Monday, December 26, 2016

L'Amour de Loin: operatic dream world

Opera may be the most tradition-bound of art forms (on a par with symphony orchestras), but the Metropolitan Opera continues to explore exciting new methods of musical storytelling with its new production of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin (Love from afar).

The production has made headlines because it's only the second opera by a female composer produced in the Met's 133-year history. In addition, it's only the fourth time that a woman has taken the podium -- the Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki.

Far from a gimmick, both women are in the midst of respected careers and it seems a shame that the New York classical music world would seem to be a bit behind Europe and other areas in creating opportunities for female artistic leaders.

Now, L'Amour de Loin (which premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000) has very little action and practically no change of scene. However, Canadian director Robert LePage and set/costume designer Michael Curry have created a visual world that moves while exploring such non-physical realms as mind and emotion. 

Left to right, Tamara Mumford, Susanna Phillips
 and Eric Owens in L'Amour de Loin
The plot concerns the 12th century French poet and troubador, Jaufré Rudel, who was said to have fallen in love with the Countess of Tripoli (one of the Crusader states in what is now Lebanon) simply from descriptions of her virtues brought to France by pilgrim travelers. He sets sail across the Mediterranean to see her, falls ill on the journey and, upon arrival, dies in her arms.

This is wholly in keeping with improbably opera plots, but as is often the case, plot isn't the main point. Inhabiting the mythical status of the story, L'Amour de Loin explores the quality of purity in love, divorced from love's object. The poetic libretto by Amin Maalouf even asks, "What good is love from afar?"

The undulating sea is suggested by rows of thousands of LED lights suspended across the stage. A pilgrim traveler (Tamara Mumford) and Rudel (Eric Owens) travel in a small boat, but a large set piece resembling a bridge on a single pivot also suggests a boat and, when stationary, a shore or the rim of a castle. The lights swirl with color and are separated by enough space that the chorus seems to rise from the sea.

The work of lighting designer Kevin Adams, lighting image designer Lionel Arnould and sound designer Mark Grey is seamlessly integrated.    

While firmly tonal, Saariaho's music includes electronic sounds. Each character, the chorus and the orchestra is given differentiated music. (I was particularly struck by the nearly-human quality of the woodwind voices.)

Malkki's conducting drew out all the sectional qualities with a clear sense of pace. However, the score's overall flowing, dreamlike quality did produce one unintended effect: my seat companion and I found our eyelids lowering during the first half. At intermission, we agreed that we were so fascinated by what we were seeing and hearing that we were fighting the somnolent urge.

The small cast was thrillingly committed to the music. An announcement before the performance told us that Owens was battling bronchitis, but "he wishes to sing for you." His commanding bass-baritone voice seemed slightly diminished in power, with an occasional cough, but beautifully expressed Rudel's discontent and longing. I was glad Owens made the effort.

Mumford's pilgrim traveler shuttled between the lovers with a sturdy sense of mission and compassion. As the countess, soprano Susanna Phillips seemed to glow with both physical beauty and wistfulness, soaring in her final moments as she rails against fate and prays to - whom? God or her "love from afar?" The mysterious qualities of love seem to intersect with faith to pose eternal questions.  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Never stop the presses

I visited an old theatrical friend last fall - a limited Broadway run of the 1928 classic play about newspaper journalism, The Front Page.

As far as I'm concerned, no play to this day has captured better the sheer exuberant adventure of being a newspaper reporter, wrapped in long hours, grubby conditions and low pay. With its brilliant structured plot, rapid-fire overlapping dialogue and snappy pace, The Front Page remains sensationally entertaining nearly 90 years later.

I first encountered this look at the raucous world of Chicago journalism in a 1969 Broadway revival, then in a 1994 production at Canada's Shaw Festival.

