Thursday, September 25, 2008

More Stratford Festival Reviews

Before the end of September, let's take a look at three more of the shows currently onstage at the Stratford Festival. We'll complete the list for the season in early October.

Love's Labour's Lost (Tom Patterson Theatre to October 4) ***
I can't count the number of times I've seen a production of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, usually performed by the Young Company at Stratford, and in most cases they are pretty good. I remember one production, mind you, that still gives me nightmares it was so bad, so many years ago...

This new production, however, is one of the better ones you'll see. Michael Langham is listed as the director, but I hear the late Richard Monette had to step in to complete the directorial duties during the planning stages for this production, although no credit appears in the program to this effect. This is always a Young Company staple, as the young actors have appropriate parts alongside some chosen veterans. Although some of the young members flubbed a few lines at the performance I attended, I found the Young Company to be particularly strong this year. The senior members are anchored by Peter Donaldson as Don Adriano de Armado, and he is a joy to watch here. Another standout is newcomer John Vickery as the schoolmaster, Holofernes. He is proving to be a real find this season, if his comic abilities are anything to go by. Overall, this show will not disappoint, even though most of us have seen it at least once or twice before.

Hamlet (Festival Theatre to October 26) ****
Yes, Hamlet is back at Stratford, and what an inspirational Hamlet this production is! It is one of the must-see productions at Stratford this year. The sets and costumes are from the Edwardian era, which at first glance might seem a bit odd, but everything is very clean and sleek, and I found I didn't mind the more modern setting as much as I usually do. The dramatic effects, I found, highlight the action rather than get in the way of them.

We are blessed with a very strong cast here, and they all perform beautifully. Not since 1986's production on the Avon stage with Brent Carver in the title role have I seen such a dynamic portrayal of Hamlet. After years of seeing Ben Carlson at the Shaw Festival, I frankly didn't think he had it in him, but he is great here; he appears scheming yet with an innocence that's quite disarming. Support is offered by James Blendick as The Ghost of Old Hamlet, his father; Scott Wentworth as nasty as ever as his uncle Claudius, and Juan Chioran in a relatively small but effective part as Osric. And I was especially pleased to see Maria Ricossa back again as Hamlet's mother Gertrude. All in all, a very satisfying production directed by Adrian Noble. If you see just one of Shakespeare's offerings this season, make it this one. You won't be disappointed!

Cabaret (Avon Theatre to October 25) ****
The Stratford Festival last staged Cabaret on the Festival Stage in 1987 with Brent Carver as the Emcee and I thought that production was a benchmark production at the time. This new production is just as good, although things do tend to get a bit crowded on the smaller Avon stage at times. I found the first act to be especially long, and then the second act just flies by. The other notable thing about the production is yes, there is a slight bit of nudity in the first act, which apparently has caused some to leave the theatre at intermission in disgust. Let's just say Bruce Dow as the Emcee proves to be a cheeky fellow here...but really, you can't do a show like Cabaret without a bit of flesh showing through, can you?

Director Amanda Dehnert works with a strong cast here, led of course, by Bruce Dow as the sinister Emcee. Others in the cast include Sean Arbuckle as Clifford Bradshaw and Cory Obrien as Ernst Ludwig, who works for the SS and is proud of it. Special mention goes to Nora McClellan as a particularly effective Fraulein Schneider and her suitor, Frank Moore as Herr Schultz. And what can you say about Trish Lindstrom as Sally Bowles? Some might wish for the return of Cynthia Dale to the Stratford musicals, but Lindstrom possesses a fabulous voice and a great stage presence. If you have only seen the movie version of Cabaret, this stage production, like the original from 1966, will prove to be very different. That being said, it will stay with you for years to come. Go see it!

