Sunday, September 15, 2019

With a little help from her friends...

I am changing up my scheduled blog post for this week to include a special request for you to help out a friend in need here in Niagara this week.  Let me set the scene for you...

I became friends on Facebook with Ann-Marie B. Zammit a few months ago after watching her performances as part of the regular Oh Canada Eh? dinner show in Niagara Falls.  Oh Canada Eh? remains one of the great entertainment values in Niagara for both visitors and locals alike throughout the year, as I have written in the space in the past.  The theatre finds great local talent and gives them each a stellar opportunity to show what they can do in an ensemble setting as well as with solo numbers.

Ann-Marie performed in the tribute to 70s pop music last year with a circus theme, offering a spellbinding turn as the Ringmaster for the musical mayhem unfolding onstage.  Earlier this season we caught her in more standard fare in the newly-updated musical tribute to all things Canadian, again knocking it out of the park with her solo numbers in a show full of exceptional local talent.

As is the case in the Oh Canada Eh? shows, the performers are also the servers, and it was our good fortune to have Anne-Marie serve our table that early summer evening.  On both occasions, also the custom following the shows there, we met the entire cast in the receiving line and I had a chance to chat briefly with Anne-Marie and her fellow cast members.

I recall thinking at the time, is that the same person I saw as the Ringmaster last year?  Nothing against Ann-Marie in the least, but her turn as the Ringmaster had such an aura of mystery and intrigue around it, it was hard to believe I was talking to the same person both times!

That of course is the magic of theatre and especially musical theatre.  It is such a transformative medium you can immerse yourself in the magic of the moment and let your imagination guide you along.

Although Ann-Marie doesn't appear to be in the Oh Canada Eh? cast at the moment, she is busy with lots of other musical and family-oriented things, such as managing the group Acoustic Diamond.

Born in Fort Erie and now residing in St. Catharines, Ann-Marie possesses a strong and expressive voice and has that magical ability to turn a mundane song into something special.  It's not something every singer can pull off, I might add.

The reason I am profiling "AMZ" as she is affectionately called in the halls of Oh Canada Eh? is because right at the moment, she's working hard to fulfil a dream many of us likely have had in the past:  to take her performance to the next level and secure a professional gig on a big stage south of the border.

Now normally I don't pay much attention to so-called reality talent shows, but this is a little different. The Opening Act competition is an opportunity for up and coming talent to perhaps win a chance at being the opening act for none other than Taylor Swift and the Jonas Brothers in Hollywood.  The winner receives, along with a certain amount of cachet of course, a cool $10,000 in prize money.

Asked what she would do with the money, Ann-Marie says she would use half of it to record an EP, and put the other half in her daughter's college fund.  Oh yeah, moms are practical that way...

So far things have been going pretty good with the voting, as Ann-Marie was in first place in the opening round but now that the semi-finals are underway she has fallen to 3rd place.  Still a respectable place to be given the number of competitors but, well, not good enough to win it all.

That's where we come in, and I am sending this request out to all of you should you be so inclined to get involved.

We get to vote for who we would like to see as that opening act, and the more votes you get the better your chances.  Simple, right?  Of course it is!  Oh, and I should mention you can vote only once per day, as I have been doing since this whole thing started a little while ago.  Voting is free, but you can also buy votes if you choose to, and there are even special 2 for 1 opportunities that come up as well.

The semi-final round ends at 8 pm PDT on September 19th, so there is still time to boost those numbers for a local girl who does great things both on and off the stage.  It would be nice to see Canadian talent wow the crowd at the Swift concert in Hollywood, wouldn't you agree?

You can check out Ann-Marie's Facebook page for more information (Ann-Marie B. Zammit) and to link to the voting page, or you can just go here:  https://TheOpenAct.com/2019/Acoustic-Diamond.

Thanks for considering this request, and have a great weekend!

September 15th, 2019.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Bravo Niagara set to kick off 2019-2020 season in style

Now that September is here, the music usually moves indoors from the pavilions, bandshells and even large barns utilized by many music festivals in the province.  We grab a light jacket and stash the shorts for slightly more formal wear and head inside for some great music making throughout the fall and into the colder winter months.

