all Shakespeare, but what is good and actually written by Shakespeare plays well in this new revival.

            John Pennoyer has designed so many stunning productions for Stratford, Shaw, opera, and ballet that I was startled at how uneven his designs are for this play and how foolish some appear. He is quoted as saying "In every location we're dealing with princes or kings or high priests. We're showing the best of each culture. It's a designer's dream."

            Well, many scenes are memorably impressive, but several look downright amateurish with actors looking really silly in headpieces and pants that they don't know how to wear. The basic white hanging cloths and ground cloths work well at the end, but not throughout. The riot of color in Pentapolis and Tharsus would be effective if some of the designs hadn't looked so preposterous. Other Asian designs and especially hairdos look absurd on the lily-white folk wearing them.

            Rituals and dances that Donna Feore concocted for these imaginary civilizations are hilariously inept. The Thai music is ugly.

            Bald and painted white all over, Thom Marriott's narrator, Gower, looks like an out-of-shape wrestler disguised as a jellyfish. But he handles the endless narrations surprisingly interestingly. (Gower shows up constantly to tell us what happened after the last inchoate scene and what unrelated place we'll see Pericles in next.) Rubin arranges nifty entrances and exits for him.

            Jonathan Goad isn't really very grabbing as Pericles until he dons a long gray wig and is made up to look older. In the one great scene in the play, the elderly Pericles is reunited with his daughter Marina. Goad was mesmerizing. And Nazneen Contractor's Marina matched his passion. Her Marina has a good scene earlier in the generally trite brothel section, when she convinces the pimp Boult not to ravish her but to promote her as a musician. Funny and dramatic, Michael Therriault performs alchemy on the minor role of Boult; you can't take your eyes off him.

            Another mixed bag of good and awful choices, The Adventures of Pericles will let you exit reasonably pleased, if you haven't given up on it by the first intermission. The playscript's best sections come at the end anyway. I'd advise seeing its last 45 minutes.

Stratford Festival: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's Gigi,at the Avon Theatre to November 1; Rick Whelan's The Hunchback of Notre Dame,at the Avon Theatre to November 2; and Shakespeare's The Adventures of Pericles,at the Festival Theatre to October 31.

            Call 1-800-567-1600 for information, special events and tours, accommodations, and tickets from $20.70 to $105.40 Canadian dollars (approximately $15.11 to $76.96 US dollars). orders@stratfordfestival.ca, www.stratfordfestival.ca

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