Saturday, September 22, 2018

Niagara Symphony kicks off their new season this weekend

You know summer is drawing to a close and the cooler weather is here when the new season for the Niagara Symphony is finally upon us.  Sure, I have been to symphony concerts in October and even November when it still feels like summer out there, but with the cooler weather this weekend the symmetry just seems perfect to start the new season.

It's been awhile since I have written about our hometown symphony orchestra, and there are several reasons for that.  But the time seems right to renew old ties and take an active role in getting the word out about how fine an ensemble our NSO really is.  So this weekend, a quick look at what to expect this Sunday afternoon and for the rest of their 71st season.

It hardly seems like three years have elapsed since the Niagara Symphony first played in their new home, the expansive and acoustically outstanding Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  I still remember heading up to Brock Centre for the Arts with all my CDs and other paraphernalia to sell in the lobby for many years, and although those days are long gone, the new era that was ushered in with the move downtown to our new arts playpen is indeed worthy of celebration.

I'm sad to report I simply have not gotten around to hearing the Niagara Symphony in their new home yet, and that is something I plan to rectify this season.  It's about time to get out there and cheer for the home team and show some love for the musicians, many of whom I've known personally for many years now.

This Sunday afternoon at 2:30 the Masterworks season gets underway with a concert entitled A River Runs Through it, and as you can imagine the overriding theme here will be water.  Water under the bridge, perhaps?  Well the new Burgoyne Bridge is not that far away, as a matter of fact...

Kicking off the concert will be the music of Bedrich Smetana, his ever-popular The Moldau from Ma Vlast, a four-part concert work when heard in its entirety.  The Moldau is far and away the most popular part of the work, and for good reason.  The swelling strings echo the ebb and flow of the river itself.

Rivalling The Moldau for popularity is Claude Debussy's La Mer, another water-inspired work that set the tone for adventurous orchestral music early in the last century.  It concludes the afternoon concert, paired with another Debussy favourite, Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, or, literally, The Afternoon of a Faun.  This deeply evocative and reflective music defines the Impressionist era in classical music coming out of France early in the last century and remains to this day an audience favourite.

Sandwiched in between the Smetana and the Debussy works is the feature performance of the afternoon, Mozart's delightful Concerto for Two Pianos No. 10, K. 365.  A later work in the all-too-short Mozart canon of masterworks, the Concerto for Two Pianos features the Canadian duo of James Anagnoson and Leslie Kinton, hailed by the New York Times for their "formidable precision and panache."

I was first introduced to their considerable precision and panache years ago when, while attending a performance by the National Ballet of Canada at the old O'Keefe Centre in Toronto, I stumbled across an old LP of the piano due performing music from the National Ballet repertoire.  I still have that LP in my personal collection, I believe, but it has been years since I last played it.

Anagnoson and Kinton are giants in the world of two-piano works, and for this particular performance in Partridge Hall, Music Director Bradley Thachuk has wisely chosen to highlight their pianistic virtuosity by arranging to have a large screen above the stage in order to project the keyboard playing of each soloist, so as to allow the audience members throughout the hall to see their considerable talents up close.

Looking briefly at the remainder of the NSO season lineup, the first Pops! concert is a tribute to Frank Sinatra with Matt Dusk joining the symphony the weekend of October 13th and 14th.  The launch of the Classical Family series takes place in the Cairns Recital Hall on Sunday afternoon, October 21st at 2:30 with a concert geared towards the upcoming Halloween season.

Looking at the roster of guest soloists after this weekend's concert, cellist Rachel Mercer joins the NSO on October 28th in the Masterworks 2 concert, violinist Aisslinn Nosky returns to both play and conduct on November 25th, Principal Flute of the NSO Doug Miller is featured January 19 & 20; violinist Jonathan Crow joins the symphony on March 10th, pianist Anastasia Rizikov and Principal Trumpet Ira Zingraff perform April 27 and 28, and the full forces of Chorus Niagara close out the Masterworks season with the NSO May 19th for an opera-themed performance.

The balance of the Pops! concerts line up this way:  Joey DeBenedetto and Christine Cornish Smith join the NSO for the trio of annual Christmas concerts December 8th and 9th, guest conductor Melanie Leonard leads the symphony and the Jeans 'n Classics Band in a concert celebrating women of Rock 'n Roll on February 23rd and 24th, and selections from the hit movies of John Williams will close out the Pops! series April 13th and 14th.

The remainder of the Classical Family series features Prokofiev's Peter & the Wolf and Blake's The Snowman on December 16th, and a sports-themed concert comes up February 3rd to close out the series.