So I thought this month I would spotlight some of the music festivals taking place in the great indoors throughout the province this season, beginning with a festival I had the pleasure of discovering last season, the Bravo Niagara Festival of the Arts.

Bravo Niagara is the vision of Artistic Director Christine Mori and her daughter, Executive Director Alexis Spieldenner.  Together they have been staging recitals and concerts in several venues in and around the Niagara-on-the-Lake area and beyond, including some rather interesting locales such as inside a winery amongst the vats and other wine-making paraphernalia.

This past month they announced the 2019-2020 season for Bravo Niagara, and it looks like a varied and interesting mix of young up-and-coming artists and more established musicians we may not of heard from in awhile.  So let's run down the season and see what's coming this season in Niagara...

The season kicks off October 19th in downtown St. Catharines as Bravo Niagara expands to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre's Recital Hall.  Canadian superstar soprano Measha Brueggergosman is makes a rare return appearance in Niagara, hopefully fully recovered from illness that kept her on the sidelines this past summer, including the cancellation of a performance at the Elora Festival.

I first saw Measha very early on in her career when she performed as one of the soloists in a Chorus Niagara performance of Verdi's Requiem in the Lake Street Armouries just around the corner from my house in central St. Catharines.  Even then she was earmarked for greatness I recall...

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Measha while doing a series of articles for the old Brock Centre for the Arts magazine publication, prior to her last appearance in Niagara up at Brock about 5 years ago.  I remember having trouble connecting with her by phone on that day as she was driving down on the east coast of the country with her newborn showing promising vocal technique in the background on occasion.  She was a delight to talk to and I found she had a real affinity for Niagara and the artistic scene here.

November 8th the Voices of Freedom concert takes over the larger Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, featuring a jazz pianist I first discovered in my early days in radio back in the 70s, Monty Alexander.  Monty recorded an album that proved to be the very first jazz album I ever acquired, featuring his Trio.

Monty will be joined by opening act Larnell Lewis and his band, along with South African bass player Bakithi Kumalo, who has performed with Paul Simon and many others.  The concert is part of a larger Voices of Freedom Festival running from November 7th to the 9th, and you can find out more at bravo niagara.org/vof2019.

Towards the end of November St. Mark's Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake will play host on the 30th of the month to iconic Canadian cellist Ofra Harnoy.  Winner of no less than 5 JUNO Awards and the Grand Prix du Disque, Harnoy will push the boundaries of traditional classical music with her recital coming up at St. Mark's.

I have known and enjoyed Ofra's many varied musical projects for about a quarter-century now, going all the way back to her early Fanfare recordings in Toronto including the celebrated collection of Beatles music in more formal dress with the Armin Electric Strings.  Since then she's recorded about 40 solo albums for several labels.  This will mark a rare sighting of Ofra in Niagara.

Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling performs at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on Valentine's Day 2020 at 8 pm, performing a varied concert ranging from jazz standards to his own material.  I have not had a lot of exposure to Kurt's music thus far, I'm sad to say, so this will be a good opportunity to hear more of what has made him such a reliable jazz artist for many years.

Bravo Niagara returns to St. Mark's in Niagara-on-the-Lake on March 15th for Montenegrin-born guitarist Milos Karadeglic making a solo recital appearance.  This will act as a follow up of sorts to the release of his highly-anticipated album Sound of Silence.

The London-based musician has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and has been dubbed "classical music's guitar hero" by BBC Music Magazine.  Guitar music brings a certain elegance and grace to a recital that few other instruments can match, the intimacy of the instrument matching well with the intimacy of the space at St. Mark's, so this should be a very special concert indeed.

It's back to jazz and back to the Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines for the Brubeck Brothers Quartet on April 5th.  2020 will mark the Centennial Year of jazz great Dave Brubeck, whom we lost just a few short years ago.  He performed until very near the end of his life and left behind a legacy of jazz and more classically-themed albums that still sell well today.  His sons Chris and Dan honour their Dad's legacy with a multimedia show with their own Brubeck Brothers Quartet.

As May begins Bravo Niagara hits show tunes with a concert entitled From Broadway with Love at St. Mark's Church on May 2nd at 7:30 pm.  Music of the Great White Way will bring together three artists with a love of musical theatre that goes way back:  Jason Forbach, Siri Howard and Joseph Spieldenner.  Music will be from such shows as South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Les Miserables and many more.

