Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Mahabharata’ epic slated for 2023 Shaw Festival season

A musical by Stephen Sondheim, a contemporary adaptation of a traditional Sanskrit epic and a comedy by Noël Coward headline the 2023 Shaw Festival season.

The Shaw 2023 program also includes what Artistic Director Tim Carroll has described as « hidden gems »: lesser-known works by James Baldwin, Edith Wharton and Tom Stoppard.

If you’re looking for a piece with the same name as the festival, you’ll have to look further into the poster. Neither of the two works by George Bernard Shaw scheduled for next season will be performed at the company’s 856-seat Festival Theater in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The season, announced Wednesday, begins Feb. 28 with a four-week run from Why Not Theater’s production of « Mahabharata, » a large-scale contemporary adaptation of the Sanskrit epic. Written and adapted by Why Not Theater co-artistic directors Ravi Jain (who also directs) and Miriam Fernandes, « Mahabharata » features a cast made up exclusively of South Asian diaspora actors based in Canada, the UK and in Australia.

The Shaw Festival commissioned and presents the production in association with the Barbican Center in London. « It will be one of the theatrical events of the decade, » Carroll said, « and it will all start at the Shaw. »

« Audiences can expect to be amazed » by this epic production, Jain said, which will last six to seven hours, including a joint meal break with an elder. It emulates the number of people around the world who experience the “Mahabharata,” Jain said, “with an aunt or uncle sharing the story over a meal.”

« Mahabharata » is eight years in the making and billed as the biggest international tour in Why Not Theater’s 15-year history. It was originally scheduled for Shaw’s 2020 season but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another holdover from that canceled season is « Gypsy, » the 1959 musical by Sondheim and composer Jule Styne that ushered in standards such as « Everything’s Coming Up Roses » and « Rose’s Turn, » and served as the star vehicle for actor Ethel Merman.

Kate Hennig will star in the festival’s 2023 production as Momma Rose, the indomitable show-business mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, according to sources familiar with the production. Hennig is no stranger to « Gypsy. » She was previously a stand-in for Rose and performed the role at select performances each week when the musical was last staged at the festival in 2005.

Next season’s production is set to run from May 10 to October 8 at the Festival Theater and will be directed by Jay Turvey. He takes the lead from Kimberley Rampersad, who was slated to direct when the musical was first announced for the 2020 season.

Instead, Rampersad will direct Baldwin’s « The Amen Corner, » a three-act drama about a teenage jazz prodigy forced to choose between his mother, a church pastor and choir leader, and his dying father, with whom he share the love of music.

Shaw’s production of the play will feature « a repertoire of upbeat songs performed by a gospel choir, » according to Shaw’s season announcement. “The Amen Corner” is set to run July 30 through October 7 at the Festival Theater.

Rounding out the roster of productions at Shaw’s largest performance venue, Coward’s « Blithe Spirit » is directed by Tarragon Theater Artistic Director Mike Payette. The comedy, which is due to take place from June 14 to October 8, follows the novelist Charles Condomine, who calls on the medium Madame Arcati to perform a session at his home.

A few blocks from the Festival Theatre, the 305-seat Royal George Theater will host four productions. The first is « Prince Caspian », a theatrical adaptation by Damien Atkins of the CS Lewis novel of the same name, the second book in the « Chronicles of Narnia » fantasy series. Scheduled to run from March 30 to October 8 and directed by Molly Atkinson, the play is also from the canceled 2020 season.

Audiences disappointed by Mirvish Productions’ last-minute cancellation of Broadway-bound Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt’ will have the chance to catch one of the British playwright’s other works. His two-hour farce « On the Razzle, » which follows two shopkeepers on the run in a small Austrian village, is set to star Royal George from April 16 to October 8, directed by Craig Hall.

Next season’s one-act lunchtime play is Shaw’s « Village Wooing, » which the playwright described as a « two-voice comedy »: characters called simply « A » and « Z. » Directed by Selma Dimitrijevic, he is set to play at Royal George from June 8 to October 7.

The fourth production from the festival’s mid-size theater is « The Shadow of a Doubt » by American author Wharton, perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel « The Age of Innocence. »

Although written in 1901, ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ – Wharton’s first work and only stage play – was never produced and dropped for unknown reasons. A full manuscript of the play, which focuses on the issue of assisted suicide, was found in 2017. It was eventually premiered as a radio play in 2018. Shaw’s production, scheduled for July 16 to October 15, is directed by Peter Hinton. – Davis.

The festival’s 267-seat Jackie Maxwell Studio Theater will present three productions: « The Playboy of the Western World, » an Irish comedy by JM Synge, directed by Maxwell herself (another holdover from the 2020 season); Shaw’s satirical comedy “The Apple Cart,” directed by Eda Holmes; and “The Clearing” by Helen Edmundson, directed by Jessica Carmichael.

The 2023 season will also feature a new venue in the form of a Spiegeltent: a pop-up marquee that will house Carroll’s production of Pierre de Marivaux’s 18th-century romantic comedy ‘The Game of Love and Chance’. A different cast drawn from across the festival will keep the show going at each performance and will be discouraged from learning the lines in advance. « We are thrilled to share all the craziness and genius of this remarkable enterprise » through this production, Carroll said.

Local history and culture are celebrated in the puppet play ‘A Short History of Niagara’, which returns for its third season in 2023. The 30-minute show by Alexandra Montagnese and Mike Petersen, presented in partnership with Parks Canada, will be presented in Fort George and in the Market Room of the Court House Theatre.

Full casts and creative teams for the productions will be announced at a later date. Tickets for the 2023 season go on sale November 5 for Friends of the Shaw and December 3 for the general public.


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