The current production, starring Nathan Lane, not only unwittingly illustrates the seismic 21st century changes in the newspaper business but also, in today's overwrought political landscape, how journalism may well save us. That may be too heavy a load to place on the shoulders of what is intended as a comedy, but it's there, nonetheless.

John Slattery, left, as Hildy Johnson and
 Nathan Lane, right, as Walter Burns. Photo/Variety 
It all takes place in the press room of the downtown Criminal Courts Building on the eve of a hanging. Reporters on the courts beat make this room their home - phoning updates to their copy desks while passing the time playing cards and cracking wise.

They seek to drum up stories from the police scanner, leading to one of my favorite lines, from McCue of the City Press: "Is is true, madame, that you were the victim of a Peeping Tom?"

They are a powerful group - representing eight newspapers in a pre-television and certainly pre-Internet age. Radio was just beginning to grow in popularity.

Into their midst swaggers Hildy Johnson (played by John Slattery), star reporter for the Examiner, about to get married and move to New York for the plush confines of advertising and a salary of $150 a week. Not, however, if his editor, Walter Burns (played by Lane, whom we initially hear simply as an irascible voice barking orders over the phone) has anything to say about it.

The condemned man, Earl Williams (John Magaro), makes an improbable jailbreak, Hildy and Walter try to hide him for the scoop of all time, and the mayor (Dann Florek) and sheriff (John Goodman) are exposed as craven and corrupt opportunists.

Hildy tries to break free of the Examiner, Burns and the thrill of chasing the next big story as fiancee Peggy (Halley Feiffer) and her mother (Holland Taylor) grow impatient.

From left, John Goodman, John Slattery and Nathan Lane.
Photo Sara Krulwich/New York Times
It's not fair to compare performances, but the definitive Walter Burns for me was craggy Robert Ryan in the 1969 revival. Lane can play many things, but a tough guy isn't one of them. In fact, I was surprised to see him playing Walter and Slattery playing Hildy; the roles should have been reversed. Where Ryan prowled, Lane bustles.

Douglas W. Schmidt's wood-paneled set beautifully evokes the shabby grandeur of a 19th century municipal building.

The pace of the production could have been faster, however, and the comedy style a little less "knowing." Farce is at its best when it's played completely sincerely; any sort of "comment" on the action dilutes the fun for the audience.

As a former newspaper reporter and current editor, I love this play with all my heart. To me, the most romantic sentence is, "I am a newspaper reporter." The Canadian production got it wrong when it thought it was a critique of the business.

The Front Page glories in the raffish adventure of newspaper journalism, the adrenaline high of chasing the story, beating the competition, pounding out the words - even as it skewers with a clear eye the grubbier aspects of the process.

In covering and meddling in the saga of Earl Williams' escape, Hildy, Walter and the Examiner expose the incompetent sheriff and corrupt mayor - exactly what journalism is supposed to do.

The standup telephones are now smartphones and the typewriters now laptops, but journalism is more necessary than ever.   

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Politics as opera

In this fraught political year, the Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York has premiered Roscoe, a brilliant work by composer Evan Mack and librettist Joshua McGuire on the dark methods of governing at the state capital, Albany.

Based on the novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy, this daring work, here directed by Richard Kagey, excitingly advances the cause of modern opera, bringing a story of 20th century political intrigue to the dramatic level of a Rigoletto or a Tosca.
Left, author William Kennedy. Right, composer Evan Mack.
 Illustration/Hudson Sounds

In nurturing Roscoe, the Seagle Music Colony, now in its second century, is also advancing its own cause. Located in the Adirondack mountain town of Schroon Lake, Seagle is a summer training camp for young opera singers, who are shaping the roles in this new work even as they receive vocal, stage and career training.

This year, Seagle's program also includes The Elixir of Love, The Music Man and The Most Happy Fella. It's a courageous move by Seagle Artistic Director Darren K. Woods and General Director Tony Kostecki to present a work that is very different from those three other classics of musical theater and opera. However, Roscoe's four-performance run was a sell-out, proving that audiences want to be engaged by great stories, masterfully told.

