Saturday, November 18, 2017

The continuing transformation of downtown St. Catharines

So this past week Sir Elton John paid us a visit in our humble city to play to a sold-out crowd at the Meridian Centre, and suffice it to say, downtown was alive with the sound of Elton's music.  With those musical memories still fresh in our collective minds, I thought it would be an opportune time to revisit the continuing revitalization of downtown St. Catharines.

First of all, full disclosure here:  I did not attend the concert.  I suspect I was one of the few who didn't, although the Meridian Centre only houses 6,000 fans for a concert such as this.  Nothing against Sir Elton; he seems like a heck of a guy and hey, who can argue his massive string of hits dating back about 3 decades now.

But for me, staying up past about 8:30 on a weeknight now with the early hours I keep is an effort in futility, frankly.  And besides, even though I respect his consummate talents as both composer and performer, I just didn't grow up with Elton as part of my youthful soundtrack.  My mind was elsewhere, and don't ask where.

I know I am in the minority here, but I didn't feel the need to spend enormous sums of money to see an artist - as good as he obviously is - who didn't influence me during my formative years.  But no knock against the guy; heck he's married to a Canadian so who can argue with that, eh?

Okay, with that out of the way, let's get to the gist of my argument here.

Anyone who balked at spending the money needed to build the Meridian Centre in downtown St. Catharines, finally utilizing a gaping hole in our city core known as the lower-level parking lot, must be feeling a little sheepish now.  Granted, it is ironic that on nights like this we could actually have used the extra spaces the old lower-level lot would have provided, but hey, no Elton John concert means no extra crowds downtown.

Yes I know, people of a certain generation lament the lack of reasons to come downtown anymore, even to this day.  But like anything else in life, change has to take place and that includes how we utilize our downtown core.

Just think back about 10 years ago and imagine what transpired Wednesday night happening then.  Not bloody likely, right?  Oh we might have gotten an Elton John tribute show up at Brock Centre for the Arts, but that was about it.  This was the real deal, and right in our own majestic playpen downtown.

Nice to see, isn't it?

Granted, we can't have acts of that calibre every night or even every month here.  But look who has performed at the Meridian Centre since it opened just a couple of years ago:  City & Light, David Seinfeld, and of course, the Tragically Hip before we got the news of Gordon's terminal cancer diagnosis.  Oh and throw in the Scott Tournament of Hearts, the Niagara Ice Dogs, the regular Brock sports teams events and on and on it goes.

See what's happened here?  It is the proverbial "If we build it they will come" scenario coming true in downtown St. Catharines.  And it's not just the Meridian Centre that is generating the crowds.  The new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and adjacent Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts do their considerable part in bringing people downtown on a regular basis as well.

Consider the fact the Niagara Symphony is filling the 800-odd seats on a regular basis in Partridge Hall when they often couldn't fill all of the 500 available seats up the hill at Brock Centre for the Arts.  Or the fact The Film House, the first real movie theatre in downtown St. Catharines in years regularly programs more challenging material and fills the joint on a regular basis.

Once again, build it and they will come.

Consider also the fact many new and trendy eating establishments have opened their doors downtown to join long-standing stalwarts such as The Sunset, Blue Mermaid and Wellington Court.  A check on the St. Catharines Downtown Association website reveals over 70 eateries of various types are open and ready to serve you downtown throughout the year, ranging from simple to simply elegant and beyond.

Would they all be here if we hadn't invested in our downtown?  Don't be silly.

They can only survive if people come downtown to patronize them, and even with the reconstruction of St. Paul Street outside the PAC over the past year, those business in the immediate vicinity managed to weather the storm and apparently keep their loyal clientele.  In short, they are developing staying power in our downtown.  Imagine that!

There was a time you would drive along St. Paul Street and just not stop at all unless you hit a stoplight.  One-way traffic has a way of promoting that.  But with two-way traffic now the norm in much of the downtown and plenty of reasons to stop and get out of your vehicle, we are becoming a destination once again.

True, the days of walking downtown shoulder-to-shoulder with like-minded souls to shop at Coy Bros., Levitt's or even Wally Wemnants may be gone, but look what has replaced them:  nice boutique shops, great eating places, and events on a regular basis you actually want to attend.  Add in the essential services any downtown worthy of the name should provide and you can see things are indeed looking up for our city core.

