Monday, July 30, 2007

Shaw Festival serves up some great theatre this summer!

The summer theatre festival season is once again upon us, and again this season, I am spending many a day or evening attending theatre performances at both the Shaw and the Stratford Festivals. So I thought for the next few weeks, I would share with you my capsule comments on some of the offerings at both festivals in case you are planning to attend. We'll begin with three shows at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake:

The Cassilis Engagement, by St John Hankin (Court House Theatre until October 5th):
Once you get past the author's unorthodox name, you are presented with a period piece that doesn't appear the least bit dated. The story deals with a well-to-do English family coming to grips with their son's choice of woman to marry. She is a commoner, and they know she won't fit in. But Mrs. Cassilis wisely plays the waiting game, allowing the young lady to find out for herself when she visits their country estate for a period of time. Of course, she is bored to tears by the life lead by the well-to-do, and longs for her London home, excitement, and just plain more fun. Former Shaw Artistic Director Christopher Newton directs and he is clearly in his element here: watch for the clever set changes in between acts, beautifully choreographed to the music. Not a single detail is overlooked, and the set is very bright and sunny. Standout performances include Donna Belleville as the busybody godmother The Countess of Remenham; Goldie Semple as Mrs. Cassilis, and Mary Haney is hilarious as the rough-edged Mrs. Borridge. Honourable mention goes to Laurie Paton as Lady Marchmont and David Leyshon as the smitten Geoffrey Cassilis. As for his fiancee? Trish Lindstrom is sweet yet tart as Ethel Borridge, as she discovers what she's in for should she marry into the family. Oh, and one other performance of note: Patrick Galligan as Major Warrington gives another exceptional performance in a season of same for this talented actor. Perhaps not for everyone, but I think most will find this play funny, relevant, clever and beautifully performed. Three out of four stars.

The Philanderer by Bernard Shaw (Royal George Theatre until October 7th):
This is early Shaw; in fact his second play, dating from 1893 but not publicly performed until 1907. Directed by Alisa Palmer, this is a clever and elegant presentation, with nice sets and costumes, good ensemble work and of course, Shaw's trademark biting humour and witty repartee. The only drawback here is the fast pace of the dialogue might be hard for some to follow, as they take things at a very good clip. That said, I think most will enjoy the show, especially if they are fortunate enough to catch a performance with the rarely-performed fourth act. I missed that at my performance, and wish I could have seen it, for at the end of three acts you are left with unanswered questions and wanting more. Shaw termed the play a "topical comedy", and it is clearly that, dealing with the so-called "New Woman" and the sexual desires of both men and women as they face the new reality. Good ensemble work here, including Deborah Hay's understated and elegant Grace Tranfield; Nicole Underhay as a vixen playing Julia Craven; Norman Browning as the stuffy but funny Mr. Joseph Cuthbertson; and Peter Hutt typically extroverted as Colonel Daniel Craven. Ben Carlson is okay as Leonard Charteris, the young lad all the women seem to want to be with, but I personally found him to be a bit too wishy-washy for the part. Still, a good performance overall, and a solid three out of four stars.

A Month In The Country by Brian Friel, after Turgenev (Court House Theatre to October 6th):
Director Tadeusz Bradecki serves up an interesting bit of theatre here: one you have to warm to over the course of the performance, as the first act is a little slow. It runs about 1 1/2 hours, but the dialogue is very good and the ensemble work is typically excellent. The staging is simple, but beautifully done. This is a Russian play dating from 1850 originally, updated by the Irish playwright Brian Friel which makes it a little easier to swallow for modern theatre-goers. Once again, we have an interesting scenario played out on stage - a woman, Natalya, married to an adoring husband, but attracted to other men as well. During this month in the country, lots of challenges face the dynamic Natalya and her many gentlemen. Some of the performances are a little iffey: for example, I never did take to David Schurmann's Herr Schaaf, a tutor who just seems to get in the way, and Michael Ball as a goofy Afanasy, a neighbouring landlord. Not his best peformance, I find. But others are very good, indeed. Thom Marriott is strong as servant Matvey; Marla McLean does a nice turn as Natalya's ward, Vera; and Patricia Hamilton is very strong as Arkady's widowed mother, Anna. As for the rest, Sharry Flett is typically excellent as Anna's companion, Fiona Byrne is conniving and attractive as Natalya, and Blair Williams is solid as Arkady. This will not be everyone's choice for a good time, but if you see several other plays at Shaw this season, it will make a nice addition to the fold. Three out of four stars.

