When Brent Carver made his Broadway musical debut as Molina several years ago in Kiss of the Spider Woman, he was considered a find, a discovery and the hot new thing.
As it turned out, Canadians and border-state Americans had known Carver's work for a decade at the Stratford Festival, North America's largest classical repertory theatre, in Stratford, Ontario.
New Yorkers will get to "discover" established Canadian performers again, Nov. 12-29, when the Stratford Festival and City Center present Much Ado About Nothing and The Miser, in repertory, at City Center (55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues).
While Stratford veterans like Brian Bedford, playing Much Ado's graying Benedick, have performed on Broadway (earning Tony Award nominations for Timon of Athens in 1994, The Moliere Comedies in 1995 and London Assurance in 1997), other festival stars -- Martha Henry and William Hutt -- are virtual unknowns in New York.
The 78-year-old Hutt, Canada's living-legend senior actor, plays a tipsy Leonato in Shakespeare's Much Ado (previewing Nov. 12 and opening Nov. 13) and the title role in Moliere's The Miser (previewing Nov. 14 and opening Nov. 15). Henry, onetime artistic director of The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, plays Beatrice in Much Ado and Frosine The Miser. Other festival favorites appearing in the residency dubbed "Stratford Festival at City Center" are James Blendick, Stephen Ouimette, Chick Reid and Tom McCamus.
Both productions were staged in the 1998 Stratford season by artistic director Richard Monette and played the 1,100-seat Avon Theatre. The cavernous 2,600-seat City Center's upper balcony will be closed off to sales to offer a sense of intimacy. City Center is not considered a Broadway house, preventing the Stratford shows from being eligible for Tony Award consideration.
The Stratford Festival, founded in 1953 by Tyrone Guthrie (in a tent), ended its 1998 season (in three theatres) Nov. 8.
"The Stratford Festival at City Center" was initiated by City Center president and executive director Judith E. Daykin, and is beneficial to both nonprofit organizations, according to Stratford general manager Antoni Cimolino.
What's in it for the groups?
Cimolino told Playbill On-Line Nov. 11 that the arrangement allows City Center to inject classical works into its eclectic music-dance-theatre programming mix in the Mecca Temple on 55th Street, and Stratford gets to increase its visibility to U.S. audiences and sponsors.
Cimolino revealed that in 1998 the Stratford Festival had an all-time high of 40 percent American attendance, representing about 43 percent of the total box office.
"Most of those people come from Michigan, Chicago and western New York, but they all read the New York Times, and [regional] people are sensitive to what's covered in the New York press," Cimolino said. "We're always trying to boost our American attendance -- this is about audience development and sponsor development."
International corporate sponsors such as Newcourt and CIBC World Markets and such New York funders as the Laura Pels Foundation have eased the financial burden of the visit, kicking more than $300,00 into the residency project, Cimolino said.
Cimolino said the relationship is hoped to be "indefinite." "We're looking at this long-term. It's a question of whether it's a tolerable risk for City Center and the festival..."
That means if the Nov. 12-29 performances are well attended or show the prospect for more attendance next fall, Stratford will likely be back with one or more productions from its 1999 season, which includes Macbeth, Richard II, West Side Story, A Midsummer Night's Dream, a musical Dracula, a Glenn Gould biography called Glenn, The Alchemist, The School for Scandal, The Tempest and Pride and Prejudice.
Much Ado is set in 1920s Sicily and has a musical comedy flair to it, including Berthold Carriere's Charleston-happy score. The lovers are purposely older than usual, said Cimolino.
"[Beatrice and Benedick] will have a bit more wisdom rather than cockiness and bald sexual energy," Cimolino said. "You get two people who decide they better knock off [the squabbling] and get on together before they die."
The Much Ado company includes Bedford, Henry, Hutt, Victoria Adilman, Blendick, Evelyn Buliung, Shawn Campbell, Ian Deakin, Bradford Farwell, Rory Feore, John Gilbert, Michelle Giroux, Jennifer Gould, Claire Jullien, Tim MacDonald, Michael Mawson, McCamus, Anthony McLean, Jonathan W. Monro, Ouimette, Ngozi Paul, Reid, Jeffrey Reen, Sandi Ross, Joseph Shaw, Michael Therriault, Laurel Thomson and Brian Tree.
Much Ado designers are Guido Tondino (sets), Ann Curtis (costumes) and Michael J. Whitfield (lighting).
The Miser company includes Hutt, Henry, Adilman, Richard Curnock, Deakin, Farwell, Giroux, David Glass, Monro, Renn, Shaw, Therriault and Tree.
Miser designers are Meredith Caron (sets and costumes) and Whitfield (lighting). Carriere composed the music.
Performance times vary due to the repertory nature of the shows. Tickets range $30-$60. For information, call (212) 581-1212.
-- By Kenneth Jones