We are not done yet, and I am sure our learned politicians at City Hall are very well aware of that fact.  They still have work to do on bringing a long-awaited Civic Square to the core (check out examples in downtown Guelph and Stratford for inspiration, ladies and gentlemen of Council) and completing the transformation of one-way to two-way traffic on some of the remaining streets among other things on their to-do list.

But considering where we were say 20 years ago when everyone got excited about a proposal to recreate the old Welland Canal where the lower-level lot was to where we are now, I think most would agree the investments in our downtown are finally paying off.

Want more proof?  I hosted friends in town during the annual Niagara Wine Festival who moved away several years ago and they were awe-struck at the transformation here.  Sometimes it takes the eyes of someone who had not been here a long while to see what we cannot see ourselves.

Hey, we're a happening place at the moment, and the likes of Sir Elton and his ilk are not alone in noticing the fact.  If I can borrow a favourite phrase from my esteemed colleague Doug Herod here, we're a groovy kinda place again.

Feels kinda nice, doesn't it?

Enjoy your weekend!

November 18th, 2017.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Lest we forget...

Today is the day we remember and honour those who served so bravely during wartime, defending the freedoms we enjoy to this day, yet seemingly take for granted at times.  That is why Remembrance Day is so very important; we are reminded of the freedom we enjoy and have a wonderful opportunity to say thanks to service men, women and animals who went before us, as well as those who still walk amongst us today.

So it was on this sunny but cold day I joined what seemed like hundreds of others at the Cenotaph at Memorial Park on St. Paul Street West to mark the 11th hour of the 11th month when peace was achieved so many years ago.  I was heartened by the number of people who attended and especially so the number of young people who were there.  Some may worry the importance of the day will eventually be lost on the younger generation; from what I see each year at the services we should have nothing to worry about.  They seem to know how important this day is, too, and for that we can all be grateful.

So too those who seemingly are too busy the rest of the year to notice the proliferation of poppies for sale around the city; they also seem to grasp the importance of the day and pause to reflect at 11 am.  It is a small sacrifice to make for those who sacrificed so much for us years ago.

I always become reflective on this day, thinking of my father who was stationed in England during the Second World War, serving in the navy.  When he passed away years ago and I was going through his belongings I finally found his discharge papers.  It was the first I had known of his service beyond the little he said when he was alive.  He, like so many others, chose not to talk in great detail about the whole affair, as clearly it was too painful to do so for many.

I also thought today in musical terms about Remembrance Day.  I just finished listening to a treasured CD reissue from earlier this year of Dame Vera Lynn's classic 1961 MGM re-recordings of her popular songs, lavishly arranged for orchestra by Geoff Love.  The CD, entitled Yours:  The MGM Years, is on Sepia Records and readily available through my website at www.finemusic.ca or email me directly at music@vaxxine.com.

The world of classical music did not escape the ravages of war over the years either.  French composer Maurice Ravel famously spent time during the First World War driving an ambulance, for example.  And another composer died in France during the conflict, cutting short a promising career as a brilliant composer.

George Butterworth was born in London, England in July of 1885 and in his early years as a composer became close friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams, even helping to reconstruct the elder composer's full score to A London Symphony from assembled orchestral parts.  Butterworth also wrote the program notes for the work's premiere in 1914, and Vaughan Williams later dedicated his work to Butterworth's memory.

It was during the First World War that George Butterworth found a sense of purpose found lacking in his life up until that point, quickly rising to the rank of lieutenant in the Duke of Cornwall's Durham Light Infantry.  He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for his defence of a strategically important trench network; the network was later named after him.  Despite his heroics on the battlefield he was killed at Pozieres, France in August of 1916 while leading a raid during the Battle of the Somme.

These are but two examples of the world of the arts clashing and ultimately intermingling with the grim reality of the real world during wartime.  Many more stories are out there waiting to be discovered.

In short, let us never forget the bravery and valour of those who defended our country and our allies in time of war.  Even today so many years later, we owe them all a huge debt of gratitude, payable with our solemn promise to not repeat the errors of the past.  On this day and every day throughout the year, we remember them and owe them so very much.

Lest we forget...

Take care and have a peaceful weekend.