The final concert of the upcoming season will be especially interesting, as it pairs Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker with iconic violinist Cho-Liang Lin in a recital ranging from Beethoven to Bernstein.  Lin plays a 1715 "Titan" Strad that will no doubt accompany him on the trip to St. Mark's in Niagara-on-the-Lake on May 3rd for an afternoon performance.

So does that tempt you enough to enjoy music in the great indoors for another season?  For more information and ticket enquiries go to www.bravoniagara.org, email music@bravoniagara.org or call the office at 289-868-9177.

It should be a great season of music making with Bravo Niagara Festival of the Arts!

Have a great weekend!

September 8th, 2019.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Celebrating life in St. Catharines this holiday weekend

On this Labour Day holiday weekend I thought I would take a bit of a diversion from my usual fare to write about some of the things I love at this time of year right here in the Garden City, my adopted home for almost 40 years now.

Much of the weekend I've been working around the house getting caught up on chores that needed to be done, but Saturday afternoon I decided to put all that aside and celebrate our city with a tour around town.  I made several stops and all of them made me glad I decided to make this city my home.

Most Saturday mornings I head to the YMCA for a walk on the track, followed by my morning visit to our downtown farmer's market at Market Square.  This is a particularly grand time to visit the market, as there is so much to choose from.  The corn is still in as are the peaches, plus a wide variety of other delectable treats ranging from local honey and maple syrup to baked sweet treats and almost anything else your heart could desire.  The Tuesday and Thursday markets are nice, but the Saturday market is the big one and best attended.

After lunch I pointed the car north east and headed up Niagara Street for my second visit of the weekend to the Niagara Greek Festival at the Greek Cultural Centre at the corner of Niagara and Linwell.  I picked up dinner Friday afternoon shortly after they opened but Saturday was my time to just wander the grounds, check out the vendors and sample some Greek red wine, loukoumades (dough deep fried and coated in honey and cinnamon) and of course the music.

The Greek Festival continues today and wraps up early this evening, so still plenty of time to get your Greek on and celebrate with the most hospitable people around.

I continued north east along Linwell and Bunting Roads, then a hard left on Lakeshore Road and up Arthur Street, past the first house I almost bought back in 1993 (it was listed at $51,000 back then!) and turned in to Sunset Beach.  This is really one of the hidden gems in the north end, although it was certainly busy on Saturday afternoon when I visited.  Looking out past the beach into Lake Ontario with large ships not far off in the distance is something you just don't see in many other places.

As there was a ship passing through the canal at Lock One in Port Weller I decided to bypass the traffic and head down Niagara and across Parnell, past another celebration of summer on the grounds of one of the two schools in the area, and began the long journey down Government Road, otherwise known as the Welland Canals Parkway or, as many locals refer to it, simply Canal Road.

This is always one of my favourite drives on a lovely day, as you see ships passing through the fourth Welland Canal, negotiating the locks and stopping traffic in the vicinity in the process.  People are from two camps on this whole thing, of course.  You have the tourists who just pull over and watch in awe the whole thing transpire, and you have the locals who either grumble as they wait or change course and try to find an alternate route.  Welland Canal roulette, as I call it.

The Welland Canal is an engineering marvel to be sure, and something we tend to take for granted here in the city.  But people come from all over the world to see what we can see every day, as they do to Niagara Falls to see the celebrated sights there.

I stopped at the Welland Canal Viewing Centre and home of the St. Catharines Museum at Lock 3 for a visit and see the Victorian Tweets display on until this November.  While there I took the opportunity to watch the 10-minute film on the history of the Welland Canal, and learned a few things even I didn't know before.

On my way out I stopped to chat with St. Catharines Transit bus operator Rick who updated me on the changes coming to that particular route 337, the Crosstown.  I like the route as it passes right by my street but that will change this week as it makes a detour to the downtown transit terminal in both directions, thus enabling it to connect to other routes in the city.  Good idea but I'll miss the local stop at the end of my street.

After our chat I drove south along the parkway and continued up the hill past the twin flight locks that bring ships into Thorold, which is always one of my favourite stretches of the drive.  Passing through downtown Thorold I of course had to stop at the variety store on Front Street that is always resplendent with hanging flower baskets for purchase.

