Wednesday, July 29, 2009

First reviews of Shaw Festival plays this season

Well we're almost at the end of July, and once again I am running late getting my Shaw and Stratford reviews published. At least I'm consistent! So without further adieu, let's get started; we'll begin with Shaw this time and on Saturday we'll take a look at the first offerings at Stratford.

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on the untimely death of actor/director/playwright Neil Munro; I would be remiss if I did not let you know there is a celebration of his life and work to be held Monday afternoon, August 10th at 3 pm at the Festival Theatre. His work at the Shaw Festival began in 1988 and saw him present some of his most creative work; those who worked with him and perhaps knew the man best will be on hand to celebrate Mr. Munro, who died July 13th at the relatively young age of 62. He will be missed.

Now, the main attraction for many this year at the Shaw Festival is the staging of all ten of the one-act plays collected under the title 'Tonight at 8:30'. The plays are grouped in three sets of three, with the odd play out being Star Chamber, offered as the Lunchtime Theatre show this season. You can also, if you have the constitution for it, catch all ten plays in a single day at a Coward Marathon; if you are so inclined, you can check out the Shaw website at for dates and times. I might have opted for that at one time, but now I am happy to take Coward in small doses spread throughout the summer.

I have always loved Noel Coward, and in fact his plays have always done well at Shaw: from Private Lives in 1983/84 to This Happy Breed and The Vortex in later years, Shaw just seems to have a way with presenting the plays of Noel Coward, surely one of the great playwrights of the last century in my estimation.

So it was with much anticipation and only a little trepidation I approached the first group of three Coward plays, known collectively as Brief Encounters at the Festival Theatre. Would three short, one-act plays, each one different from the next, satisfy the audience and keep them interested throughout the evening as a full length play might? The answer, I found, is probably not. There is nothing wrong with any of the plays; it just doesn't seem there's enough time to fully develop the characters and the story-lines as you would with a one-play evening. For me, I was left wanting at the end of all three one-act plays under appropriate title 'Brief Encounters'.

Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell handles the directorial duties here and does her mighty best to make all three plays as enjoyable as possible. Yet, they seem to fall flat somewhat. The first of the trio, Still Life, takes place in the refreshment room of Milford Junction Railway Station in 1936, and involves a budding romance between two married people who meet quite by chance in the refreshment room. Yes, extramarital affairs are nothing new, of course, so the subject matter is certainly relevant. The way it is presented is nice enough and the cast is strong, but somehow, it just doesn't work. Patrick Galligan is his gentlemanly best as Alec Harvey, who falls for Deborah Hay's Laura Jesson, a married woman who is torn between wifely duty and the desire to see how 'the other half' lives. Hay does a nice job with her role, as does Corrine Koslo as grumpy old Myrtle Bagot, who runs the refreshment room. Her love-interest, Albert, is played with much fun by Thom Marriott.

The second part of Brief Encounters is a more upbeat play called We Were Dancing, again featuring Galligan and Hay in a dream-dancing sort of love affair that appears not the least bit likely. But it is fun watching them glide around the floor, almost lighter than air! The third part is the weakest of the three, I found, and the least interesting to watch: Hands Across the Sea. It is well acted, again with Galligan and Hay in central roles, but in the end, I found I wasn't really warming up to the characters. Goldie Semple is definitely worth watching as The Honorable Clare Wedderburn, by the way.

Overall, Brief Encounters is nice enough, but three one-act plays do not an evening make. It continues until the 24th of October, and rates a two out of four stars.

The second installment in Tonight at 8:30, directed by former Artistic Director Christopher Newton, is 'Play, Orchestra, Play', staged at the smaller Royal George Theatre and running through to October 31st. Overall, Newton manages to pull this one off with a little more success than Maxwell's Brief Encounters, but again, the three plays grouped here are a little uneven.

