Friday, August 11, 2017

Foster Festival finale a fun, fitting way to end Season Two

So Wednesday afternoon of this week my far better half and I took shelter from the heat and the sun at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre as we caught the third and final Norm Foster play in the festival that bears his name.  The play, Lunenburg, is a world premiere and well worth your time before it closes next week.

Norm as you probably know is arguably Canada's most successful playwright ever, having produced oh, about 150 plays or so since the whole thing started with The Melville Boys back in 1984.  But until last year there was not a festival devoted to his creative genius.

That all changed when Emily Oriold, Executive Director and Patricia Vanstone, Artistic Director, decided the brand-spanking new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines would be the perfect venue for the new venture.  They approached Norm Foster and he agreed, no doubt feeling humbled at the prospect of a festival devoted to his works.

It's true what they say that "All good things come to those who wait" as those who have waited for just such a festival are being rewarded with some exceptional theatre for their summertime pleasure.

There were two world premieres this season, the first opening the second season back in June.  Screwball Comedy was a hit out of the gate, although I wrote at the time I didn't really think it was his best work.  Following a presentation of an older Foster play, Old Love in July, the second world premiere opened last week and it is vintage Norm Foster.  Like a rose wine with a fresh bouquet...

Okay maybe that's a bit much but hey, I was in a good mood after the performance this week.  And with good reason.

Lunenburg is set, of course, in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and offers up a tale of love both old and new, betrayal, mystery and of course, plenty of comedy.  It involves two American visitors, Natalie and Iris, with Yankee drawl in full flight, coming to visit the Maritime home of Iris's late husband.

Iris is in mourning, of course, at the loss of her husband of four years but nothing could prepare her for what she discovers upon her arrival.  Thanks to talkative next-door neighbour Charlie Butler, Iris discovers she has been "the other woman" in a relationship that saw her late husband sharing his bed and life with not one but two wives.

The fact he would spend half the month with Iris and the other half of the month outside the country in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia never seemed to bother her; she just assumed he had business dealings outside the country every month.  Oh he had business all right...but let's not let get too far ahead of the story here...

You see, Iris's dear, departed husband was in fact leading a double life.  The news courtesy of neighbour Charlie leaves Iris thunderstruck.

While all that is going on, things start 'going on' between Iris' friend Natalie and neighbour Charlie.  A recurring gag sees them in a passionate embrace just as poor old Iris happens on the scene trying to deal with her situation.  Darned if you can't fall in love while trying to help your best friend through an emotional crisis.

There are but three roles in this play, and all three characters are created for the first time by the exceptional cast assembled by director Vanstone.  Melanie Janzen, returning after a great debut last season in Here Along the Flight Path, plays supportive friend Natalie Whitaker.  The dumbstruck wife is played by Shaw Festival alumnus Catherine McGregor, while another Shaw stalwart Peter Krantz appears as the neighbour Charlie Butler.

Janzen is the madcap sidekick everyone loves to watch.  Following in the footsteps of such great television second bananas as Valerie Harper and Vivian Vance, Janzen has impeccable comic timing and knows just when to stop before going too far.  In every respect she is a joy to watch.

As the wife Iris, Catherine McGregor is both funny and sad, dealing with such tremendous loss and with shock at the revelations awaiting her arrival.  Although the central character in the play, McGregor wisely allows the two budding lovers to steal the spotlight more than once and run with it. She needs the support, sure, but isn't insecure enough to remain on her own during the day while the two 'lovebirds' go sight-seeing together.

The real pleasure in this production is seeing Shaw veteran Peter Krantz create the role of Charlie.  He has an innocent streak in him, but deep down inside all he really wants is another chance to "charm the ass off" a woman.  He darn near succeeds in that regard early on, but we are left hanging until the end to see if the charm wears off or not.

I have lamented in the past Krantz interpretations of characters at Shaw, but here he seems much more at ease in the role.  He spoke with my esteemed colleague John Law recently and explained it was a new experience for him to create a new role rather than offer up his interpretation of a role many before him have already made their mark on.

He hits the perfect balance here, so Peter has nothing to worry about.  He is both charming and a little devilish at the same time as Charlie.  No wonder Natalie is swept off her feet!