The opera opens on V-J Day in 1945, with lawyer and Democratic fixer Roscoe Conway (played on Aug. 6 by Scott Purcell) musing on getting out of politics after two decades as Democratic Party fixer and bagman.

There is an impressionistic feeling from the beginning. The ensemble, singing a wistful punctuation to Roscoe's thoughts, seem to be people from his past. Designer Jim Koehnle's black and gray set features long metal window frames, a visual sense that we are looking into hearts, minds and years.    

The Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater
 Photo/Seagle Music Colony
Hamlet-like, Roscoe's late father, Felix (Jon Oakley), appears as a vision, setting a major theme of the opera - how one generation frees or handcuffs the next.

The swirling plot involves corrupt cops and judges, illegal cockfighting, whorehouses, political payoffs, fixed party conventions (!), Republican and Democratic maneuvering and the questionable parentage of two characters.

Roscoe re-connects with his great love, Veronica (Lauren Cook), whose husband, Elisha (Johnny Salvesen), has committed suicide. However, Veronica's sister, Pamela (Tascha Anderson), is suing for custody of the son, Gilby (Harvey Runyon), she gave up to Veronica for adoption.  

Mack's music echoes the times, with jazz strains, lyrical love themes and intense drama that thrillingly advances the story. The male quartet ending Act I and love duet in Act II are particularly powerful. McGuire's lyrics soar with poetry and author Kennedy's wry and poignant view of these flawed characters.

Musical accompaniment was expertly handled at the Aug. 6 performance by Kostecki as conductor, pianists Jennifer McGuire and Matthew Stephens and percussionist Bob Halek.

Vocally, all the principals exhibited skill and strength, with Purcell, Oakley, Salvesen,
Scott Purcell
Photo/Seagle Music Colony
Cook and Anderson standing out.

However, the Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater, while a beloved venue, has serious limitations, including a small stage that makes blocking (stage movement) and set design somewhat cramped, and uncomfortable seats that should be taken out and set on fire immediately. The colony is currently raising funds for a sorely-needed new theater.  

Those who may be uncertain about modern opera might like to know that Roscoe will be produced in a concert version in October with Metropolitan Opera superstar Deborah Voigt and the Albany Symphony.

It will be fascinating to hear this work fully-orchestrated and it should be headed for a long life in the repertoires of major opera companies.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Motor dreams

Dominique Morisseau has nailed the rhythms of working people at a dying auto plant in her play Skeleton Crew at the Atlantic Theater Company, now in its second run through June 19.

It's a landscape I walked from 1990 to 1991 at the old General Motors Scarborough Van Plant on the outskirts of Toronto, chronicled in Life on the Line:One Woman's Tale of Work, Sweat and Survival.

The van plant closed in the early 1990s recession; Morisseau's unnamed metal stamping plant, an auto manufacturing supplier, is about to become a victim of the 2008 economic collapse.

Our stories were about the people who labored like and with machines, who hung on to a middle-class existence through well-paid union labor, who were sometimes victimized by management and union alike, facing an uncertain future with equal parts dread and courage.

It's a testament to Skeleton Crew's skillful director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, that one always gets the sense of many more people at the plant behind the four characters who meet in the break room -- tough, middle-aged Faye (Lynda Gravatt); young, volatile Dez (Jason Dirden); pregnant Shanita (Nikiya Mathis); supervisor Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin).
The "crew": from left, Dez (Jason Dirden), Faye (Lynda Gravatt), Shanita (Nikiya Mathis).
I often thought of how the workers and machines performed an intricate ballet every day amidst the crashing sounds of robot welders, the metallic creaks of the drag chain pulling the van bodies through the plant, the sharp pffts of pneumatic tools and skrees of drills.

