Big, bold and leaning toward the light side. That’s how Ontario’s major theatre festivals — including the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake — are trying to combat the recession this season.

Previews have started for the first mainstage shows of the Shaw Festival and, although optimism surges at this time year like sap through maple trees, expectations are tempered a bit by a slippage in advance sales (17 per cent for Shaw) that can largely be laid at the door of suddenly vanishing American audiences.

However, something to bear in mind during this belt-tightening phase is that preview performances of Shaw productions are not only considerably cheaper, but exciting as well.

“I love the preview audiences,” enthuses Shaw’s artistic director Jackie Maxwell. “They’re totally honest, very open, and they help us learn so much about what we’re doing.”

Rest assured, you won’t see stumbling actors and clunking scenery. By the time shows reach previews, they’re usually running smoothly and just need fine-tuning.

As for the financial benefits: At Shaw, tickets that cost from $69 to $110 during the season are $45 to $70 during previews.

There are 11 productions in three theatres at the Shaw Festival this year. Here’s a list of what to expect until the end of June, arranged in order of first preview performance.

Sunday in the Park with George (on now)

The lowdown: One of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest musicals, about the French pointillist artist, Georges Seurat, his life and loves.

The people: The clever Alisa Palmer directs, the harmonious Paul Sportelli conducts, the gifted Steven Sutcliffe plays George.

The buzz:
A difficult show to pull off properly, but the creative team would seem to have the right stuff.

Brief Encounters (on now)

The lowdown: The first of three triple-bills by Noel Coward, featuring the famous Still Life.

The people: Head honcho Jackie Maxwell directs, William Schmuck designs, Patrick Galligan and Deborah Hay star.

The buzz: Definitely the A-team out for this one and the three plays are all varied and interesting.

In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (April 17)

The lowdown:
A lesser-known Shaw romp where everyone from Charles II to Isaac Newton gather for a lot of witty intellectual talk.

The people: Benedict Campbell is first-billed, the peripatetic Eda Holmes directs and the skillful Camellia Koo designs.

The buzz:
The play can be a pretty dry affair in the wrong hands, but it looks like this crowd can be counted on to give it some juice.

A Moon for the Misbegotten (April 28)

The lowdown: A superb play from Eugene O’Neill’s later period, with memorable characters, searing speeches and bold confrontations.

The people: Joseph Ziegler directs, while Jenny Young, David Jansen and Jim Mezon have leading roles.

The buzz:
Everyone concerned is talented, but it takes genius to make this one fly. Fingers crossed.

Born Yesterday (May 5)

The lowdown:
A classic of 1940s comedy, the blonde Billie Dawn is pure gold and the play’s still funny.

The people: Director Gina Wilkinson makes her festival debut with this piece, but the endearing Deborah Hay should score big as Billie.

The buzz:
This kind of American romp hasn’t been Shaw’s strong suit in the past, but we’re optimistic.

Play, Orchestra, Play (June 9)

The lowdown: Three stylish Coward comedies about troubled couples, two of them set to song and dance, all of them delightful.

The people: Former Shaw boss Christopher Newton directs.

The buzz: These particular Coward plays are among his most endearing, but need careful handling. With Newton, they should get it.

The Devil’s Disciple (June 14)

The lowdown:
A Shavian mixture of melodrama, romance and comedy set during the American Revolution.

The people:
Evan Buliung swashes, Peter Krantz buckles and Fiona Byrne provides the feisty female.

The buzz:
Director Tadeusz Bradecki can run hot and cold with his Shaw assignments. Let’s hope this one is sizzling.

Albertine in Five Times (June 24)

The lowdown: Michel Tremblay has the fascinating Albertine visited by herself at five other ages in her life. A wise, witty piece of drama.

The people: Micheline Chevrier will direct a first-rate group of divas.

The buzz: Tremblay’s plays need delicate treatment and the fact that this one is in the intimate Court House is a reassuring sign.

Star Chamber (June 25)

The lowdown:
The “forgotten” play from Coward’s one-acts, a study of show-biz committee antics.

The people:
Some of Shaw’s funniest will leap through hoops for director Kate Lynch.

The buzz: This is one for the books on sheer historical value alone.

Ways of the Heart (July 21)

The lowdown:
Three more Coward plays, some of them a bit on the darker side, but with plenty of verbal fireworks to keep things bright.

The people:
Blair Williams made a stunning directorial debut last year with The President. He’s the one to watch this season.

The buzz:
A nice cast, a trio of deft designers and the guiding hand of Williams should make this a pleasant piece of theatre.

The Entertainer (July 31)

The lowdown: John Osborne’s ebony-hued metaphor of 1950s England as a decrepit vaudeville show should have even more punch today.

The people: A part Benedict Campbell was born to play and Jackie Maxwell born to direct. David Schurmann and Corinne Koslo up the ante even more.

The buzz:
This could be the surprise runaway artistic hit of the season.

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