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Theatre & Performance Summer theatre preview: What’s playing at Stratford, Shaw and beyond

No, the headline isn’t wrong. Spring may have only just sprung, but it is already time to start thinking about summer theatre.

Ontario’s two major destination theatre festivals kick off in the next weeks: The Shaw Festival has its first preview of The Horse and His Boy (their latest family show adapted from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series) on April 6, while the Stratford Festival’s first preview of Elton John’s Billy Elliot: The Musical hits its famous thrust stage on April 16.

With box offices now open from the Charlottetown Festival in PEI to Bard on the Beach in British Columbia, here are nine exciting-looking shows that have grabbed this theatre critic’s attention at five of the country’s top theatrical destinations.

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The Stratford Festival, Ontario

Artistic director Antoni Cimolino has just had his contract extended by two years (to 2024) after his 2018 season saw more than half a million tickets sold – even with one of his four theatres shuttered.

In the final year before the Tom Patterson Theatre’s $68-million replacement opens, Cimolino has programmed a couple of surefire shows such as Billy Elliot and Little Shop of Horrors for the musical-theatre tourists – but it’s the classics that continue to draw die-hards from across the continent to Stratford.

Nathan the Wise (May 25 to Oct. 11)

From top: Daniel Shoag, Qasim Khan, George Krissa.

David Cooper/Stratford Festival

No need to spell out why it’s the right time to revive this 1779 play by the Enlightenment German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing about religious tolerance between Christians, Jews and Muslims. A powerful drama set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, this rarely produced gem only had its Canadian professional premiere in 2004. Now, it makes its Stratford debut under the thoughtful, talented German-Canadian director Birgit Schreyer Duarte.

Othello (May 3 to Oct. 27)

Michael Blake as Othello.

David Cooper/Stratford Festival

Shakespeare’s most emotionally involving tragedy returns to the Festival Theatre stage with a cast that one suspects will be eventually looked back upon as stacked with this Stratford generation’s greats.

Michael Blake is an actor hard to pigeonhole – so expect an original take on the title role from him under the direction of Nigel Shawn Williams. Gordon S. Miller – who has made a stunning leap from second bananas to leads in the past two Stratford seasons – plays Iago, while Amelia Sargisson, who made a sensational Stratford debut in Paradise Lost last year, is Desdemona.

The Front Page (July 30 to Oct. 25)

It’s hard for a critic working for a good-old print publication not to get excited about a production of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 newspaper comedy. The Front Page has enjoyed many memorable rewrites over the past 90 years (notably His Girl Friday) – and now it will get another one by the reliable Canadian comedic playwright Michael Healey (The Drawer Boy). Actors Ben Carlson and Maev Beaty headline the cast as star reporter Hildy and hard-nosed editor Burns, respectively – and Graham Abbey, a great comic actor, directs.

The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

When Tim Carroll took over as artistic director in 2017, the Shaw Festival started to shift away from a distinct repertoire toward standard regional theatre programming.

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Thankfully, for his 2019 season, he’s steered the Shaw backs toward rarer fare that seems worth a tank of gas or, in some cases, a flight. It’s definitely – on paper – the strongest lineup in years.

Man and Superman (Aug. 17 to Oct. 5)

The rumours of Bernard Shaw’s disappearance from the Shaw Festival have been greatly exaggerated. The event of the 2019 season is undeniably this limited 17-performance run of the full four-act, six-hour production of Shaw’s 1903 comedy of ideas, Man and Superman – yes, including the Don Juan in Hell dream sequence. Director Kimberley Rampersad has a tough act to follow – a 2004 production directed by the late Neil Munro is legendary – but the up-and-coming director has assembled a great cast including Gray Powell as John Tanner and, this should be fun, Martha Burns as the Devil.

Victory (July 14 to Oct. 12)

From left: Tom McCamus and Martha Burns.

Peter Andrew Lusztyk/Shaw Festival

The iconoclastic British playwright Howard Barker rarely gets major professional productions in Canada – and a note on the Shaw Festival website for Victory suggests why. There’s an audience warning that the play set during the Restoration about a widow (Burns, again) looking to bury her husband is “deliberately offensive” and “contains very strong language” (the “very” is underlined). Artistic director Tim Carroll directs and is ready to shoulder the blame for any walk-outs.

The Glass Menagerie (May 22 to Oct. 12)

The Glass Menagerie.

Shaw Festival

I already selected the Shaw Festival production of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Tom Rooney as one of the top shows to see this year back in January, so won’t repeat myself here. It’s casting that, similarly, makes the Tennessee Williams chestnut The Glass Menagerie appealing this summer in Niagara-on-the-Lake: André Sills, who was just Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival, switches theatrical teams to play Tom, with the underrated Julia Course in the heart-breaking role of Laura. Laszlo Berczes, visiting from Hungary, directs.

Three more to see – across the country

Coriolanus at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver (Aug. 21 to Sept. 15)

Casting women in male roles in Shakespeare is now almost as unremarkable as casting men in female roles in Shakespeare’s plays was in his own time. Still, here’s an unexpected one: Erstwhile Shaw Festival star Moya O’Connell as the Roman warrior-turned-reluctant-politician Coriolanus? Bard on the Beach has never tackled this Roman tragedy at all – and Dean Paul Gibson’s production billed as “post-modern” sounds like it won’t be playing it safe.

Strike! The Musical at Rainbow Stage in Winnipeg (June 18-28 and July 2-5)

Timed to the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, Rainbow Stage – Canada’s largest and longest-running outdoor theatre – is mounting its first locally penned and only second Canadian musical in its 65-year history. Strike!, which premiered in 2005 and features a book by Rick Chafe and Danny Schur, as well as music by Schur, has been reworked ahead of a movie adaptation set to be released sometime this year – and now features a plot in which a Ukrainian immigrant, a Jewish suffragette and a black refugee from lynchings in Oklahoma get wrapped up in the unrest of 1919. Director Sharon Bajer is reimagining it for a cast of actor-musicians.

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Kronborg: The Hamlet Rock Musical at the Charlottetown Festival, Charlottetown (June 21 to July 20)

Kronborg: The Hamlet Rock Musical.

The Charlottetown Festival

Long before Come From Away, there was Kronborg – Cliff Jones’s cult classic that, under the name Rockabye Hamlet, was the first Canadian-penned musical to land on Broadway in a legendary 1976 flop production that starred Meat Loaf. The Charlottetown Festival dusted off the score and script and reworked it for a pair of successful, sold-out concerts in 2017 – and now, 45 years after its premiere in PEI, Kronborg will get a new full production in the Homburg Theatre directed by Mary Francis Moore and starring native Islander Aaron Hastelow as the melancholy Dane and up-and-comer Kimberly Truong as Ophelia.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that Kronborg premiered 65 years ago. In fact, it premiered 45 years ago.
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