It’s been a fabulous year in theatre

Plenty of great things happened on stages in 2023

By Gary Smith | Special to the Hamilton Spectator

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Theatre has survived the crunch of COVID-19 and a lingering reluctance by some theatregoers to return to their seats.

No matter, professional theatre companies worked hard in 2023 to woo audiences with entertaining and sometimes riveting productions. Gradually, audiences returned in greater numbers. Let’s hope this trend continues.

After seeing more than 150 shows, here in no particular order are the 12 best professional performances I saw in 2023.

”The Amen Corner.” James Baldwin’s brilliant play about religion, racism and a sometimes disturbing connection between the two made for a stunning production at the Shaw Festival, directed by Kimberley Rampersad. I saw this show in New York when it was first produced on Broadway in 1964 and what Rampersad did with it illuminated the sadness, fear and the ultimate triumph of rising above ignorance. And the gospel music she interpolated into the text at Shaw was a clever addition.

“Much Ado About Nothing.” Hamilton-born playwright Erin Shields added an insightful prologue and some welcome contemporary thinking to this Chris Abraham’s Stratford Festival production. So fine were Shields’ additions to the text you’d never know they weren’t written by Shakespeare himself.

In New York and Toronto I hated the musical “Next to Normal.” It was aggressive, angry and turgid. Then Michael Longhurst directed it at London’s Donmar Warehouse with Hamilton-born theatre star Caissie Levy in the central role. Amazing what a canny director and an actress-singer of extraordinary talents can do to make a show shimmer with new life.

“Boy Falls from the Sky.” It was smart of Theatre Aquarius to bring this intimate show to Hamilton. Jake Epstein’s recollections of a sometimes troubled theatre career came alive under Robert McQueen’s insightful staging and dramaturgy.

Stephen Sondheim was the greatest theatre composer-lyricist of our time. Trenchant, rueful and oh so witty, he made you laugh and cry. The London tribute show to his genius, starring Lea Salonga, Bernadette Peters and Janie Dee, along with vintage British theatre stars Bonnie Langford and Joanna Riding, was sensational. And at the end when they projected Sondheim’s craggy face on a giant screen there wasn’t a dry eye in the Gielgud Theatre.

“Pollyanna The Musical” at Theatre Aquarius brought laughter and love to Hamilton at Christmastime. Local playwright and lyricist Steven Gallagher and composer Linda Barnett fashioned a score reminiscent of Broadway during its Golden Age. This was a great big Christmas present of a show.

“Bed and Breakfast” at Port Dover’s Lighthouse Festival Theatre delivered touching contemporary theatre. Mark Crawford’s comedy about two gay guys opening a bed and breakfast in a bigoted Ontario town was sensitively acted by Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski and Warren Macauley. It was moving, funny and inclusive. And bah humbug to the bigots who walked out.

“La Dame Aux Camelias.” This stunning ballet by Baden, Ontario choreographer Peter Quanz for Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens was superb. It had lovely lyrical choreography, riveting storytelling and elegant yet simple sets and costumes. Quanz is a gem and should be working in Canada, not some foreign country. What’s that about a prophet without honour in his own country?

Dundas actor, singer, composer and lyricist Jay Turvey directed a seductive production of “Gypsy” at the Shaw Festival. Too bad his star Kate Hennig softened her Mama Rose, unlike Angela Lansbury and Ethel Merman, who burned a patch off the stage by delineating her demons and ruthless, selfish determination.

“To Kill A Mockingbird.” Though the Mirvish Series in Toronto has sadly sold out to loud and overhyped musicals, their Off-Mirvish Series offered a moving production of Aaron Sorkin’s new play based on Harper Lee’s beloved novel. Richard Thomas was touching as Atticus Finch and the show had a quality Broadway feel to it in every way. More of this please Mr. Mirvish.

Sondheim’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along” has finally come into its own. In New York at the Hudson Theatre this is the hit of the New York Season. And in the cast, right alongside Daniel Radcliffe, is local actor Evan Alexander Smith, currently understudying one of the show’s lead roles. Here’s another actor from the Hamilton area who has taken a bite out of The Big Apple.

Close to home Stephen Near’s beguiling play “Whale Fall” played a short run at the HCA theatre. This touching drama about a daughter, climate change and the way the world can spin suddenly out of control featured wonderful performances from Stephanie Hope Lawlor and Ray Louter. It was also beautifully directed by Aaron Joel Craig. Talk about local theatre folks having professional polish.

Whatever 2024 happens to bring our way theatrically, let’s hope more seats will be filled at theatres everywhere and daring risk-taking shows will come our way.

A very Happy New Year to you dear readers — and may your theatregoing in the year ahead fill your hearts with laughter, love and the joy of live performance.

Gary Smith has written about theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for 40 years as well as for a variety of international publications.