Sunday, August 30, 2009

Three more shows to see at the Stratford Festival

Well, even though I am still feeling I'm slow on the uptake following my surgery earlier this month, I am ever so gently getting back to my routine, which includes, of course, catching up on the reviews from Stratford and Shaw. We'll look at three shows at Stratford today, and later this week we'll look at some more from Shaw.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM - Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim - Avon Theatre to November 1st (4 out of 4 stars)
I knew pretty much what to expect going in with this show, as Artistic Director Des McAnuff handles directorial duties here, and the original Broadway production and subsequent movie version were both huge hits. This Stratford production proves the show has not lost any of its lustre over the years, and is basically a madcap romp with particularly witty music and lyrics, although only one song has survived to this day, the show opener "Comedy Tonight". The set design by John Arnone is quite clever and effective; McAnuff's directing is a little over the top at times, a la Richard Monette, but it seems to fit the spirit of the show.

The characters, of course, are very broadly drawn, with lots of good performances here, including Bruce Dow in the central role of Pseudolus, slave to Hero, who wants nothing more than his freedom and will do almost anything to get it. Other cast members turning in fine performances are Randy Hughson as Senex, a citizen of Rome, Deann deGruijter as Domina, his wife, and Stephen Ouimette in a wonderfully comic role as Hysterium, their slave. As Hero, Mike Nadajewski is quite good, and his love interest, the virgin Philia, is played with great style by Chilina Kennedy.

Most people are familiar with the story, of course: a comic send-up of ancient Rome and Pseudolus the slave guides us through several plot twists and turns in order to bring Hero and Philia together and ultimately gain his freedom. This is not high drama in the least, but another example of Stephen Sondheim's witty and articulate musical craftsmanship, which has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance lately. Go see this show, and check all logic at the door!

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST - Oscar Wilde - Avon Theatre to October 30th (Three out of four stars)
Described as"The Mozart of English Comedy" by director Brian Bedford in his program notes, and with good reason. There is a delightful lightness to the text and unrelenting energy, as Bedford puts it, much like Mozart displayed in his music. Bedford as director and star is a lot of work, but he pulls it off admirably, supported by a very strong cast.

Robert Persichini gets the ball rolling as a very deadpan Lane, the butler. Mike Shara of St. Catharines is having a fine year at Stratford, this time playing the central role of Algernon Moncrieff, who is in love with Cecily Cardew, ward of his friend Jack Worthing. He also has an imaginary friend, "Bunbury", who is always sick and in need of Algernon's attentions whenever a social obligation comes up Algernon would rather avoid. As Worthing, Ben Carlson is every bit a match for Shara's Algernon; Andrea Runge makes a nice Cecily; and Sara Topham is very good as Jack's interest, Gwendolen Fairfax. Stephen Oiumette puts in a good comic turn as Rev. Canon Chasuble, but all attention centres on Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell as she tries to gain control of all the shenanigans going on around her.

This is a very stylish, beautifully staged production, courtesy of Desmond Heeley, although I can't imagine doing a really bad production of the play. Oh, anything is possible, to be sure, but with this cast, success is almost assured. If you want to see just one show at Stratford aside from Shakespeare, this is the one to see.

EVER YOURS, OSCAR - Compiled by Peter Wylde, from the letters of Oscar Wilde - Tom Patterson Theatre to August 29th (Four out of four stars)
Unfortunately this show is now closed, and my apologies for not getting the review out there sooner, but for those who saw this show, ideally as a companion-piece to The Importance of Being Earnest, it was a performance not to be missed. Bedford alone on stage, with nothing but a podium and a small table to hold his water, and 90 minutes of letters Wilde wrote over the years, each providing insight into the world of Oscar Wilde, warts and all. We travel from his witty writings about English society of the day to the troubling personal life he tried to hide, ultimately proving to be his undoing. Afterwards, the letters showing Wilde's concerns for the less fortunate children he saw were particularly poignant.