Things begin with Red Peppers, a fun, at times noisy look at what might have gone on backstage at a small provincial town in England circa 1936. What we see onstage in that show is all happy and fun, of course, hiding the bitter rivalries and clashes of egos that often occur backstage. This one melds the onstage and backstage antices with considerable skill and wit, and it is helped considerably by a very strong cast. Jay Turvey and Patty Jamieson are the song-and-dance team known as Red Peppers, and they clash backstage with Mr. Edwards, played by Steven Sutcliffe and Kyle Blair's Bert Bentley. Life likely was - and probably still is - this way in some theatres; pity we couldn't be backstage more often for some of the fireworks!

Round Two of 'Play, Orchestra, Play' is Fumed Oak, set in a small home in South London in 1936. Steven Sutcliffe triumphantly returns to the Shaw Festival this year with a wonderful performance here as henpecked Mr. Gow. His wife, played by Patty Jamieson, is in for a shock on this particular day when the action plays out. For once, a guy gets to tell off the lady, and escape in one piece. It really is fun and quite fascinating to watch.

Round Three, Shadow Play, takes place in a beautiful bedroom in Mayfair in 1936. A dream sequence following a drug overdose brings a couple, the Gayforths, closer together at the conclusion. It is very nicely done, with splendid performances by Julie Martell and Steven Sutcliffe as Mrs. and Mr. Gayforth, and Jay Turvey and Patty Jamieson in strong supporting roles. Of the three, Fumed Oak is the standout, but all three fare somewhat better than 'Brief Encounters' so I rate 'Play, Orchestra, Play' a three out of four stars.

Finally, for the second year in a row, the Lunchtime offering is a hilarious romp that almost steals the show from the rest of the Tonight at 8:30 stablemates. Titled 'Star Chamber', it is Coward's clever and satirical look at actors and their egos. He is poking fun at his friends and colleagues here, and I suspect fellow actors relish the opportunity to join in on the fun. Kate Lynch expertly directs the show, which begins slowly and then builds to a specacular climax, as the actors try to get organized and join forces to help out the Actors' Orphanage, a charitable entity Coward was president of in real life for many years. Raising money with this lot is next to impossible!

Standout performances abound here, with everyone having a grand old time; Of particular note are Guy Bannerman as star-struck and staid J. M. Farmer, Neil Barclay as the loud and gregarious actor Johnny Bolton, and Fiona Byrne as the blond bombshell Xenia James. But my favourite role is that of Violet Vibart, played with great refinement by one of my favourite actresses, Sharry Flett, who quietly, elegantly, joins in the fun while being - dare we say? - very sexy in the bargain.

'Star Chamber' is by far the funniest installment of the Tonight at 8:30 collection, and is a definite must-see at the Shaw Festival this year. It runs at the Royal George Theatre until October 11th, and rates a very strong three out of four stars. The final group of three plays in the Tonight at 8:30 canon is 'Ways of The Heart' and I will report on that in about a month's time when I get a chance to catch the late-season offering at the Court House Theatre.

July 29th, 2009.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The importance of buying local and supporting the local economy

I sometimes finding myself writing and talking about the topic of buying local following an incident or two that makes me wonder just how important it is for people to support their local merchants. Usually, it is just given lip service in a society that values the almighty dollar above all else, or so it seems.

My online music business, A Web of Fine Music ( is based in St. Catharines, in the heart of Niagara, and a lot of my clientele lives in the area. I always welcome business from wherever they may be; that is the wonderful thing about the World Wide Web - the entire world is one community, or so we are told. But I have always believed your local clientele is paramount, and you should do all you can to make them think of you rather than anyone else when they are thinking of buying your product or service.

I always try to practice what I preach, and buy locally whenever possible. Just this morning, for example, I was at or local farmer's market, as I am every Saturday morning, and I bought corn, strawberries, baklava, meat and granola - all grown or produced locally and sold by market vendors who have a vested interest in my satisfaction with their product. My good friend, food writer Lynn Ogryzlo, states buying locally puts money back into the local economy and helps more than just the merchant you bought the product from. I couldn't agree more.

