Queen of the festival

Brian D. Johnson June 16 1997

Queen of the festival

Brian D. Johnson June 16 1997

Queen of the festival

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

It was a strange way for a couple to not spend an evening together. Onstage at the gala opening of the Stratford Festival, Cynthia Dale was enjoying the most momentous opening night of her career, wearing Queen Guenevere’s crown on the glittering medieval set of Camelot. Some 150 km away, on a set no less theatrical, her partner, Peter Mansbridge, was delivering the most elaborately staged performance of his career—anchoring the CBC’s federal election coverage under the gothic arches of Parliament’s Hall of Honour.

By cruel coincidence, neither star could be on hand to witness the other’s finest hour. And more than a few guests at Camelots election-night première wished they could be in two places at once—including Knowlton Nash, Mansbridge’s predecessor on the CBC news desk, who rushed out at intermission to check early returns on a TV set in the lobby. By the end of the evening, the fates of Camelot and Canada seemed weirdly in synch. While Dale’s Guenevere made her final exit, as queen of a fractured kingdom, Mansbridge was sorting out a newly splintered federalism. And both spectacles conjured a nostalgia for simpler, more harmonious times. The irony of it all was not lost on Dale. Sipping a glass of wine at the post-première party, she said, “It’s the cosmic joke of my life.”

After taking her opening-night bows to a standing ovation, Dale relayed a message to Mansbridge (who was still on the air) saying, “It went brilliantly.”

And it did. There had been tremendous pressure on the 36-year-old actress.

Best known as Olivia, the vamp lawyer on the former CBC series Street Legal, she had never played a lead at Stratford.

Her last major stage role was in Pal Joey 11 years ago at Toronto’s small, nonprofit Tarragon Theatre. Now, suddenly, she was starring in the flagship production of a $27-million festival.

Was she nervous? “Nervous ... nervous?” says Dale, her voice rising in mock hysteria. ‘Yeah, sure I was nervous. And so I should have been. I was coming in with the big lead, playing with the big kids in the big sandbox. To a lot of people I was a little TV actress. I had a lot to prove to myself.” Then she adds, “In rehearsal, there were moments where I was really scared. You go home and you think you’re the world’s worst actor and you can’t sing and you’re just not good enough to work with these people.” But Dale has been singing, dancing and acting as a professional from the age of 5. Before she was “a little TV actress,” she was a stage performer—in 1983, she spent a season at Stratford in the choruses of The Mikado and The Gondoliers. And now, as the blithely adulterous Guenevere, she acquits herself beautifully, bringing Camelots songs to life with a sweet soprano and a radiant stage presence. Last week, she al-

so tried her hand at Shakespeare for the first time, with a small but winning turn in The Taming of the Shrew (as Bianca, the Shrew’s coquettish sister). Stratford head and Camelot director Richard Monette, who cast Dale in the musical, says he never had any qualms about her. “When you’re looking for someone who can sing, dance and who is drop-dead gorgeous,” he says,“why wouldn’t you think of Cynthia Dale?”

Monette was unaware that Dale was nervous in rehearsals. “I never knew that, and I’m glad I didn’t,” he laughs. “She seemed to be very competent. Cynthia really works hard. There’s also something about her that is likable on a stage. That was very important in casting

Cynthia Dale graces Stratford's flagship show

Guenevere, because Guenevere can appear to be a selfish woman.” Dale performed queenly duties offstage as well, attending functions and “schmoozing the crowd,” says Monette. “It’s not enough to play a leading role in a company like this. It’s important to lead the company. And she does that. She’s a very classy broad.”

Last year, when her agent phoned with the Stratford offer, Dale was unemployed, reading novels at Mansbridge’s cabin in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills. After the demise of Street Legal in 1994, her career had taken a dip. She starred as a private eye in the CTV series Taking the Falls, which was cancelled after 13 episodes in the wake of scalding reviews. She also met with frustration in her attempts to land movie roles. “There have been parts that I desperately wanted and didn’t get,” she says. “I guess there was a perception of who I was and what I was—if the part didn’t call for a sexy femme fatale, I didn’t get the audition.”

In person, Dale does not act like a femme fatale but a sensible woman with a soft-spoken poise that is shattered, every so often, by a hearty laugh. As someone who has spent her life in show business, she understands that being a star, especially in Canada, requires hard work, luck—and versatility. “If you sing and you dance and you act,” she says, “you have to do it all.”

Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, Cynthia was the third of four children born to Willie Ciurluini, a car dealer, and his wife, Barbara. She made her debut at five years old in Finian’s Rainbow at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. And, on an agent’s advice, she and her older show-biz sisters, Jennifer and Loretta, changed their surnames to Dale. Qennifer went on to star in Canadian movies; Loretta works as an accountant for a film company.)

After a childhood of steady work in Canadian television, and years of daily dance classes, Cynthia went straight from high school into a performing career. In her 20s, she was cast in a string of inauspicious movie roles—as an ingenue axed to death in My Bloody Valentine (1981), an aerobics flash dancer in Heavenly Bodies (1985) and (opposite a young Nicolas Cage) as the wife of sculler Ned Hanlan in The Boy in Blue. Dale also acted and sang in the theatre, where she met and wed a props manager. She attributes the breakup of their fouryear marriage to ambition. “My focus was on my career,” she admits. You have to be obsessed to get anywhere, especially in your 20s. Friends, family and relationships fall by the wayside.”

Moving to New York City to portray a ballerina in the play Tamara, Dale was set on pursuing a Manhattan stage career when Street Legal came calling in 1987. Giving the series a jolt of soap-opera sex appeal, Dale’s character goosed the ratings—and made her a star. But she had to overcome some network resistance at first, such as when she suggested that Olivia seduce Chuck on a desk. “I think I was a bit too much for them in the beginning,” she says. “They actually said to me, You’re too big. You don’t fit in the box.’ I said, You’re damn right I don’t.’ ”

Offscreen, meanwhile, Dale’s femme fatale image was enhanced by gossipy tales of her seeing Mansbridge while he was still married to Wendy Mesley—the CBC’s very own Camelot triangle. When asked about that situation, Dale says, “I just don’t want to talk about it. It’s not my place to talk about it.” But Dale talks freely about her passion for Camelot, in which she plays a queen whose heart is torn between her king and his knight, between Arthur (Tom McCamus) and Lancelot (Dan R. Chameroy). “How does that happen that you actually love someone and fall in love with someone else?” she muses. “It’s not rational. You can tell which people have had those things happen. The show makes some people very weepy. It sure made us weepy during rehearsal—I was a basket case. I’d do that last scene with Tom and I’d be bawling. Richard [Monette] just kept saying, ‘Cry in rehearsals because you can’t do it onstage.’ ”

Performing Camelot is “emotionally and physically demanding,” adds Dale, who still has not heard the original sound track—preferring instead to give the songs her own stamp. “I’ve never done a part like this, something with major chops. It’s a heavy vocal show for Guenevere. The costume changes are unbelievably fast and wicked. The costumes are very heavy, and we have to go out there and make them look light.” Lifting the hem of her dress, Dale points out that her knees are black-and-blue from the rigors of the choreography. But she has survived much better than in her first season at Stratford, 14 years ago. On the third day of rehearsing The Gondoliers, Dale tumbled into the orchestra pit and cracked her heel. “I was like the coyote falling down the canyon with a puff of smoke,” she laughs. “I’d walk around town with a cane, and everyone would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re the girl who fell into the orchestra pit.’ ”

Cynthia Dale is still a trooper. But now, when she walks around town, she is no longer the chorus girl who fell into the pit, but the TV star who rose to become Stratford’s queen. □