Brian Bedford really does this material justice, and presents it with much love, care, and reserve. The capacity audience at the performance I attended knew what to expect, and they were not disappointed. If you missed the show this season, as it had a limited run, more's the pity. It was a rare gem at the Stratford Festival this year.

August 30th, 2009.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum...I ended up in the hospital!

I know it has been over two weeks since I last wrote in this space, and believe me, it was not by choice. My plan was to cover all the Shaw and Stratford plays I have had the pleasure of attending this summer before the Labour Day weekend. However, fate, as is often the case, rears his ugly head when you least expect it. So I will endeavour to get you caught up on the news of the month outside of the realm of music and the arts, by way of explanation for my absence. On the weekend, I will return to the regular schedule with more of the summer reviews from the Stratford Festival.

So there I was, back on August 12th, working at my day job at CKTB Radio, just back after a couple of weeks' vacation, and before I finished the morning run about 9 am, I started to feel decidedly unwell. There was considerable pain in my stomach and abdomen, and eventually it grew so great I managed to drive myself home and lie down for awhile. With no relief in sight, I called Telehealth Ontario and described the symptoms and was promptly advised to get to the nearest emergency as quickly as possible. This I did, but of course, still had to wait over three hours before being admitted. It seemed like an eternity, but I made it, and after describing the symptoms and the pain, it was at first thought I had appendix problems. Following an inconclusive result from the Ultrasound, an electrocardiogram was performed and then a catscan, before the problem was diagnosed. These procedures all came quickly, I might add, so once I was in emergency, things were handled with great speed and care.

Before I knew what was happening, Dr. Cranford, a senior surgeon at the St. Catharines General site appeared and told me the diagnosis: an incarcerated hernia, and I would be on the operating table less than an hour later, at exactly twelve midnight. If nothing else, his humour and easy going nature put me at ease and reduced the tension that had been building all evening long. I had had a hernia operation back in 1996 in the same area, so this would be a tricky operation, but he assurred me things would be fine. They were, of course, but the next day I was pretty tired, dopey and not in the mood to do much of anything. But the prognosis for recovery was good, and I should be going home in a few days. Or so we thought.

I was no sooner discharged a week ago Tuesday when I discovered, following dinner that evening, the rather large incision I was sporting from the operation was leaking badly. By Wednesday, it was apparent I had a pretty nasty infection, and so back to emergency I went once again, with a rather painful evening in store as they squeezed out as much of the infection as they could before sending me home with lots of antibiotics to keep me company for the next ten days. I returned home to my office last Friday, after a couple of days' convalescence with my dear friends Peter and Teresa Kellett, who looked after me extremely well during the transition from hospital to home.

So now, I am slowly getting back into some semblance of a routine, trying to keep on top of work that simply needs to be done before it gets out of hand, all the while keeping myself rested and medicated as much as possible. All of which explains why the blog entries and even my monthly newsletter have been on hiatus the past couple of weeks. I hope to get the August edition of the newsletter, Fine Music News, published tomorrow, and the website ( updated on the weekend. If you still don't subscribe to the newsletter, send your email address to, and I will add you to the mailing list.

Just a few thoughts before I rest for the remainder of the evening, in light of the events of the last couple of weeks. Even though the wait to be admitted to emergency seemed to take forever, I did find everyone from beginning to end to be very caring and attentive, and I have nothing but praise for everyone in the Niagara Health System who helped me through this the last couple of weeks. It is not an easy job, to be sure, but I cannot say enough for the care I received. That being said, it would be greatly appreciated if somebody - anybody - could please design a decent hospital gown that preserves what little dignity you have left once you're in there. Sheesh! Other than than, no complaints...even the food was fine, as far as I was concerned. Mind you, the fact I went over two days without even water meant I was ready for almost anything once I was reintroduced to food, but again, it was not all that bad.

Oh, and one other thing. Be thankful for small mercies: if you get a quiet room-mate while in hospital, thank your lucky stars. My room-mate for most of the stay hated the food, complained constantly about the apparent lack of air conditioning (it was fine) and most evenings hosted several family members around his bedside, often eating whatever they had brought in from outside. There were times I would like to have simply left the room. It could have been worse, I know, but really, sometimes I wonder about people. All you can do is make the best of a difficult situation, and that is what I did during my stay.

