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Stratford a Broadway preview

Cynthia Dale in

Cynthia Dale in "42nd Street" Credit: Cynthia Dale in "42nd Street"

Summer tends to be the slowest season for theater in New York, with very few Broadway shows opening and most Off-Broadway companies coming to a complete halt.

But across the continent, numerous regional theater companies and festivals thrive each summer with ambitious slates of shows that draw tons of tourists.

This summer, wanting to check out such a company, I was able to spend four days at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada.

Although I had never even been to Canada before, I had seen several Stratford productions that had transferred to New York including "The Importance of Being Earnest" directed by and starring Brian Bedford, which played Broadway last year, and a revival of the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" directed by the festival's artistic director Des McAnuff, which was on Broadway this past spring.

Stratford, which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, has proved to be a mainstay of classical repertory companies.

While the festival's original season consisted of just two Shakespeare plays, it now offers over a dozen productions that include not just classics but also well-known musicals and contemporary Canadian works.

A large acting ensemble made up primarily of unknown Canadian and American actors performs the plays in repertory, in addition to one or two stars such as Bedford, Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer, who just premiered "A Word or Two," a one-man show about his favorite books, at the festival.

While "A Word or Two" may have been this year's starriest attraction and the most likely to transfer to New York, the strong season also included three Shakespeare plays, several musicals including the tap-happy spectacle "42nd Street," and the Thornton Wilder farce "The Matchmaker," inspired the mega-musical "Hello, Dolly!" and is long overdue for a New York revival.

Director Des McAnuff, who is still represented on Broadway with "Jersey Boys," has marked his final year as Stratford's artistic director with an epic revival of the war drama "Henry V." Replacing McAnuff is Antoni Cimolino, who stood out this season with an elegant production of the dark fairy tale "Cymbeline."

What I really took away from Stratford was the sense of being in a theater lover's paradise.

As far as I'm concerned, this is cultural tourism at its finest.

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