For tickets to any of the Niagara Symphony concerts this season including the season opener tomorrow afternoon, call or visit the PAC box office at 905-688-0722 or 250 St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  You can also order online at firstontario pac.ca.

Enjoy the new season of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra!

September 22nd, 2018.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Janis Ian coming to Midland Cultural Centre this week

I received an email this week about a concert coming up this week at the Midland Cultural Centre in the near north, and it immediately stirred memories of my early days in radio.

Back in the mid-70s I started work at CHFI-FM in Toronto, first as an operator/producer and eventually as a music programmer in the music library.  Back in those days nothing was automated and we programmed each set of music by hand, using two turntables to make sure two pieces of music would sort of blend together nicely.  It was a time-consuming operation back then, compared to today when computer software programmes just appear to be randomly selecting the music according to a preset list of parameters.

By about 1974 the music mandate of the station was broadened somewhat to include some additional soft pop music currently making the charts, and as such we started programming a wide variety of younger, more socially conscious singer/songwriters along with the more traditional fare the station was well known for.

It was about this time, 1975 to be exact, we were introduced to a young folk artist who seemed to be more than a little lonely while growing up, if her music was to be believed.  Many did, in fact, and Janis Ian enjoyed enormous success for her breakout album Between the Lines.  The first song on the LP, When the Party's Over was the first track we played in regular rotation on the station, as I recall.  But it wasn't long before everyone was paying attention to another song from the album, the delicate single At Seventeen which reached the Top 3 and went on to win a Grammy.

Both songs seemed to come from deep inside her heart, echoing the pain of adolescence she and many of us felt at one time in our lives.  For me personally, the pain of loneliness reached its zenith the time I invited several industry and personal friends to a party at our family home in Toronto and only one single, solitary person showed up.  We had a nice evening, thanks, but it crushed my spirit and hearing both those songs made me realize I was not alone; others shared my sense of loneliness and pain.

But what of the singer who brought us those songs and so many others?  Janis Ian was born in 1951 in New York City and began writing her first songs at the tender age of 12.  At the age of 15 she recorded her self-titled debut LP that gave us Society's Child, which with its accent on interracial romance was summarily banned by several radio stations.  It was the great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein who invited Ian to perform the song on a television special devoted to pop and rock music and the resulting publicity literally made Ian the proverbial overnight sensation.

But success did not rest comfortably on her shoulders, and after dropping out of high school she recorded three more albums, giving the money in turn to friends and charities.  It was a chance meeting with a photojournalist at a peace rally that prompted the two to eventually marry, and Ian announced she was retiring from the music business at the tender age of 20.

Alas, the marriage did not last so Ian returned to the recording studio in 1971 to produce Present Company, which did not meet with much success.  Three years later she returned with the album Stars, and her song Jessie eventually became a hit for Roberta Flack.

After the phenomenal success of 1975's Between The Lines, however, public response to her follow up efforts were tepid at best.  She tackled material ranging from domestic violence and eroticism to the Holocaust, but much of it failed to reach as wide an audience as her previous successes did.

Today, you could be forgiven if you thought Janis Ian was now little more than a musical footnote in the annals of popular and folk music.  But you can't keep a good girl down, and Janis is still performing, writing and commenting on society today.  Based now in Nashville, Ian holds two Grammy Awards and was nominated no less than nine times.  Her albums have sold over 9-million copies worldwide.

But I suspect it is her social activism that is nearer and dearer to her heart, as she has received honours from any number of organizations for her work, including MADD and the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Those social sensibilities along with her music will be on full display this week when Janis Ian performs in concert at the Midland Cultural Centre, the first appearances for Ian in the area in many years.

Rather than just a live concert of her past hits, the Midland appearances will be spread over two nights:  first on Tuesday September 11th when MCC manager Eugene Rea talks with Ian about her life, career and ultimately her legacy.  The next night, Wednesday, Janis Ian performs at the same venue in concert.

Tickets are available separately or as part of a special offer package for both nights.  For ticket information and availability, contact the Midland Cultural Centre box office at 705-527-4420.

The Midland Cultural Centre is more than just a concert venue, and Janis Ian is more than just another singer/songwriter we remember from our younger days.  Both are vital contributors to today's cultural scene, and I can see both venue and singer benefitting each other quite nicely.

Who knows, When the Party's Over you might just feel you are At Seventeen all over again...

Enjoy your weekend!

September 8th, 2018.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Back from a Trip of a Lifetime

If you noticed I did not post last weekend, so this weekend I will make up for it with an explanation - and a bit of a diversion from what I normally write about in this space.