Heading back into the city on Ormond Street South, crossing back into St. Catharines around the paper mill where the road has turned magically into Merritt Street, I thought I would make a stop behind the businesses on the west side of Merritt where those in the know can walk up a secluded path to a small area that reveals one of the few remnants remaining of the third Welland Canal, the brick walls still visible amongst the foliage and rushing water still a part of the scene.

Although I didn't visit on Saturday, today the stretch of Merritt past Glendale and in the surrounding area will be the place to be for the annual Labour Day festivities many locals look forward to every year.

Back in the city I headed west on Glendale Avenue and finally north east again along Pelham Road through Western Hill.  This is an area of the city I did not visit much in my earlier years but since becoming a letter carrier for Canada Post a few years ago, I have become quite familiar with the area due to the routes I have covered there quite often.  It is not the wealthiest part of the city financially, but it is rich in character and interesting people.  Some new shops have opened up along Pelham Road recently and I think this part of the city, once home to our former mayor Joe McCaffery is due for a renaissance of sorts as the years go by.

Back along Fourth Avenue from Louth Street past the vast shopping complex many simply refer to as "Fourth Avenue" you can see the change in the cityscape as the city grows west, eating up the remaining farmland in the area to fully envelope the new hospital complex a little further west.

Then it was home again to feed the cats.

Total distance travelled on the day?  57.7 kilometres.  Memories that will last a long time as I discover or rediscover so many of the things that make this city what it is.

You don't have to travel far to find new adventures.  They are out there waiting to be discovered in your own backyard every day!  Celebrating all we have in St. Catharines makes me feel good about my chosen home and I think it's something we should all do from time to time.

Happy Labour Day, and best of luck as the kids head back to school tomorrow.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

September 2nd, 2019.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Getting Married gets a timely update at Shaw Festival

There are fewer and fewer Shaw plays at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake these days, and one wonders what the future holds for old GBS.  True, his themes are often timeless and his arguments are often logically laid out in his plays.

But they can often be tedious affairs as well, and with modern audiences changing one wonders how the Festival can and ultimately will adapt to the new reality of staging Shaw's plays.  We've seen in the past Shaw's work updated by a more contemporary author, and directors take such artistic license with his plays they can almost appear unrecognizable as works by Shaw.

But a skilled and knowing director can update a Shaw play for today's audiences and pull it off with not only respect for the author but for the audiences watching as well.  Case in point is Tanja Jacobs, the director of the 2019 edition of Getting Married, currently on stage at the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre until October 13th.

To be honest, Getting Married is certainly one of Shaw's lesser plays.  It dates from 1908 when Harley Granville Barker, himself a noted playwright of the day, directed the premiere at London's Haymarket Theatre.  The Shaw Festival has staged the play four times previously and I think I've seen all but one of those, way back in 1972.  The last production at the Shaw Festival was in 2008.

Like many of Shaw's plays it is heavy on dialogue and light on action, and therein lies the challenge for director Jacobs:  how to lighten the load of those long, often dreary debates between characters on stage and actually make it appear to be entertaining.

For one thing, Jacobs sets this production circa 1950 when divorce laws were still largely as they were in Shaw's time when he wrote the play as a vehicle for him to rail at the archaic divorce laws of the day.  So the storyline remains relevant and intact.

But by setting the play in the early 50s and not having the actors using period English accents somehow appears to make things seem, well, a bit more modern for today's audiences.  And a colourful and clever set design from that era by Shannon Lea Doyle is literally a feast for the eyes as much as the play is a feast for the ears.

But this would all be for naught were it not for the superb cast of Shaw actors who bring the play to life with skill, precision and remarkable timing.  Here again, Jacobs chooses her cast members and directs them wisely.

In a nutshell, the play revolves around the pending nuptials of Edith and Cecil.  Edith is the daughter of Alfred Bridgenorth, Bishop of Chelsea and his wife Alice.  All the action takes place in the palace of the Bishop of Chelsea, although in this production calling the Bishop's dwelling a 'palace' might be stretching things a bit on the small stage the Royal George Theatre.