So that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Not as much fun as attending summer concerts and theatre, but at least I am recovering well and really none the worse for wear. So thanks for your patience, and we'll return to more reviews from Shaw and Stratford in the coming days.

August 26th, 2009.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Two more shows at the Stratford Festival reviewed

This week, we'll look at the final two shows I attended the first week I was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in early July: Edmond Rostand's 'Cyrano de Bergerac' and Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'. Both star one of the true 'names' of the Stratford Festival stage these days, Colm Feore, who, incidentally, told me years ago he still has fond memories of attending Ridley College here in St. Catharines many years ago.

Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is almost always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, as it is this year under the direction of Colm's wife, Donna Feore. Stratford last produced the show back in 1994, also starring Colm Feore, so it was interesting to compare the two productions. Overall, I think the 1994 edition was a bit more energetic; this one seems a little more restrained at times. It is still a good production, but like the 1994 edition, this one still pales in comparision to the 1983/84 productions staged at the Shaw Festival and starring Heath Lamberts in the title role and Marti Maraden as Roxanne. For some reason, those two productions seemed to better capture the magic that was indeed Cyrano, from his witty dialogue to the final salute to his "panache" as he called it, which signals the end of the show. Back then, Lamberts went down with a blaze of glory; this time Feore seems to go down almost with a whimper. I found myself hoping for a little more of a flourish in the final scene. But maybe that's just me.

Still, this is a production with lots to recommend it. Everyone knows the story by now: Cyrano loves the beautiful Roxanne, but she falls in love with young Christian de Neuvillette, who has to depend on Cyrano's lovely words to convey his feelings of love to a woman who craves words in the most romantic fashion possible. Actually, mere words won't do the job; she requests soliloquey after soliloquey describing his love for her. All courtesy of Cyrano, of course, except for one memorable occasion when young Christian decides to go it alone and finds himself hopelessly tongue-tied and Cyrano saves the day just in the nick of time.

As Cyrano, Feore is very good, as was the case in 1994; he shows great depth of character and commands the stage whenever he is on it, in spite of a very large cast surrounding him. Young Christian is played with genuine sincerity by St. Catharines' own Mike Shara, who is having a good year at Stratford this year. Amanda Lisman is a likeable Roxanne, but not the best I have seen. As pastry chef Ragueneau, Steve Ross generates much humour with the part.

So, the verdict? If not the best Cyrano I've seen, it is certainly well worth seeing and will not disappoint in any way. Just make sure you have a hanky or two around towards the end. Cyrano de Bergerac continues at the Festival Theatre until November 1st and rates a strong three out of four stars.

The second play we'll look at this week is Shakespeare's Macbeth, which I was told before leaving for Stratford last month was a bit of a disappointment. I didn't find that to be the case, actually, in spite of the fact director Des McAnuff has opted for a modern dress version of the play. With Julius Caesar this year, modern dress does not help the play at all; here, it all seems to work better, (as it is set in somewhat modern-day Africa), except of course in the final fight scene when modern-dress soldiers do battle with swords. In that final scene, McAnuff has Gareth Potter's Malcolm slay Colm Feore's Macbeth in rather gruesome fashion, decapitating him on the hood of an army jeep. A spade for a spade, perhaps?

There is quite a bit of technology at play in this Macbeth, but it really doesn't detract from the play at all and doesn't threaten to overtake the action. The action is very realistic for the most part, thanks to fight director Steve Rankin. But there is no escaping the brutal aspects of the story, and a case in point is the chilling death of Macbeth's son, which is pretty gruesome even for a play with so much death surrounding the characters.

