Inside the Press Room at the Courthouse
The more things change, the more they stay the same. As we approach 2020, we are concerned about corrupt politicians and fake news. About 100 years ago, it was the same – unethical politicians lining their pockets and sensationalized news.
The Front Page, now on stage at the Stratford Festival, is a clever and witty look at the relationship between the local politicians, law enforcement and the press, set in Chicago in 1928.
A group of newspaper reporters are lounging around – some playing cards, one strumming a banjo – in the press room of the courthouse, waiting to hear if a criminal is going to hang. They are at the ready to quickly grab their candlestick telephone and call it in to the re-write desk, each to their own competing newspaper. It’s Chicago in the roaring twenties; crime is running rampant, and each newspaper, depending on their ethical standards, reports the news in its own way. Some give the facts, others exaggerate, and still others dramatize news way beyond truth in order to sell more papers.
Suddenly the reporters learn that the convicted murderer, Earl Williams, has escaped. As they all run in every direction, one reporter, Hildy Johnson, stays behind because he’s planning to leave the newspaper business and get married. He finds Williams and realizes the poor man has been bamboozled in order for the mayor to appear tough on crime and get votes. Hildy hides Williams in a roll-top desk and calls his boss, a tough-talking woman, to help him get Williams out and write the story of the year. How this all turns out is, of course, for you to find out.
Even back in 1928 this play was a comedy hit – pointing out society’s sins for all to see the irony. The municipal politicians will do anything to get reelected, reaching out to the blacks of Chicago’s south side for the votes, but not willing to give them equality.
Written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page was first produced on stage in 1928 and has been adapted for the cinema several times. But this version was recently adapted for Stratford’s stage by Canadian playwright Michael Healey. Healey changed a couple of male roles for females – a female reporter was allowed into the fold, and the newspaper owner is a wily widow who’s saving her late husband’s newspaper, while scaring her staff into toeing the line. He has also cleaned up the language for the 2019 audience, removing terms used in the 1920s that we now consider derogatory. But he has managed to keep the comedy with the wise-cracking dialogue.
Mike Shara owns the stage as the inept and dim-witted Sheriff Hartman. His comedic timing is perfect, especially in the scene where he explains how he knows the gun belongs to the murderer. Ben Carlson is perfect as the frustrated Hildy Johnson. He is torn between marrying the woman he loves (and getting a mother-in-law he doesn’t love), or being the reporter who gets the scoop of a lifetime. Maev Beaty’s Penelope “Cookie” Burns is brilliant – manipulative, charming, cunning, and intimidating, all in one.
Juan Chioran makes an excellent corrupt mayor, always scheming about how to ensure his re-election. Johnathan Sousa and Sarah Dodd are a perfect pair as the murderer Earl Williams and his girlfriend Mollie Malloy.
The courthouse’s press room is a mess, crumpled paper on the floor, telephones scattered willy-nilly, and cigarette smoke filling the air. The Festival Theatre’s thrust stage suits the room and action well.
The Front Page is a three act play. The program announces there will be two intervals, as my English friends say – or two intermissions as most theatre-goers say.
There is a very cute and funny twist in the ending, and I certainly won’t spoil it here, other than to say that it’s well worth seeing this play. Next year Stratford Festival is mounting the musical Chicago – it will be a great follow up to The Front Page!
The Front Page continues in repertory until October 25 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca
Photo: Maev Beaty as Penelope Burns and Ben Carlson as Hildy Johnson in The Front Page. Photo by Emily Cooper.
The Front Page
By Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Adapted by Michael Healey
Directed by Graham Abbey
Performed by Ben Carlson, Maev Beaty, Mike Shara, et al.
Stratford Festival Production
Festival Theatre, Stratford
August 20 to October 25, 2019
Reviewed by Mary Alderson