I took a one-week vacation and my far better half and I jetted off to England for a six-day tour of the English countryside, ending up in London for the final night prior to the return home.  So this week a bit of a travelogue and collected thoughts from the week away.

It all began last February when Sophie, a devoted WNED watcher and supporter, saw an ad for a tour in August entitled To The Manor Born.  Basically, you would tour some of the sites and locations for some of her - and my - favourite British television shows we watch regularly on PBS.  The tour was guided, of course, and not inexpensive.  Airfare, I might add, was not included.  Sophie said at dinner one night she wanted to go - whether I wanted to or not!

Well faced with a dilemma like that, I knew the only correct answer was "Yes, dear", meaning of course I would accompany her on the tour.  Truth be told, I have wanted to get back to the U.K. for some time now, as my first trip was 41 years ago and the last one 28 years ago.  In other words, two generations and one generation ago respectively.

It took some stick-handling to get an unscheduled week off from work at a time when I normally can't get time off, but it all somehow came together and after a lot of online booking, searching, booking some more and checking, we were all set to go.

First off, let me say international travel is not my friend.  I find the flights too long and since we're flying economy, there is simply not a lot of room for stretching out hours on end.  You really are crammed in like sardines these days.  Add to that a very long lineup for both checking in and clearing security at Pearson in Toronto and you are already feeling tired and stressed out before you even leave the ground.

An overnight flight is not my favourite, but at least I timed it right so we arrived at our first hotel in Windsor, just outside of London, in time to simply walk in, grab our room key and go for a well-deserved rest.

We added an extra day on to the front of the tour so as to relax and rest up before hitting the road, and it certainly proved to be the right plan.  The first night there, Sunday, we were both too tired to do much more than take a walk around the area and enjoy a quiet dinner in the hotel dining room.

Those first two nights were spent at the splendid Castle Hotel Windsor, situated right in the heart of town with a view from our hotel room of Windsor Castle across the way.  In every way, the hotel is exquisite and I highly recommend it when you are in Windsor.  We definitely plan to return again in the future.

Monday the tour group met and we basically had the day to explore Windsor and tour Windsor Castle before meeting for a group dinner at the hotel that night.  We discovered far too many shops to explore in town, and even discovered a new pub that had opened just a few months ago described as an 'art bar.'  Art by local artists was on display and all for sale, and the Scottish theme of the pub was reflected in the music and the menu.  I ordered the vegetarian haggis, actually, and it was far better than the real thing, in my estimation.

The Tuesday morning we embarked on the first part of our road tour, stopping late morning at Highclere Castle, the setting for the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey.  As the bus made its way down the long, winding drive, the tour guide wisely popped the Downton Abbey soundtrack CD into the system and with the theme from the series filling our ears, we approached the castle.

Sophie was very emotional at the site of it, as she is totally into the entire series.  Because of the time it aired on Sunday nights I usually didn't get to see many episodes so I was not quite as into it as she was, until we got inside.

The first thing you notice upon arriving is aside from the rolling countryside and distant gardens, there is no visible vegetation anywhere surrounding the castle.  It is all simply gravel, which seems rather barren.  The second thing you discover is no picture taking is allowed inside the castle.

Still, the tour is well worth it, and each room used in the show has a large, full-colour picture depicting a scene from the series shot in that particular room.  But you will also notice, as I did, the amount of wear and tear the carpets are experiencing with all those visitors traipsing through every day.  They are positively threadbare in spots, and together with some rough spots on the walls and some peeling paint on parts of the ceiling, you can see the grand old lady is still in need of repair after all this time.

The 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife are the present occupants of the castle, yet they live there only part-time now.  Most of their time is spent at a cottage elsewhere on the grounds and the castle is for all intents and purposes a museum of sorts.  But what a magnificent museum!

Later in the afternoon we departed for the city of Bath, described as the second most-visited tourist destination in England after London.  Upon arrival it was easy to see why.  Bath, famous for the ancient Roman Baths in the centre of town, is equally famous for the music in every public square in town pretty much all the time.

Walking extensively both that evening and in the morning before departing, Sophie and I were amazed by the sights and sounds of Bath, from the Bath Abbey where Chorus Niagara sang several years ago to Number One Royal Crescent, where a tour reveals how fashionable Georgian society lived.

Our night in Bath was spent at the Abbey Hotel, a compact art-inspired hotel in the centre of town with a bar area featuring wine glasses suspended from the ceiling.  While the room was nice, it was a bit of a let down from the clean elegance of the Castle Hotel Windsor, but it was nicely appointed and since we were only there one night it was not a big problem.