As Macbeth's son, Kolton Stewart shows great promise as a young actor; we'll have to keep an eye on him. Peter Hutt has a surprisingly small role as one of Banquo's murderers; and Tom Rooney makes the most of his comical turn as the Macbeth's porter. But the main roles are really what matter in this show, of course, and Colm Feore is quite brilliant and complex as the madman Macbeth; his Lady Macbeth is Yanna McIntosh, who also shines in this production. The other performance of note is the dignified King Duncan of Geraint Wyn Davies, who managed to be killed off early in both productions the weekend I was there, in Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Oh well, you make the best of your time on stage, and Geraint certainly does.

Macbeth continues at the Festival Theatre until October 31st and is just shy of a full four out of four stars; due to complications with staging modern dress Shakespeare, I'll give it a highly-recommendable three out of four stars.

August 8th, 2009.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Two hits and a miss at the Shaw Festival

It has been a busy few days as the summer music festival season continues throughout parts of Ontario; just this past weekend I was up in Elora for the next-to-last performance for the Elora Festival's 30th anniversary season. The Sicilian Jazz Project was the headliner on Saturday evening, with the group formed a few years ago by Michael Occhipinti taking to the stage at the Gambrel Barn. The performance was certainly worthy of a larger audience; however, probably the smallest crowd for the festival at the Gambrel Barn turned out for the show. That's a pity, as we heard some pretty interesting music-making by some pretty inventive individuals. For me, the highlight actually came Sunday morning when I attended the Choral Mattins at St. John's Anglican Church in Elora, and a sort of thank you performance by the Elora Festival Singers directed by Noel Edison. I jumped at the chance to see the choir in a more 'natural' setting, and I was not disappointed. What a wonderful group of voices and what a lovely church! The icing on the cake was a very humourous and loving serman from Anglican Bishop Ralph Spence. A thoroughly delightful weekend!

Now, on to the business of the day: some more reviews of plays currently onstage at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and I think we can title this one "Two hits and a miss"...

First up, we have 'Born Yesterday', opening at the Festival Theatre in May and continuing until November 1st. So far this season, this is the runaway hit, as well it should be. Director Gina Wilkinson handles things with just the right touch of humour; her cast respond with some exceptional performances. The play, by Garson Kanin, is the first of his works to be presented at the Shaw Festival, and after this one I suspect it won't be the last. Kanin began writing the play at the end of the Second World War to show his disgust of what he witnessed in Washington, what with lobbyists, big dealers and influence peddlars. Oddly enough, the play became even more popular following the Watergate scandal in the early 70's.

The art-deco set, depicting a ritzy hotel lobby, is just spectacular. The costumes are equally so. But the performances are what bring this story to life, and we have some dandy performances here. Thom Marriott, now a Shaw regular after several seasons at Stratford, is the likeable but nasty thug Harry Brock, who is used to buying his influence in Washington from the likes of Senator Norval Hedges, played by Lorne Kennedy. Marriott gives a performance that truly makes Brock larger than life, which is exactly what's needed for the play. His lady, Billie Dawn, is expertly played by Deborah Hay, first as a ditzy airhead but later, as she is 'schooled' by Paul Verrall, played by Gray Powell, she comes into her own as she realizes what Harry is really up to. You find yourself rooting for her at the end as she basically gives Harry what he deserves.
Born Yesterday continues to November 1st at the Festival Theatre and is a highly-recommended three out of four stars.

Next up, also at the Festival Theatre until October 11th, is Bernard Shaw's 'The Devil's Disciple', written at the peak of his powers in 1897. Certainly, this is one of his better plays, and he gives the actors lots of meat to sink their collective teeth into. Director Tadeusz Bradecki offers some nice touches here, and the simple set is large enough to fill the large space at the Festival Theatre without overwhelming us. Very nicely done.