Anyways, young Edith and Cecil have come across a pamphlet raising what to them appear to be serious questions about marriage and upon careful consideration on their part they have decided to not get married after all.  It is left to the rest of the visitors and inhabitants of the palace to hash out the debate on the sanctity of marriage from each unique perspective.

That's the plot.  Rather thin, you have to admit.  But with Shaw he can build a whole play around that theme and he has.  It is up to director and cast to make it work, and they do.

The play opens with William Collins, the greengrocer in charge of the wedding planning going about his chores as the wedding approaches.  Damien Atkins, who shined in The Ladykillers at the Festival Theatre opposite Chick Reid does so again here with stellar performances from both.  Reid is Alice Bridgenorth the Bishop's devoted wife, and the verbal jousting between Alice and Collins as the play begins sets the stage for what's to come.

As the thoughtful and resourceful Bishop, Graeme Somerville puts in a fine performance, as does his assistant Reverend Soames, played by Andrew Lawrie who is brought in to try to write up a proper marriage contract that is fair to both sides in order to break the impasse.

It is the interaction between independent and feisty Lesbia Grantham and General Bridgenorth that is most interesting to watch, however.  Lesbia, played by Claire Jullien, has rejected the General's marriage proposals nine times previously and does so a tenth time during the play, causing the hapless and lovesick General, known affectionately as Boxer and played with bumbling precision by Martin Happer, to head to the gardens to soothe his broken heart with a smoke.

At the end of Act One the much talked about and very flirtatious Mrs. George Collins, the Mayoress, is set to make her grand entrance when we are left to anticipate that event with a perfectly timed intermission.

Act Two tends to drag just a little as Mrs. Collins adds her spice to the conversation and sets about righting the wrongs others have committed, but in the role Marla McLean, resplendent in a red dress of the era makes the most of her entrance and time on stage in just the second act.  She lives up to the billing from the first act.

Will Getting Married appeal to everyone?  No, not likely.  Shaw plays never do.  But if you like Shaw and you love great ensemble work from a superior cast, you will most certainly enjoy the 2019 edition of the play.

Getting Married continues at the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre until October 13th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

For tickets and more information, call the Shaw box office at 905-468-2153 or 1-800-511-7429, or go to www.shawfest.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 24th, 2019.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Ladykillers kills it for the Shaw Festival

Our second show of the season at The Shaw Festival this season was the comedy The Ladykillers at the Festival Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Tim Carroll.

The play is by Irish writer and director Graham Linehan, who adapted the play from the movie screenplay by William Rose.  The original British film dates from 1955 and starred Alec Guinness; it was remade in 2004 with Tom Hanks in the starring role.

Linehan adapted the film for the stage in 2011 and it premiered in London later that year.  This Shaw Festival production is the North American premiere, and we can thank former Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell for, as Carroll writes in the Director's Notes, "putting me on to it."  Seems Maxwell saw Carroll's 4-man production of the Roman and Biblical epic Ben Hur a few years ago and decided at that moment the new guy really ought to stage The Ladykillers at Shaw at some point.

That point is this season and not a moment too soon.  After an uneven season last year a riotous fill-the-Festival Theatre comedy was in order, and The Ladykillers fits the bill nicely.  It is taken at a faster pace than the original film was, but even now I think it could move along at a somewhat brisker pace than Carroll sets for it.

The premise of The Ladykillers revolves around a group of thugs who plan to rob a train and decide to rent an upstairs flat in an old house right next to the train station in order to carry out their nefarious scheme.  Problem is, the landlady is more than a little bit of a busybody and causes no end of trouble for the group of men masquerading as classical musicians who need a quiet rehearsal space in which to practice.

As Professor Marcus, the orchestrater of the mayhem, Damien Atkins steps into the Alec Guinness role and truly makes it his own.  A formidable presence on stage due to his height, he shows brilliant comic timing to wring every last laugh out of the script.  His comic foil of course is the veteran actor Chick Reid as the landlady Mrs. Wilberforce, who just seems to unintentionally throw a wrench into the plans at every turn.  The ongoing gag of Reid accidentally stepping on Atkins' long flowing scarf never grows old in this production.