November 11th, 2017.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

November in the Arts in Niagara

Now that cooler, grey November days are upon us, many choose to start hibernating for the season and ignore the great outdoors.  If you number yourself amongst that crowd, take heart, as better days are to come.

But until then, you can always venture out to catch some great music and theatre right in your own backyard, so let's take a look at a few of the events coming up in the next week that might pique your interest.

Starting right now, in fact...

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra is celebrating their 70th anniversary season this year and the festivities are well underway with several concerts already in the books.  This weekend in fact, the NSO is presenting their Masterworks 2 concert, subtitled Wish List.  The first performance was last evening at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines; the second will be this afternoon at 2:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall at the PAC.

Principal Guest Conductor Aisslinn Nosky, until last year a member of the famed Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in Toronto, returns to the podium with violin at the ready to perform and conduct the ever-popular Vivaldi Four Seasons.  Also on the programme is the equally popular Symphony No. 7 by Beethoven, long one of my favourite Beethoven symphonies.  I was listening to a classic recording just a few days ago conducted by the venerable Sir Thomas Beecham and the rousing finale still stirs my senses after many listenings.

Sure, the forces onstage at the PAC will be a little more modest than the Big Band Beecham recordings from the 50s, but the performance will certainly be worth catching if you can.  I say if you can as the performance this afternoon is officially sold out, so at this point I would suggest staking out the box office closer to the performance time to try and snag a ticket or two that might go unclaimed.  Hey, it happens...

Speaking of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, they have another busy week of their own on tap, beginning at 4 this afternoon when Cree storyteller, playwright, novelist, pianist and Order of Canada recipient Tomson Highway presents his Words and Music in collaboration with The Festival of Readers.  This is all part of the current Celebration of Nations season at the PAC.  The performance takes place in Partridge Hall.

Meantime, Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot makes a rare local appearance this Wednesday evening at 8 in Partridge Hall, singing many of the classic songs that have made him justly famous and a worthy inductee into both the Canadian and American Songwriters Halls of Fame.

Thursday and Friday evenings at Robertson Hall award-winning journalist and broadcaster Alanna Mitchell will be presenting Sea Sick.  The evenings will feature Mitchell discussing her 13 journeys to the bottom of the ocean in only three years.  Initially afraid of water when she started, she is now more concerned about the future of the ocean and will outline her concerns during the presentations each evening at 8 pm.

For more information and tickets to these and other PAC presentations, go to www.FirstOntarioPAC.ca or call the box office at 905-688-0722.

Still with the PAC, the weekly RBC Foundation Music@Noon recitals continue Tuesdays at noon in the Cairns Recital Hall, and they are absolutely free to attend.  Comprised primarily of performances by faculty and students at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts next door, the recitals usually run about 45 minutes or so in length, so you can easily catch one over your lunch hour if you so choose.

This Tuesday, the Momentum Choir will be performing, conducted by Mendelt Hoekstra.

The popular Encore! Professional Concert Series presented by the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts returns to Partridge Hall Friday evening at 7:30 with a performance by The Walker Quartet with faculty pianist Karin Di Bella.  The Walker Quartet is now into its second season as the Department of Music's resident quartet, and together with Di Bella they will perform both the Schumann and Shostakovich quintets.

In the Cairns Recital Hall this Saturday evening at 7:30, Guitar Extravaganza III takes place.  This will be Remembrance Day, don't forget.  The Guitar Extravaganza concerts have quickly become well-attended crowd-pleasers since the PAC opened in the fall of 2015 and this year's edition promises to be just as popular.  If you like guitar music, this will be the place to be.

Tickets can be ordered through the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office by calling 905-688-0722 or by going online to www.FirstOntarioPAC.ca.

Finally, a week today the first concert of the new season for Gallery Players of Niagara takes place Sunday afternoon at 2 at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines.  The concert, entitled Concertos Inc., features several of the Gallery Players musicians in revolving solo roles, performing works by J.S. Bach, Giuliani, Quantz and James Rolfe.  Soloists include guitarist Timothy Phelan; Douglas Miller on flute; Julie Baumgartel, Anita Walsh and Rona Goldensher on violins; oboist James Mason; vocalist Laura Pudwell; Judith Davenport on viola and cellist Margaret Gay.