Once again, we have some very strong performances here, including Donna Belleville as Mrs. Timothy Dudgeon; Lucy Campbell as Essie; Jonathan Widdifield as Christy Dudgeon and Fiona Byrne as Judith Anderson. She is married to the Reverend Anthony Anderson, played by Peter Krantz, who I think is a little miscast here, and who falls for Richard Dudgeon, the black sheep of the family. Not at first, mind you, but only after British soldiers find him visiting with Judith and rather than cause problems for her, he gallantly surrenders to the soldiers who think they have the Reverend. Hard to believe they could be so easily deceived, but such is life, and theatre, I suppose. As Richard Dudgeon, Evan Buliung puts in a spirited and believable performance and proves to be quite engaging. One could see how Judith Anderson could be drawn to him in spite of his earlier reputation within the community. One of my favourite characters is General John Burgoyne, played with great affection by Jim Mezon.

Overall, a very strong show and one of the better offerings at the Shaw Festival this year. It rates a strong three out of four stars, and continues at the Festival Theatre until October 11th.

The final offering we'll look at this week is the musical 'Sunday in the Park with George', with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. It plays at the smaller Royal George Theatre until November 1st.

Director Alisa Palmer marshalls a pretty talented cast here and does what she can, but overall, the musical just seems to fall flat, with a story line that appears pretty trying at times and characters you can't really feel a whole lot for here. Still, it is beautifully staged and well performed; it just doesn't seem to really come together. Sunday in the Park with George tells the story of two Georges, actually, two artists one hundred years apart. One George is based on the famous 19th century impressionist painter Georges Seurat; the other George is a completely fictional character, a 20th century installation artist and inventor and the great-grandson of Seurat.

Sunday in the Park with George dates from 1984, and although it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, it appears to be a little dated, moreso than other Sondheim offerings we have enjoyed in the last couple of years at Shaw and elsewhere. Indeed, last season's 'A Little Night Music', about a decade older than this musical, seems a much richer musical score and more likeable characters. Some of the better performances here include the happy return of Steven Sutcliffe to Shaw in the title role of George; Julie Martell as Dot and Marie; Sharry Flett as the Old Lady and Blair Daniels, and Jay Turvey as Jules and Bob Greenberg.

This will be a challenging musical for many people accustomed to lighter musical fare, so it won't appeal to everyone, but if you want a real challenge it might just be for you. I give it a two out of four stars. Sunday in the Park with George continues until November 1st at the Royal George Theatre.

August 5th, 2009.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

From Stratford to Elora to Niagara-on-the-Lake...

This holiday weekend, while some head out to cottages and campgrounds in search of good weather and relaxation, others stay closer to home and take in the myriad of cultural events going on in their own backyards or just a short drive away. It is almost impossible to fit everything in, but we do try, and this weekend there is no shortage of events to enjoy.

The Music Niagara concerts continue at various locations in Niagara-on-the-Lake, with a highlight being Monday evening with Between the Wars: Coward & Company in Words and Music, with performances featuring former Shaw Artistic Director Christopher Newton as well as Jennifer Phipps, Craig Winters, Atis Bankas and Luke Pomorski. It gets underway Monday evening at 7:30 and is just one of many great musical events in the Music Niagara schedule over the next week. Meantime, the Elora Festival's 30th anniversary season wraps up this weekend with several performances, included a performance called the Sicilian Jazz Project at the Gambrel Barn this evening I look forward to attending. It has been a stellar lineup, including performances by Natalie McMaster, Dawn Upshaw and a host of others since the 10th of July. Elora has always been one of my favourite destinations for great performances and wonderul scenery. Meantime, the Stratford Summer Music series got underway this past week and continues throughout much of August with several events going on every day in many venues around town, and even on the streets. For detailed listings of all these events and many more, log on to my website at and go to the Calendar page for everything you need to know. The page is updated weekly, so it is always very current.

On Wednesday I began my summer reviews from Shaw, which will continue for the next several weeks; starting today and continuing the next several Saturdays, I'll review some of the offerings at the Stratford Festival I've had the pleasure of seeing this season.

Overall, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as it is now properly known, has been generally strong this season, in spite of early season ticket sales running below expectations resulting in some late-season performances being cancelled. The picture now seems quite a bit brighter, and that is great news for a festival that has struggled in the past but now seems to be doing quite well, thank you very much.

