Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

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

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

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

Regional Awards

From This Author - Lauren Gienow

Based out of Stratford, Ontario, Lauren is an Occupational Therapist working in mental health by day and a BWW Contributor by night (or by matinee). Lauren enjoys daring new productions, classic pl... (read more about this author)

BWW Review: The World Premiere of 1939 at the Stratford Festival is a Moving and Powerful 'Must-See' PlayBWW Review: The World Premiere of 1939 at the Stratford Festival is a Moving and Powerful 'Must-See' Play
September 19, 2022

If you live in Stratford, Ontario, you may have heard the buzz around town about a new play at the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre. Written by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan, 1939 had its world premiere last week and audiences sprung to their feet to show just how moved they were by this beautiful, powerful, and witty piece of new work.

BWW Review: THE MISER at Stratford Festival is Rich with LaughterBWW Review: THE MISER at Stratford Festival is Rich with Laughter
September 18, 2022

Originally scheduled for the 2020 season, THE MISER, starring Colm Feore and directed by Antoni Cimolino, is currently playing at the Stratford Festival’s Festival Theatre stage. This Moliere comedy of manners fits right into current times, and this new adaptation by Ranjit Bolt is filled with pop culture references that elicit many a chuckle and belly laugh from the audience. The deliciously funny cast is in fine form and Feore appears to be having the time of his life.

BWW Feature: Friday Night Comedy at the Stratford FestivalBWW Feature: Friday Night Comedy at the Stratford Festival
August 31, 2022

Friday Sept. 9th marks the final 'Funny Forum Friday' - A comedy series programmed by Mark Selby, showcasing top comedy talent at the Tom Patterson Theatre's Lazaridis Hall. After a successful 4 weeks of some of the best comedians the world has to offer, the series is being closed out by the hilarious comedy sister duo, Flo & Joan, who will be coming to Stratford directly from the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. Opening for Flo & Joan is the hilarious Patrick Haye.

BWW Review: EVERY LITTLE NOOKIE at Stratford Festival has Humour and HeartBWW Review: EVERY LITTLE NOOKIE at Stratford Festival has Humour and Heart
August 4, 2022

If you are a theatre-goer looking to venture outside your comfort zone, or if you often don’t feel seen or represented by the societal norms typically presented in modern theatre pieces – then Sunny Drake’s new play EVERY LITTLE NOOKIE might be exactly what you are looking for. That’s not to say that folks who don’t identify with either statement won’t also enjoy this play though. To read the production synopsis, you might expect an awkward comedy with hijinks galore, but what you will actually get (beyond it indeed being very funny), is a proudly queer play about human connection, found family, sexual awakenings, and very real and relatable struggles like co-parenting, illness and aging, and affordable housing. You will also witness delightful performances by this small yet mighty cast.

BWW Feature: An Interview with HAUIBWW Feature: An Interview with HAUI
July 29, 2022

Previews have just begun at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre for the World Premiere of HAMLET-911 and BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to speak with one of the creative forces behind this innovative and exciting new production. BWW chatted with HAUI over zoom about art, the exploration the abstract over a narrative, process vs product, and what audiences can expect from the projections in this new production.