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Theatre & Performance Resurgent Shaw Festival’s 2020 season to return to Stephen Sondheim and (again) to the classics

Unlike his idiosyncratic first two seasons, artistic director Tim Carroll’s 2020 playbill will look familiar to long-time patrons of the Shaw Festival.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In another blast from the Shaw Festival past, everything will be coming up Stephen Sondheim at the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., repertory theatre company in 2020.

Two career-spanning works by the great American composer and lyricist, who will turn 90 next year, will be on the bill next season.

Gypsy, the classic 1959 musical that centres on the ultimate stage mother, Rose, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, will be directed and choreographed by Kimberley Rampersad in the Festival Theatre.

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Meanwhile, Assassins, Sondheim and librettist John Weidman’s dark 1990 revue (which only reached Broadway in 2004) about all the men and women who have attempted to murder U.S. presidents, will be staged by director Meg Roe in the more intimate Royal George Theatre.

“Those are both pretty strong dramatic pieces,” said Shaw Festival artistic director Tim Carroll, who said he wanted to swing the musical-theatre pendulum back after Brigadoon this season. “I thought it would be interesting to twin them.”

Unlike his idiosyncratic first two seasons, Carroll’s 2020 playbill – even more so than his continuing, third season in charge – will look familiar to long-time patrons of the Shaw Festival.

A Sondheim musical appeared every couple of years under Carroll’s predecessor, Jackie Maxwell – and, adaptations aside, no drama being produced next year dates from later than the 1950s.

Indeed, Maxwell herself will return next season to direct a classic Bernard-Shaw-and-his-contemporaries mandate play, J.M. Synge’s notorious, riot-inducing 1907 drama The Playboy of the Western World.

Alongside Maxwell’s first production in what is now known as the Jackie Maxwell Studio will be two important 20th-century American plays: Desire Under the Elms, Eugene O’Neill’s powerful 1924 hybrid of Greek tragedy and American gothic, to be directed by Selma Dimitrijevic; and Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress’s 1955 play about a black actor in an anti-lynching play directed by a condescending white director. (Phil Akin will direct that ahead-of-its-time, underproduced metatheatrical drama.)

What Carroll is carrying forward from recent seasons is programming around a major special event – in the vein of Stephen Fry’s three solo shows from 2017 or this month’s yet-to-open run of a day-long production of Man and Superman. As previously announced, Mahabharata – a multipart, years-in-the-making, international adaptation of the 4,000-year-old Sanskrit epic from Toronto’s Why Not Theatre – will play that role in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2020. Carroll is excited about what he’s seen so far of the work in progress, based on a script by director Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes: “I really think this needs to tour the world."

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The other plays that will receive main stage production at the Festival Theatre will be Bernard Shaw’s American revolution melodrama, The Devil’s Disciple, directed by Eda Holmes, and Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse, a new mystery play penned by R. Hamilton Wright that will first have its world premiere this fall at Vertigo Theatre in Calgary. (Vertigo artistic director Craig Hall will be back to direct this one.)

The Shaw Festival’s project to stage C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series also continues – but is being downsized to the Royal George next season, where Prince Caspian will premiere, adapted by Damien Atkins and directed by Molly Atkinson.

Also in that venue, Carroll will direct Branden Thomas’s Charley’s Aunt, the 1892 cross-dressing comedy that once held the record for longest run of a play worldwide, and as the lunchtime show, a new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1933 novella Flush, which is a semi-fictional biography of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.

“It pretends to be just a sweet book about a dog and is actually about a lot more,” said Carroll, who will theatricalize Woolf’s text himself with a group of company actors.

Another of Carroll’s changes to the Shaw Festival, which has been very good for the bottom line, has been to reopen during the holiday season. Next year, his own adaptation of A Christmas Carol will return to the Royal George once more, while Ashlie Corcoran’s popular 2017 production of the musical Me and My Girl will be remounted in the Festival Theatre.

Noticeably absent from Carroll’s coming fourth season in charge are any contemporary dramas or comedies such as the ones by Will Eno, Brandon Jacob-Jenkins, Hannah Moscovitch and Sarah Ruhl that have received critical acclaim in his tenure (and which were first introduced in Maxwell’s era).

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The artistic director said this should only be considered a sabbatical on that front – he’s still experimenting with programming and starting to think in three- to four-season arcs. “The more I do this, the more I realize I don’t really know what I’m doing yet.”

This 2020 season announcement comes several months into a Shaw season that has been much more positively reviewed than the past two – and seems on its way to improving upon 2018’s positive attendance trend and excellent financial results, according to Carroll. “So far, we’re ahead of last year on all our indexes,” he said.

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