Lunenburg is far and away the strongest play of the season and a great way to end the season, too.  It sets the scene for an even better Foster Festival next year, when once again there will be two world premieres.

You still have time to catch Lunenburg.  It plays through this weekend as well as Wednesday through Friday of next week at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  For tickets and information, go to www.fosterfestival.com or call the box office at 905-688-0722.

The Foster Festival is now firmly entrenched in our summertime entertainment schedules.  If you have yet to determine if it should be included in yours, this production is the strongest argument in the affirmative yet.

Have a great weekend!

August 11th, 2017.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Irish star Mary Black coming to Midland, Ontario this coming Monday night

I can't say I have written much in this space about Midland, Ontario, although I do have a connection to the city.  Back in the 60s I remember going to visit relatives who lived in Midland at the time; I can't remember just where in the city they were, but I still vividly remember a rainy day we all gathered at the house for a family affair and my aunt fell going down the steps when leaving and broke her hip.  She ended up going to the hospital in an ambulance that day, which I will never forget.

Okay, not the greatest memory to have of Midland, I admit, and as such I am probably due for a return visit if for no other reason than to come and go without the aid of an ambulance in either direction.  But it won't be this weekend as plans have already been made, unfortunately.

But if you still have time on your hands and feel the urge to hit the open road for a trip up north, Midland is as good a place as any to visit this weekend, or any other weekend for that matter.  Besides, celebrating all we have to enjoy in Ontario during the country's 150th anniversary celebrations is not such a bad idea, is it?

This Monday evening, being the holiday Monday or Simcoe Day if you want to be more formal about it, Irish singing star Mary Black makes her only Canadian appearance on her final North American tour.  The concert will be at the Midland Cultural Centre beginning at 8 pm.

Mary Black has tried to retire from touring before, but the offers to continue performing keep coming in, so what's an established working musical legend to do?  Keep going, at least for a little while longer.  The tour coincides with the 30th anniversary re-issue of the album By The Time It Gets Dark in 1987.

Black herself says it is hard to believe it has been 30 years since that album was first released, especially since it always was one of her favourites.  To celebrate the anniversary Black and her producers took the old 24-track tapes to be "baked", a process to preserve them, which allowed the team to then do a complete remix and remaster of the original album.

The original release of that album along with her first solo album, the largely pop-oriented Without the Fanfare resulted in Black being named Best Female Artist in the Irish Rock Music Awards Poll for two consecutive years in 1987 and '88.

It was a scant two years later her groundbreaking album No Frontiers took the international music scene by storm, establishing Black as a major concert draw in North America as well as elsewhere in the world.  The recording climbed to the Top 20 of the New Adult Contemporary chart in the United States and also became a top seller back home in Ireland.  In all Black has recorded and released 11 studio albums, the last being back in 2012.

Prior to releasing her self-titled debut album in 1982, which made it to the Top Five on the Irish album charts and won the Irish Independent Arts Award for Music, Black spent many years performing with her brother and sister in nightclubs in and around Dublin.  She also spent time performing with a folk group named General Humbert.

So Mary Black is by no means an overnight sensation.  She has long since established herself as a top-calibre international artist equally at home singing traditional Irish folk tunes as well as more contemporary blues, rock, jazz and even country music.  And she will bring all of that and more to Midland's Cultural Centre this coming Monday evening.

Opening for Mary Black this Monday will be rising young artist Roisin O, one of Irelands more promising young up and coming artists.

The doors open at 7:30 and the show starts at 8; for tickets go to www.midlandculturalcentre.com or call 1-705-527-4420.

Have a great holiday weekend!

August 3rd, 2017.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Second Foster Festival production of the second season a winner

Last evening my far better half and I walked downtown to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre for the second production of year two for The Foster Festival, Norm Foster's Old Love.  Bookended by a couple of world premieres this season, the middle production did not disappoint.

Old Love is what you might call an "oldie but goodie" in the Foster canon, and an easy choice for almost any summer theatre company as it usually employs just two actors portraying a number of roles.  That being said, if you go with the two-actor option you had best be sure you have a formidable duo making up the cast or else the whole thing could fall flat.

Director Patricia Vanstone chose this riskier route rather than employ several actors to fill the roles, and without question it was a wise decision.  The theatrical high-wire act for this production utilizes the considerable talents of real-life husband-and-wife team of Booth Savage and Janet-Laine Green.

