Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Great Things Happening at Shaw Festival this Season!

Let's put talk of lagging tourism numbers and attendance shortfalls at summer attractions on hold for the balance of the season, and simply celebrate what's great about our two major theatre festivals in Ontario: The Shaw Festival and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We'll begin with Shaw for a couple of weeks and look at the season offerings I've had the chance to attend so far. As always, my star ratings range from one (poor) to four (excellent).

Getting Married (Royal George Theatre to November 1st) ***
This is George Bernard Shaw writing about one of his pet subjects, it seems: the convention of marriage and the pluses and minuses of said union. It premiered in the spring and summer of 1908 at London's Haymarket Theatre and coincided with the tenth anniversary of Shaw's marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend. Shaw's married life was unconventional, to say the least, but they remained married until her death in 1943. In those days, it would have been wiser, one would think, to remain in an unhappy marriage rather than seek a divorce, as for most Edwardian women, divorce proceedings were more onerous than they are now. This play could descend into a tedious rant if not for the talents of an all-star cast directed by Joseph Ziegler; instead, it proves to be an entertaining, biting look at the need - or desire - to be married. No doubt controversial at the time, it explores the reasons why anyone would want to get or remain married at all. Look for great performances by Michael Ball, Sharry Flett and Norman Browning, all Shaw veterans. I found Peter Krantz a little overbearing as the infatuated General "Boxer" Bridgenorth, and in spite of a bad case of laryngitis the night I attended, David Schurmann was splendid as Alfred Bridgenorth, Bishop of Chelsea. But the real star of the show doesn't arrive until the very last moment of Act One: Laurie Paton as Mrs. George Collins. Throughout the second act, Paton owns the stage and turns in a performance to savour. If you like Shaw, you'll love this show; if Shaw is not your cup of tea, you might want to bury your indifference and give it a try. After all, like a marriage, it seems, it isn't a permanent arrangement...

Wonderful Town (Festival Theatre to October 5th) ***
Some might consider this musical a bit of a gamble this season, especially since it is on the large Festival stage, and it is not a particularly well-known musical. But don't let the fact you might not have heard of Wonderful Town before deter you: embrace the fact you can discover a gem of 1950's musical theatre. Wonderful Town dates from 1953, and was part of a trio of Leonard Bernstein musicals that examined New York city from many different aspects. The first, in 1941, was On The Town, and the third, of course, was the better-known West Side Story from the latter part of the 50's. While West Side Story dealt with the grittier side of the Big Apple, what with street gangs dominated by the Sharks and the Jets, Wonderful Town suggests even in New York City, people sleep with their doors unlocked and everything is safe and secure. An unrealistic picture, to be sure, even for 1953, but it makes for some entertaining theatre. This is typical Bernstein from the 1950's: brash, vigorous rhythms and catchy tunes, although only three will likely remain with you after the curtain descends at the end of the performance. The best-known piece is "Conga" sung in the original production by Rosalind Russell, and given a great performance here by Lisa Horner. Other standout peformances include reliable Neil Barclay as Mr. Appopolous; Thom Marriott as Wreck; and Chilina Kennedy as Eileen Sherwood, one of the two girls from Ohio trying to make it big in the Big Apple. What a voice she has! Directing the production is Roger Hodgman. Some have complained this season the big musical is not a better-known show; for me, I'd rather the chance to explore a lesser-known work of great merit. Like She Loves Me a few years ago at Shaw, this production deserves a well-attended run.

The Little Foxes (Royal George Theatre to November 1st) ***
This is another in the ongoing plays by Lillian Hellman produced at the Shaw Festival, and this one will not disappoint. Hellman provides some pretty sharp-tongued dialogue for a talented cast and proves to be an earlier version of the TV series "Dallas", if you will. They follow the time-honoured tradition of backstabbing and doing whatever it takes to get ahead and make more money than anyone else you meet along the way. The play is a little slow in the first act, I find, but once it gets going, there's no stopping this cast, led again by Laurie Paton, who is having a season of a lifetime. Paton plays the pivotal role of Regina Giddens, whose husband is very ill but she won't let him die peacefully. She is the woman you don't want as your mother-in-law! She is surrounded by a strong cast that includes Sharry Flett as the lovely and sweet but drunk Birdie Hubbard, Peter Krantz as Oscar Hubbard, and David Jansen as Paton's long-suffering husband in the play, Horace Giddens. The cast is directed with a steady hand by Eda Holmes. I have not always enjoyed Hellman's productions at Shaw, but this one is right on the money.

