Review: Canada’s Shaw Festival is the Ultimate Destination for Theater Lovers

After six decades the Shaw Festival has become one of Canada’s most substantial and popular cultural institutions, well worth the eight-hour drive from southwest Ohio.

click to enlarge Julie Lumsden (Louise) and Kate Hennig (Rose) in Gypsy. - Photo: David Cooper
Photo: David Cooper
Julie Lumsden (Louise) and Kate Hennig (Rose) in Gypsy.

This time of year Cincinnati has fewer theater options, so an excursion to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, is a good time to head there for top-notch productions at the Shaw Festival. Launched in 1962, this annual offering uses three attractive stages to produce an impressive, seven-month season of more than a dozen polished, well-acted shows, including works by legendary playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) as well as plays and musicals that originated during his long life. In the 21st century it has expanded its repertoire to produce new plays written about subjects during Shaw’s lifetime. After six decades the Shaw Festival has become one of Canada’s most substantial and popular cultural institutions, well worth the eight-hour drive from southwest Ohio. 

I was especially eager to see this summer’s production of Gypsy, the 1958 Broadway musical about Rose Hovick, the larger-than-life stage mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. With music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show — created as a star vehicle for Ethel Merman — is considered by many to be one of the greatest musicals of all time with one of the meatiest roles in all musical theater. This production featured a powerful performance by clarion-voiced Kate Hennig as Rose. She brought down the house with “Rose’s Turn,” a fierce onstage mental breakdown by a woman who sought personal recognition by pushing her daughters forward. Gypsy’s excellent supporting cast — especially Jenni Burke, Krystle Chance and Élodie Gillett as a diverse trio of raunchy but lovable strippers for “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” — and a detailed, adaptable backstage set made it the season’s most popular production, repeatedly selling out performances at the Shaw’s mainstage, the expansive 856-seat Festival Theatre. 

Playwright George Bernard Shaw is represented by two shows, The Apple Cart (1928), a full-length, satirical drama, and Village Wooing (1934), a sweet lunchtime one-act. The Apple Cart, presented at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, an adaptable black box space with seating for 256 on four sides, is astonishingly timely. It’s a fast-paced tale about a parliamentary crisis driven by a power struggle between a thoughtful king and his aggressive prime minister. It felt entirely in the moment of current British politics and royal intrigue, although this production imagines it in a fictional 1962. Truly an ensemble piece with outspoken, opinionated male and female cabinet members, as well as the king’s coquettish mistress and his pragmatic queen, the production is anchored by Tom Rooney as the philosophical and clever King Magnus.

Village Wooing is Shaw’s one-act for two performers, a cranky writer called “A” and a sparky woman called “Z.” He is a compulsive intellectual, while she is a hardworking clerk in a store and a telephone operator. They don’t have much in common, but that’s much of the fun as they become awkwardly acquainted on a cruise and fall in love in the village shop. Six actors are involved, two of whom are mixed and matched for each midday offering, with the other four observing from the wings and occasionally delivering a prop or a piece of furniture. This production could be seen multiple times and enjoyed with the varied performances and matchups. It’s staged at the ornate Royal George Theatre, built in 1915 as a vaudeville house and added as a 305-seat performance space for the festival in the 1980s.

The Royal George is also the venue for Tom Stoppard’s 1981 comedy, On the Razzle. Although Stoppard is better known today for serious-minded works — his drama Leopoldstadt won the 2023 Tony Award for Broadway’s best play — this show is a hilarious farce about two shop assistants who escape from a sleepy Austrian town for an adventure in big-city Vienna where they get into increasing scrapes and crazy situations. It’s based on an 1842 play that also inspired Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker and Jerry Herman’s musical Hello, Dolly! In this version, Stoppard goes full bore with his penchant for dazzling language, used here for humor, especially terrible puns, hilarious malapropisms and lots of double-entendres. 

Razzle is a non-stop, high-speed tale told with amusing choreography that cranks up comic mayhem (and romance) even more. The cast is anchored by Mike Nadajewski as garrulous head clerk Weinberl and Kristi Frank as Christopher, his naïve apprentice. Also noteworthy is Ric Reid as Zangler, the shop’s tongue-twisted proprietor, who remains oblivious of his employees’ shenanigans. Staged with impressive physical detail by Craig Hall, the show has a highly inventive set (designed by Christina Poddubiuk) that fluidly shifts from Zangler’s shop to a fashion boutique to the Imperial Gardens Café. This is the kind of production you want to visit a second time to catch all the witticisms that come at you a mile a minute.

Another British playwright, Noël Coward (1899-1793), is represented by an extravagant staging of his “light comedy about death,” Blithe Spirit. A socialite novelist invites an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance at his country home so he can gather material for his next book. Things don’t go as planned, and the ghost of Elvira, Charles’s late, temperamental wife, appears. Invisible to everyone but Charles, she does her best to upend his more recent marriage to Ruth. The antic character of Arcati is the play’s showpiece, and Deborah Hay delivers a wonderfully unrestrained performance, whooping and whirling around the stage as she weaves erratic psychic spells. The story’s dénouement with the posh Art Deco living room completely collapsing is as much a factor in the comedy as the cast’s finely tuned performances.

That’s not even half of the season offerings. Also on the Shaw’s various stages are James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner; a Narnia play, Prince Caspian; Edith Wharton’s The Shadow of a Doubt; J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World; Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing; and Tim Carroll’s The Game of Love and Chance.

The town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (population 17,000), about a half-hour north of Buffalo, N.Y., is a picturesque, florally abundant setting for the Shaw Festival. Full of 19th-century Victorian architecture, charming shops and varied restaurants, this town and the theaters are eminently walkable from numerous hotels and rentals. The region is also known for its numerous wineries, pleasant excursions for everyone in town for excellent theater and mild summer temperatures.

The Shaw Festival’s main season began in late February and continues with productions in rotating repertory through Oct. 15. The holiday season (Nov. 8 to Dec. 23, 2023) offers an adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and the romantic 1947 musical Brigadoon. More info:

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About The Author

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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