Savage and Green are comfortable enough with each other after all these years they can easily and fluidly move from role to role without much effort at all.  With few props to add to the characterizations, they bring many nuances to their various roles that add important definition to each part so as not to confuse the audience.

The simple yet effective set by Peter Hartwell and sympathetic lighting by David Tkach combine to further provide the fluid movement from character to character on stage.  Together the whole makes for a satisfying evening of quality theatre.

The story revolves around Bud, a hard-working newbie at a company owned by Molly's husband Frank.  At least he was a newbie 25 years ago when he first set eyes on Molly at the company Christmas party.  The impression Molly made on Bud was obviously significant because he thought of her off and on for many years thereafter, even during his lengthy marriage to master-promoter Kitty.

Fast-forward those 25 years and we find now-divorced Molly grieving at the graveside for ex-husband Frank, when who should also appear but Bud.  She didn't remember him, but oh did he remember her.  So much so he made a special effort to be there that day for the funeral and in his own clumsy way, try to put the move on Molly while Frank was barely cold in the box underground.

Therein lies the plot for Old Love.  Bud tries so very hard to get Molly to take a chance on love again after all these years and Molly not wanting any part of it, at least for now.  The witty repartee between the two is classic Norm Foster, combining the perfect balance of seriousness and frivolity according to the situation.

As mentioned earlier, it takes a special couple to pull off the multiple roles and with but a few verbal mis-steps by Green last evening, the chemistry between the two worked flawlessly.  They appear at times acerbic, sentimental, funny and even brutally honest with each other as the scene allows.

Old Love wraps up its run at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre tomorrow evening, so there is still time to snag some tickets if you have not already done so.  Go online to www.fosterfestival.com or call the box office at 905-688-0722.

Next week, the final production of the season opens, and it is the second world premiere for the season, Lunenburg, running from August 2nd to the 18th.  It should be a great way to end an already successful season for The Foster Festival.

Have a great weekend!

July 27th, 2017.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Tale of Two Music Festivals - Part 2

Last week I wrote about the start of the two music festivals in Ontario I have had the pleasure of attending over the years, and given the fact I have enjoyed both on the weekend, I thought a recap and update of each festival might be in order this week.

On Friday evening I attended the Opening Gala for Music Niagara at the acoustically lovely St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the concert title A Musical Kaleidoscope proved to be quite accurate.

The performance opened with a wonderfully creative reading of Vivaldi's ever-popular Four Seasons, although the lead instrument was not the violin in this case but rather the harp.  It brought an interesting bit of colour and renewed interest in this very familiar work, making it sound fresh all over again.  The harpist, Floraleda, commanded attention throughout the performance for her fine playing.

The world premiere of Composer-in-Residence Barbara Croall's Bimaawadaaso was next, and the piece was certainly intriguing.  Subtitled "They travel along in a group", the piece was scored for violin, the Anishinaabe cedar flute known as the pipigwan, the Syrian national instrument known as the bozoq, voice and string quartet.  The work featured two young Syrian performers who in fact were Syrian refugees who came to Canada just last year, Esmaeel Sharafadin and Rahaf Alakbani; they also performed a traditional Syrian folk song together prior to intermission.

The second half of the program was truly a stunner with a spirited performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in D minor, with the Canadian Chamber Academy Orchestra accompanying young violin soloist Emma Meinrenken.  Emma, all of 18 years of age, was a commanding stage presence in her own right, taking control of the youthful Mendelssohn concerto from the start.  A student of Artistic Director Atis Bankas, she is a graduate of the Music Niagara Performance Academy.

There is still lots of music left before the Music Niagara season wraps up August 13th with the Closing Gala at St. Mark's Church.  This weekend for example, Scotch Mary perform Friday evening at 6, part of the Market in The Village event, and on Saturday there is a wine and music event scheduled for Hare Wine Co. on Highway 55 starting at 11:30 in the morning.  The rest of the weekend will feature the Swiss Piano Trio Saturday evening at 7:30 at St. Mark's and Jeffrey Arthur and the Trio late Saturday evening at The Epicurean.  On Sunday, Two Row Dancers & Singers perform in Simcoe Park at 12 noon and a concert entitled Get Ready to Tuba (!) happens Sunday afternoon at 3 at St. Mark's.

