Saturday, November 28, 2009

Niagara Symphony and Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects entertain this weekend

It's another busy weekend in Niagara, and I don't necessarily mean at the malls; the Niagara Symphony presents their second Masters concert Sunday afternoon, and Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects continues with their first presentation of the season in downtown St. Catharines. Today we'll look at both events and hopefully tempt you into attending both.

The Niagara Symphony will be presenting their second Masters concert at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University Sunday afternoon at 2:30 pm. This is an important concert for the symphony, as they also hold their annual Silent Auction in the lobby before the concert and during an extended intermission. This is a major fundraiser for the NSO, and I always see lots of great gift ideas throughout the lobby. So if you are going, plan to shop a bit and support our Niagara Symphony. They are on the right track with the rebuilding process with several talented individuals now in the front office, so let's show our support for them this weekend. I will be there for the concert, but due to space limitations, I won't be selling at my customary table. But you can still get in touch with me through my website at or by direct email, at if there is anything you want.

The concert itself features the first official appearance by John Morris Russell from the Windsor Symphony. John, you might recall, conducted the last Masters concert last season, featuring a very robust - some would say somewhat over the top - version of the Beethoven 5th Symphony. He is the third candidate to strut his stuff on the podium for the official candidate selection process, and he has some tough acts to follow. His concert, with a rather unfortunate title "Hot Cross Buns - English Style!" features music by William Boyce (Sinfonia No. 5 in D major); Ralph Vaughan Williams (Concerto in A minor for Oboe & Strings with featured soloist Christie Goodwin); Johann Christian Bach (Sinfonia in D, Op. 18, No. 4); T. Patrick Carrabre (the ubiquitous Chase the Sun); and Franz Joseph Haydn (Symphony No. 104, the "London" symphony).

I am looking forward to hearing the Boyce, especially, as we so rarely hear his music anymore. I have a lovely CD in my collection of many of his short works and they are just delightful. And a Haydn symphony is always welcome, especially a late one like the London symphony. With the Carrabre piece, Chase the Sun, this is being performed at all four Masters concerts this season so we have a chance to hear all four conductors' interpretations of the work. It isn't my favourite piece of music, mind you, but it is short enough that we can manage four times in one season.

I quite like Russell; he seems like a friendly sort with a definite style all his own, and he seems to know what he wants. Whatever you thought of his Beethoven at the end of last season, there's no denying he got a lot of great playing out of the orchestra, so it will be interesting to hear him perform less grand works that need a little more finesse. Anyone can pound the living daylights out of a Beethoven symphony and it will survive the ordeal; these works will show the measure of the man, I think.

Tickets are still available from the Brock box office, by calling 905-688-5550, ext. 3257. See you there!

Now, before we go, a few words about a theatre presentation well worth your time between now and next weekend. I attended the opening night performance of Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects' first production of the season, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, written in 1996 by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. This is a gritty, often bleak and sometimes funny look at the hardscrabble life of a 40-ish spinster, played by Artistic Director Kelly Daniels, and her constant run-ins with her conniving and mean-spirited mother, played by Shaw Festival stalwart Jennifer Phipps. Rounding out the cast is another Shaw regular, Graeme Somerville as the daughter's love interest, and his younger brother, played by Craig Pike.

Essentially, Daniels' character of Maureen feels life is passing her by as she tends to the constant needs of her aging mother, knowing full well once Mom is gone, she will have nothing else in her life to turn to. No man, no family, no life. Enter Graeme Somerville in a standout role as Pato, who would very much like to rescue Maureen from her daily drudgery. After one stolen night of bliss under the same roof with Mom - the morning encounter between Phipps and Somerville is a highlight - the two lovers start to make plans for a life together, away from Mom. That, of course, doesn't sit will with her, as she will no longer have her daughter at her beck and call day in and day out.

What follows is considerable nastiness on the part of both mother and daughter and the passing through Maureen's fingers a chance to escape to Boston for a new life with Pato. Her bitterness is palpable and certainly understandable; her reaction to it certainly not. Phipps has always been one of my favourite Shaw actors and here she puts in a standout performance. Daniels is very impressive as daughter Maureen, and Pike shows promise in the smaller role of Pato's younger brother. Another Shaw alumni, Donna Belleville directs the play with great care and precision, and the lighting is perfectly suited to the production.