Gallery Players are based in Niagara-on-the-Lake but perform throughout the Region, and this new season promises to be their most ambitious yet.  To order tickets to the concert or better still the entire season, go to www.galleryplayers.ca or call 905-468-1525.

So that should be more than enough to keep you occupied in the week ahead.

Have a great weekend!

November 5th, 2017.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Revisiting Stratford to see what's new and not-so-new this season

My far better half and I don't get to Stratford, Ontario as regularly as we once did, although we did manage two weekend getaways this year.  I wrote of the most recent visit two weeks ago when I reviewed the Stratford Festival's wonderful production of Guys and Dolls, which closes at the Festival Theatre November 5th.

But I promised at the time to write further about the changes we've seen this season and are on the horizon for the city, and there are several.

Perhaps it is the fact I don't get to Stratford as much as I used to when I regularly reviewed productions over the entire season - a perk I enjoyed in my previous career for about 32 years - but visiting the city now becomes more of an event anticipated by us both than it used to.  Visiting Stratford now has become, well, more special due to the increased infrequency of our visits.  And I say that with much reluctance as we both love immersing ourselves in the culture, dining and shopping experiences in abundance in the city.

We stay at the same B&B each year, Dusk to Dawn on Brunswick Street, which is perfectly situated to walk easily to all four theatres.  Hosts David and Tessa make you feel like royalty and the breakfast is exceptional.  Chrissy the dog, though not allowed in guest quarters, greets guests at the door upon arrival and is a treat.

My wife, who is vegan, is very particular where we eat while away, and now has three exceptional restaurants catering to her particular tastes without sacrificing mine.  There are others, of course, but the three she loves to visit are Stratford Thai Cuisine on Wellington Street in the heart of the city, and Fellini's and Mercer Beer Hall & Inn, both on Ontario Streets.  Though not entirely vegan, they have a wide variety of choices that can be easily adapted to a vegan lifestyle or are dedicated to it already.

For shopping, there is rarely time enough in the schedule to allow for enough browsing at Bradshaw's and Watson's Bazaar on Ontario Street, and several smaller shops in the city centre.  Watson's, incidentally, is still home to one resident cat, down from about three or four a few years ago, and I always come packed with kitty treats when I visit the store.

So those are the constants from year to year, more or less.  Each new season brings change, and this one is no different.  Let's look at a few of those now, as some will impact your next visit if you plan to go to Stratford in the future.

The first thing we noticed when strolling the city centre this past August was the reconfiguration of the venerable Market Square adjacent to City Hall.  For years the home of downtown angle parking and the city bus terminal, it was always a busy place.  Add in Ken's French Fries truck on the corner and the spot was usually teeming with people all day long.

Now the parking has been reduced and the centre section has been reconfigured to accommodate a true city square for public gatherings such as the Sunday Slow Food Market.  I like the look, especially when we visited in the summer when a giant bell collection was on display for use during the Stratford Summer Music performances in the space.

Not sure where Ken's French Fries has relocated to, but the bus terminal is now located outside the city core entirely, which is not too popular with the locals, I hear.

I am sure many have also grumbled about the lost parking spaces but really, there is still plenty of parking on most days in the city core, all of it unbelievably well-priced compared to other cities we have visited.  The Civic Square concept is one that is catching on in many cities and I hope soon it will take root again here in St. Catharines.

In the summer I also read with great interest the plans for the proposed Grand Trunk Community Hub.  Located at the Cooper site within the city, I am assuming the space would provide a larger and better-equipped community space available for use year-round.  Yet there is currently a lot of lobbying going on by local arts and cultural organizations for the inclusion of a dedicated Arts and Culture Centre within the hub, able to accommodate performances and events planned by the nearly 30 arts and cultural groups within the city.

Those groups, including Stratford Summer Music, Stratford Symphony Orchestra, Perth County Players, the Kiwanis Music Festival and a host of others, have formed collectively under the banner of the Stratford Arts & Culture Collective.  Co-chairs Ron Dodson and Chris Leberg say they are trying to create a more liveable city incorporating the arts and culture community to a greater degree.