For full concert season details and more information on tickets, go to www.musicniagara.org or call 905-468-2172.

Meantime up in Elora, the 38th season of the Elora Festival kicked off Friday night with an Opening Gala at the Gambrel Barn recreating the popular Last Night of the Proms from England with conductor Bramwell Tovey leading The Elora Singers, Elora Festival Orchestra and The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.  Since I was up at Music Niagara's Opening Gala I was not able to make it up to Elora for Friday evening, but we did make it on Sunday afternoon.

One thing about the Elora Festival, they don't waste any time or space when it comes to scheduling concerts over the two-week festival.  We attended the first concert of the day on Sunday at St. John's Church in the heart of town where Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin performed a 70-minute concert of mostly French and English songs, with some Spanish thrown in for good measure.

Gauvin is a spectacular vocalist and appears to be a very nice person, too.  She strikes me as the type of person you would love to invite over for a family dinner and have her regale you with stories of her varied musical career.  If there was a fault in the performance it was that it was simply too short.

But with scheduling being what it was, the space was needed for the next performance, the Britten Saint Nicholas Cantata scheduled for the same space at 4 pm.  Indeed, we were barely out of the church before musicians started coming in to prepare for the 4 pm performance.  In the evening young Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman performed at the Wellington County Museum Exhibit Hall.

Still to come, Emily D'Angelo will be heard in recital this evening at St. John's Church; tomorrow afternoon the Elora Festival Kids Camp is in full swing at 4 and a concert of Bach Magnificats is scheduled for the evening in the Gambrel Barn featuring The Elora Singers and the Trinity College Choir.  Saturday Mary-Lou Falls and Peter Tiefenbach pair up for Primadonna Choralis at St. John's Church at 1 pm; the Penderecki Quartet team up with the Dave Young Trio in the same space at 3:30 pm, and Canadian musical icon Gordon Lightfoot takes to the Gambrel Barn stage at 8 pm Saturday night.

On Sunday there are three concerts scheduled, the first of which we will be attending at 2 pm at Knox Church, featuring the Bach Brandenburg Concerto Nos. 1 & 5 and the Cantata No. 140.  Performers include The Elora Singers, the Elora Festival Orchestra and Artistic Director Noel Edison conducting.  At 4 pm the Trinity College Choir from England performs in the Gambrel Barn featuring works by Part, Byrd, Tallis and many others, and in the evening the Wellington County Museum Exhibit Hall will be hosting the Bach Goldberg Variations scored for String Trio, featuring the Berard-Janzen Trio at 7 pm.

More performances will follow before the Elora Festival wraps up on July 30th with something called a Hymn Tasting at 4 pm at St. John's Church.

For more information on the balance of the schedule or to order tickets, go to www.elorafestival.ca or call 1-519-846-0331.

Both festivals offer up a wealth of great musical entertainment to appeal to many musical tastes, and I can't think of a better way to spend a summer afternoon or evening in either town enjoying some great music-making.

Have a great weekend!

July 20th, 2017.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A tale of two Ontario music festivals

It's July and for many that means the summer music festival season is in full swing in Ontario.  We are lucky in these parts to have so many great music festivals to choose from, most less than a day's drive away for a quick summertime getaway.

Whether you choose Parry Sound, Ottawa, Hamilton or Stratford, for example, you are guaranteed some great classical and jazz music for several weeks at a stretch.  I have had the pleasure of visiting several of the summer music festivals in the province over the years, but two of my favourites are not far away and both start their music-making this very weekend.

Right in our own backyards, Music Niagara has quietly build a solid reputation as the go-to music destination in Niagara during July and August.  Based almost entirely in the old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Music Niagara hosts a five-week festival ranging from classical to choral, jazz to even some country from now to August 13th.

The Opening Gala concert tomorrow evening at St. Mark's Anglican Church is billed as a Musical Kaleidoscope, starting with an opening reception at 6:30 and the concert at 7:30 pm.  Among the artists performing tomorrow evening will be Music Niagara Performance Academy graduate violinist Emma Meinrenken and the Canadian Chamber Academy Orchestra performing the ever-popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor.  Also on the programme is the world premiere of Music Niagara's Composer-in-Residence Barbara Croall's new work for violin, pipigwan, bozoq, voice and string quartet, entitled "Bimaawadaaso".

