Canuck fest hits stride under McAnuff leadership

In his third season as artistic director of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Des McAnuff seems to have hit his stride.

The seven shows that have opened to date represent most of the season’s major work. On the whole, they have been positively received, with no flops and several clear winners. And the recent announcement of next season’s lineup, including a new musical from the creators of Tony winner “The Drowsy Chaperone,” has boosted anticipation for what’s next.

One major component of the reshaping of North America’s largest classical rep theater is the fact that McAnuff has rebuilt a solid acting company, especially full of strong male talent, and he’s using them as a true repertory ensemble, with thesps who star in one production playing supporting roles in another.

“Think of yourselves as the Yankees,” McAnuff told the group during one pep talk. “Bench strength is everything.”

McAnuff’s other not-so-secret weapon has been his ability — thanks in part to the Broadway profile he’s cultivated with hits including “Jersey Boys” and “The Who’s Tommy” — to import

directors from the U.S. and England to inject new life in the company.

So far this year, Broadway alums John Doyle (helming “Kiss Me, Kate”) and Gary Griffin (“Evita”) have staged shows along with “Altar Boyz” director Stafford Arima and Brit Tim Carroll, with Ethan McSweeny (“The Best Man”) launching a staging of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in August.

Although earlier attempts by McAnuff to direct Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet,” “Macbeth”) were generally savaged by the press, this season’s outings, “As You Like It” and “The Tempest,” mostly got the thumbs-up.

He’s also got solid star power in both of this year’s Bard offerings, with Christopher Plummer earning unanimous raves as Prospero in “The Tempest.” Production has already been picked up for filming while in the theater, just like the McAnuff-Plummer 2008 production of “Caesar and Cleopatra.”

For next season, Griffin will be returning to mount “Camelot,” joined by fellow Chicago helmer, Frank Galati, who’ll be in charge of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” As a tribute to the visiting Galati, the Festival’s general director, Antoni Cimolino, will be directing Galati’s Tony-winning “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Next season will also be bringing back a couple of powerhouse stars. Brian Dennehy will play Sir Toby Belch in a McAnuff-directed “Twelfth Night.” Brian Bedford is set to direct and appear in Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” fresh from his appearance at the Roundabout, where he will re-stage and star in a Broadway revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” That production began life at Stratford last year.

McAnuff is also bringing along younger Canadian directors. Jennifer Tarver, who shot to prominence by staging Dennehy in “Krapp’s Last Tape,” will be back to stage Pinter’s “The Homecoming.”

Final surprise on McAnuff’s 2011 playbill was the announcement that he has commissioned the original creative team behind “The Drowsy Chaperone” (Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison) to create a new musical. It will mark the first project the quartet will have worked on together since “Drowsy,” and is sure to attract attention from Gotham legiters.

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