Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star Theatre Critic
STRATFORD—Shakespeare told us, “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.” Lesser known is the line, “They have their exits and their entrances,” but it’s an apt description of Cynthia Dale’s experiences of the last five years.
She’s back at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this season, having made a dazzling comeback as Dorothy Brock, the aging star of 42nd Street. What makes her return so sweet is the bitterness of the exit that preceded it.
“I don’t think of this as an ending,” she said through tears on an autumn day in 2007, speaking of her departure from the festival after 10 years as its leading lady.
Beginning in 1997, when she stepped onto the Festival Theatre stage as Guinevere in Camelot, she appeared in most of the great roles of the musical theatre canon and many memorable dramatic roles as well. She was the consort, in a manner of speaking, to Richard Monette, who was artistic director and unquestioned King of the Festival in those days.
“Richard was my friend,” she says today of the man who died in 2008. “He was my angel. He still is my angel, sitting there, on my shoulder.”
But when he stepped down as artistic director in 2007, she found herself suddenly friendless.
For about nine months, a triumvirate of artistic directors held sway: Des McAnuff, Marti Maraden and Don Shipley.
They decided they didn’t want Dale in the company any longer.
She was hurt. So were her friends in the company and thousands of fans who besieged the festival with letters and emails.
Dale’s husband, CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge, said at the time, “Why would Stratford let somebody go who had done them so much good, made so much money for them?”
Dale got through it. “I’m just going to keep moving on,” she said before her final 2007 performance. “And I trust I will be back at this theatre again.”
In less than a year, two of the triumvirate who had unseated her had resigned bitterly, leaving McAnuff as the sole artistic director. He waited for a chance to make things right.
“I ran into Des at a party in the spring of 2011, and he just came up to me and said, ‘We’d love to have you back,’” Dale recalls. “It was that simple.”
They met for dinner the following week and he invited her to appear in the 2012 season in 42nd Street, with Gary Griffin directing.
“I really didn’t need to hear anything else,” laughs Dale. “I had wanted to work with (Griffin) for the longest time. He was supposed to have directed me in Guys and Dolls, in South Pacific, but he was always running off to direct on Broadway. We kept missing each other.
“Well, finally, we weren’t going to miss each other anymore.”
The only possible fly in the ointment was that Dale wasn’t going to be the star, Peggy Sawyer, the tap-dancing sweetie who steps in for the injured, older leading lady at the 11th hour.
Dale was playing Dorothy Brock, kept woman, bitter diva and the one that Peggy replaces on opening night.
Dale looks better than anyone at the age of 51 has a right to look — slim figure, glowing skin, flashing eyes — but she never saw herself as Peggy.
“I know the truth of Dorothy,” she says. “I know how to play her. Is she a tough old broad? Hey, aren’t we all tough?” A bit of a rueful chuckle, then she adds, “I don’t know if she’s really tough or just older.”
Despite the confident air she wears like one of the fur stoles Dorothy flings over her shoulders (courtesy of the Texan sugar daddy who’s keeping her), Dale admits that, “I was scared. I was scared to death.
“I hadn’t been on that stage in five years. I was in a room full of people I didn’t know who didn’t know me. Yeah, that’s how quickly things can change. Oh, they had all heard about me. They had an idea about me, but what was that idea?”
She remembers how someone came up to her and said, only partially in jest, “So you used to be the queen of Stratford musical theatre!”
Dale shakes her head. “I wanted to scream out, ‘What does that mean?’ My God, my nerves during those first days! I felt like I was auditioning for everybody. And don’t forget, I was playing the older woman. Oh yeah, they were pushing all my buttons.”
Dale snaps angrily at the suggestion that she could hide behind a mask of sarcastic camp, dishing out surface emotions because “it’s only a musical.”
“I believe that especially when you do musical theatre, you’ve got to play the truth, you’ve got to go for the honesty. When you’re older, it costs more. The stakes are higher. You want to know if you can still do it and so does everybody else.”
One of the younger cast members talked about what Dale was like those first days.
“She’d come in every morning, cheerful, smiling, but nervous as hell. And she always brought a coffee from Balzac’s for Gary. Just like an apple for the teacher. But she worked harder than any of us and we all admired her for it.”
Dale blushes when told the story. “Yeah, I’m a keener, but not in a stupid little girl kind of way, but because I love what I do. When you go onstage here, you’ve got the best artisans in the world backing you up. The collective energy of the people who design and build and execute the shows is really phenomenal.”
She exhales a long, slow, thoughtful breath. “I am so grateful to be here again. I am so grateful to be playing this part. I am so grateful to be here at this point in my life.”
Finally, the big question: does she think this is the start of a second life for her at Stratford?
“I have no idea if I’m here again as a part of the company. I’m not even going to let myself think that. I’m here doing 42nd Street. That’s it.
“And I’m happy people still want to see me onstage.”
FIVE FAVE ROLES AT STRATFORD
“That was the first show I did here with Richard (Monette) and it meant the most to me. It still does.”
Liza (My Fair Lady)
“The 50th anniversary, working with Colm (Feore), the sheer magical enchantment of it all. Heaven.”
Annie (The Miracle Worker)
“Richard believed in me as a dramatic actress, too, and this was the show that started it.”
Maggie (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“I loved that show. I loved those words. To speak Tennessee Williams every night is a gift.”
Edythe (My One and Only)
“I knew it was my last show. That made me sad. But I got to tap my feet off. That made me happy.”
Join Richard Ouzounian in the lobby of the Festival Theatre for a series of “Star Talks,” where he discusses current Stratford projects with a variety of performers.
Future dates include artistic director Des McAnuff following Henry V on July 15; and Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay, husband and wife in real life and lovers onstage, after Much Ado About Nothing on July 29.