The two unusual-sounding and perhaps unheard-of instruments in that performance are of course the pipigwan, an Anishinaabe cedar flute, and the bozoq, a Syrian national instrument.  Canadian newcomers Esmaeel Sharafadin is featured on the bozoq and Rahaf Alakbani is the featured vocalist.

Performances continue almost daily throughout the Festival with performances by artists as diverse as  The Thorold Reed Band, clarinet virtuoso James Campbell, the Gould String Quartet, contrabassist Joel Quarrington and pianist Andre Laplante, among others.

On Sunday, August 6th a special Confederation Celebration to mark our country's Sesquicentennial will feature music from the Founding Fathers along with Canada's own Healey Willan.  Performers are Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu.

The Closing Gala on August 13th also features an all-Canadian celebration with a concert entitled All Canadian Flavours featuring crowd favourites Quartetto Gelato.  The opening act will feature Quartetto Gelato accordionist Alexander Sebastian with the Gould String Quartet presenting the world premiere of a work by Canadian composer Dmitriy Varelas and his father Anatolyi Varelas entitled Taste of Freedom from String Quartet and Accordion.  The new world celebrates the 225th anniversary of the first Parliament of Upper Canada and first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, who helped to abolish slavery in Canada in 1793.

There is plenty more to enjoy as Artistic Director Atis Bankas pulls out all the stops to make Music Niagara's 19th season an extra-special affair to mark our country's 150th anniversary as a nation.  The quality of the music-making is top-notch and the programmes are as varied as you could possibly wish for.

Sound intriguing?  Find out more by going online to www.musicniagara.org or by phone at 905-468-2172.

Meantime a short drive away will take you to another lovely small Ontario town with a big musical profile for many years, Elora just north-west of Guelph.  The Elora Festival has been around exactly twice as long as Music Niagara at 38 years and all of those years have been programmed by Artistic Director Noel Edison.

I fell in love with Elora many years ago when I visited to attend a performance at the old Elora Mill Inn as part of the Guelph Spring Festival back in 1985.  The Guelph Spring Festival is now history, unfortunately but the town made quite an impression on me that has lasted all these years.

When my wife and I began attending Elora Festival events about a dozen years or so ago, the love affair with the town was rekindled yet again and grown so much we can't bear to not visit the town at least once each season if not more.

This year to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary since Confederaton, Noel has programmed a spectacular multimedia show by Hugh Brewster entitled With Glowing Hearts which will feature a host of special guest artists.   The performance will be on Saturday, July 29th at 7 pm in the Gambrel Barn.

But there is much to enjoy sooner than that as the Festival gets underway tomorrow night with the Opening Night Gala, Night of the Proms featuring The Elora Singers and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joining forces with full orchestra for an unforgettable night of British classics like Rule Britannia and Elgar's First Pomp & Circumstance March.  Bramwell Tovey of the Vancouver Symphony conducts the performance tomorrow night in the Gambrel Barn.

Other Festival highlights include a sold-out performance by Canada's most-acclaimed Bach interpreter since Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt on July 15th at 1 pm at St. John's Church.  I first met Angela when she won the International Bach Competition back in the 80s and I have followed her career ever since.

It was a nice bit of serendipity when, during the United States Presidential Election coverage last November I Tweeted I chose to listen to her grand recordings of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Books One & Two instead.  To my surprise she "Liked" my Tweet!  How's that for social media?!

Also featured this season is Canadian singer Susan Aglukark on July 15th in the Gambrel Barn at 7 pm; soprano Karina Gauvin at St. John's Church at 2 pm on July 16th, and the Trinity College Choir in Concert at the Gambrel Barn at 4 pm on July 23rd.  A real highlight for many will be a performance by Canada's iconic singer Gordon Lightfoot on July 22nd at the Gambrel Barn at 8 pm.

The Elora Festival runs only two weeks encompassing three weekends, but they always pack a lot of entertainment into the calendar.  There is literally something for everyone this year to celebrate the country's Sesquicentennial.  And the fact the town itself is supremely liveable and walkable is an added bonus.

For more on the Elora Festival this year, go online to www.elorafestival.ca or call 1-519-846-0331.

Have a great weekend and we'll see you at a Festival this month!

