Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic
Good Lord, there’s so much fun on the stage of The Festival Theatre and its production of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 ‘The Front Page’ with adaptation by Michael Healey. There are wonderful farcical elements, screwball comedy elements touched up with melodrama and the dash of an oddball love story all mixed together in the bowl.
Director Graham Abbey blessedly did not allow either the production or the actors to go so far over the top that it got to the point of looking at the watch and wondering when the act would be over. I got caught up in the mayhem and mischief of the moment that I didn’t realize how quickly the time passed.
The story opens in the unkempt, dismal and dark press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building overlooking the gallows behind the Cook County Jail. We are in the throes of a poker game with some hardnosed and gritty reporters who are passing the time while they wait for the hanging of Earl Williams, a white man and supposed Communist revolutionary who is accused of killing a black policeman. These guys add their individual take on the news of the day. Surprisingly and ironically, I found myself smiling at some of the ‘fake news’ in the conversations.
Hildy Johnson enters, a confident and cocky reporter from the EXAMINER. He’s late but is saying goodbye to everyone as he is leaving to be married. His fiancée and mother in law wait in the car downstairs. Soon the reporters hear that Earl Williams has escaped and they all scramble to get more information. Ultimately, Earl Williams ends up in the press room (I won’t tell you how as it’s hilarious) and tries to remain hidden so that Hildy can be the first to report he found Williams. Many oddball characters enter and exit the press room at rapid speed that I thought I would need a score card at one point to remember who’s who and each relationship in and of the moment.
I’m always in admiration in watching period pieces and wondering how they were built, where the production team would have found them or what sort of bartering and trading might have to be done. I loved the look of the piece as I wanted to take in every inch of the set before the play began. Lorenzo Savoini’s set design of the press room is gritty, unkempt and dismal. Papers are strewn about the playing space. The entrance to the room is far stage right and the washroom is located far stage left. A slightly angled table is found just off centre where the reporters play poker. Two desks, one a roll top desk, are found upstage which are reminiscent of the 1920s. Kudos to finding the right telephone props of the period.
Dana Osborne’s costume design is stunning work all round from fedora hats on the men to the colourful dresses worn by the women and Mrs. Grant’s mink coat. According to the programme, original music was recorded for this production which nicely underscores and sets the mood for upcoming scenes.
Performances are stellar all round in this twenty-three-member cast as the dialogue and conversations must be rapid fire banter and on the spot timing for zingers and their delicious comic effect. Randy Hughson is a tough, gravel voiced Fife. Mike Shara is comically and admirably absurd as the dim-witted Sheriff Hartman. As the ‘villainous’ Mayor, Juan Chioran’s black clothing combined with his pompous bearing made him appealing each time he’s on stage.
As Hildy’s needy fiancée, Peggy Grant and trying mother in law, Amelia Sargisson and Rosemary Dunsmore boldly complement the demanding female influences in Hildy’s life. As Mollie Malloy and McLaren, Sarah Dodd and Michelle Giroux become tenaciously abrasive as the reporters. I especially enjoyed how Ms. Giroux’s adopted that same gruff exterior as her male colleagues. She certainly stood her ground and knew how to put the guys in their place when necessary.
Michael Blake’s appearance as ‘Cookie’ Burns’ hit man, Diamond Louis, is funny for his effeminate like sounding voice combined with his lanky stature and height. Michael Spencer-Davis is perfect as the ‘by the book’ reporter and compassionate poetry author Roy Bensinger.
Maev Beaty’s abrasive newspaper editor Penelope ‘Cookie’ Burns is one of the highlights of the production. She reminded me of Clara Bow combined with Beatrice Arthur who knows how to handle all people while being in total control. Her clever manipulation of Irving Pincus (Farhang Ghajar) is magnificently timed for maximum comic effect.
Ben Carlson’s Hildy Johnson is another highlight of the production. Like Ms. Beaty, Mr. Carlson understands comic timing both in physicality and in voice control. The decision he and Cookie make to hide Earl Williams (understated comic work by Johnathan Sousa) in the rolltop desk and to leave him there for as long as possible is particularly noteworthy.
FINAL COMMENTS: Normally, I have always found two act plays tiresome since audience attention spans have transformed from what they once were in the twentieth century. At two hours and forty-five minutes, ‘The Front Page’ maintains that solid comic through line necessary to sustain interest. Great fun. Try to catch it if you can.
‘The Front Page’ plays at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford until October 25. For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestivaltheatre.ca or telephone 1-800-567-1600 or 1-519-273-1600.
Photo of Maev Beaty as Penelope ‘Cookie’ Burns by Emily Cooper.