Prior to leaving the next morning, following our walk around town Sophie stopped back into the hotel  to use the main floor women's washroom off the lobby, and after a rather lengthy period inside, she came out and dragged me in to see the room.  Thankfully we were alone at the time, but it was a picture of elegance and grace with a view outside that was quite stunning.  Yes, there is certainly a great divide between mens and women's washrooms the world over it seems...

Leaving Bath Wednesday morning with great reluctance, Sophie and I decided we simply have to return again some day as there is simply so much more to see in the city.  We travelled first to Cricket St. Thomas, an elegant Regency mansion built c1820 and surrounded by spectacular gardens and even a lawn bowling green.

The mansion was chosen by the BBC as the location for the popular British sitcom To The Manor Born several years ago, and today is a popular country house hotel.  We enjoyed a cream tea and tour of the gardens during our mid-day visit there.

Later in the afternoon it was off to Devon and our hotel for the next two nights, Boringdon Hall.  This manor house hotel features dramatic Elizabethan architecture complete with imposing stone towers, secret archways and curious arrow slits that hint at the hotel's rich history.

Boringdon Hall was a pleasure to stay at, with extremely comfortable accommodation in the more modern wing and exceptional dining both nights we were there.  There is also a newer spa wing added on not too many years ago.

Thursday morning we departed for what was for Sophie and I perhaps the highlight of the entire tour, a day-long visit to the Cornish coast and a tour of the seaside village of Port Isaac, used for many years as the setting for the popular TV show Doc Martin.  Known as Port Wenn in the show, Port Isaac is hilly with narrow streets and quaint little cottages you can rent much of the year.

In fact, most of the inhabitants in town are people renting those cottages.  Our tour guide is one of only about 25 people who actually live in the town now, and on his street he says he is the only permanent resident.

The guide took us around to most of the outside settings for all the familiar locations in the show, from Doc Martens house (actually owned by people in Australia, we're told) to the iconic apothecary in town which is actually a fudge and gift shop the rest of the year.  All of the indoor scenes for the show are shot in a barn not far from Port Isaac, so only the outdoor filming is actually done in town.  The next season will start shooting next May, I'm told.

The weather was cool and windy for our visit there and it threatened rain most of the day, which seemed appropriate given the location, but it is easy to see why the Cornish coastline can be an unforgiving one for those not too careful about where they go.

Upon returning to Boringdon Hall for our second night, we were treated to a falconry demonstration by one of the locals, an eccentric gentleman with a large owl by the name of Merlin, several hawks and lots of stories about local lore.

The Friday morning we left Boringdon hall, again with much reluctance, for a mid-day visit to The Greenway Estate in Devon, the summertime home for Agatha Christie and her second husband.  It is a large historic estate with sprawling grounds used as the setting for Christie's Dead Man Walking, starring of course her signature detective Hercule Poirot.  You can take pictures without flash in the home, and the tour reveals a grand yet still modest lifestyle enjoyed by Dame Agatha in her final years.  I couldn't help but notice a picture in one of the rooms of Slipper, the final cat to reside at The Greenway Estate with her.

After lunch at the estate we departed for Sidmouth, a charming seaside town, although last weekend being a bank holiday in England it was decided we should forego the crowds of Sidmouth for the charms of Torquay, part of what is referred to as the English Riviera.  Here, we passed by the Grand Hotel on our way into town, where Agatha and her husband spent their honeymoon, apparently.

The weather had turned rather cloudy and windy while there, with a threat of rain, but we did explore the boardwalk a bit and the collection of amusements, including a lovely carousel not unlike what we have here in Port Dalhousie.  Eventually we ducked into a local cafe for a light bite before rejoining our tour group for the final leg of the tour that day.

We hit a lot of holiday traffic on that stretch, so our arrival at our hotel for the night, Tortworth Court was later than expected.  But once we arrived, our collective jaws dropped.  Tortworth Court is huge, with over 200 stately rooms in an historic setting that just screams history.  There was a wedding underway that evening so lots to see as we wandered the estate prior to dinner and afterwards.  The room was beautiful with every nicety you could imagine.

The Saturday morning, our final full day on the tour, we departed for Hampton Court Palace on our way in to London for the final night.  Hampton Court Palace was not originally intended as a royal residence and in fact it isn't now, either.  It was built by Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, minister of King Henry VIII and appropriated by the king when Wolsey failed to bring about the king's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The grounds are sprawling, with gardens to welcome you first as you make your way to the palace itself.  The tour takes you through the palace, courtyard and art gallery, so there is a lot to see while there.  There was also a food festival on the grounds that day, so crowds were particularly heavy while we were there.  But it was certainly worth stopping for!