Skeleton Crew's scenes are effectively punctuated by Robert Kaplowitz's mechanized music and the jerky dances choreographed and performed by Adesola Osakalumi, seen in half-light.

Although the situations were similar, my story took place in a diverse, but mostly white, community, while Morisseau is chronicling the decline of the mostly-black Motor City, in this third of a Detroit trilogy.

She skillfully paints her characters with a broad brush in the play's first half, so we get comfortable with gruff Faye, who insists on smoking despite the sign reading "No Smoking FAYE." Sweet and sassy Shanita fends off Dez' constant advances. By-the-book Reggie puts up more signs (No Gambling Dez This Means You) in vain attempts at control.

In the second half, the characters' rough poetry soars and these excellent actors give us the depths of their rage and pride. Dez, who uneasily packs a gun in his backpack, questions economic morality - "Is there zero tolerance for criminal activity upstairs or does that road only go one way?"

Reggie, pulled between his rise from the assembly line and his bosses upstairs, desperately wants to hang to a house and college savings for his daughter. "I need my job just like everybody else and I don't have the union to protect me," he tells Faye, the union rep, as he confides in her that the plant is doomed.

Shanita expresses something I heard many times, which may be counter-intuitive for people who are used to the white collar life in an office - pride in working a manual job at an auto factory. Facing the rumor of the plant closing, she has a job offer (at much less pay) at a copy center. At the plant, "I feel like I'm building something important, that's got a motor to take someone somewhere," and her success there has made her father, a former line worker, proud.

Faye reigns as the moral center of the play as we learn, from a heart-wrenching speech, that with "cancer treatments kicking my ass," she's lost her house to foreclosure and has been living out of her car or actually sleeping in the break room. Is this possible in America, even with union-negotiated medical benefits and salary? Yes, it is.

After 29 years, Faye feels as if she is as much a part of the plant as the couch mended with duct tape and the OSHA posters. "I can see through lockers. I know everything about this place. The walls talk to me. The dust on the floors write me messages."

The dust, chipped paint and dirty fluorescent light fixtures are expertly rendered in Michael Carnahan's set, with appropriately harsh lighting by Rui Rita. Projections between scenes, including Detroit's magnificently ruined Michigan Central Station, are by Nicholas Hussong.

"Tell 'em they can't write us off," Faye asks Reggie. That was the inspiration behind Life on the Line as well as Skeleton Crew: these people matter and they deserve to be heard.      

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Who's on first

Using an astonishing array of technical expertise, The Who turned its classic rock and roll songs into music and video theater at Madison Square Garden in New York last night.

This tour has been billed as "The Who Hits 50,"but since they actually formed around 1963, "50" is a kind of a loose marker. It's also supposed to be yet another farewell tour. (I recall writing about a Who farewell tour in the 1980s.)
Joan Jett with the Blackhearts
     Due to a couple of kind Toronto friends, the 18-year-old daughter and I found ourselves in excellent seats for the show and here I want to salute the opening act, which is often cannon fodder for the headliner. Not this time. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Jett is 57, looks fabulous and rocked as hard as ever in a 40-minute set that included the great "I Love Rock and Roll" and her marvelous cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover." Her "I Hate Myself for Loving You" is one of the great titles.

She and The Who also have some history, as a print crawl on a big video screen behind the stage noted that when Jett's fortunes were at a low ebb, The Who's management let her run up a $60,000 recording bill and said, "You can pay us later" -- which she did.
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

The video screen at intermission also carried a lovely tribute from The Who to David Bowie, noting he'd been a dedicated follower of the band, even climbing a wall at a London venue to get his first album to Who leader Pete Townshend, and attending many of their shows during his later New York years.

The Garden was full, and pumped for The Who. Advance reviews of this leg of the tour had been good, but show business is never a sure thing.  Even in the anarchic world of 1960s rock and roll, The Who were unpredictable, smashing guitars and hotel rooms with abandon.

