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CLASSY ‘CAVALCADE’ TOPS SHAW FESTIVAL

“Cavalcade,” Noel Coward’s epic 1931 paean to British national pride, is also the pride of the Shaw Festival in a bountiful new season that includes, among others, the works of Robert E. Sherwood, Oscar Wilde and John van Druten.

Founded in 1962, with weekend performances of the “Don Juan in Hell” act from Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” and “Candida,” the second-largest repertory company in North America draws nearly 300,000 theatergoers from Canada and the U.S.

Specializing in the plays of Shaw and his contemporaries, and performing only works written before 1950 (the year of the playwright’s death), the festival’s 28-week season, running from April to October, offers 10 plays in three theaters.

The festival employs 400, including 72 actors, and operates on a budget of C$12.2 million ($9 million). Ticket prices range from $7.40 for a lunchtime entertainment to a summer-weekend high of $45. Paid attendance last season exceeded 277,000.

The festival’s most spectacularly successful production was the North American premiere of “Cavalcade” in 1985, presented again the following season. Artistic director Christopher Newton, who succeeded Paxton Whitehead in 1980, decided to revive the play as the century draws to a close. “It is a wonderful showcase for our acting ensemble,” Newton notes in the director’s comments, “and like any work of art, it has different messages for different generations.”

Performed in the company’s largest theater, the Festival, which seats 861, Coward’s episodic saga of an aristocratic family and its devoted domestics utilizes a cast of 46 in a sprawling pageant of three acts and 21 scenes. The play begins in an affluent English drawing room on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the century and concludes 30 years later with a spectacular revolving and dizzying montage featuring the entire cast in varied images from the past, united in a rallying cry of hope for the future. The scene is accompanied by the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and it packs an extraordinary wallop.

Newton and co-director Duncan McIntosh have staged the piece with a pointed sense of time, place and urgency, from the families seeing loved ones off to the Boer War and the funeral of Queen Victoria to the sinking of the Titanic and Armistice Day 1918. Coward’s spareness and poignancy are never better realized than in the scene in which a honeymooning couple plan their life ahead aboard the doomed ocean liner. The audience gasp at the scene’s end says it all.

An uniformly superb cast is topped by the five principal players who appeared in the play a decade ago. Fiona Reid is especially fine as the stoic Jane Marryot, a woman of enormous pride and unquestionable courage. Production design by Cameron Porteous is lavish, from London streets and pubs to the towering steamy gloom of Victoria Station to the gaiety of music halls.

Other plays this season at the Festival Theater include Sherwood’s “The Petrified Forest” and Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell.” “Forest” is the somewhat dated 1935 melodrama about a hitchhiking philosopher who encounters a world-weary waitress and a gang of vicious thugs at a run-down eatery/gas station in the Arizona desert. As designed by Leslie Frankish and staged by Neil Munro, there is an infectious, lazy mood, nicely heightened by musical themes of Ralph Vaughn Williams and Benjamin Britten.

Despite the awkward moralizing of its time, the play has a cinematic force that mesmerizes its audience, and the performances by Tracey Ferenza as the disillusioned waitress and Peter Millard as the doomed traveler are sensitive and compelling.

Shaw’s 90-year-old comedy “You Never Can Tell” is a giddy delight set in an English seaside resort. Newton has directed a sparkling production, braced with energy and comic invention. It is a comedy of manners, class distinction and family crisis. Shaw is, of course, the festival’s specialty, and the ensemble cast rises comfortably to the occasion. Nora McLellan as the leading feminist and Jack Medley as a drolly wise, observant waiter offer keen Shavian portraits, but it is Jen Alexandra Smith and Gordon Rand as the silly siblings who garner a bounty of laughs.

In the Court House Theater (353 seats), Shaw’s “The Philanderer,” Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” and Granville Barker’s “Waste” continue through Sept. 23. The Royal George Theater, purchased in 1980 by the Shaw Festival, has been a vaudeville house and a cinema. Seating 328, the charming little opera house in the center of town is home to van Druten’s 1943 romance “The Voice of the Turtle,” Shaw’s “The Six of Calais,” Arthur Sullivan’s and Bolton Rowe’s “The Zoo” and the festival’s annual mystery, “Ladies in Retirement,” a 1939 thriller by Edward Percy and Reginald Denham. The latter is a rather dusty antique, which creaks at the seams, but Jennifer Philips as the devilish murderess and Sharry Flett and Evelyne Anderson as the dotty spinsters make it immensely palatable.

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