Ideally, they would like to see the space include a new art gallery and perhaps even a 600-seat theatre space all members of the collective could make use of.  Sound familiar?  For years here in St. Catharines our local arts and culture groups lobbied hard for a dedicated space downtown and look what happened:  with forward-thinking city council members and the heft of all levels of government providing seed money, we now have both the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University and the adjacent FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

From humble beginnings great things can happen.  Not overnight but certainly over time, so I applaud members of SACC for pushing the envelope in Stratford and I wish you luck in the future.  Good things will happen when you present a clear vision and dedicate yourselves to seeing it through.

For more information on the SACC and the group's proposed Stratford Arts and Culture Centre, visit their website at www.stratfordacc.com.

Finally, we cannot talk about events in Stratford without discussing the big news this year, the proposed replacement for the aging Tom Patterson Theatre.  The current theatre space, rented by the Stratford Festival from the city annually for over 40 years now, is well past its best-before date.  It includes the Kiwanis Community Centre and adjacent Stratford Lawn Bowling Club.

The Festival has secured a promise of $20-million in provincial government funding for the new theatre, and just this week announced Board Chair Dan Bernstein and his wife Claire Foerster are supporting the initiative with a whopping $10-million pledge.  Bernstein is Senior Strategist and Director of Bridgewater Associates in Westport, Connecticut, where they live.

Still, the Festival will have to launch a $100-million campaign to provide the capital for the new theatre and to establish a fund for future operations.  So if things go ahead as planned, expect to hear plenty about the fundraising initiative in the future.

The proposed new theatre will be designed by acclaimed Canadian architect Siamak Hariri and, according to a press release issued by the Festival, "envisions a theatre of warm stone wrapped in a glass curtain that both reflects and reveals the picturesque Avon River, which the theatre overlooks."  Warm stone?  Most of the stone I have encountered in my time is pretty cold, but hey, who am I to throw a damper on the fundraising party?

If the plan goes ahead, and it is still a big IF at this point, the old theatre would be torn down this winter and work would start immediately on the new venue, I'm told.  It would not be ready for next season, of course, to the new season would be scaled back just a bit to accommodate the reduced theatre space available.

Predictably, community groups are divided on the proposed new theatre, although most acknowledge the old one is due for replacement.  But many want to relocate the new theatre to a new space and leave the current community space for the community to use.  That would still necessitate considerable upkeep on the old structure and there have been no promises as to how that would be paid for, from what I can see.

The only logical choice is to build on the current spot and I am sure that is what will happen, but it would be nice to include a green space within the plan for the Stratford Lawn Bowling Club rather than move them out after all these years.

At two public meetings held at the Rotary Complex recently, it was learned the Festival could potentially purchase the land from the city rather than continue to rent.  That would save the Festival about $80-thousand a year in rental fees alone.  But there are still considerable costs to be incurred going forward on the project, so it is by no means a done deal yet, as I understand it.

Hey, the only constant is change.  I spent many an intermission in the summer months watching the lawn bowlers next door do their thing, and years earlier at the downtown Avon Theatre I recall going next door to Pounder Brothers Hardware for a browse during intermission at that theatre.  That changed and people survived, so hopefully the changes at the Patterson Theatre will result in positive change and few hurt feelings as well.

So, lots happening in Stratford this season.  I think I'll have to get back more often to keep up on what's happening in the future.  It could be an interesting off season to be sure.

Have a great weekend!

October 28th, 2017.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Stratford Festival's Guys & Dolls a hit!

Since I no longer work full time in the radio industry, I no longer have the privilege of attending and reviewing live theatre events on an ongoing basis as I did in the past, so nowadays it is a hit and miss proposition for me.  But when I do attend I feel the need to wear my reviewer's hat as in days of old and give my take on a particular theatre or music event.

Such was the case last weekend as my far better half and I travelled to Stratford for an overnight stay at our favourite B&B and catch a couple of rush seats for the big musical this season, Guys and Dolls.

First off, let me say rush seats are not what they used to be.  I know we are supporting the arts and all that, but there didn't appear to be much of a rush for rush seats for the Sunday afternoon performance, from what I could see.  Even at that, the theatre was just over 65 per cent full at showtime, from my best guess.

It is interesting to note we attended both festivals this past month, the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, each time catching their big musical for the season.  Maybe it is just me, but with the acrimonious atmosphere we appear to be living in today as far as the world is concerned, something light and escapist seemed to fit the bill just fine, thanks.

