While providing world-class entertainment, The Stratford Festival Theatre has also always been excellent training ground for up-and-coming talent. This season, theatre veteran and Etobicoke native Cynthia Dale stars as Maria in The Sound of Music, alongside newcomer Shannon Taylor, going into Grade 12 at the Etobicoke School of the Arts, who plays Liesl, oldest daughter of the singing von Trapp family.
Dale’s performance as the mercurial Maria, the naive postulant who is sent to test her vows by acting as governess to the motherless von Trapp brood, is note-perfect. Fresh and free-spirited, Maria grows before our eyes, becoming mother and protector of the seven utterly charming children and their widowed father Captain von Trapp, even as she falls in love with the Captain.
But not before she teaches her charges to sing, earning them an international reputation in this true story of the family who fled Austria for freedom during the German annexation of 1938.
As Liesl, Taylor holds her own, singing and dancing like the pro she’s becoming. The Sound of Music is ideal family entertainment, with more dramatic punch than the popular movie, while still featuring those great Rogers and Hammerstein songs, including “Climb Every Mountain”, “My Favourite Things”, “Do-Re-Mi” and the title song.
Cynthia Dale, 40, is probably best known for her portrayal of Olivia Novak on Street Legal and here, in her fourth season at the Festival, she is re-united with C. David Johnson, her onscreen lover from that show. (In real life, Dale is married to Peter Mansbridge, and they are busily raising their almost-2 year old son, Will.)
She is vivacious and friendly as we prepare for an interview on the windy terrace of the Festival Theatre, a few hours before an evening performance. Even as I bump the table, jostling Cynthia’s take-out coffee, spilling it all over the table and narrowly missing her slim green slacks, she remains cool and unperturbed, rushing off to grab napkins from the actors’ cafeteria inside. Shamefully embarrassed, apologizing profusely, I can only watch helplessly as she mops up the spill and jokes that the table probably hadn’t been washed in years.
The ability to handle a potential crisis with improvised action – the mark of a true professional! Looking on with her keenly observant eye, ingénue Taylor gets yet another lesson, this time in the gracious handling of clumsy newspaper interviewers.
Ms. Dale hasn’t let the iconic nature of her role faze her either. “You just approach it that she’s another girl that you’re playing. You can’t imitate anyone who’s done it before, and you certainly can’t imitate the real Maria von Trapp, all you can do is try and get at her essence or her spirit.
“I’m a hopeless romantic, and I know that Maria is. I have a lot of joy in my life ... I’m very lucky and very blessed to have that and I think that Maria does too, and so it’s not that hard to slip into her skin.”
“I’m a West End Girl,” asserts Dale proudly when asked about her Etobicoke roots. Her mother still lives in the same Markland Woods house where Cynthia grew up, attending Markland School and St. Joe’s/Michael Powers, “when there was a St. Joe’s/Michael Powers.”
Etobicoke still looms large in her memory. “The five years of high school were momentous for me,” she states, confessing that she has two friends from high school that she’s “really, really close with still - we were like the three musketeers.”
“When they were tearing it down, one day I was driving by and I walked onto the construction sight and I climbed over all this rubble – I was in a skirt – and I stole three bricks from the school, one for me and one for my two girlfriends, just so that we’d have a piece of the old alma mater, you now?”
“I sang and danced as a kid,” she recalls, starting at the age of five with her west end dance teacher Gladys Forrester, who has since passed away.
“She was a big inspiration to many performers. You look at the roster of a lot of the performers my age in Canada and Gladys touched all of us, that school in Etobicoke touched our lives. A lot of the big ones went through there.”
Professional work occupied a large part of her childhood.
“I always say, I grew up in the halls of 90 Sumac Street, the CBC building where they shot all the musicals, all the Tommy Hunter specials and the Wayne and Schuster specials. I spent more time out of grade school that I ever did in grade school.”
“The business was just starting in the early sixties in Toronto. . . so the kids that started with it worked all the time.”
She describes how her Mom became a glorified taxi driver for ten years.
“I have two older sisters and a younger brother and we were all in the business.”
Of Jennifer, Loretta and Vincent, only Jennifer is still acting like Cynthia. Loretta became a production controller (“she’s the smart one, she went into the money end!”) and her brother left the entertainment business alltogether.
Shannon Taylor started dancing just as young but her professional experience is just beginning with her role in The Sound of Music, her first “large audition”. She really was “sixteen going on seventeen” when rehearsals started but has since celebrated her birthday.
She’s thrilled with the opportunity that the Etobicoke School of the Arts offers her, to simultaneously attend high school and pursue a professional career.
“They’ve been so helpful, making alternate arrangements.”
Shannon commutes to the school from home in Barrie and also boards part-time with her schoolmate Kim McCleary.
“It’s so great that there is one, this Etobicoke school,” chimes in Cynthia. “There wasn’t one when I was growing up. I envy this generation that has the opportunity to do that. They didn’t exist in Toronto; they didn’t exist in Canada, at all!
“It’s about teachers. A school means nothing unless you have great teachers, and I think that they’re blessed at this school, that they have great teachers that inspire and also know what they’re teaching.”
How did Taylor feel being cast at the Stratford Festival?
“It was one of the most amazing feelings in the world. Performing is a hard business so I doubted if it was the life for me, not knowing what job you have next, constantly moving around. When I came here, I just realized that I love it too much, that there’s no way that I could never do it again.”
Dale uses that word “love”, too.
“I love doing this part, I love doing the show because it is absolute, unbridled joy. Maria does something that not a lot of people in the world do – she follows her bliss, she follows her heart, and most people don’t do that. It’s quite wonderful to get to play that, four times a week, to actually get to live in her passion.”