The band of so-called musicians represent some of the best comic talent on the Shaw roster this season, including Martin Happer as the ex-boxer One Round, Andrew Laurie as Harry, Ric Reid as Major Courtney and Steven Sutcliffe doing a delicious turn as Louis, the only real criminal in the bunch.

Together they allow the magic to unfold and make the play truly and enjoyable comedic experience.  Each and every one has quirks in their respective characterization that makes for regular laughs; not often uproarious mind you, but on a regular basis throughout the play so it never seems to lag.

Honourable mention goes to supporting cast members Kristopher Bowman as Constable MacDonald, Fiona Byrne as Mrs. Tromleyton and Claire Jullien as Mrs. Goodenough; the latter two joining Mrs.Wilberforce for an impromptu "recital" by the non-musical musicians that presents one of the comic highlights of the play.

Judith Bowden's set design is a marvel:  it depicts both the inside and the outside of the somewhat rickety old English residence, shaking and lights flickering every time a train rumbles by next door.  The house revolves on the stage from the inside to outside scenes as needed, which takes some time but never really seems to detract from the action.

The house also allows for action on both levels, as Mrs. Wilberforce can be seen in the main floor rooms while the would-be robbers are plotting their heist in the upstairs flat.  All in all, full marks to both Bowden and lighting designer Kevin Lamotte for making the set design work so well.

Will this be the biggest show of the season?  Probably not.  But I doubt you'll find anyone leaving the theatre disappointed with their choice.  It's fun from start to finish and for that reason alone you should book your tickets before it's too late.

The Ladykillers runs at the Festival Theatre until October 12th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

For tickets, call the Shaw box office at 905-468-2153, 1-800-511-7429 or go to www.shawfest.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 18th, 2019.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Season finale for The Foster Festival is a winner

While growing up my mother would often say in utter frustration "If I could live my life over...".  It was usually after my brother or I or both did some boneheaded thing around the house and this was her way of registering displeasure in a somewhat diplomatic way.

It's a tantalizing proposition, isn't it?

Many a married couple might have uttered a variance on this phrase at some point in their married lives as well.  It's nothing to be ashamed of, really.  We all seem to experience it in one form or another.

This is the basis on which the latest Norm Foster musical and final World Premiere of the current Foster Festival season is built.  What if we could go back and do it all again.  Would we?

In Beside Myself, the first musical for The Foster Festival but not Norm Foster's first, we meet Paula and Sam, married for 35 years and frankly, tired of the whole thing.  They are separating and splitting the spoils of their marriage which, as painful as it is, leads them to a better ending than what they could of imagined.

Sam discovers a "wishing stick" in the box he is rummaging through, a wedding gift from years ago that prompts him to deride the item as a pretty cheesy offering.  Almost absent-mindedly he wishes they could go back and change the past, specifically when they met at university.

Almost like magic, they notice everyone on their street has a classic vehicle in the driveway, and things at the house seem somehow "different".  It suddenly dawns on Sam and Paula they have indeed gone back in time to before they actually own their home.  So here is their chance.  They head straight to the university campus and find the younger versions of themselves and acting as "student liaisons" try to thwart the budding romance between the younger Sam and Paula.

While doing so they discover far more about themselves than they realize, and in the process come to the conclusion things are not really all that bad after all.

The story line has several curves in it but that's the gist of it.  Overall it works, although I couldn't help but think the younger versions of themselves are far more patient than I would have been under similar circumstances and likely would have told the bogus liaisons to 'push off' and mind their own business.

In spite of that caveat you could not wish for a more balanced, splendid and perfect musical experience.  Norm has crafted a book full of humour, tender moments, and insightfulness as you rarely see today.

Lyrics are by both Foster and longtime musical collaborator Steve Thomas, who composed the music for the show himself.  All of the songs, while not likely to be sung outside of the theatre as you leave, have an immediately comfortable feel to them, making them 'just right' for the production.  There are catches, hooks and clever musical devices throughout the show, performed onstage by Thomas and his two colleagues in a partitioned-off section centre-stage.

As a result there is not a lot of room left for the four performers on the stage but director Patricia Vanstone has managed to make it all work in an economical and creative fashion.  The U-shaped space in which the performers work just feels right.