Finally we departed late afternoon for London, a city I first visited in 1977 and last in 1990.  It is still the same multicultural, dynamic city as always, but you cannot escape the tension and sense of urgency while there given the world events of the age we live in.

Our final hotel stay was at the strikingly beautiful Amba Hotel, Charing Cross, adjacent to Charing Cross rail station and close to just about everything you want to see in London.  The reinvention of the old Charing Cross hotel is nothing short of spectacular, although I found the lighting system in our particular room rather troublesome.

Another wedding in that hotel Saturday night so it was again a busy place, but the staff is amazing there, helpful in the extreme.  For our final group dinner together we left the hotel, in fact, and walked a few blocks to a French restaurant near The Strand for a lovely late-evening dinner.

Upon returning to the Amba hotel, we found the large winding staircase in the main lobby was festooned with candles in glass holders along most steps to light your way up or down in the evening.  It was a spectacular display of attention to detail at this historic yet modern hotel.

After breakfast on the Sunday morning I left for a walk around town to get some pictures of familiar places I had visited in the past such as Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, both just steps away from our hotel.  It was a cool, grey day in London, and the rain started falling just as I was concluding my walk.  Upon checkout shortly afterwards the rain was pouring down as our car picked us up for the trip to Heathrow airport.

It was great to be back in such a vibrant city again if even just for one night.  I must return again!

The return home was again an adventure, but for different reasons this time.  We were early enough to avoid the lineups we experienced on the way over, but upon our arrival in Toronto late in the afternoon, it proved to be all for naught as my luggage didn't make the flight although Sophie's did.  Amazingly and without logic, her bag was on our flight but mine was on the next flight to Toronto three hours later!

After a very long wait in Toronto for a bag that was still in the air, we left for our car to come home, and Air Canada, to their credit, delivered my bag directly to the house around noon on Monday.  No idea why this happened and it was a first for me, but it made for an rather interesting end to the week away.

So there you have it.  A week full of memories, and a strong desire to return and experience some of the locations again.

The tour operator, Transcendent Travel, is first-rate and treated us all very well.  Tour director Andrew Lennard is knowledgeable and things of just about every detail.  It was an unforgettable experience being on the tour with Sophie and I don't regret it for a moment.

Have a great weekend!

September 2nd, 2018.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Foster Festival Finale leaves the best for last

The third and final offering of the 2018 Foster Festival opened just over a week ago, and it is quickly proving to be the hit of the season.  It is also the second of two World Premieres at the Festival this season.

Canadian playwright Norm Foster has outdone himself this time, crafting a play with an intricate and complex plot, brilliant scene melding and some absolutely spot-on characterizations that take summer theatre to a whole new level.  Expect to see Renovations For Six on many summer theatre playbills starting next season and for several years to come.

Foster clearly knows what his audiences want, and then he takes them to places they never knew existed.  With Renovations For Six he pushes the comedic and dramatic envelope even further, providing us with perhaps his best play to date.

Renovations For Six involves three adult couples, each at different stages of their lives.  The first, Grant and Shayna Perkins, have moved here from Vancouver where both had successful careers.  However, while Grant has a new position as manager of a furniture store, his wife is feeling cast adrift in a way, and contemplates starting up her own Pilates business.  But before that happens, she thinks meeting some new people in their new city is overdue.  After all, they have been here six weeks and have yet to make any new friends.

Maurice Dudet and his wife Veronica Dunn-Dudet have a tense, acidic relationship due in large part to the fact Maurice has quit his well-paying engineering job in order to write a novel.  His wife, a psychiatrist who feels put upon for now having to shoulder the entire financial load of the family, is firmly in sarcastic mode from the moment we meet her.

Billie and Wing Falterman, meanwhile, are the gem couple in the trio.  Billie is outgoing, suspicious of others and just plain earthy.  Husband Wing (we never do find out why he is named Wing, incidentally) is a more down-to-earth sort who works hard for a living as the top salesman at Grant's furniture store.  Together they used to have a successful song and dance act, which Billie longs to return to.

All three couples come together in one generic home, with furniture covered for renovations.  This cleverly allows director Patricia Vanstone to skillfully have all three couples use the same set with no changes, oftentimes appearing in the same home at the same time yet in their own dwellings.  The set design by Peter Hartwell is creatively outfitted with oversize paint chips depicting colours each has chosen for their chosen renovations.