In fact, this show was a makeup date for an October postponement as lead singer Roger Daltrey battled a virus. He had just turned 72 and lead guitarist Townshend is 70, for gosh sakes.

The set was impressive as the band took the stage, to enormous applause. Pete, Roger and the boys don't do much these days in the way of costumes (remember the Union Jack jacket from the 60s?), but Madison Square Garden has been revamped to include high-definition video screens behind and flanking the stage, and The Who took full advantage.
The giant video screen behind the stage - mega light.
Opening with "Who Are You?" they did just about the full catalog of great songs throughout a two-hour-plus set, with stunning graphics, videos and photo montages on the huge screens. With original drummer Keith Moon (I wrote his obituary when I was with Associated Press Radio) and bassist John Entwistle gone, Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey filled in on drums and Townshend's brother Simon on guitar.

Townshend and the band were in fine musical form. Maybe he didn't jump as high as in previous years, but he could still windmill his arm and slam those chords. Daltrey, between songs, thanked fans for all their good wishes last fall and had no trouble with his trademark howls on "Baba O'Reilly" and Rain On Me."

They were just in great shape and at their age, that's work and dedication and respect for your audience -- and some luck. The fans included a wide range of ages, from a girl who looked to be about four and sported a pair of noise-dampening headphones to us folks who had been there at the beginning. I think I had a smile on my face for the whole two hours, along with 20,000 other dancing, singing, cheering people.

The 18-year-old knew all the songs, courtesy of the classic rock radio stations played by the elders in her life. However, a montage of events from the last 50 years from Vietnam to 9/11, during Townshend's instrumental "the Rock," resonated most powerfully with me.

As the concert continued, I wondered if we weren't just seeing an energetic version of an oldies show. Townshend is an accomplished writer - surely he was also interested in introducing newer material?

In the end, The Who's work, delivered with conviction and power, stood up. For one thing, in this crazy election year, we can all hope we "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Monday, February 8, 2016

Local girl makes good - as Girl

That's a classic (even clichéd) newspaper headline, but it was true last night at the State Theater in New Brunswick, N.J., where the second national tour of the Broadway musical Once stopped in.

The local girl, starring as the character literally called Girl, is Mackenzie Lesser-Roy, all of 20 years old and still a student at the Boston Conservatory. However, she's known to us in Mamaroneck, N.Y. from the middle school musicals and, for this writer, for playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma! in 2009. Even then, she was a pro, only able to play one of the four shows since she had a filming date on a TV series called Salamander.

Mackenzie Lesser-Roy
Along with a former middle school friend who was also in Oklahoma!, and her college roommate, we headed down for the show.

As I blogged in 2012, I had fond memories of the Broadway run. Winner of eight Tony awards, Once was pure magic for me. 

Based on the 2006 film, it's the story of a Dublin street musician and the Czech immigrant who pushes him to greater artistic heights.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova created the original show, based on their story, and the Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly," as well as the rest of the wistful score.

In this cast, Sam Cieri brings a tentative sadness to Guy, who gains confidence as Girl expresses her belief in him and participates in his music with her piano playing.

Sam Cieri and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy in rehearsal
Not a conventional musical, the actors play instruments onstage and perform choreographer Steve Hoggett's stylized movements to underscore particular emotions in a scene and for scene changes.

Mackenzie beautifully transmits Girl's charming intensity -- "I am always serious. I am Czech." -- and wisdom, as she knows she and Guy's relationship is facing serious obstacles.

A scene from Once.

Her piano work is beautiful and, like all the greats, she makes it look so darn easy. There's no lessening of Broadway quality in this tour company, with a uniformly excellent cast. The tour winds through the east and Midwest, ending in Denver on May 24. I highly recommend seeing this show. Mackenzie, we are so proud.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Farewell, Brian Bedford

Another great Stratford actor gone. I first encountered Brian Bedford in a 1966 movie called Grand Prix, where the driving sequences were rendered in glorious 70 mm Cinerama. The intense racing scenes were interspersed with a delicious soap opera-y plot that had drivers hopping in and out of bed with each others' wives, groupies, etc. Bedford played a sensitive British driver struggling to come back after a terrible crash and my 12-year-old heart thought this was all very thrilling.