July 13th, 2017.

Friday, July 7, 2017

First show of the season at The Foster Festival closes tonight

Tonight is your last chance to catch the opening show of the second season of The Foster Festival in downtown St. Catharines, and if you have not already done so, you really should go.  My far better half and I did just that on Wednesday night, so I thought I would offer up a few thoughts on the production before it closes.

As you no doubt know by now, The Foster Festival celebrates Canada's greatest living playwright, Norm Foster, who rarely goes through a summer without several of his plays in production somewhere in Canada on the summer theatre circuit.  But until last season there was not an entire festival dedicated to his theatrical genius.

Festival co-founders Patricia Vanstone and Emily Oriold changed all that when they announced in June of 2015 they were starting The Foster Festival, set to launch last season at the brand new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  It was a gamble of course, hoping locals would come downtown on a summer afternoon or evening for a performance of a funny play and maybe spend a few bucks while down there on dinner before or after the show.

Last year got off to a bit of a slow start, I think, as people had to warm to the notion of not going to Niagara-on-the-Lake for their summer theatre fix, but at least the novelty of the brand spanking new theatre space would work in their favour during the first season.

This year, expectations are raised after the successful first year and the novelty of the new space has now worn off.  So, are we in a better position than we were this time last year?

The answer is an unequivocal vote in the affirmative.

Hey, we may not have Shaw, but we have Foster.  And if I had a choice for who I would want to see at an after-theatre party, I think Foster would be way more fun.

Norm Foster has a way of taking everyday situations and making them funnier.  He knows human nature better than most and translates that into plays in which we often see ourselves and in so doing, allows us to discover that in fact, we as Canadians can be a pretty funny lot.

Having said all that, the first of two World Premieres this season is vintage Norm Foster sure, but left this reporter a little disappointed at the end.  Oh sure, Screwball Comedy is funny all right, but I don't think it's his best work, really.

Not taking anything away from the production, which is magnificent, but this comedy doesn't hold a mirror up to us quite as much as past successes do, and as such I found the comedy quotient not quite as high as we are accustomed to.

Screwball Comedy is set in 1938, an era when jobs were hard to come by for many and even more so for women, especially in the male-dominated world of journalism.  Back then the so-called 'ink-stained wretches' were almost always hard-nosed, hard-drinking males and adding a woman to the mix would simply cramp their style.

That is exactly what Foster set out to do by introducing Mary Hayes to us:  she is the grand-daughter of legendary newspaperman Charlie Hayes, we're told, so her journalistic background is solid even if her work experience is sparse.  Hayes applies for a job at the local newspaper and comes face-to-face with crusty newspaperman Bosco, who after initial reticence decides to give Mary a chance.

Bosco decides to pit young Mary up against the paper's star reporter, the aforementioned hard-nosed newspaper reporter Jeff Kincaid.  They would both cover an important society event involving the female owner of the paper and may the best story teller win.

From there we are introduced to a host of characters as both Mary and Jeff uncover more details about the society wedding that is planned, and they discover a lot about themselves, too.  For one thing, they discover Kincaid may not be quite as hard-nosed as he makes himself out to be.

In the end, one of them will win and either get the job or get to keep his job.  I won't give away the ending here, but suffice it to say both players in this exercise get some good lines and have a lot of fun bringing the story home, as it were.

The cast assembled by director Vanstone could not be better.  Cosette Derome as Mary is winsome, a little bit sexy (this is 1938, after all) and street smart.  Her adversary cum love interest Jeff Kincaid is played by Darren Keay, who returns from a successful run last season at the Festival.  Kincaid is full of himself, sure, but has a vulnerability young Mary mines for all its worth.

The rest of the cast, all two of them, play the remainder of the seven characters.  If nothing else, that tells you something about the quality of the cast assembled here.  Kevin Hare displays exceptional comic timing as Bosco, Reginald, Peter and Chauncey, and Eliza-Jane Scott gets lots of mileage out of her comic turns as Jones, Delores and Gloria.  From four actors we have nine finely defined and very funny characters.

Peter Hartwell's set is an evocative art deco marvel of economy and the lighting of Chris Malkowski is just right.

Based on the quality of the first season, my wife and I decided to become season subscribers this year and we are very happy to be so.  This is exactly the quality of theatre we need to bring people downtown in the summertime.  Not just theatre-goers per se, but those who have never experienced live theatre on this level before.