Sure, I will buy something elsewhere if I happen to find what I am looking for while I am in that particular area; I don't deny that. But most often, I feel I should be supporting our local businesses on an ongoing business, as it helps the local economy, and besides, I build a relationship with that business that most often pays dividends in value-added benefits that come from being a valued customer. It is perfectly natural to show more interest in a regular customer who depends on you than someone who is just shopping around for the best price. If you can get that new customer, fine. But often you don't and you find yourself spending a great amount of time working on something that fails to generate a sale.

This time of year is the slowest for my business; it doesn't get busier again until the fall months and people spend more time indoors. So now, especially, I want to hold on to every customer I can and develop new relationships whenever I can. That is why this week, two customers irked me because in spite of saying up front they would rather buy locally, they decided to take their business elsewhere, outside the community. You either believe in buying locally or you don't. You can't just pretend; you have to act on it.

The one case I will relate here involves a customer who found a CD he wanted on Amazon and wondered if I had it. I didn't, but spent the time working on getting the CD for him after he stated up front he would rather buy locally rather than through a website outside the area. Fair enough; I want to make that sale and show him I am worthy of his business. But when the time came to actually make the sale and I could order the CD in for him, the response was he would be going to Toronto and would see if he could get it there. Why? My price was a little higher than the price quoted on Amazon.

Now, I don't charge for shipping on my orders and even provide free delivery to local residents, but this person would rather drive to Toronto and see if he can get the same CD there at a better price. What is the logic in that? I hope he was planning to go to Toronto anyway, as that is a lot of gas to waste to save a little money. But as they say, the customer is always right, so I wished him well and told him I would still be here the next time he needs something. Let's hope so.

I am finding it increasingly difficult to do business in a world where only the price matters. Service, in spite of what people say, is not that important anymore. I offer a specialized service that is not designed to compete with the Wal Marts of the world; rather, I fill a niche that needs filling. I hope over the balance of this year, more people feel the desire to take advantage of the niche I fill.

Buy local. It just makes sense. And your neighbours might just thank you for it!

July 25th, 2009.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Some weekend musings, and remembering Neil Munro

There are plenty of ideas running through my head today, as a busy arts weekend is underway for your humble scribe. I have two shows up at the Shaw Festival today, In Good King Charles's Golden Days and The Devil's Disciple, and one at Stratford tomorrow: Ever Yours, Oscar, the one-man show with Brian Bedford. So I'll likely begin posting reviews next week when I get a break from both Festivals for a couple of weeks.

First off, I must confess I never know who is going to be reading my ramblings on this blog, and a response in any form is always welcome. Earlier this week, I heard from the St.Catharines & Area Arts Council, of which I am a proud member, and they read my earlier entry from June 6th titled A Tale of Two Downtowns, regarding the ongoing revitalization efforts of both downtown Niagara Falls and downtown St. Catharines. I was invited to come into their offices for a short interview today (Saturday) on a series on arts and culture being developed with Cogeco Community Television for airing this fall, hosted by Ted Mouradian. Hopefully I remained lucid through the interview; I don't know if I have the nerve to watch it when it airs in a few months! But thanks to all of the people at the Arts Council for their support and consideration of my views.

The second thing I want to talk about is the untimely passing earlier this week of actor, playwright and director Neil Munro at the relatively young age of 62. It was quite a shock to all of us who have known Neil and admired his challenging productions over the years, most notably for the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where he was Resident Director for many years. He had been ill for a little while, and resigned his position with Shaw earlier this year when it became obvious things were not getting any better.

I first came to know Neil through his productions at Shaw, of course, and usually enjoyed what he presented, although they usually leaned towards the dark side of the theatrical spectrum. But he did have a sense of humour, too, and some of his lighter offerings were great fun to watch as well. He had started work on An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley last season before giving it up around March, as planning was underway. Although he didn't see the production through - Jim Mezon took over and completed the task - the end result still managed to have the Neil Munro stamp on it nevertheless. It was a most enjoyable show.