While I don't mean to pit both major festivals against each other here, it is hard not to draw comparisons between the two big musicals being offered this season.  While the Shaw Festival revived a nicely updated version of a 1937 musical poking fun at the British aristocracy, the Stratford Festival decided to bank on a tried-and-true Broadway classic by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls, harkening back to the 1940s when New York City was a hotbed of gamblers, gangsters and particularly unsavoury characters.

Described as a "musical fable of Broadway", Guys and Dolls dates from 1950 and is based on a story and colourful characters dreamed up by the one and only Damon Runyon.  Music and lyrics are by Frank Loesser with a book by Jo Sterling and Abe Burrows.

The story is well-known by now:  a bunch of gangers and gamblers are trying to stay one step ahead of the law as they try to find new and creative places to hold their all-night crap games, wagering whatever and whenever they can.  Into this less-than-ideal atmosphere march the local unit of the Salvation Army, trying to save souls from the evils of gambling and such.

The Sally Ann brigade is led by a winsome young lady named Sarah Brown, played with great charm here by Alexis Gordon.  Somewhat naive and of good moral character, she cannot see the forest for the trees at times as she and her band of dedicated soul-savers work tirelessly on a thankless task.

Sarah meets up with the sorry lot of gamblers and finds herself strangely attracted to Sky Masterson, one of the gambling kingpins who wagers a bet he can whisk her off to Cuba for a quick dinner getaway.  She accepts and gets more than she bargains for when the drinks take effect.  So, too does Sky, played nicely by Evan Buliung, who falls hard for Sarah and starts thinking maybe it's time to turn over a new leaf.

Into this mix of good and not-so-good characters add Sean Arbuckle's convincing take on Nathan Detroit and his long suffering girlfriend cum fiancee Miss Adelaide, played with great style and sexiness by Blythe Wilson.  Nathan gets roped into marrying showgirl Miss Adelaide after stalling for fourteen long years in order to help secure a gambling spot for the guys.

Supporting cast members that stand out are numerous in this first-rate cast, including Steve Ross' snack-eating Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Mark Uhre's ultra athletic Benny Southstreet.

But as good as this cast is, and they are collectively very, very good, the real star of the show is director and choreographer Donna Feore, who just seems to go from strength to strength at Stratford, proving to be the director/choreographer of choice now for the ultra-important big-scale musical on the Festival Theatre's thrust stage.

Her work here is simply breathtaking, with many moments when you sit watching the cast and wonder just how they do what they do without colliding on stage.  She's that good.  Feore has the cast to back up her ambitious steps, of course, but her vision is what drives this show from start to finish.

Sure, the storyline is somewhat dated to be sure, and gender equality is not really part of the mix here.  But you check your logic at the door here as you do with Shaw's slick Me and My Girl and just enjoy the show.  There simply is no better way to spend a fall afternoon at either festival than to catch either musical before they close.

The run for Guys and Dolls has been extended to November 5th as have several other shows at Stratford this season, so you still have plenty of time to see the show before it closes.  For this fan of great musicals, Guys and Dolls rates a solid 3 out of 4 stars.

For tickets and more information, call the box office or go to www.stratfordfestival.ca.

Next week, more on our trips to Stratford this season and things to see outside of the theatre at any season.

Have a great weekend!

October 14th, 2017.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Remembering Thanksgivings past & present...

It's been a little while since I was regularly posting in this space again, and for that I apologize.  Busy work schedule with very early mornings lately have meant little or no brain power left when I finally sit down to write.  But a holiday weekend seems the perfect time to revisit some thoughts I have had lately while working around the house.

I'll dispense with the arts reporting for this weekend since Thanksgiving weekend is here, and many of us find ourselves in a somewhat more reflective mood than usual.  The crisp fall days and cooler nights tend to do that as we realize the winter is not that far off.

After living in our present home for about 16 years now, we've accumulated a lot of stuff.  Much of it, as many others discover too, they can certainly do without.  So I have been spending a lot of time in the basement lately sorting through boxes and seeing what we can discard and what we should keep.  It is a tedious process as anyone who has done the same can attest to.

Much of the stuff I've sorted through lately has been related to my late parents, as many of their personal things ended up in our basement since I'm the only family member living in Niagara with them.  That means wading through boxes and boxes of photographs of all of us growing up, none of them ever digitized.  That will be a tedious project I might leave for retirement, if I get to it even then!

