After lyricist Leo Robin had written a song for The Big Broadcast of 1938, he incurred the censor’s wrath.
No, the bluenose decreed, “Thanks for the Memory” – in which two ex-spouses now prefer to ruminate on the good times they once had – would not be allowed to sing “That weekend in Niagara when we never saw the falls.”
Only after Robin had changed it to “That weekend in Niagara when we hardly saw the falls” did it pass muster
Too bad the Shaw Festival wasn’t in operation in 1938. Then everyone would have assumed that the real reason that people would neglect the Falls would be so that they were in a hurry to drive the 15 miles to reach Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Alas, the Shaw Festival couldn’t help back then, for it didn’t come into existence until 1962. But here it is, celebrating its 60th season.
It started modestly in a courthouse with an eight-week run of a full-length Shaw play (Candida) and a cut from another (Don Juan in Hell). Compare that to this year, where the Festival’s season started on February 9 and will continue until December 23. Three handsome theaters will see more than a dozen offerings, ranging from new classics (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2017 hit Everybody) to vintage ones (Shaw’s Too True to Be Good) in productions that often appear to be too good to be true.
Shaw’s own 1906 play The Doctor’s Dilemma seems as if it were written – well, the cliché is “yesterday,” but “this morning” would be more apt. There’s much talk of vaccines and illness, and a character wears the type of facemask to which we’ve all become accustomed.
This is definitely an updated version, and not merely because Gillian Gallow’s sets and Rachel Forbes’ costumes say “Time: Now.” Director Diana Donnelly made a few edits and some of her actors’ improvs wound up staying in the show. To be sure, Shaw certainly never used the F-word – and we don’t mean Fauci.
The plot: Dr. Ridgeon is doing clinical trials for his new vaccine, and has two contenders for the one slot he has left. Should he attempt to cure an old and true friend or a most promising artist? But that artist is a thoroughly amoral human being (which Johnathan Sousa sure knows how to play). Doesn’t the world need art at any cost? Shaw lets us be the judge.
The Importance of Being Earnest offers a different Lady Bracknell. Kate Hennig plays her as a human being and avoids the purposely artificial style that so many actresses before her have embraced. Truth to tell, that made some lines less funny, but Tim Carroll (the Festival’s artistic director) is to be commended for making a brave choice and not delivering business as usual.
Carroll found a lost gem in Chitra, an 1892 one-act by India’’s esteemed playwright Rabidranath Tagore. Chitra’s a butch and less-than-lovely lady who begs the gods to make her beautiful at least for a day. What nice gods they are, for they give her a year.
This allows her to pursue Arjuna, who’s taken a 12-year-vow of chastity. Just one look, that’s all it takes, and Arjuna decides that vows are made to be broken. But what will happen when the year of beauty is up?
Here’s a good place to mention that the Shaw Festival does its plays in repertory. So to see Gabriella Sundar Singh play Cecily Cardew in EARNEST one night and then dominate the stage in Chitra the next morning is an astonishing experience for audiences and an amazing achievement for her.
Carroll’s other great rediscovery is Cicely Hamilton’s Just to Get Married. It opened on Broadway on New Year’s Day in 1912 and couldn’t make it to February.
Why it didn’t succeed in that era isn’t much of a mystery. Here’s a play that would have been ahead of its time for most of the 20th century.
Unmarried Georgiana admits to being “29 – last April” when her Aunt Catherine sighed as “she wished me happy returns of the day. I knew what she was sighing over – her dwindling chances of getting somebody to support me.
Her relatives want to see her hook up with Adam Lankester. “And,” Georgiana rues, “when you’re a pauper, you have to take what comes along.”
She’s quite rich in language, though. Georgiana frankly states that wives “have selected their more or less unsuitable husbands out of pure affection.” As for Adam, she secretly calls him “Ad-dumb.” When he enters, we see her point; he’s deadly dull.
Actually, he isn’t. Adam is just painfully nervous about proposing to Georgiana, fearing that she’ll say no. After she dutifully accepts and says she loves him (which she most certainly does not), he comes vividly alive, charming, secure and sincere. (Actor Kristopher Bowman sees to that.)
Now that Georgiana observes who he really is, we wonder if she’ll come to love him. Will she feel bad if she doesn’t? Will she marry without love? As it turns out, the day before the wedding, she does none of the above. Just when you might think that playwright Hamilton has painted herself into quite the corner, she finishes with a splendid and believable solution.
Katherine Gauthier got every essence of Georgiana’s no-nonsense, fully self-aware woman, all the more remarkable because she was an understudy pressed into service. (But you’ve become accustomed to hearing about last-minute substitutes being extraordinary, haven’t you?)
So what is Damn Yankees doing in a Shaw Festival? Well, Shaw did write Man and Superman, and the 1955 Best Musical Tony-winner has a Man – the fiftyish Joe Boyd – and Superman – the twenty-something baseball super-superstar Joe Hardy.
The aforementioned Don Juan in Hell is part of Man and Superman, and Damn Yankees offers a Don Juana (Lola) who comes from hell to raise hell with Joe so that he’ll be sentenced to the property of Mr. Applegate (read: The Devil) now and forever.
Aside from a few barely noticeable tweaks, director Brian Hill wisely chose to do the original George Abbott-Douglass Wallop script and not the wan 1994 rewrite.
(Amazing, though, that no one has yet thought of changing two words in one song. Couldn’t Joe Boyd, upon leaving his wife en route to becoming Joe Hardy, sing “Goodbye, My Love” instead of the condescending and insulting “Goodbye, Old Girl”?)
That said, choreographer Allison Plamondon solved one of the musical’s long-standing problems. When Joe Hardy auditions for the Washington Senators, he amazes everyone with his hitting. But Senators’ player Rocky brings up an excellent point: “Batting practice is one thing, but how does he do in a game, eh?”
(Indeed, the 1950s did see a major league pitcher who was extraordinary – until the stands were filled. Then his terrible stage fright took over, rendering him useless.)
So why are all the Senators wildly celebrating their savior “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” when he hasn’t had a single at-bat in an official game?
Plamondon wisely doesn’t have the players do the entire number, as has always been the custom. She brings on her ensemble to represent the fans who have been seeing Joe play and succeed. So by the next scene, which takes place some weeks later, we see from the fans’ mania that time has passed and that Joe has proved himself.
Baseball players are notorious for spitting, which is one reason why Lynn Ahrens included it in Ragtime’s “What a Game!” Here director Brian Hill had his Senators spit, too – but in unison after they mention those damn Yankees in that ancient tradition that insists that such spitting wards off evil.
“Who’s Got the Pain?” – done at a show to honor Joe – was written in part to celebrate the mambo, one dance craze of the 1950s, but more to showcase the substantial abilities of original Lola Gwen Verdon. Here Plamondon made another wise decision; she instead puts on stage the entire fan club that results in a spirited production number.
(That said, with the lyric having nothing whatsoever to do with baseball or anything that illuminates the characters, here’s the right place for “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.”)
Oh, for more time at the Shaw Festival! Word is good on their Gaslight and Gem of the Ocean. Who knows what performer I loved in Earnest would be a Gem in another play? Ah, but we all learned long ago that we can’t see them all …