Later, I saw him on Broadway with the enchanting Tammy Grimes in Private Lives and as far as I'm concerned, he was the definitive Elyot Chase,whose suavely elegant exterior fell apart when provoked by the love/hate of his life, Amanda. 

What a joy it was, therefore, upon moving to Canada to discover that Bedford was a stalwart at the Stratford Festival. He played many great roles, including the Shakespeare tragedies, but I loved most the way he could unearth the most poignant humanity in a comedic role.

The only time I met him was on a flight from London to Toronto. He was studying the script of London Assurance, the great Dion Boucicault comedy. Usually, I believe in leaving people alone, but a long flight breeds a certain informality. I stopped by his seat and simply said, "Hello, Mr. Bedford. I enjoy your work." He thanked me very warmly and we had a word or two about the famous London production in the 1970s, which I'd seen, starring Donald Sinden.

Months later, he was wonderful as Sir Harcourt Courtly, pursuing a much younger woman and not aging particularly gracefully.

Stratford's tribute is here:


Stratford mourns the loss
of beloved actor and director Brian Bedford
Macbeth will be dedicated to his memory

January 14, 2016… The Stratford Festival has been dealt a double blow with the death of two beloved actors within 24 hours. Brian Bedford, 80, one of the Festival’s very brightest stars, died of cancer on Wednesday, January 13, a day after the passing of theatrical pioneer William Needles.

Mr. Bedford was one of the defining geniuses of the Stratford Festival, admired and loved by audiences and fellow artists.

“Brian Bedford was the prime reason I went into the theatre,” said Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. “I saw him in Molière’s Misanthrope, and it made me feel that he embodied the spirit of comedy itself. And yet he was entirely himself. Here was an actor who knew who he was and we loved him for it. He was brilliantly witty, completely relaxed, and made us all adore him. 

“But to see him in tragedy was another revelation. He was absolutely in the moment, with a strongly personal point of view, a vital intelligence keyed to a modern sensibility. 

“When I had the great privilege of working with and eventually directing Brian, I was overwhelmed by his generosity. He became a mentor, a role model and an inspiration.”

Mr. Bedford’s credits read like a list of Shakespeare’s greatest hits: Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Jaques in As You Like It, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, King Lear.

His comic pairings are the stuff of dreams: Benedick to Martha Henry’s Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; Elyot Chase to Maggie Smith’s Amanda in Private Lives; Charles to Carole Shelley’s Elvira in Blithe Spirit; Garry to Domini Blythe’s Liz and Seana McKenna’s Monica in Present Laughter.

His work with Noël Coward was as near perfection as any could be, and with good reason: his degrees of separation from the playwright? Zero. Widely regarded as an authority on Coward’s work, he has not only directed and acted in his plays numerous times, but he also knew the playwright personally.

His portrayal of the suave sophisticate appeared so effortless that it was almost impossible to reconcile with the reality of his childhood. He was born to a poor family in Yorkshire in 1936. Two of his brothers died of tuberculosis and his father committed suicide.

The young Brian found escape in the theatre, first performing in amateur theatrics and then, at 18, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he studied alongside Peter O’Toole, Alan Bates and Albert Finney. He was a protégé of John Gielgud, who coached him as Hamlet and directed him in the acclaimed Five Finger Exercise. The two shared the stage in 1958, when Mr. Bedford played Ariel to Mr. Gielgud’s Prospero in The Tempest.

Mr. Bedford’s star rose quickly in the U.K., with leading roles in The Young and the Beautiful and A View From the Bridge. In 1959, Five Finger Exercise transferred to Broadway, where the play found great success and Mr. Bedford found a happier existence. He had a dozen Broadway credits and a Best Actor Tony to his name when then Artistic Director Robin Phillips lured him to the Festival.