Vanstone also scored big time in her choice of actors for the four roles.  As the elder Sam and Paula, Jonathan Whittaker and Gabrielle Jones can be toxic, loving and ultimately understanding of each other's quirks over the course of the show.  Jones is especially effective as the more hard-driving Paula acting as a foil for the more relaxed, laid-back Sam.  It is also great to see her in a starring role and make the most of it.

The younger versions of themselves are played effectively by Griffin Hewitt as Young Sam and Breton Lalama as Young Paula.  Both are exceptionally adept at presenting more youthful versions of the elder protagonists, and even look like Sam and Paula likely would have when they met.  Even the height is the same.

All four actors have strong voices and sing the musical numbers with perfect diction and emphasis.  However I did struggle a bit to hear the elder Sam in the first few moments of the production on Wednesday afternoon.  But overall, they sing the material with conviction and make you believe they are living the story rather than just playing the part.

This is the final production of the current Foster Festival season and I can't imagine a more perfect end to a very strong 4th season.  The Festival has gone from strength to strength from one production to the next, not only this season but since the very beginning.

I've also noticed the audiences even for matinee performances have grown substantially as well over the four years, so the word is obviously getting out we have exceptional live theatre in downtown St. Catharines throughout the summer months.

Beside Myself continues at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre until August 17th and is a must-see of the first order.  For tickets and more information call the box office at 905-688-0722 or go to www.fosterfestival.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 11th, 2019.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

A tiny little gem nestled in the southern part of Niagara

This holiday weekend I want to take a few moments to let you know about a hidden gem in the southern tier of Niagara many people may not know about.  If you love movies and don't like the big multiplex movie houses, this place might just be for you.

I first discovered The Ridge Film House several years ago when it began life as the Boutique Theatre on Ridge Road in the heart of Ridgeway.  A flood in an upstairs apartment put an end to the first generation of the movie house as repairs had to be made, and the then-owner decided enough was enough.

So for a while moviegoers in Niagara's southern tier lost their little film house.  But not forever.  A new owner took over the business at 320 Ridge Road North and did extensive renovations to the interior, renaming it The Ridge Film House.

Now the theatre is open year-round offering a steady stream of carefully curated classic, independent, foreign, documentary and second run films.  You won't find the biggest and newest films available, but that's okay.  They serve an entirely different clientele and I love that.

There are two film rooms, each with 10X15 screens, leather seating and lots of character.  There's even a small cafe area in the lobby with table and chairs so you can meet your friends there before the show.

You do get trailers for upcoming movies here, but they don't take forever to see and actually, most of the trailers we saw were for films we'd actually like to see.  Nothing was blown up in those trailers so that was lovely!

I was down in Ridgeway on a Saturday afternoon last month and had a chance to get reacquainted with the theatre again, so I signed up for the monthly newsletter online in order to get the regular schedule of movies screened.  Last Sunday evening at 6:30 one of the movies screened caught my eye and so we drove through a nasty rain and hail storm to get down there for the show.

It's been years since I had seen Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1959 film North By Northwest, but since it is the 60th anniversary this year of the film's release and it was a Sunday evening, we thought "why not?".

Other than the iconic scene where Cary Grant is almost mown down in a cornfield by a crop duster, I really didn't remember much about the film all these years.  So for me it was almost like seeing it for the first time.

Yes, the film shows its age a little and yes, a 26-year-old blond falling for a 55-year-old man should raise a few eyebrows even now, but other than that the film holds up well.  It was also fun to see Edward Platt, later to be known as The Chief on the Get Smart TV series, as the lawyer in the early scenes of the movie.

I always liked Hitchcock's films but never got around to spending much time with them, but that might just change after seeing North By Northwest again.  It's a good film.

The experience at The Ridge Film House was exceptionally positive and we'll certainly return again.  It can get busy in those two little theatres so be prepared if that's the case.  On a summer Sunday evening, however, the theatre we were in was barely half full, so we had no trouble getting in at all.

The theatre is available for birthday parties, school functions, corporate events and more, and there are even memberships available.

Prices are very reasonable too:  adults $10, seniors $8 and children up to 13 years of age also $8.  For classic movies such as North By Northwest the prices are less and we were charged $8 each for that show.

They accept cash and debit only by the way, so no credit cards allowed.

For more information check them out at www.ridgefilmhouse.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 4th, 2019.