I first got to know Neil personally through my association for many years with the music store Downtown Fine Music, located in downtown St. Catharines until early 2003. Neil used to come into the store on occasion, looking for music for both him and a production he was working on at that particular moment. I remember one year he needed something really swinging in a big-band style, and although the store didn't have quite what he wanted, I recommended one of my old treasured albums still in mint condition, performed by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, if you can believe it. It was - and is - a textbook example of great swing band arrangements of classical tunes, with the charts written by Billy May back around 1961. Sadly, the recording has never made it to CD, but Neil loved the recording and had his production wizards at Shaw transfer the disc and splice it just the way he wanted it, and the music introduced each act of the show he was working on that year. I can't for the life of me remember the show now, although the set design was spectacular and the show was great. He even gave me a small credit in the program that year!

I didn't see too much of Neil after that, but I always admired his probing, challenging work, and all of us will feel the loss of a talented director, actor and playwright for some time to come. I wish I could have known him better; but some is better than none, they way, and I am thankful for the experience I had.

Thanks, Neil, and know you will be missed!

July 18th, 2009.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Some thoughts on the passing of Michael Jackson

It has been a couple of weeks since the passing of Michael Jackson, and perhaps now that the media frenzy over his death is beginning to subside somewhat, some thoughts from this corner on the man and his music.

Although I respected his considerable talents and undeniable brilliance, I can't include myself as one of his legion of fans. Not taking anything away from him, but I just didn't get into his music while both of us were growing older together. He was, after all, only a couple of years younger than I am. The adulation shown at the public memorial this week and the subsequent smaller events around the world are testament to the draw Michael Jackson had become, and I cannot dispute that.

Yet, I find myself wondering how long this will go on. Is this all driven by the mass media exposure the death has attracted? Although the passing of Elvis in 1977 was a huge event at the time, there was not the media as we know it today: no internet, no cell phones with camera, and so on. We relied largely on radio and television, with newspapers providing a lot of the in-depth coverage the following day. I remember working at my first on-air job in radio when Elvis died; I had just started about a month or two before, and I remember the coverage was considerable, but not overwhelming, as the passing of Jackson has now become.

Just as was the case with Anna Nicole Smith with her untimely passing not long ago, I suspect we are in for months of daily 'updates' on the latest developments, thereby preventing many to simply get over it and move on, as we all must. I know, it is too soon to 'get over it', but eventually, you have to. That is life and, unfortunately, death.

Predictably, sales of Michael's music went through the roof the moment his death was announced, as was the case with Elvis so many years ago. Just this week, there will be a new release of a live performance Michael gave in Japan some years ago, and yes, I will be featuring it on my Mike's Picks page of my website ( this week as well as in my July newsletter, FINE MUSIC NEWSLETTER, coming out this week as well. You can subscribe, by the way, by emailing your request to and including your email address with your request.

I was thinking immediately after the death, how unusal it seemed he should pass away at the age of 50, seemingly in good health. Now we know, of course, he had problems, compounded by the presence, it seems, of drugs in one form or another. We don't know the autopsy results yet, of course, but already fingers are being pointed in regards to who gave Michael what, when, and why. This will likely go on for months, if not years. Brace yourself, it can only get worse.

Is there a connection to other great artists besides Elvis we have lost over the years? In a way, I think there is. Not that drugs were involved with either of them, both Canadian pianist Glenn Gould and the great composer Mozart spring to mind, not to mention Schubert. Gould died, also at the age of 50, far too soon, following a massive stroke in 1982. Like Michael, Gould had so much more to offer the world of music, and yet we were robbed of his considerable talent at the age of 50, just like Jackson. With Mozart and Schubert, both were in their thirties when they died, both with seemingly lots of years of composing in front of them, one would think, before they were taken from us.

In each case, from Mozart and Schubert right up to Michael Jackson today, we mourn the loss of a great talent, albeit in different musical genres, and wonder what could have been. All we can do is appreciate a great talent more when it is still with us, and respect the family privacy after the artist has passed away. That, unfortunately, will not happen with Michael Jackson, since already the family appears to be at the centre of a media circus. I wish them well as they come to grips with the loss in the months and years to come.

We have lost a great artist, there is no denying that. But now, let us at least start to let go, and get on with our lives. It will be better for all of us; especially the Jackson clan.

July 11th, 2009.