The Shaw Festival has nothing to worry about here:  they will still be a destination in Niagara for quality theatre as they have been for years.  But The Foster Festival is the new upstart in town, into a second season and doing just fine, thank you very much.

Last performance of Screwball Comedy is tonight at 8 pm at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  If you have plans, change them.  If you don't have plans, you owe it to yourself to go.  It will be time well spent laughing with like-minded souls.

Call the box office for tickets or go online to www.fosterfestival.com.

Have a great weekend!

July 7th, 2017.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Shaw Festival in full swing with Tim Carroll as new Artistic Director

Last week I wrote of the impending opening of the second season of the Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines, and how that fledgling festival is making believers out of those who might have doubted the wisdom of starting a live theatre festival in the city during the summer months.

In a way, it is history repeating itself as many will recall the heady days of 1962 in once-sleepy Niagara-on-the-Lake when local lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty along with Buffalo's Calvin G. Rand persuaded influential locals to support a "Salute to Shaw'.  The inaugural season of the fledgling Shaw Festival began on June 29th in the Assembly Room of the historic Court House, featuring four performances each of Don Juan in Hell and Candida.

For season two, the Shaw Festival Theatre Foundation was established as a non-profit organization with Calvin Rand becoming the first Chair of the Board of Governors, and the Festival acquiring their first Artistic Director in the person of Andrew Allen.

Over the years there have been ups and downs with the Festival, and for the past 35 years or so I have been fortunate to document many of those either on the air during my radio days or in this space for the past several seasons.  Happily there have been far more ups than downs at the Festival, and the current season appears to provide many more of the former and very few of the latter.

The 2017 edition of the Shaw Festival is the first with new Artistic Director Timothy Carroll at the helm, succeeding Jackie Maxwell who did an admirable job since taking over for long-time Artistic Director Christopher Newton back in 2003.

Each incoming Artistic Director pays homage to the building blocks added by their predecessor in building the Festival, yet imprints the first season with their own particular vision and where they plan to take the Festival in the future.  Mr. Carroll is no different.

Timothy has stated he wants to introduce Shaw patrons to what he calls "two-way theatre", an experience where the audience's engagement begins before they even arrive in Niagara-on-the-Lake and continues throughout many of the plays with a certain degree of "interativeness" built in to some of the offerings.

Still and all, some things you simply cannot change and that is certainly the case with the flagship musical at the large Festival Theatre.  It has to be a crowd-pleaser and fill theatre seats in order to ensure a profitable theatre season, and from what I've heard Me and My Girl is doing just that.  Featuring a book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber with revisions by Stephen Fry and contributions by Mike Ockrent, the musical is a comic romp harkening back to the 30s.

Music is by Noel Gay with musical direction by Paul Sportelli and choreography by Parker Esse.  Director Ashlie Corcoran has assembled an all-star cast including long-time Stratford Festival star Michael Therriault joined by Kristi Frank, Neil Barclay, Donna Belleville, Julia Course and a host of others.

Me and My Girl runs at the Festival Theatre until October 15th.

A more problematic Shaw play also appears at the Festival Theatre until October 15th:  Saint Joan is directed by Tim Carroll and stars Sara Topham in the title role, along with Gray Powell, Wade Bogert-O'Brien, Benedict Campbell and Tom McCamus among others.

Saint Joan is arguably Shaw's greatest play and has been produced at the Festival at least a couple of times before that I can recall, and provides a calling-card of sorts for Carroll in his first directorial role at the Festival.

Rounding out the offerings at the Festival Theatre is Bram Stoker's Dracula, adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead.  Eda Holmes directs this Gothic classic with a cast that includes Allan Louis, Marla McLean, Ben Sanders, Martin Happer and several other Shaw regulars.

Dracula previews begin July 8th and it opens officially July 29th, running until October 14th.

Over at the Court House Theatre, Philip Akin directs Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille's 1837:  The Farmers' Revolt.  This modern Canadian classic dates from 1973 and traces the trials and tribulations of immigrant farmers struggling to turn Upper Canada's forests into farmland.

The play, appropriate for our 150th anniversary year, stars Shaw stalwarts Donna Belleville, Sherry Flett, Rick Reid, Marla McLean and a host of others.  It runs to October 8th.

