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Stratford Becomes a Mini-Sondheim Festival

STRATFORD, Ontario – A funny thing happened on the way to the two musicals on view at the 2009 Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

They turned into a mini-celebration of Stephen Sondheim.

The double Sondheim whammy is made up of "West Side Story" (1957), for which he supplied the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's magnificent music, and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1962), which marked his Broadway debut as both composer and lyricist.

Seen together, they trace the growth of Sondheim's considerable talent, from the more elemental wordplay of "West Side Story" to the breezy, astonishingly nimble (and often underappreciated) melodies and lyrics in "Forum" five years later.

Both shows have been major crowd pleasers, most notably the terrific, affecting "West Side Story." In fact, the production, directed by Gary Griffin, generates an intensity missing from the current, emotionally antiseptic Broadway revival.

For one thing, at Stratford there's considerable heat between Chilina Kennedy's Maria and Paul Nolan's Tony, the doomed, "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired lovers. The two positively sizzle in their sensuality.

Kennedy has a strong, pure voice and an eagerness matched by Nolan's physical ardor. Watch as the actor swings up to the balcony where his beloved awaits, and you'll cheer along with the rest of the audience.

It helps, too, that the production is at the large Festival Theatre, which has a thrust stage. That playing area is perfect not only for Shakespeare but for getting an audience even closer to the passion, both good and bad, which ignites this musical.

While "West Side Story" is filled with romance, it also is the story of New York gang warfare, a battle for turf between the Sharks and the Jets. Jerome Robbins' original choreography, retailored a bit by Sergio Trujillo, dazzles anew. So does Bernstein's pulsating, jazz-flecked music that hasn't lost any of its youthful vitality in the more than half-century since the show first opened on Broadway.

Not so the book by Arthur Laurents, who also directed the new, bilingual Broadway production. It seems sketchy, almost threadbare, depending on casting to fill in the gaps. At Stratford, the actors, led by Kennedy and Nolan, do the job admirably. Special mention should also go to Jennifer Rias, whose sultry Anita brims with an appropriate sexiness that makes you almost forget Karen Olivo's fiery, Tony-winning interpretation of the role, the best thing about the New York revival.

Griffin is an inventive director, in the past often making do with less, such as his vest-pocket, small-cast editions of "My Fair Lady" and Sondheim's own "Pacific Overtures." Here, he's got a lot more to work with, aided by Douglas Paraschuk's large, fast-moving sets, Kevin Fraser's evocative lighting and Jess Goldstein's colorful costumes.

Griffin's placement of a young boy at the end of a devastating Act 1 works well, particularly when the child reappears in the second act for a lovely version of "Somewhere." It's the show's most hopeful and touching moment.

Don't look for sentiment in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Was there ever a musical whose intentions were so clearly stated right at the top of the evening: "Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight"?

And what you need for the farcical "Forum" to succeed are first-rate clowns. Fortunately director Des McAnuff and choreographer Wayne Cilento have found a gaggle of funny men — and a few women — who know instinctively how to get a laugh, the bawdier the better.

At the center of the musical, which is set in ancient Rome, is a conniving slave named Pseudolus. He's sort of a master of ceremonies for all the plot complications that are to follow. Pseudolus is played by the delightfully cherubic Bruce Dow, who resembles a naughty little boy, the kind of lad who always has his hand caught in the cookie jar.

Dow is aided most prominently in the show's merry high jinks by a mournful Stephen Ouimette of television's "Slings and Arrows." And what a surprise to find the marvelous Kennedy, taking a break from her Maria in "West Side Story" as the show's giddy, dimwitted young heroine. She's paired with a delightful Mike Nadajewski as her spindly would-be paramour, contrarily named Hero.

McAnuff's production, playing at the Avon Theatre, may not offer any surprises, but "Forum" is so tightly constructed, the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart doesn't offer much wiggle room for major reinvention.

Sondheim's score matches the book's cleverness. It's deceptively easy-going, but listen carefully to the dazzling lyrics for such songs as "Love I Hear" and "Everybody Ought To Have a Maid." The man who would go on to write "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd" and more, already was in fine form.

"Forum" runs in rep at Stratford through Nov. 1, while "West Side Story" rings down its final curtain Oct. 31.

Copyright 2009 Associated Press.  All rights reserved.  This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. 

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