September 25th, 2008.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Great Theatre to be had in Stratford, Ontario this summer

I spent last weekend driving through rain to and from Stratford, for my last visit of the season. Although the weather was lousy, the theatre definitely was not. I made three trips to Stratford this season, and since many of the shows continue until November, there is still lots of time to catch some great theatre up that way. Here are three of the shows I've enjoyed this season:

Shakespeare's Universe (Her Infinite Variety) - Festival Pavilion to September 28 ***
This is the new outdoor venue just across from the famous Festival Theatre. As it is not covered, you have to choose your dates carefully, as rain could delay or even cancel the performance, and hot sun makes it important you choose your bleacher seat wisely. That information out of the way, you will be treated to a 90-minute dissertation on Shakespeare and his contemporaries and their collective importance in this day and age. The show is written and directed by Peter Hinton, who also directs this season's marvellous Taming of the Shrew on the Festival stage. The show is interesting, lively and quite educational, all of which is typical of Hinton. Performers of note include Peggy Coffey, Karen Robinson and Michael Spencer-Davis. If you have an afternoon performance planned at the Festival Theatre, this 11:30 show just outside might be a nice addition to the day's activities.

Fuente Ovejuna, by Lope de Vega - Tom Patterson Theatre to October 4 ***
Fuente Ovejuna, in a new English version by Director Laurence Boswell, is one of those rare discoveries at the Festival that happens with great regularity. A play you likely have never seen nor even heard of before, and you leave the theatre wondering why that was the case. This is the story of a group of Spanish peasants ruled by a brutal overlord; they eventually decide enough is enough, and they retaliate. The results are pretty graphic in the second act, as they parade around the stage with the overlord's severed head on the end of a stick, but before that point the play keeps the unnecessary violence and brutality in check. As the overloard, Commander Fernan Gomez de Guzman, Scott Wentworth is at his nasty, snarly best here, trying to have his way with every winsome peasant girl who catches his fancy, which is pretty much all of them. The rest of the cast is equally solid, with James Blendick as Esteban and
Robert Persichini as Mengo being particular standouts. The set design is very simple, but everything you need to tell the story is here; the costumes add a lot of colour to the show at times. This is a pleasant gem of a performance this season!

The Trojan Women, by Euripides - Tom Patterson Theatre to October 5 ***
Back in July, I spent the better part of a week doing what I call the heavy lifting at this season's Festival, attending many of the Shakespeare plays that week. As a change of pace, I threw in a Greek tragedy, and although it was pretty depressing to watch the relentless march to the ultimate burning of Troy in the end, The Trojan Women is 90 minutes of tension without so much as an intermission break. The new translation by Nicholas Rudall makes the play easily accessible to most everyone, and the strong cast is a joy to watch. Martha Henry carries the play on her shoulders, of course, in the role of Hecuba, wife of the King of Troy. She is ably supported by the likes of Kelli Fox as their daughter Cassandra, and Nora McLellan in a relatively small role as Athena, patron goddess of Athens, daughter of Zeus. Most of the play is done in modern dress, and frankly, for me it doesn't really work. It isn't blatantly so, but it just doesn't fit right, for some reason. Other than that, I think it will be a good addition to your Stratford visit, providing you don't make it your only performance this season.

September 17th, 2008.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Changes coming this month to A Web of Fine Music

I have been concentrating on my summer theatre reviews the last few weeks, and I still have my Stratford reviews to get to; however, I wanted to take some time this week and update you on news regarding my website, A Web of Fine Music, which you can find at

For five years now, A Web of Fine Music has been your online source for classical, jazz, popular, nostalgia and just about any other hard-to-find music title you can imagine. Over that time, there have been few changes to the look and style of our website.

This September, I have decided to make some changes to hopefully make the site more relevant to your wants and needs, and to better serve you, our valued customers. Within the coming days, you will find the website has been expanded and changed somewhat. The Arts Calendar page will now be expanded and updated on a weekly basis to better reflect the multitude of events happening in the community. I encourage you, if you know of an event coming up in your area you feel should be included, please forward the information to me at, titled Arts Calendar Listings.

The Mike's Picks page will be expanded and divided up into several musical categories, and this, too, will be updated on a much more regular basis. Here you will find new releases, tried-and-true favourites and recordings relevant to upcoming performances by Chorus Niagara, Niagara Symphony, Choralis Camerata and Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.