He made his Stratford debut in 1975, playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Measure for Measure, opposite Martha Henry’s Isabella – the first in a long series of legendary performances. Over 29 seasons, Mr. Bedford performed in more than 50 Stratford productions and directed another 20.

Timon of Athens and The Importance of Being Earnest moved on to Broadway, swelling his Tony nomination tally to seven. The Festival’s 1998 production of Much Ado About Nothing, featuring Mr. Bedford as Benedick and Martha Henry as Beatrice, toured to New York’s City Center, and was recently remembered by Charles Isherwood of The New York Times as one of the great moments in 20th-century Shakespeare performance.

Though he was primarily a stage actor, Mr. Bedford could be seen on some of the day’s most popular television shows, including Cheers, Frasier and Murder, She Wrote. He starred opposite James Garner in the 1966 film Grand Prix, and was the voice of Robin Hood in the Disney animated classic.

Mr. Bedford’s most recent Stratford credits included the title role in 2007’s King Lear, Lady Bracknell in 2009’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and his one-man show based on the letters of Oscar Wilde, Ever Yours, Oscar, all three of which he also directed. His 2013 production of Blithe Spirit would turn out to be his final project at Stratford.

“Over the years Brian’s luminous presence on our stages made his performances ‘must sees’ for countless audience members,” said Mr. Cimolino. “We were blessed indeed that he chose to make Stratford his artistic home. And we are bereft to think that we shall not see, or hear, his like again.

“Brian, we thank you, we honour you and we miss you.”

Mr. Bedford leaves behind his partner of 30 years, Tim MacDonald, also a Stratford Festival veteran.

The Festival will dedicate the 2016 production of Macbeth to Mr. Bedford’s memory. Details will follow of a memorial, to be held in Stratford at a later date. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

William Needles (1919-2016)

Having attended the Stratford Festival since 1986, I saw William Needles onstage many times. The word "grace" is used below in the festival's media release and it is so appropriate. His presence onstage reached the heights of "acting" - it looked utterly natural. 

His exit from the stage was equally graceful and full of energy. His obituary is a joyful read.


Stratford Festival bids farewell to the dean of Canadian actors
William Needles, a veteran of 47 seasons, dies at age 97

January 13, 2016… It is with sadness that the Stratford Festival bids farewell to the man who was Canada’s oldest working actor. William Needles died January 12, at the age of 97, surrounded by his family, at a hospice in Alliston, Ontario. Just days earlier, he had left his adopted hometown of Stratford, after suffering a massive heart attack on December 19.

True to form, Mr. Needles surprised doctors and loved ones, showing enormous resilience despite a dim prognosis. The Stratford General Hospital saw a steady stream of actors pour through its doors during the Christmas period, as faithful friends visited a man whose support of the theatrical industry is unparalleled. Expecting to find an invalid drawing his last breath, his visitors instead found their longtime friend and mentor reciting Shakespeare – the Chorus from Henry V one day, Shylock’s admonition to Antonio another. His mind was razor sharp, though his body was letting him down.

Mr. Needles, with the help of his daughter, Jane, reached out to friends near and far. Calls came in from every corner, including from his former student Jon Lovitz, who immortalized Mr. Needles with his classic Saturday Night Live character “Master Thespian.” 

His achievements and honours are many: a Member of the Order of Canada, a founding member of the Stratford Festival company, a co-founder of the Actors Fund of Canada, a Master Teacher Cum Laude from the University of California, Irvine, and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Waterloo and the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals.

“The Stratford Festival has lost one of its pioneers, a gifted actor and a favourite uncle. Bill Needles was the embodiment of grace and generosity. His humour, humanity and sense of fun infused his work on and off the stage,” said Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. 

