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BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's PLAY ON! Cabaret is an Exhilarating Rock Concert with the Bard

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Described as a “Shakespeare-Inspired Mixtape,” this Cabaret offers a Variety of Music Selections that have been Influenced by the Bard

BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's PLAY ON! Cabaret is an Exhilarating Rock Concert with the Bard

The fresh new PLAY ON! Cabaret at the Stratford Festival offers an impressive celebration of what popular music pulls from Shakespeare, what Shakespeare has to say about music, and what themes are frequently explored in both. Described as a "Shakespeare-inspired Mixtape," this 90 minute cabaret produces diversified covers of songs by artists like Taylor Swift, Prince, and Rush while skillfully weaving in some of Shakespeare's most celebrated words. Between the excellent music selections and arrangements, beautiful words, and tremendous performances from all four singers, The Festival Theatre Canopy has become home to a bonafide rock concert with the bard.

Curated by Robert Markus, Julia Nish-Lapidus, and James Wallis and Directed by Nish-Lapidus and Wallis, PLAY ON! features four dynamic vocalists who also perform some of Shakespeare's most celebrated selections. The breadth of the Shakespearean works included is impressive. By the end of the first song alone, audiences will have heard passages from ROMEO AND JULIET, THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and RICHARD III. Throughout the show, classic lines from ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, and more than one KING HENRY just to name a few, are effectively sprinkled in.

Behind the singers is a top notch band headed by Music Director Reza Jacobs. In the music arrangements and decisions in terms of who sings what songs, the creative team finds a perfect balance wherein they give the audience what they want and expect to hear, whilst also offering some fun surprises along the way. The music featured varies from indie groups like The Decemberists to household names like Elton John. Some songs highlight classic lines from Shakespeare, while others are from musicals and movies with plots that are directly influenced by one of Shakespeare's plays. Some of the songs performed even reference other songs in this very cabaret!

The breadth of the Shakespeare featured is impressive. The performers will quote Shakespeare as a lead-in to a song, or sometimes as an interlude during a song. They may quote a line from the play the song is referencing, but often, they quote another work of Shakespeare's that fits well with the theme of the song or that highlights what Shakespeare has to say about music and the Arts. One example of a perfect marriage of an unexpected selection from Shakespeare with a song that features the words of another play entirely is when, shortly before Gabriel Antonacci's rousing performance of Rush's Limelight, Kaitlyn Santa Juana recites Caliban's classic "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not..." from THE TEMPEST. This is, perhaps, a way to kindly warn us that we are about to get some rock music. And indeed we do. And it is grand.

The band consists of Reza Jacobs on keyboard, Kevin Ramessar on guitar, Jon Maharaj on bass and Dale-Anne Brendon on drums. They are excellent throughout the cabaret but they really let loose during Limelight. As for Antonacci on lead vocals in this song, well...Gabriel Antonacci is living his best life! The exuberance and joy that he brings to the stage feels genuine and contagious. He's a rock star through and through whether he's performing punk, rock, and everything in between. He bounds about the stage as he sings songs like Billy S and then channels that energy in different ways while reciting some of Romeo's classic lines. The multi-talented Antonacci also joins the band on Cello for a couple of songs.

Each singer has multiple standout moments. Kaitlyn Santa Juana makes a memorable Stratford debut with her stunning interpretation of Joni Mitchell's A Case of You and her beautifully heartbreaking rendition of Radiohead's Exit Music (For A Film). Audience and performers alike needed to take a brief moment to regroup after this haunting performance on opening night. Also making their Stratford debut is Jacob MacInnis whose vocal range and control is on full display in The King Must Die and Can You Feel the Love Tonight. They ooze sensuality in their performance of I Am the Walrus - This is a fun number because the other three performers are on hand to do a live reading of the scene from KING LEAR that is featured in the song while MacInnis performs it. Rounding out this talented quartet is Jennifer Rider-Shaw, marking her 11th season with the Stratford Festival. A highlight for this writer is when Rider-Shaw aptly recites a comedic bit of dialogue combining scenes from ROMEO AND JULIET and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, then seamlessly transitions into a breathtaking stripped-down version of Madonna's Take a Bow with just Ramessar on guitar. She also highlights the range in her vocal talent with an operatic rendition of Somewhere (There's A Place for Us). Audiences will get chills when the other three performers harmonize with her later in the song. This is not a singular occurrence either. This quartet makes beautiful harmonies in a number of songs. They are all incredibly charismatic and engaged with one another and with the audience throughout the cabaret. Their joy certainly translates to the audience as well.

Though I admittedly do not know too much about the creative team's process, one thing that is abundantly clear is that they did not cut any corners in pulling together the music and the words that they chose to feature here. I also suspect there was a lot of thought that went into the order in which the songs were placed. Another thing that is abundantly clear in the end product is that this was a labour of love for all involved. So much time and care has clearly gone into this production and the polished performances given by the artists (despite very little rehearsal time) is evidence of that.

Seating is limited, but more seats may become available in the coming days, and the Stratford Festival website offers details of how to be added to the Waiting List. The production will also be filmed later on this month. If you can, you must find a way to see this show that truly brings together all the things that make the Stratford Festival magical.

PLAY ON! Continues at the Festival Theatre Canopy until August 15th.

Photo Credit: David Hou


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