In addition, next week we launch A Web of Fine Music Newsletter, a monthly compendium of musical information and available recordings coming right to your Inbox! Here, we'll list upcoming concerts and events, other musical information you might find interesting, and a condensed version of this month's Mike's Picks. Plus, each month there will be a musical trivia question you'll be invited to answer and be eligible to win tickets to an upcoming Niagara Symphony performance! If you have not received an email announcing the newsletter launch I sent out earlier this week, you can add yourself to the mailing list by sending your name and email address to Mailing List, at

I hope A Web of Fine Music will continue to be your online source for music and information in Niagara. If you have not visited the site recently, I encourage you to do so, and see the changes for yourself. A Web of Fine Music will continue to offer high-quality at fair prices and personal service the big box stores just can't match.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

September 11th, 2008.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Final two shows at Shaw Festival round out the season

All good things must come to an end, they say, and for me, unfortunately that also includes the end of another Shaw Festival season. They will keep performing until early November, of course, but as of last weekend I had attended all eleven productions on this season's playbill. Overall, it has been a strong, solid theatre season at Shaw. So, here's the final two reviews for Shaw in 2008...

Belle Moral (Court House Theatre to October 5th) ***
This play by Ann-Marie MacDonald was first mounted at the Shaw Festival in 2005; so it is rather odd they would program it again so soon, especially given the fact it is not all that well known. Having said that, even with many of the original cast members back, the production has aged rather well and seems a little more satisfying than the first time out. The new cast members add a new dimension to the production, and that also makes it a worthwhile visit this season. That fact appears to be missed by the lack of patrons at the performance I attended on a recent Saturday evening: the theatre was barely half-full, and the Court House Theatre is very small. Anyway, those of us who have or will go, will largely enjoy the visit. I found the first act to be hard to get into, largely due to the thick Scottish brogues you can almost cut with a knife. The second act, however, is much better and brings the storyline more into focus for a lot of people. Director Alisa Palmer has done a nice job the second time around capturing the loneliness of the Scottish estate that bears the title of the play; the actors themselves rise to the occasion with generally solid performances. Standouts include Martin Happer as The Jackal and Wee Farleigh; Donna Belleville as Flora MacIsaac and Jeff Meadows as the slightly mad Victor MacIsaac. Most especially, Fiona Byrne is very good as strong willed Pearl MacIsaac, who refuses the hand of Dr. Seamus Reid in marriage and accepts the will of her father that she would inherit the estate providing she does not bear a child. Peter Hutt as Dr. Reid is good, but I wondered if he was really right for the role. Overall, it is a good production, but I would give it an advised three stars; don't make this your only show at Shaw this season.

Follies: In Concert (Festival Theatre to October 4th) ***
Ah, the pleasures of Stephen Sondheim! We are enriched with two Sondheim musicals at Shaw this season: earlier I wrote of A Little Night Music, which is packing them in at the Court House Theatre this season. At the much larger Festival Theatre, meantime, you only have three more chances to catch Follies: In Concert; there are only four performances scheduled for the season, and last Friday was the first of them. The full-scale musical Follies opened on Broadway in 1971, with almost fifty performers in the cast. It ran for over 5oo performances, but has not been restaged since. In 1985, Herbert Ross directed the scaled back In Concert version we see here: it is still large by today's standards, utilizing pretty much every musically-inclined actor in the Shaw Festival ensemble. Some have larger roles, and others have relatively small roles, given their stature within the company. Yet, everyone makes the most of their time on stage and there are several standout performances to savour. Of special interest are small parts with big numbers: Goldie Semple as Carlotta singing I'm Still Here and Gabrielle Jones as Hattie singing Broadway Baby both manage to bring the house down. The four main protagonists are two couples with a linked past, as they have wandered from the marriage vows they took years ago and here remember both the good times and the bad. Melanie Janzen as Phyllis and George Masswohl as Ben eventually reunite at the end, as do Jay Turvey as Buddy and Glynis Ranney as Sally. But the winding route that brings them to that conclusion is what makes up much of the plot line here. Essentially, a reunion of performers from the past brings out affection in many and opens up old wounds in others. The full band on stage is great to see and hear, and they perform without an intermission for almost two hours. There are only three performances left for this season and after that who knows when we'll get another chance to savour this rare vintage Sondheim. If you have the time, take this one in. You won't regret it.

September 3rd, 2008.