BWW Review: Michael Healey's New Adaptation of THE FRONT PAGE Offers More than Just Laughs for Stratford Festival Audiences
The Stratford Festival is celebrating the World Premiere of Michael Healey's adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's THE FRONT PAGE at the Festival Theatre. A beloved American satire set in 1920's Chicago, THE FRONT PAGE tells the story of journalists in a courthouse pressroom doing whatever they need to do to get their story while at the same time being the only potential failsafe against political corruption at a time when the seedy Chicago subculture was in full swing. Directed by Graham Abbey, this adaptation is updated to include more diversity among the characters. It is a knee slapping night at the theatre whilst also providing a seemingly timeless commentary about the flaws and biases of the criminal justice system.
Healey's adaptation updates this production to include quips about "fake news" and other relevant commentary on the state of politics and journalism today but it also includes female and POC characters that were not originally part of the production. For example, we meet Cookie Burns (Maev Beaty), the the editor of The Examiner and employer of Ben Carlson's Hildy Johnson. In the original production, the editor of the Examiner is Walter Burns-established in this production to be Cookie's deceased husband. The character of Cookie is arguably the highlight of this entire production. Maev Beaty is a revelation as the Minnesotan-chorus-girl-turned-no-nonsense-editor. She is the last character we meet in the play-only first arriving on the scene about midway through, yet she is still the runaway star.
A play in three Acts with two intervals, each Act has a decidedly different tone to it. The first Act teeters between comedy and melodrama whilst keeping an air of seriousness. The second Act highlights some of the more ridiculous characters and gives them more to do, really bringing out the comedic elements of the production. The third Act is pure delicious farce. Audience members with different tastes will undoubtedly have different favourite parts of this production but as a whole, it allows for an outrageously fun night at the theatre.
The detailed set design by Lorenzo Savoini immediately sets the tone. The entire production is set in the court house press room-with discarded pages crumpled on the floor, old food and garbage hidden in every crevice, and a mattress to sleep on over to the side, the room looks 'lived in' and 'worked in' and presents us with a clear picture of the life of the journalists we are about to meet. What makes this show so fun are the assortment of characters we get to know and the hijinks they create. Mike Shara's bumbling Sheriff Hartman is a delight and it reminds me of how happy I am that he is back on the Stratford stage. Carlson is a great lead as Hildy-a man torn between his passion for journalism and the life waiting for him with fiancée Peggy Grant (Amelia Sargisson). The push and pull of these two lives becomes particularly challenging for Hildy when he finds himself with all the pieces to the story everyone is looking for when he finds himself hiding escaped accused murderer Earl Williams (Johnathan Sousa) in the press room. The funniest characters are always the ones who take themselves seriously and don't realize they are perhaps actually as foolish as the people around them. Carlson does this exceptionally well in his portrayal of Hildy.
One change in the Healey adaptation is in making the character of Wilson, one of the journalists in the pressroom, a person of colour. As each character attempts to weave the catchiest crime story, much is made by the white journalists of the fact that the accused, Earl Williams, allegedly killed a black cop. Wilson has a strong desire to only share the known and proven facts in his story and expresses frustration that the others don't even know the name of the officer who was killed. The character, played by E.B. Smith implies that if he prints one inaccurate fact, he could be out of a job-something the others clearly do not have to worry about at all. The layers to this relatively minor character are a very interesting touch and Smith portrays him with a quiet and confident resolve to do his best work, and an overarching frustration with the system in which he has to do that work.
Audiences looking for an old-timey American feel, audiences looking for a night of laughter, audiences looking at the infusion of subtly current social commentary into an old play, and audiences just looking for a good time at the theatre are all going to enjoy this show.
THE FRONT PAGE continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 25th.
Photo Credit: Emily Cooper