Vanstone keeps the pace lively and takes advantage of every opportunity to accentuate the conflicts furthering the plot, culminating in the trademark Foster finale of exposing the demons in each of the characters and how it affects the others in the cast.  It is brilliant writing on the part of Norm Foster.

The characterizations are uniformly good and finely drawn, although I found Wes Berger's portrayal of Grant Perkins strangely stiff and wooden in the early going, a fact that seems at odds with his readiness to jump into the sack for a 'quickie' with his wife Shayna at every opportunity.  As the play progresses and we find out why he is not spending more quality romantic time with his wife, his meanness and nasty streak makes his characterization much more believable.  For her part, Cosette Derome as perky Shayna is beautifully portrayed, particularly when her world starts to fall apart as the play progresses.

Real-life couple Peter Keleghan and Leah Pinsent are a pleasure to watch as Maurice and Veronica.  Their painful relationship, culminating in their own revelation at the end, mirrors people I suspect we have all met at parties and ultimately try to avoid.

The pairing of Shaw veterans William Vickers and Nora McLellan as Wing and Billie Falterman is a stroke of genius.  Vickers perfectly captures the essence of Wing, a humble man in a humble position,  yet comfortable in his humbleness.  Nora McLellan has and always will be a national treasure, and I still have memories of her spectacular turn in Gypsy at the Shaw Festival several years ago.  She imbues Billie with the fun and games demeaner of the kid who was always the class clown in school. Her overly creative imagination and suspicious nature easily plays off William Vickers' more stable portrayal as Wing.

The culminating scene of Renovations For Six is described by director Patricia Vanstone as the "cocktail party from hell" and indeed it is.  It reveals all in this telling comedy and leads us to the wordless finale when five of the six characters support Shayna in her time of grief.

Renovations For Six plays for another week in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and if you have yet to catch it you really should.  It is the highlight of not only this year's Foster Festival, but really, the summer theatre circuit that I've experienced so far.

Tickets are available by going to www.fosterfestival.com or calling or visiting the FirstOntario PAC box office.  The number is 905-688-0722,

Enjoy your weekend!

August 18th, 2018.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Shaw Double-Bill offers up laughs along with food for thought

Most people - myself included, I must admit - have sort of a love-hate relationship with George Bernard Shaw.  You can admire his creativity and ability to tell a good story, but when it comes to sermonizing on subjects near and dear to his heart, which is quite often, well, most of us check out at some point.

It is, therefore, a delicate balancing act now for his namesake festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake to present Shaw's plays.  In an age when attention spans often last at most through the first couple of paragraphs of one of Shaw's patented diatribes, how do you you keep the public interested and coming back for more?

The answer, in recent years at least, appears to be avoid Shaw altogether whenever you can.  When you must, find someone to reimagine Shaw's work for a modern age.  Not a bad idea, in theory at least, but oftentimes it seems to muddy the water even more.

So kudos to the Shaw Festival and director Philip Akin for playing it straight with a comedy double-bill at the Royal George Theatre this season.  Of Marriage and Men:  A Comedy Double-Bill brings together two short Shaw plays demonstrating Shaw's interesting views on marriage, fidelity and relationships.

This is not the first time these two short plays have been paired together.  Indeed, the great Arnold Daley did just that at Toronto's Princess Theatre all the way back in 1904.  The first play, How He Lied to Her Husband, was first produced in New York in 1904; the second, The Man of Destiny, was first produced in England in 1897.

For this production pairing, Aiken has assembled a strong cast of Shaw actors, including David Adams, Krystal Kiran and Shawn Ahmed for the first play, and Fiona Byrne, Martin Happer, Andrew Lawrie and Kelly Wong for the second.

The first play, How He Lied to Her Husband, is about half an hour in length and full of lighthearted banter and unlikely scenarios.  It is perhaps the better of the two in terms of comedy.  The story involves young 18-year old He, played by Shawn Ahmed, who is hopelessly in love with She, Krystal Kiran.  Alas, She is married to Her Husband, David Adams.  The triangle intensifies over the course of the half hour, reaching an improbable conclusion before intermission.

In a clever bit of theatrical gamesmanship, director Aiken has the closing scene of the first play reprised as the curtain raises for the start of act two, before the cast of the second play shoo them offstage and orchestrate an enjoyable scene change that sees the set move from a flat in London to an inn on the road from Lodi to Milan in northern Italy run by Giuseppe Grandi.  The change offers much of the comedy relief to be found in act two.

