Review: Musical theater alive and well at the Stratford Festival

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There wasn’t much room for a big, frenzied musical in this year’s stripped-down version of Stratford Festival, but die-hard fans of this sometimes polarizing form of theater haven’t been overlooked.

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You Can’t Stop The Beat, a thoughtful and well-executed cabaret that explores some of the most unique parts of musical theater’s enduring popularity, has a lot to offer.

And not just to aficionados either. While the show has a handful of internal jokes aimed at connoisseurs laughing, outsiders curious about what thrills musical theater fans can find entertaining answers here as well.

Director and curator Thom Allison, a sixth time Canadian singer and actor working in Stratford, takes on the unenviable task of choosing the Broadway tunes that would best suit this 90-minute celebration of musical theater.

Fans hungry for their favorites after a 17-month absence from the theater will undoubtedly have their own thoughts on his picks, as many classics – Rent, Chicago, Les Misérables – are only mentioned in passing.

The technical limitations of cabaret on a small outdoor stage under the glass roof of the Festival Theater also eliminate the physical element that many people love in musicals; there will be no tap dancing, joke the performers from the start.

In either case, however, Allison, veteran musical director Laura Burton and the cabaret’s charming quartet of singers – Evangelia Kambites, Mark Uhre, Alana Hibbert and Gabrielle Jones – admirably cross their boundaries and, in many places, use the format. intimate for their benefit.

The concept behind You Can’t Stop the Beat is featured with Something’s Coming (West Side Story), Pure Imagination (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and Me, Don Quixote (Man of La Mancha). Next, a medley dedicated to the early titans of musical theater Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein includes songs from Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma !, The King and I and Pipe Dream.

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Two songs by Cole Porter from the depression-era musical Anything Goes complete the first section of the cabaret. The merry Blow, Gabriel, Blow, in particular, had the opening day audience applauded on Sunday.

The tone and pace of the show changes here as Allison moves away from a chronological review in favor of a more specific exploration of popular musical theater themes.

In a poignant section on the art form’s ability to evoke empathy, for example, Allison chooses to highlight Irving Berlin’s 1933 Broadway show As Thousands Cheer, the first to give to a star. African-American, Ethel Waters, the same bill as her white counterparts.

Hibbert’s performance of Suppertime, a heavy song describing a woman’s reaction to her husband’s lynching, is exceptional. Her heartbreaking performance left the audience in silent awe for a few moments before inevitable applause.

Singer Alana Hibbert delivers a heartbreaking rendition of Suppertime, a heavy song describing a woman's reaction to her husband's lynching from Irving Berlin's 1933 Broadway show As Thousands Cheer, during the Stratford Festival cabaret, You Can 't Stop the Beat.  (Photo provided / DAVID HOU)
Singer Alana Hibbert delivers a heartbreaking rendition of Suppertime, a heavy song describing a woman’s reaction to her husband’s lynching from Irving Berlin’s 1933 Broadway show As Thousands Cheer, during the Stratford Festival cabaret, You Can ‘t Stop the Beat. (Photo provided / DAVID HOU)

The following section on Musical Theater Villains and Anti-Heroes provides a more playful analysis of some of the musical theater’s most notorious characters. Uhre and Jones are so good in A Little Priest that it didn’t take much suspension of disbelief to disappear into Sweeney Todd for a few minutes. Kambites similarly shines when kissing the character of Wicked Elphaba during the song The Wizard and I.

After a nod to award-winning Canadian musical The Drowsy Chaperone, the human connection is explored with a Stephen Sondheim mix that includes The Little Things You Do Together, Getting Married, You Could Drive a Person Crazy and Can I Leave You. .

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Burton, in his 42nd season at the Stratford Festival, deserves kudos for the flawless arrangements of the cabaret. She also plays keyboard, alongside drummer David Campion, bassist Michael McClennan and guitarist / cellist George Meanwell.

Peter McBoyle’s sound design is also top notch.

Fittingly, Allison concludes the show with a timely message of hope through You Will Be Found, by Dear Evan Hansen, and the cabaret title song, You Can’t Stop the Beat, by Hairspray.

It has been a long time since these songs were performed live, and there is a demand from the public to hear them again. If more seats become available during the cabaret race (the Stratford Festival has started a waiting list for those hoping to get tickets), musical theater fans or not should consider seeing the show to find out why.

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