Stratford Festival reviews: ‘Spamalot,’ ‘King Lear,’ ‘Rent’

Musicals pull ahead of the Bard during Stratford opening week

STRATFORD LOVES OPENING NIGHTS. The summer-long Ontario theatre festival turns them into back-to-back days of revelry, tuxedo jackets and iambic pentameter. Last week, it kicked off the action with the first five shows of its 13-show season.

Via the festival’s round-trip Toronto bus, I visited the tranquil riverside city to review this year’s two musicals along with the blockbuster King Lear, starring Canadian TV star Paul Gross. Despite Shakespeare being the festival’s traditional focus, this time, the jazz hands won out.

What: Monty Python’s Spamalot
Where: Stratford’s Avon Theatre, 99 Downie St.
When: Now, until Oct. 28
Highlight: Jennifer Rider-Shaw’s vocal pyrotechnics as the Lady of the Lake
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: It’s a treat to see Stratford’s virtuosic actors thoroughly commit to such ridiculous dialogue.

Since the city of Stratford is itself a tribute to England’s Stratford-upon-Avon, it feels right that the festival is doing this musical spoof of medieval English folklore adapted from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Much of the dialogue is ripped straight from the classic film: there are coconuts, discussions of swallow velocity and The Knights Who Say “Ni!” But Always Look on the Bright Side of Life and a couple others aside, the songs by Monty Python member Eric Idle were written all-new for the musical’s 2005 Broadway premiere. Naturally, they are all comedic, either repeating and exaggerating jokes from the dialogue or making fun of musical theatre tropes.

This production, directed by Lezlie Wade, is clear and dazzling. It’s a treat to see Stratford’s virtuosic actors thoroughly commit to such ridiculous dialogue — the lead, King Arthur, is heartily rendered by Jonathan Goad, who played Hamlet here just a few years ago; and his love interest, the Lady of the Lake, is a tremendous showcase of Jennifer Rider-Shaw’s pyrotechnic vocal abilities.

The production gives every joke its full expression. The stretching of a conversation beyond its natural end is classic Python, and it’s committed to entirely here. Though a few of the show’s jokes feel in bad taste two decades on, most of them land just fine, and (props/set/costume) designer David Boechler milks the bountiful Stratford budget to provide some truly ridiculous visual punchlines. This comedy is further bolstered by Laura Burton’s polished music direction and Jesse Robb’s athletic choreography. This Spamalot is escapism done well.

What: King Lear
Where: Stratford’s Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St.
When: Now, until Oct. 29
Highlight: Director Kimberley Rampersad’s eerie rendering of a storm
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Canadian TV star Paul Gross takes on the mammoth role of King Lear.

With Paul Gross, star of the Stratford-spoofing TV series Slings & Arrows, taking on the mammoth role of King Lear at the cavernous Festival Theatre, this production is the festival’s marquee Shakespearean event. And the Gross-ness of it works well: though he doesn’t always have the vocal power necessary to blast his hundreds of lines to the theatre’s back row, he’s crafted a grounded, present and surprisingly funny Lear.

But this King Lear is otherwise somewhat opaque. Judith Bowden’s set is neutral, a jagged black two-level structure that is compellingly ominous but not evocative of a specific place. Michelle Bohn’s costumes vary in tone and time period, again discouraging us from trying to figure out the setting. And Kimberley Rampersad’s staging is quite static.

Until an hour in, that is. Then things heat up. The text demands a storm, and Rampersad delivers with stark shifts in lighting (by Chris Malkowski) and cloaked figures trudging through gorgeous wafts of stage fog. The utter theatricality of this sequence is a welcome disruption from the previous stoicism — and though the storm eventually dissipates, its liveliness permeates throughout the rest of the evening.

The production has some lovely performances, with the dynamic between sisters Goneril (Shannon Taylor) and Regan (Déjah Dixon-Green) being particularly delightful, but overall, it’s difficult to discern the production’s specific angle on the text. No theme or character is particularly foregrounded. Instead, the production takes a general approach and tries to draw out everything the play has to offer — a very difficult task.

If you are a Gross fan, you shouldn’t miss this production. And if you’ve never seen Lear before, Rampersad’s more universal approach will likely be a good introduction to the play. Otherwise, this year’s next two Shakespeare productions, Richard II and Much Ado About Nothing, might be a better bet.

What: Rent
Where: Stratford’s Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St.
When: Now, until Oct. 28
Highlight: Franklin Brasz’s rock-concert-style music direction
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Scintillating production makes script’s issues more endearing than distracting.
Jonathan Larson’s 1996 rock opera Rent is famously unfinished due to the composer’s too-early death, but in this scintillating production directed by Thom Allison, the script’s issues feel more endearing than distracting.

This is largely thanks to music director Franklin Brasz, who imbues the score with rock-concert energy. The band plays as loudly as is reasonable, which gives life even to Larson’s weaker songs. And the cast members sing their faces off. They seem to be allowed unlimited agency to embellish the melody and riff all over the place; Larson’s music is only a jumping-off point.

As down-on-his-luck filmmaker Mark Cohen, Stratford favourite Robert Markus goes especially wild, finding plenty of spots to show off his powerhouse tenor despite the role usually being an acting-first baritone role. He’s also a more confident Mark than usual, with his normally cool songwriter buddy Roger Davis (Kolton Stewart) now feeling like the dorkier one. Other standout vocalists include Broadway’s Andrea Macasaet as Mimi Marquez and Lee Siegel as Tom Collins, but the whole cast is working at a high level.

Allison contrasts striking theatricality with gritty realism. In many of the songs, lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini uses spotlights to isolate the singers, darkening the set and removing their connection to the 1990s NYC setting. In those moments, they seem to be signing directly to us. Add in the Festival Theatre’s thrust seating and it feels like Scotiabank Arena. But then, for songs like Christmas Bells, the whole stage is lit and Savoini’s ultra-detailed set provides ample playing space for more realistic action.

I never understood why Rent won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This production’s emotional heft showed me why.