My Dad was an amateur photographer of some renown, having won more than a few awards over the years including one in a Toronto Star photo contest back in the 80s for a picture he took of two cats on a roof in England many years ago.  That framed photograph will soon have a place of honour in my home office.

You can imagine the number of photo albums I have to go through after a life lived behind the camera lens, shooting pictures of the family on vacation for many years as well as photographic evidence of their many retirement trips.  How many?  Well, they drove not once, not twice, but FIVE times to Alaska for example, taking breathtaking pictures along the way.  In fact, the only state, province or territory they did not visit during their lives was, uh, New Jersey.  Could never quite figure that one out...

When Mom passed away in 2000, Dad kept going, albeit at a slower pace.  He also travelled further afield, since Mom was not too fond of airplanes.  So Dad in his final years joined travel groups going to such far-flung places as China and Iceland.  His camera was never not around his neck.

Dad never got into digital photography, preferring instead traditional black & white shots since he was largely colour-blind.  He had to rely on Mom's expertise when developing colour photographs so he could get the shadings just right.  Yes, Dad developed his pictures himself.  Years ago while growing up in Toronto, if you could not find Dad he was usually holed up in his downstairs darkroom developing photographs of the family trips we had taken.

At the time of his death in 2009 Dad still had about five 35mm cameras of various quality, all of them well-used.  When I was clearing out his things after he died I discovered there was still a half-used role of film in one of the cameras and I was curious to see what final thoughts he had in his final months.  Were there more stunning nature shots to marvel at?  I took the camera to my local Black's camera store to see what could be done.

I was given instructions on how to extricate the film from the camera without exposing it to the daylight and upon doing so, took the film in to Black's for developing.  I waited to see what would come back.  Sadly, they were all mundane shots even I could have taken, such as cars parked in the Pen Centre parking lot, for example.

I guess even Dad had run out of inspiration for his photographic art by the end of his life.  I was crushed.  But still, these were his final pictures, so they will always have a special place in the archives.

All of which brings us to this reflective time of year, Thanksgiving weekend.  Traditionally we gathered as a family to celebrate not only Thanksgiving but Dad's birthday that landed on the 10th of October and Mom & Dad's wedding anniversary, which was October 15th.  Dad would be turning 93 this year had he lived; if both Mom and Dad were alive they would be celebrating their 68th wedding anniversary.

It's a funny thing, but I find I miss them more as the years go by rather than less.  With each passing Thanksgiving I wish we could still be together celebrating as in the past, knowing it simply isn't possible.  But this weekend neither of them will be far from my thoughts as this weekend continues.

Meantime in the basement, I took great care with the wedding album still in good shape after all these years, admiring how young they looked back in 1949.  Oh Dad, you were a handsome devil back then!  Mom looked stunning.  I stopped momentarily and my heart jumped when I realized buried in a box were the credit cards Dad still had when he died.  I thought I had destroyed them years ago, although I know I cancelled them right away.  But these were physical evidence of a life well lived, there in my hands at that very moment.  I came close to shedding a tear, as it really never gets any easier to do this.

Growing up I remember Mom doing the ironing while dampening the clothes with a vintage Coke bottle with a sprinkler head attached to it.  She would vigorously shake the water out before ironing the section to perfection.  I found that very bottle in one of the boxes and I almost lost it.  God, this was getting painful...

I was both fascinated and intrigued when I found Dad's war records, as he never really discussed that part of his life much, and I noted the date of his discharge and the day of his passing were identical, separated by over half a century.  Yes, I sniffled while discovering the fact.

So at the end of this rambling reminiscence I just wanted to take a moment and remind you to cherish what you have and those around you who matter most.  It is not wise to carry grudges for years at a stretch, and if you have any this is as good a time as ever to resolve the outstanding issues and get on with living your lives.

We are all put on this earth for a purpose and for only a finite period of time.  Why waste it on anger and acrimony?  You never, ever want to regret not telling someone you love how you feel until after they are gone.  Do it now.  This weekend is ideal.