The Man of Destiny involves Kelly Wong as Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh from another military victory, stopping at the inn run by Grandi for some rest and good food before moving on to his next military conquest.  While there he learns his hapless Lieutenant, played by Andrew Lawrie, has lost the important communiques he was to deliver to him.  Well maybe lost is not the correct term to use here, as another military man tricked him into turning them over and then he was gone.

But Bonaparte meets a Strange Lady at the inn, played by Fiona Byrne, who offers to return the communiques to him.  She claims to know who this military officer is.  Bonaparte sees through the ruse and realizes the man and the woman are in fact one in the same.

What ensues is the patented Shavian wordplay and exchanges that make up the better part of the hour-long act.  In true Shaw fashion they do tend to get a bit tedious, but to this audience member at least, following the many twists and turns as they verbally spar back and forth is part of the fun.  Just when you think you've figured everything out, Shaw lobs another verbal shot at you and throws the doors open to more speculation.

The cast for both plays are uniformly strong, with the first act team getting top marks for keeping things moving in such a short space of time.  In the second act things seem to drag a bit, but overall the cast does a fine job with Shaw's barbs.

The set design is simple and elegant for the first play, transformed in the second act to a rustic inn with grape vines and a sky backdrop that gradually darkens from day to night as the play unfolds.

While I have not seen everything Shaw has to offer this season, this double-bill was for me, at least, a little more entertaining than the other two we attended this season.  And it was good to get a laugh or two out of Shaw's plays presented here pretty much as Shaw wrote them.

Of Marriage and Men:  A Comedy Double-Bill continues at the Royal George Theatre until September 2nd, and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.  Tickets are available by calling the Shaw box office at 1-800-511-7429 or by going to www.shawfest.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 11th, 2018.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Enjoying the holiday weekend in Niagara

The midway point of summer is upon us this weekend...well not really, but the August holiday weekend feels like the midway point of summer, doesn't it?  So time to take a bit of a break from the usual business and look at some things, musical and otherwise, going on in Niagara at the moment.

First off, Music Niagara continues in Niagara-on-the-Lake with lots of great performances planned on the weekend and continuing until the end of the summer music festival on August 11th.  Tonight, for example, a highlight of the festival will feature a traditional Last Night of the Proms concert at St. Mark's Church at 7:30 pm, when Kerry Stratton conducts the Niagara Proms Orchestra in a collection of popular classics.  Yes, these will include all your favourite patriotic British musical gems like Rule, Britannia!, Jerusalem and of course, Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1.

The ever-popular Sunday in the Park series continues tomorrow afternoon at Simcoe Park in the Old Town, with Frog & Henry, two musicians who collectively play seven instruments, presenting their take on American popular music from the 1920s and 30s.  Bring your lawn chair and a picnic lunch and enjoy the music and ambiance.  The event is free and begins at 11 am.  Tomorrow afternoon at 3 a concert entitled Remembering Sasha will take place at St. Mark's Church.  The concert, featuring everything from Bach to Piazzolla, is a tribute to the late Alexander Sevastian of Quartetto Gelato fame.  Members of the group will perform the tribute to the long-time and multi-talented accordion and bandoneon player.

Monday, Toronto's All-Star Big Band will perform at Ravine Estates Winery in St. Davids at 7:30 in the evening.  The group revives the spirit, sound and style of the 30s, 40s and 50s, when the big bands were king.  The rest of the week sees the Music Niagara season wind down with performances Tuesday through Saturday, with the Season Finale featuring music by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at St. Mark's Church Saturday night at 7:30 pm.

The soloists for the finale include pianist Victoria Kogan and violinists Bora Kim and Artistic Director Atis Bankas accompanied by the Canadian Chamber Academy Orchestra.

Tickets and more information can be had by going to www.musicniagara.org, or by calling the Shaw Festival box office at 905-468-2172.

Elsewhere in Niagara, we have the St. Catharines Rotary Ribfest happening all weekend long at Montebello Park in downtown St. Catharines, with musical acts taking to the stage all day every day.  This is an annual fundraiser for Rotary to continue their good works in the community and it has grown tremendously over the years.  You can also purchase tickets to the Hospice Niagara 5-Car Draw on site at Montebello Park; the draws take place about 3 pm on Monday afternoon.

Up in Port Colborne, one of my favourite summertime escapes, things are hopping all weekend long with Canal Days, featuring music on stages throughout the downtown and at H.H. Knoll Park overlooking Lake Erie.  But for me the real charm of the festival is where it all began at the Port Colborne Historical Museum, where the grounds come alive all day today with all things nautical and otherwise, and Arabella's Tearoom is busy all weekend long serving afternoon tea.