The second Shaw offering of the season is also one that takes audience participation and interaction to a new level.  Androcles and the Lion is the second play this season to be directed by Tim Carroll, who promises every performance will be a little different thanks to the audience involvement.  Just warning you, if you are the more reserved type...

Androcles and the Lion looks at a group of early Christians in ancient Rome, waiting to be thrown to the lions in the Colosseum.  The show stars Neil Barclay, Kyle Blair, Julia Course, Patrick Galligan, Patty Jamieson and a host of others and it is the depth of this strong cast that pulls off this theatrical high-wire act with aplomb.  It runs to October 7th.

The final offering at the Court House Theatre is the Lunchtime One-Act offerings, this time four Oscar Wilde stories collectively billed as Wilde Tales.  The stories, The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Remarkable Rocket and The Selfish Giant are all geared towards a younger audience, but adults will not be bored by the offerings either.  Christine Brubaker is the director and the stories are adapted for the stage by Kate Hennig.

Children are being invited to attend a pre-show one-hour workshop with actors for an additional fee, and it will appeal to those in the 6 to 12 age group.  Wilde Tales continues at the Court House Theatre until October 7th as well.

Over at the Royal George Theatre, the must-see show appears to be Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III, directed by Kevin Bennett and starring another fabulous 'get' from the Stratford Festival, Tom McCamus.  It's been several years since Tom last appeared at Shaw, and this time he is joined by the likes of Lisa Berry, Rebecca Gibian, Martin Happer, Patrick McManus and Jim Mezon, among others.

For all performances of The Madness of George III, there is limited on-stage seating available, by the way, where you will be encouraged to be part of the show.  Madness runs through to October 15th.

Another Brian Friel play is being staged at Shaw this year:  Dancing at Lughnasa is directed by Krista Jackson and in spite of the title, it is nothing like the carefree dancing movies of Astaire and Rogers we grew up with.  Rather, the play is set in 1930s Ireland, and traces the lives of five women trying to eke out an existence in a land where no tears are without laughter and no laughter is without tears.

The Tony Award-winner for Best Play, Dancing at Lughnasa continues at the Royal George until October 15th as well.

The final offering at the Royal George is An Octoroon by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by the always challenging Peter Hinton.  The original play by Dion Boucicault dates from 1859 when it was considered a masterpiece.  It's a story of a plantation owner who falls for a woman of mixed race; at the time it was seen as a plea for racial tolerance but today modern theatre-goers have a different take on the subject matter.  Still, this modern telling of the tale by Jacobs-Jenkins won an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2014.

Be forewarned, though, the play is full of strong language and challenging ideas.  Previews start July 16th and the play opens July 28th and closes October 14th.  Cast members include Andre Sills, Lisa Berry, Ryan Cunningham and Diana Donnelly, among others.

The Studio Theatre has been renamed the Maxwell Studio Theatre in honour of former Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, of course, and there are two offerings in the smaller space this season.  The first is Will Eno's Middletown, directed by Meg Roe and starring Moya O'Connell and Gray Powell, along with Fiona Byrne, Benedict Campbell, Jeff Meadows and several others.  Middletown looks at average people in an average town in North America living average lives, yet all looking for love in their own way.

Middletown previews begin July 13th and it opens July 30th, running until September 10th.

The second offering at the Maxwell Studio Theatre is Michael Healey's play 1979, a co-production with the Great Canadian Theatre Company.  Directed by Eric Coates, 1979 tells the story of  Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, whose inability to bend the rules resulted in his time in office being incredibly short.  I lived during those days and remember the furor over the gas-price hike that ultimately resulted in his government's downfall, and I remember vividly working the election night when he lost the office to the returning Pierre Trudeau.

1979 stars Sanjay Talwar with support from Marion Day and Kelly Wong and runs from October 1st to the 14th.

There is lots to see and do at Shaw this season, including so-called 'Secret Theatre' performances scattered throughout the season, and lots of pre-theatre discussions and such as well.

Intrigued?  You should be.  More information on the entire season can be had by going to www.shawfest.com, and you can also order tickets online or by calling the box office at 1-800-511-SHAW.

Enjoy the rest of your Canada Day weekend!

July 2nd, 2017.