More from Shaw in my next report next month!

Mike Saunders
July 30th, 2007.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Memories of Living in Toronto Revisited

Over the past month, two sad events relating the the Toronto merchandising landscape caused me to remember growing up in "The Big Smoke". Last month, the original - and the best - Sam The Record Man closed on Yonge Street at Gould. For anyone growing up in Toronto in the 60's and beyond, you included Sam's as a sort of right of passage to adulthood. I still remember spending hours clawing my way through old dusty lps on the third floor - my favourite find was a 1958 recording by Nancy Walker of all people, with a picture of her on the cover sticking needles into a male doll - and the title something like "I Hate Men"! Oddly, I didn't buy it...perhaps thinking it, like Sam's itself, would always be there.

Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Bowing to the pressure of music downloads and a younger population with no idea what buying music really means, the Sniderman family decided to close the venerable musical institution at the end of June. It ends a rich and ultimately sad chapter in Toronto's merchandising history. Who doesn't have stories of 'finds' at Sam's, or attending the annual mayhem known as Boxing Day Sale, which almost rivals the running of the bulls at Pamplona, Spain for sheer exhilaration? I have stories of finding things at Sam's I thought I would never find, and great buys on Boxing Day in spite of the crowds. But, they are only memories now. Perhaps it is just as well, and maybe the Snidermans knew when to fold them and walk away, rather than see a great institution wither and die away. Oh sure, there is talk of saving the famous two-disc facade, but what good is that when the store behind it is no longer there?

I will always have fond memories of visiting Sam the Record Man. My last visit was a few weeks before it closed, and already the stock had been pretty well picked over. Ah well, better to get your music from A Web of Fine Music now, anyway...

My second memory of Toronto merchandising is rather broader-based, as it involves the passing of "Honest Ed" Mirvish last week. Who in Toronto has not been touched in some way by the Mirvish family? I went to Honest Eds years ago and was amazed at the carnival-like atmosphere and what you could find there. It is a lifeline for the poor and newly-arrived immigrants; but also for ex-Torontonians like myself who just want to remember. On my next trip to Toronto, I will visit the gaudy shrine once again.

Ed, of course, almost single-handedly brought quality live theatre to Toronto when he bought the dilapidated Royal Alexandra Theatre on King Street West and started to totally revitalize the area, giving theatre-goers some amazing shows over the years. I remember in my early days in radio attending opening nights at the Royal Alex, watching everything from Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in The Gin Game to Peter O'Toole in The Seagull to any number of brash musicals. Every one showed Ed and son David's theatrical acumen - and risk-taking. My greatest memory, however, was meeting Ed and his lovely wife Anne at intermission, as I and other media types were ushered into their private reception room for a drink and some idle chatter. It was here I realized Ed's wife was a regular listener to my show when I hosted the morning show in Oshawa. God only knows why she listened, as I was so green it hurt, and I sounded just terrible on the air back then. But I was a somebody in that room, and I always looked forward to the visit. I know Anne is grieving the loss of her faithful husband of 60-odd years, and I wish I could just reach out and touch her shoulder to show I care. But I can't, so I will simply offer these memories as my salute to a true patron of the arts and a life-long champion of Toronto on the occasion of his passing. Ed will be missed by so many, and this week, the world is all the poorer for the loss of such a great man.

Ed, your prices may be cheep, cheep, cheep, as one sign at Honest Eds says, but you will always remain priceless. You'll be missed by so many.

Mike Saunders
July 19th, 2007.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Let's all stand and cheer the Black Tie Blues!