My first performance of the season at the beginning of July was Anton Chekhov's 'Three Sisters', in a version by Susan Coyne. Martha Henry directs this production with a sure hand, and gets great performances by several cast members, including Lucy Peacock keeping things in check as Masha; Dalal Badr as a beautifu Irina; Kelli Fox as a typically strong Natasha; and Peter Hutt doing what he always does, but having some fun here as Kulygin. Notable as well are James Blendick as Doctor Chebutykin and Juan Chioran as a quirky Solynoy.

Chekhov may be fun for actors, as noted in the program notes, but not always for the audience, as you really have to work to get into this play and try to understand and even like some of these characters. The story, of course, centres around the Three Sisters of the title, Lucy Peacock (Masha), Irene Poole (Olga) and Dalal Badr (Irina) and their seemingly hopeless existence in rural Russia at the turn of the last century. Life goes on, but takes several twists and turns before the conclusion of the play.

The sets and costumes are very attractive, thanks to designer John Pennoyer, and the 'Orchestra' of Marc Desormeaux, playing balaika, mandolin, guitar, zither, accordion, piano, percussion and flute is very atmospheric. Although the music is all recorded, he is truly a one-man band!

This is a play that won't appeal to everyone, but for those familiar with Chekhov they likely won't be disappointed. I give it a recommendable three out of four stars. Three Sisters plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 3rd.

Also at the Tom Patterson Theatre, playing through to October 2nd is Ben Jonson's 'Bartholomew Fair', directed by Antoni Cimolino, and designed by Carolyn M. Smith. This is essentially a Young Company production (now known as the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Music in fact) with a huge cast. The younger members are joined by some excellent veterans of the festival, such as Brian Tree as Humphrey Wasp and Juan Chioran as Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a Puritan Elder. Tom McCamus has a great time as the eavesdropping Justice Overdo and Kelli Fox and Lucy Peacock each put in good turns as Joan Trash and Ursla, respectively. With Peacock especially, the comic role is a welcome departure for her, as she dons a fat suit and has several comic moments because of it.

Ben Jonson lived from 1572 to 1637 and this is the first time his work has been presented at the festvial. It is a brilliant satire of class and character in Jacobean London, but isn't the least bit bitter. Rather, it is a fun romp through the Bartholomew Fair, populated by all sorts of unsavoury characters. The well-to-do in the story get their comeuppance in the end, and even Justice Overdo, on a secret mission to see what "enormities' are being perpetrated there, will not escape unscathed.

The cast is huge for this production and it is a little hard to keep up with all the action going on onstage, but it all works out in the end. Don't make it your only production at Stratford this year, but if you want to sample Ben Jonson's work, you could do much worse. Bartholomew Fair continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 2nd and rates a three out of four stars.

The final play we'll look at today is Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, playing at the Avon stage until October 31st. Director is James McDonald and the designer is David Boechler. I mention that right away because although I like the nice, clean sets and overall design of the production, suitable for the timelessness of the story, I had problems with the modern dress costuming which depicts really no time period at all. The costumes are a real mish-mash of designs, and the battle scene uniforms look like something out of a Star Trek episode.

The problem I often have with modern-dress Shakespeare, especially the ones with several battle scenes as is the case here, is the fact the dialogue refers to killing with swords, yet they are all running around the stage with what look like sub-machine guns. So all those guns and not one is fired...but when you have to kill someone, out comes a daggar...such is modern dress Shakespeare!

Once you get past all that, the cast is a strong one, let by a gentlemanly Caesar in Geraint Wyn Davies and a rather profound Brutus in Ben Carlson. This isn't quite his stellar Hamlet of last year, but Carlson delivers a good performance here all the same.

The story, of course, is so well known it need not be repeated here; suffice it to say the production is faithful to the text in spite of the rather odd choices for costuming and design for the battle scenes. Because of those factors, even though the cast is strong, this Julius Caesar only rates a two out of four stars.

That's it for this week from Stratford; some more reports from Shaw come Wednesday.

August 1st, 2009.