Have a great Thanksgiving weekend.  Celebrate however and with whomever you see fit.  But be thankful.  We have much to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

October 7th, 2017.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Shaw Festival production of Me & My Girl well worth the wait

It seems unusual to be writing about a Shaw Festival show this late in the season, but for unforeseen reasons this past weekend was the first opportunity to attend a Shaw performance this year.  I am happy to report the wait was well worth it!

Although the so-called 'flagship musical' Me And My Girl opened in late May, seeing it this late in the season actually has some advantages:  firstly, the show runs like a finely tuned Maserati.  Nothing goes wrong and not a single bad note to be found anywhere.  Secondly, there was not an empty seat to be found in the house at the large Festival Theatre at last Sunday's matinee.  That cannot always be said early in the season as shows are staking out their territory for audience's affections.

Me And My Girl is a 1937 musical all the rage in pre-wartime England that faded from the spotlight somewhat until Stephen Fry revised the book for a 1985 revival of the show, updating things quite nicely.  The original book and lyrics were by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, with music by Noel Gay, a popular composer of the light-music genre back in the day.

Oh sure, some of the gag lines are just as bad as they were in 1937 - you can't change tradition too much, you know - but other than that, this is a vintage musical wearing a snappy new suit and freshly shined shoes.  And wearing a hat, as in the Act II opening number "The Sun Has Got His Hat On."

That's one of the popular songs not in the original show, and the production makes the most of the moment with comic star Kyle Blair as Gerald Bolingbroke leading the ensemble in full cricket gear to kick off the second half.

Two other popular numbers added also make you wonder why they were not in the show from the very beginning:  Noel Gay's ever-popular The Lambeth Walk closing out Act One and the sentimental ballad Leaning On a Lamp Post, sung by star Michael Therriault as cockney bumpkin Bill.

What's that, you say?  Michael Therriault from the Stratford Festival?  Yes it is, and without a doubt Michael was the first big "get" for new Shaw Festival Artistic Director Timothy Carroll.  We met up with Michael at one of the Foster Festival performances at the PAC this summer and he genuinely seemed to be happy to be down in Niagara for a change this year.

Therriault is both charming and exceedingly funny as the cockney Bill, a long-lost son of a wealthy British lord who is set to assume duties as the head of the Hereford Estate, providing he meets with the approval of executors of the estate, played with great hilarity by Shaw stalwarts Sharry Flett and Ric Reid.

There is little more to the thin plot here:  just enter the obligatory cockney girl-friend of Bill played with great charm and warmth by Kristi Frank who threatens to throw an ill-timed wrench into the proceedings by wanting to marry her man no matter what.  But alas, they might be able to smooth over one cockney to fill a need; Bill is told he will have to marry 'up' in order to keep up appearances.

Enter complication number two:  Elodie Gillett as the gold-digging Lady Jacqueline Carstone who has her eye on the prize and wants Bill, warts and all, for herself.

That's about all you need to know about the story here.  Basically it's boy has girl, boy risks losing girl as he moves up in the world, boy struggles to keep said girl while all around him work against him, boy finally winds up with a new and improved version of his girl after all.  What more do you need to know?

Sure it is well-trodden ground here, but hey, you are not expecting Saint Joan when you enter the theatre this time and as such, it would be hard to find fault with this show.

Indeed, the last two seasons have seen the big musical not hit the bullseye when it comes to ticket sales, so perhaps playing it safe this time around was as much a sound financial decision as an artistic one.  Carroll and Company need not worry though.  The full house on Sunday is proof they scored a winner with this show and that gives them some breathing room for next season.

The other notes on the show involve the exceptional work of Ashlie Corcoran, making her directorial debut at Shaw with this show, and the tasteful yet evocative sets and costumes designed by Drew Facey and Sue LePage, respectfully.

There was a sad note during the run, as the Festival had to announce the untimely passing of ensemble member Jonah McIntosh not long after the opening.  He was replaced by Stewart Adam McKensy who stepped into the role on short notice and never looked back.

You won't leave the theatre with any more answers to life's questions than when you entered.  But you will leave with the melody of The Lambeth Walk dancing in your head for days to come, and that is not a bad thing, really.

Me And My Girl rates a strong 4 out of 4 stars, and continues at the Festival Theatre until October 15th.  For tickets, call the Shaw box office or go to www.shawfest.com to order yours.

Have a great week!

September 27th, 2017.