On a recent flight back from Winnipeg, I was reading the comments of Kelvin Browne in the Globe & Mail on concert etiquette and when to wear black tie in this day and age. I have always had pet peeves on both of these subjects, so let's explore the dual minefields together...

A question was posed to Mr. Browne about concert etiquette; specifically, while at a TSO concert, the reader didn't know when to clap, what to wear, etc. In this day and age, the short answer, I find, is 'anything goes'. While most arts organizations will jump through hoops to have patrons come through the door wearing anything at all - just come in, for heaven's sake! - I still like the notion of dressing for the occasion. What you interpret that as is your own decision; for me, there are so few opportunities to really dress up anymore, I like to wear a nice suit or sportsjacket and tie to create a sense of occasion. After all, why not present yourself in public in the best possible light?

This brings us to how to conduct oneself in the auditorium once the concert has started. As Mr. Browne notes in his column, some believe attending a concert is like watching TV. Sit down with a bag of snacks, talk to your neighbour, and generally forget there are several hundred other souls also sitting there, some who might actually want to hear the concert. I have often had to politely ask someone nearby to please keep quiet; it is not something I enjoy doing and I try to avoid it at all costs. However, sometimes people just don't get it. I remember a couple of seasons back sitting in front of a lady at the theatre who actually started singing the songs from the musical we were watching onstage! Please, unless you are an off-duty performer yourself, please don't treat the concert hall as your own personal karaoke venue. And while we're at it, could you please unwrap your candies BEFORE the concert starts? Just last week, I was attending a performance at the Shaw Festival, and the lady behind me was talking to her friend until the moment the performance started, and then promptly started unwrapping a candy as the first words onstage were being uttered. What, you can't unwrap and talk at the same time?
I know, I know, I might be accused of being a snob, but really, it's all about good manners as far as I'm concerned.

Mr. Brown also relates Toronto is the easiest place in the world to get a standing ovation, and we're so insecure we'll applaud almost anything. I concur on both counts. The general rule at a classical concert is, look at the number of movements in the programme and don't applaud until the end. There is a constant desire to applaud the moment there is a void in the hall, and this just isn't the case. Enjoy the silence as the music trails off...don't be the first to applaud, wait until the end of a piece and after a short pause, applaud generously. It's simple. Don't feel you have to applaud EVERYTHING. Years ago, I attended a concert by an orchestra visiting from the U.K. at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, and the audience even applauded the guy moving the chairs around on the stage before the musicians came back out! Bemused, he stood, took a deep bow, and walked off. How embarrasing! As for standing ovations, it is easier to count the number of times I have attended a concert that didn't end with a standing ovation rather than did. People almost always stand now, and that is just too much. In my concert-going career, I have legitimately been moved to genuinely give a standing ovation only a few times. But all too often I am standing now, rather than be the only guy in the hall still sitting in his seat. A standing ovation should be the highest compliment paid a performer or group rather than the norm as it is now.

The other question posed to Mr. Browne in his column in the National Post was when it would be appropriate to wear black tie. Basically, Mr. Browne laments the fact we just don't know when to wear black tie, as we fear being over-dressed. I can understand the uneasiness, as most men would rather avoid a tuxedo at all costs save for their wedding day, and even then only if necessary. Invitations suggesting 'creative black tie' don't make things any easier. What the heck is that supposed to mean? My rule of thumb is to interpret the invitation given the location, time of year, and what the event is. Usually, I am right. If you don't own a tux, obviously you don't want to rent a tux and then find out you're the only one wearing one, so don't be afraid to ask if you are not sure. And if you wear a tux on average once a year, it is best to consider buying rather than renting. I have owned my own for at least twenty years now; I am on my third, in fact, and I have never regretted the investment. It comes back to presenting yourself in the best possible light when you are out in public.

So the bottom line from all this? Be quiet during the performance, don't unwrap your candies after the lights go down, and dress for the occasion. If we all did these things, the concert-going experience would be more of a memorable occasion for everyone involved. Hey, you might even enjoy it more!

Mike Saunders
July 11th, 2007.