“Bill was a brilliant comedian who could bring the house down with laughter while appearing quite nonchalant. His work seemed effortless. His voice and manner were rich with nuance.

“But perhaps the greatest of his many talents was his gift of mentorship to several ‎generations of young actors. In what can be a difficult way of life Bill was there for so many during the tough times. His honesty, decency and kindness could balm almost any hurt and sooth a bruised spirit. After a talk with Bill you'd be ready to get up, smile and try again. 

“Billie Noodles – as he was fondly called – will be dearly missed."

Mr. Needles was born in Yonkers, New York, on January 2, 1919, and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, just down the road from Stratford. His father, Ira Needles, was the founder of BF Goodrich Canada and co-founder of the University of Waterloo.

In the late 1930s, Mr. Needles studied for two years at the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then moved to Winnipeg to work as a stage manager for the John Holden Players. In 1940 he moved on to Toronto, where he joined the cast of the CBC Radio soap opera John and Judy, playing John. After serving in the Second World War he returned to the role of John at CBC. He made a name for himself in radio drama, and served as a manager for Lorne Greene’s Acting Academy and Dora Mavor Moore’s New Play Society before joining the Stratford Festival in its inaugural season.

He made his Stratford debut in Richard III, under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, playing Norfolk and the 1st Murderer, and as Rinaldo in All’s Well That Ends Well. The next season he was celebrated for his portrayal of Petruchio in Guthrie’s Wild West production of The Taming of the Shrew. He became an indispensable member of the Stratford acting company, appearing in more than 100 productions over 47 seasons, including as Duke Senior in As You Like It (1959), Chorus in Henry V (1956 and 1989), Albany in King Lear (1964 and 1972), Cymbeline (1970), Monsieur Loyal in Tartuffe (1983 and 1984), the Duke in The Merchant of Venice (1996), the White King in Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1996), the Lord Mayor in Richard III (1997), the Shepherd in Oedipus Rex (1997), Merriman in The Importance of Being Earnest (2000) and Mortimer in Henry VI (2002).

He retired from the stage at the age of 87 and, as the oldest working actor in Canada, turned in two final masterful performances: Adam in 2005’s As You Like It – his last performance on his beloved Festival stage – and Castruchio in 2006’s The Duchess of Malfi.

During his career, Mr. Needles performed at theatres across North America and abroad, including the Broadway productions of Hadrian VII with Alex McCowan and Next Time I’ll Sing to You with James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons. His many film roles included Banquo in the 1961 production of Macbeth, with Sean Connery in the title role.

He was a teacher of acting, serving for many years at the University of California, Irvine, and a mentor beyond compare to hundreds of people starting out in the profession.

Though retired for a decade, Mr. Needles made almost weekly visits to the Festival, travelling through the halls on his scooter and sharing lunch with his many friends in the greenroom. The Festival was truly his second home, and the theatre’s people his second family. He will be sadly missed and long remembered.

Mr. Needles leaves behind his wife, Dorothy Jane Goulding, whom he married in 1946, five children, Jane (Ted Bradley), Arthur (Linda), Dan (Heath), Reed (Clare) and Laura Ann, 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, his sister, Lauranna Jones, many nieces and nephews and countless friends and colleagues.

The Stratford Festival is dedicating the 2016 production of As You Like It to Mr. Needles’ memory. Mr. Needles performed in four different productions of the play at Stratford, as Duke Senior in 1959, Duke Frederick in 1972, Duke Senior in 1983 (which was televised on CBC), and Adam in 2005.

A celebration of Mr. Needles’ life will be held at the Festival in the spring. A family funeral will be held on Saturday, January 16, in Alliston, with burial to follow at Avondale Cemetery in Stratford at a later date. Memorial donations may be made to the William Needles Guthrie Award Fund at the Stratford Festival, the Actors’ Fund of Canada, or Matthews House Hospice in Alliston, Ontario.