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Review of 2019 Stratford Festival Smash Comedy

Hilarious, inventive, joyous,imaginative, brilliant, a tour de force, a smash hit.

That is a decent collection ofadjectives to describe the production of The Front Page directed by GrahamAbbey at the Stratford Festival.  

The Front Page by BenHecht and Charles MacArthur premiered exactly 91 years ago in New York and hasbeen produced regularly ever since. It has been made into several films and itis a classic in its genre provided you can decide in which pigeon hole itbelongs. Let us agree that it is a very funny play.

The Stratford Festival productionis an adaptation by Michael Healy and he changes the sex of one of the maincharacters, adds a couple of characters, some political humour, some greatzingers and generally makes it even funnier than the original. The majorcontributor to the extraordinary production is without a doubt director GrahamAbbey. The first line of this review applies to his contribution to theproduction and it cannot be overestimated.

The play deals with a bunch of rough-hewnnewspaper reporters in the Chicago Criminal Court building in 1927 who are coveringthe execution of a schmuck who killed a black policeman.    The executionis scheduled for the early morning and thecard-playing, booze-drinking and lying reporters who make up stories when the factsdon’t fit or simply do not exist have no choice but to wait.

The central plot involving the reportersis Hildy Johnson’s (Ben Carlson) desire to get out of the business and marry Peggy(Amanda Sargisson). His boss, Mrs. Burns (Maev Beaty) does not want him toleave because there is a great story to be covered and he is a damn goodreporter. She will use her wiles, ethical or not, to prevent the marriage.Healy’s change is to make Mrs. Burns inheritor of the paper from her husbandWalter Burns, the original character in the play.

This is Chicago in the 1920’s andthere is ample corruption to uncover. The Mayor is up for reelection and hewants the execution to proceed because it will guarantee him votes. Theexecution of a white killer of a black cop is a surefire vote getter of theblacks. The Sheriff (Mike Shara) is an idiot and a corrupt one at that.

The prisoner escapes using thesheriff’s gun and hides in the reporters’ office. A reprieve from the governorarrives that the sheriff and mayor want concealed. Hildy’s officious andprospective mother-in-law (Rosemary Dunsmore) barges in, his distraughtwould-be wife arrives, Mrs. Burns tries to avert the marriage and all hellbreaks loose. The audience is in stitches with laughter.

Director Graham Abbey has anoutstanding cast but he deserves credit for the overall success of theproduction. He handles every scene, every situation and every character carefully,attentively and imaginatively to bring out all the humour and laughter that isavailable. A minor character like Woodenshoes Eichorn (Josue Laboucane) whobelieves he can tell the character of people by the shape of their heads doesnot fail to get a good laugh at every appearance. Laboucane goes a long awaywith a minor role.

Mike Shara as the Sheriff becomesa comic genius with his verbal delivery, his physical actions and his reactions.This may well be Shara’s best performance. The same may be said of Juan Chioranas the Mayor. Rosemary Dunsmore as Mrs. Grant is a relatively minor characterbut she and Abbey make sure she is a hilarious one. Ditto for Farhang Ghajar asthe messenger Irving Pincus.

The major characters receive thesame attention and produce the same results. Ben Carlson is masterful actor andhilarious as Hildy Johnson, Maev Beaty may be a bit overdone as Mrs. Burns butin the buildup of laughter and energy, she is a major contributor.

The large cast makes it difficultto compliment all of them but suffice to say that they do marvelous workincluding a natural comic like Randy Hughson as Fife and Michael Spencer-Davisas the eccentric fool Bensinger.

The set by Lorenzo Savoiniconsists of a large, shabby office with desks, chairs and telephones for thecolourful reporters. It is perfect for the job.


The Front Page byBen Hecht and Charles MacArthur, adapted by Michael Healy, opened on August 15 andwill play in repertory until October 25, 2019 at the Festival Theatre,Stratford, Ontario.

August 23, 2019

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