Waterloo Region Record

Refreshing sheen with shades of grey

- CARLY MAGA Special to the Toronto Star

Now listen here, see, I got a big scoop for ya newshounds: Stratford’s put a real shine on the classic American newsroom comedy “The Front Page,” and you can take that to the printer.

There’s a world between Stratford in 2019 and the hard-boiled court press room in this 1928 play, inspired by the experience­s of authors Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht as Chicago reporters on the front lines of high and low crime in a city undergoing major change.

For starters, instead of Lorenzo Savoini’s set of dark wood, stained beige walls, heavy desks, candlestic­k telephones, typewriter­s, cards, cigarettes and whiskey, I’m writing this missive from a modern, clean café, sipping an iced Americano, blocking out the sounds of the city with a minicomput­er I carry in my pocket. Here’s another difference: I’m a woman and, in Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s original script, the only females were wives, mothers, secretarie­s and “tarts.”

In his adaptation of “The Front Page,” Michael Healey builds bridges between then and now where it counts while remaining in Hecht’s and MacArthur’s world and sticking closely to their original story.

Graham Abbey’s production begins with a group of reporters biding time playing poker or banjo before the cop-killing Earl Williams (Johnathan Sousa) is set to hang (the scene gives just cause to the way the words “journalist­s” and “bums” are used interchang­eably to describe the motley group). But this time we have a woman in the mix, McLaren (Michelle Giroux), who’s on the phone getting tips while her colleagues imbibe. (The bathroom sign announces “Gents … AND LADY.”)

Healey adds a new character, Wilson, played by E.B. Smith, the only black reporter on the police beat, whose presence necessaril­y complicate­s the original’s obvious racism.

Healey also cuts all but one of Hecht’s and MacArthur’s uses of the N-word and it’s used precisely to illustrate the violent side of this macho, white supremacis­t culture, said by the loathsome Fife (Randy Hughson) to antagonize his colleague and another new character created by Healey, the black Alderman Willoughby (David Collins).

Willoughby is caught between advocating for racial justice and strategizi­ng for political purposes, a contrast to the play’s straightfo­rward villains: the wealthy Mayor (Juan Chioran) and the buffoonish Sherriff Hartman (the ever reliable clown Mike Shara), who need the potentiall­y innocent Earl, accused of killing a black police officer, to get the black vote in an election a few days away.

With these changes and others, Healey and Abbey give more depth to the social context that Hecht and MacArthur use as a backdrop for their comedy, which centres on Hildy Johnson (Ben Carlson), a talented scribe who’s quitting the game to get married to Peggy (Amelia Sargisson). He’s pulled back into the fray when he captures the escaped Williams and prepares to break the biggest story of the decade with the help of his editor, Penelope “Cookie” Burns (Maev Beaty). On paper, this is the biggest character swap, turning the male Walter Burns into a female, but Beaty hits precisely the same notes as the male character: highly rehearsed, manipulati­ve charm; a deep, throaty, extremely unbecoming laugh; fabulous style and a heavy walk; an eye for people-pleasing human interest stories and the ever-relevant advice that no one reads the second paragraph.

She’s an image of what Hildy will become the longer he stays in the field, but with the helpful addition of some back story (Penelope is a former chorus girl who inherited the Chicago Examiner as Walter’s widow), delivered with Beaty’s mix of sensitivit­y and bravado, and even more complexity.

And that’s one of the biggest feats of this production of “The Front Page”: it moves the action away from the hijinks of the escaped convict plot to the people and issues that cross into the press room, including Hildy himself, a determined newspaperm­an with an altruistic streak. In Carlson’s performanc­e, he is genuinely torn between his profession­al ambition and his love for Peggy and a “normal” life.

With the amount of public discourse today around the value of the press and its potential corruptibi­lity, it’s no wonder a revival of “The Front Page” would bring to mind phrases like “fake news” and “Russian collusion.”

What really makes this “Front Page” feel fresh is its social, gender, racial and character complicati­ons — things that a mainstream audience in 2019 is much more equipped and eager to investigat­e than in 1928. It might mean there’s often a bitter tinge to the laughs, particular­ly in the first two (of three) acts, but this grey area of theatre feels more honest than the black and white of newsprint in the original script.

 ?? EMILY COOPER FOR THE TORONTO STAR ?? The biggest gender reversal in the Stratford Festival’s “The Front Page” is Maev Beaty, left, playing female newspaper editor Penelope “Cookie” Burns, with Ben Carlson as Hildy Johnson as a conflicted reporter.
EMILY COOPER FOR THE TORONTO STAR The biggest gender reversal in the Stratford Festival’s “The Front Page” is Maev Beaty, left, playing female newspaper editor Penelope “Cookie” Burns, with Ben Carlson as Hildy Johnson as a conflicted reporter.

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