July 30th, 2008.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Another Summer Entertainment Season is Underway

With events of the last few weeks taking up so much of my time, I found I still hadn't gotten around to talking about summer theatre and related events yet, and it is the third week of July already! So, let's get the ball rolling with some thoughts on Elora, Stratford and Shaw in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

This past weekend, rainy weather notwithstanding, we ventured to one of our favourite places to visit on a summer weekend: beautiful Elora, Ontario. Even though we drove through torrential downpours on the way up and as we arrived, the weather failed to dampen our spirits as Sophie and I arrived at The Vickerage B&B in Elora to visit with Susan, who runs one of the nicer and more eclectic B&Bs you'll find anywhere. We were in town for the Hot Fusion concert that evening at the Gambrel Barn, a town works repository for salt and road equipment in the winter and an acoustically perfect music venue in the summer. Hot Fusion was made up of Toronto-based singer Amanda Martinez, Toronto-based violinist Vasyl Popadiuk, and Newmarket-based singer-songwriter Justin Hines. I had only heard the music of Vasyl Popadiuk before, having hosted an artist chat with him when he played Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catharines a couple of seasons back. I knew what to expect from him, and he delivered: hot gypsy violin of astounding dexterity. I had not heard Amanda nor Justin before, but they were engaging in their own ways and easily won over the enthusiastic crowd. Both performed music from their own cds, as did Vasyl, and as a finale they all performed together with respective sidemen. We were expecting a much hotter, more frenetic musical pace, but overall it was very laid back and as refreshing as the rain outside on a hot summer's day. This was a great concert by three gifted musicians who each work in different musical genres and yet came together to show that music is indeed a universal language. The Elora Festival continues until August 3rd and you can find out more by visiting their website at

Earlier this month I spent a few days in Stratford attending some of their meatier offerings this season, details of which I will recount in the coming weeks. I have also attended about three-quarters of the shows at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake thus far; again, details of which will come in future reports. Both festivals are having stellar seasons artistically, but attendance appears to be down somewhat from previous years. I am used to that in early June, before families begin to travel when the kids are out of school, but this year the crowds have not been there - quite yet. The latest report from the Shaw Festival's Colleen Blake is that Shaw numbers are up this year so far, in spite of a significant drop in American tourists. More locals staying close to home discovering or rediscovering the festival this year, perhaps? Let's hope so, for Shaw has some absolutely fabulous offerings this season.

Over in Stratford, the performances I attended the first week of July were worrisome as far as audience numbers were concerned: there appeared to be far too many empty seats for big-budget productions - even on a Friday night. A recent report by Michael Posner and James Bradshaw in the Globe and Mail suggests a 10-per cent drop in ticket sales so far this season could cause trouble next season for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as it is now called. What's the cause? High gas prices, likely, will be to blame, as well as border delays. But why has that not, apparently, been the case at Shaw so far this season? At Stratford, the first post- Richard Monette season has produced some excellent theatre; however, there appear to be too few people to attend all those performances at four theatres plus a tent presentation this year. This could - and likely will - result in cutbacks next season with a shorter playbill. It won't be the first time Stratford has had to tighten their collective belt, and it likely won't be the last, either. But as troubling as this season is, next season might be even more so. My B&B proprietor in Stratford tells me while the bookings are not that bad this year, next year will be the one to watch, as many had already committed to their Stratford visits this season before high gas prices became a hot news item again.

So, while both festivals are playing to somewhat less-than-full houses for at least some performances so far this season, it could be the start of a disappointing trend in the future: staying away from arts and culture because gas, food and other utilities take away too much of the family budget. Only time will tell if this proves to be true or not, and there is plenty of time to make up ground before the season ends in the fall, but for now, a close eye on the purse strings at both festivals appears to be in order. If you are considering a visit to either Stratford or Shaw this season, I don't think you will be the least bit disappointed; but if you are only thinking about it, let the coming reports in this space detailing the productions at both festivals hopefully convince you to get out and support the arts this summer. You won't be disappointed!

July 22nd, 2008.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Death of a Radio Station: So Long, CHSC...

Although I usually concentrate on the arts and other cultural endeavours, the radio industry is never far from my thoughts, as I have been in the broadcasting field for over 35 years now. And this week, I am reporting on two sad events that happened in St. Catharines over the past week or so.

The first is the passing of Ed Eldred, the long-time news director of radio station CHSC in St. Catharines, and more recently a community activist with Aids Niagara, among other groups. It was truly a shock to hear of his death earlier this month of natural causes in his apartment. No cause of death has been listed, but he was only 58 years old, so this was totally unexpected. Anyone who worked with or knew Ed knew how warm and friendly he was, and how professional he was in all his career endeavours. I used to attend openings at the Shaw Festival and always talked with Ed at intermission; more recently I chatted with him while he was doing contract work with the St. Catharines and Area Arts Council. After that he went to work for Sitel in St. Catharines.