And on Monday, the third annual Facer Street European Festival will be in full swing all day from 12 noon to 9 pm, all along the historic street running through the part of St. Catharines affectionately known as Little Europe.  Lots of food vendors will be on the street selling their wares, many closely associated with the multicultural community there.  There will also be contests and other family-friendly events, and of course, music from the likes of our own Walter Ostanek along with John Gora and a host of others.

The Facer Street European Festival is designed to bring people back to the historic area and rediscover their roots here, and also help fund much-needed repairs and upgrades to the streetscape, making it even more of a destination in the future.

All over the Region people are enjoying the time off and spending it with family and friends doing whatever suits them.  Be it structured fun or simply a walk through Centennial Park in St. Catharines for example, to check out the refurbishments done recently, it is a great time to get out and enjoy what we have to offer right here in our own backyard.

We are lucky to be here and have a great arts community to tap into.  But more than that, we have what it takes to become even more of a destination point for people both far and near than Niagara already is.  We just need to embrace the amazing things we have going for us right here, right now.

Have a great holiday weekend!

August 4th, 2018.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Foster Festival World Premiere worth the wait

The second production of the third season for the Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is up and running, and you should be running downtown to catch it before it's gone.

Canadian playwright Norm Foster, for whom the festival is named after, has hit all the emotional buttons with Come Down From Up River, the first of two World Premieres this season.  The characters are richly drawn and show even more depth than usual for a Foster play, which is saying something.

Norm Foster excels at holding a mirror up to the audience and showing us ourselves, but occasionally his witty dialogue may not run as deep as you might like in order to produce light and breezy summertime theatre fare.  That's not the case here, as this play proves to be one of his best and most thought-provoking plays.

Come Down From Up River tackles many issues, including bigotry, same-sex marriage, dealing with the death of a family member and ultimately settling long-standing differences between family members.  A lot to handle within two hours?  Not for Foster, who offers up some of his most sophisticated writing in this latest play.

We're introduced to Shaver Bennett, sort of the black sheep of the family who has lived a rather solitary existence as a logger in the woods of the Miramichi in northern New Brunswick.  But before we're actually introduced to him we're set up to dislike him due to the fact, according to his niece Bonnie Doyle, he appeared to be somewhat of a bigot in his younger days.  Not only that, Bonnie doubts he would approve of her same-sex marriage to Liv Arsenault.

This discussion comes out of news Shaver has written Bonnie to say he is coming south for a short visit in order to attend to medical matters at the neighbourhood hospital.  He has asked if he can stay overnight for a day or two before returning home.

When we're finally introduced to Shaver, darned if he isn't really kind of likeable after all.  And not in a bad boy sort of way.  He is older, wiser and a little amused by what Liv has learned of him from Bonnie.  When he arrives Bonnie just happens to have an important meeting to attend and leaves the ice-breaking to Liv alone.  She fails to see why Bonnie has not been in touch with him all these years.

What follows is an exploration of family values, acceptance and tolerance, all deftly handled by Norm Foster in a way that makes the rather bitter pill easier to swallow.  A pivotal scene pits Bonnie and Shaver in a one-on-one conversation as he awaits his appointment at the hospital, and they discuss their differences and the time that has passed by while apart.

The upshot of this hospital visit is Bonnie gets a new appreciation of Shaver, while he gets a diagnosis that is rather grim.  To me it's not quite realistic he would get the serious news he does on the same day as the visit, but I'm told that aspect of the play is based on actual events, so hey, colour me jaded.  At any rate, the hospital visit makes all three of them realize time has been passing them by.

Not wanting to give too much of the ending away, Shaver leaves for up north after he and Bonnie have reconciled somewhat, with a promise Bonnie and Liv will come up for a visit soon.  That would have been unheard of at the beginning of the play.

Director Patricia Vanstone has assembled a fine cast here, with Amanda Parsons making her Foster Festival debut as Bonnie.  Returning Festival favourites Kirsten Alter as Liv and Peter Krantz as Shaver also seem right at home in their roles.  Whether Foster wrote the play with these particular actors in mind is open to debate, I suppose, but all three actors are perfectly suited to their roles.

The simple set design cleverly depicts three locations, the central one being the century home where Liv and Bonnie live together.

There is a reason the Foster Festival is growing by leaps and bounds after only three years of existence:  quality work by all involved makes for a guaranteed pleasurable afternoon or evening of live theatre in the heart of the city.

Come Down From Up River continues until August 3rd, with matinee performances at 2 and evening performances at 7:30.  You can order tickets by calling the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722 or online by going to www.fosterfestival.com.

Enjoy your weekend!

July 28th, 2018.