There will be a public memorial for Ed on July 22nd at Stella's Restaurant in downtown St. Catharines to celebrate his life and many of his achievements. The date is a fitting one, as it would have been his 59th birthday. Organizers also hope to announce plans for a lasting memorial to Ed that evening, which gets underway at 7 pm. If you knew Ed or used to listen to him during his years delivering the news at CHSC, I hope you'll find some time to raise a glass in his honour at Stellas next Tuesday evening. He will be missed.

The second event is the closure of CHSC Radio itself. The rocky road of AM Radio has not been kind to CHSC for many years now, as it struggled to maintain its market position in the face of growing debt and reduced listenership. The beginning of the end came, apparently, in May when bailiffs locked the doors due to failure to pay rent and taxes on the property on Queenston Street. Since then, the station has still been operating, apparently out of the present owner's basement studio in Woodbridge, Ontario. How long that will last is anyone's guess.

The public auction of station assets was this past Monday, as former employees of the once-proud station and other curious bargain hunters walked the halls bidding on everything from office furniture to studio equipment to paper and pens and all sorts of other leftover material. I was there for part of the auction and the scene was not a pretty one: radio consoles that once housed working equipment now sat empty and practically useless. There were very old radio station turntables I worked with in the 70s and 80s, as well as other equipment long discarded by most other radio stations years ago. It was almost like walking back in time and visiting a station circa 1975. The set of WKRP in Cincinnati was not far from what this operation looked like before being gutted by bargain hunters this week.

I came away with nothing, and that is fine. I went mainly to see the remains of a once-proud institution I once applied for a job at when I was planning to move to St Catharines from Belleville over a quarter-century ago. At the time, I remember the station being a formidable opponent for CKTB Radio, where I have worked since 1981. Now, though, only a dead carcass of a radio station remains. How sad it is.

What will become of the building has yet to be determined; will a buyer be found for it and if so, what will they do with the building? Time will tell. But one thing is clear: it will never again house the station that once proudly proclaimed it was "All About This Town".

Goodbye, CHSC. And thanks for the memories.

July 16th, 2008.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Niagara loses a prominent 'Patron of the Arts'

It was with a great deal of sadness I read last evening (July 8th) that James Curtis, known to his friends as 'Jim', passed away on the weekend. I have known Jim for many years since his retirement, and a host of people will remember him from his teaching days in Pelham and area from the 50s to the 80s. With Jim's passing, we have lost a great booster of the arts in Niagara.

Jim was born in St. Thomas, Ontario in 1932, and in 1952 he graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a degree in Philosophy; he also became an Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto in 1950. From 1955 through to 1974 he was a much-loved teacher of both history and music at Pelham District High School in Fenwick, and until his retirement in 1988 he was a member of the history department at E.L. Crossley Secondary School near Fonthill. He was a gifted writer, and in fact he authored a manuscript, "Our Living Past", an extensive survey of world history centering on mankind's intellectual and artistic achievements. This was used by countless numbers of his students over the years.

Perhaps many people will remember Jim as a lover of music, although they may not know he was a student of famed harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. He played both piano and harpsichord, of course, and was a choir member in his community as well. His support of the Niagara Symphony goes back many years, having served on the Board from 1979 to 1992, and in fact he was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2002. Until recently, he and his wife Audrey were always present at the Niagara Symphony Masterworks concerts at Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catharines.

In his retirement years, Jim amassed an amazing collection of mostly classical CDs, including probably the largest private collection of Bach's Italian Concerto and the Goldberg Variations. His love of Glenn Gould was legendary, and in later years his admiration for Bach specialist Angela Hewitt knew no bounds. For me personally, many a day was filled with searching for a rare, hard-to-find Bach recording by either Gould or Hewitt along with any number of other CDs he simply had to have. In the 1990s at Downtown Fine Music and in later years through my website, A Web of Fine Music, Jim was a frequent visitor and caller to enquire about something he had heard or read about. There were times his enthusiasm would get the best of him, but he was always a gentleman and a pleasure to know.

If you have time this evening, I would suggest you pay a visit to the final hours of Jim's visitation at the James L. Pedlar Funeral Home at 1292 Pelham Street in Fonthill from 7 to 9 pm. There will be a celebration of Jim's life in the chapel on Thursday morning at 11am. I hope many of the people who have been touched by this most uncommon man over the years will come out and pay their last respects. He gave so much to his community; it is time for the community to come out and say thanks!

Take care, Jim, you will be missed.

July 9th, 2008.