This is an example of a small community-based theatre company doing everything right and hitting all the right buttons, proving once again there is indeed great live local theatre to be had once the Shaw Festival is done for the season. The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, and more information and tickets are available by going to their website,

November 28th, 2009.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Both Stratford and Shaw report success in 2009

Earlier this month, I received the news from both tbe Shaw and Stratford festivals on closing numbers following the 2009 seasons, and generally the news is good, in spite of these recessionary times. Maybe people just wanted to get out and forget about it all, I don't know. But generally speaking both festivals did well, all things considered.

The Shaw Festival's Executive Director Colleen Blake reported attendance results for 2009 of 253,000 or 63.5% of capacity. Given the tough economic times and the fact they began rehearsals in March at 20% behind the year-to-year sales target, this is good news. Especially when you consider the 800 performances in 2009 brought in box office revenues of 13.7 million and the percentage total is just 6 1/2 % behind the 2008 attendance of 70% of capacity.

The recession obviously had an impact on the Shaw season, along with other tourism partners throughout the Niagara Region, but funding from both the federal and provincial governments to bolster marketing initiatives aimed at key Canadian and American markets proved to help this season. It's interesting to note the Shaw's box office revenues drive an overall economic impact of close to $ 100 million annually for the Niagara Region, so that should quiet the nay-sayers who pooh-pooh funding for the arts. They bring in the money, and the tourists, plain and simple.

Tickets for the 2010 season go on sale to the general public starting January 11th; Shaw Festival Members already have the opportunity to buy tickets for the upcoming season.

Meantime, over at the Stratford Festival, generally good reviews and a $3.5 million boost in marketing funds from both the federal and provincial governments meant the festival wrapped up its 2009 season on an upbeat note. The final weekend of the season, earlier this month, saw sold-out performances of their two most popular shows this season, the musicals West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, both of which had their runs extended. While advance ticket sales were described as "sluggish" (a nice way of saying they were behind targets) they eventually picked up and the fall season was unexpectedly busy. Board chair Richard Rooney called the season "a triumph" and I don't think many would dispute that.

The 2010 season kicks off in April, with the box office reopening in January.

I generally found Stratford had the more solid season this year than Shaw, which was hampered by the collection of ten one-act Noel Coward plays, Tonight at 8:30, which although interesting, failed to light a fire under a lot of theatre-goers. But the fact both festivals finished the season strong with better numbers than expected at the start of the season bodes well for next season. Perhaps the economic recovery is indeed upon us, slowly but surely, and we'll see more bums in the seats next season. Let's hope so.

November 21st, 2009.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Theatre is all around us in November!

Last week I wrote of the many theatrical and musical events coming up this week alone; there are plenty still to come, of course, as we continue along to Christmas which is a little over a month away, if you can believe it.

Last evening, I attended one of the events I wrote about last week; Stephen Sondheim's very complex musical A Little Night Music is being staged by students of the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre. The production opened Thursday evening for four performances, the final performance being this evening at 7:30. Plenty of tickets will be available at the box office up to performance time, I would imagine.

This is a tough musical to stage, as there is so much going on and the storyline is so intricate. But director Virginia Reh has done a credible job sorting everything out while putting her own spin on the musical. The set design by David Vivian, although unwieldy at times due to the number of scene changes, works quite well and is very attractive. It doesn't look anything like any student production you've ever seen before, and that's good.

Now, being Dramatic Arts students, they are still cutting their teeth on theatrical works and finding their way, so we don't have a professional production here as you would have seen a couple of seasons ago at the Shaw Festival. That being said, I thought the students have nothing to worry about here: they all show great promise and managed the intricate plot and scene changes quite well. True, not all of them will become household names in the future, but a few might, and it is encouraging to see them tackle such a difficult piece.

The music, although limited to only one 'hit' song, "Send In The Clowns", of course, is still vital and witty even a quarter century or more after first hitting the stage in the early 70s. Sondheim did some of his best work on this musical, and it deserves another look, so if you have the time tonight, you might want to take it in.

Still to come later this week, I will be attending the opening night performance of Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects' first main stage production of the season: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Donna Belleville, the play dates from 1996 and has garnered numerous awards including the Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play.

Along with Belleville, a couple of other Shaw Festival ensemble members are in this production: Graeme Somerville and Jennifer Phipps. Rounding out the cast are Lyndesfarne's Artistic Director Kelly Daniels and Craig Pike. This promises to be a strong start to another interesting season of Lyndesfarne, and that's good to see. We need more winter theatre in Niagara, and they are doing their level best to provide it.

The play opens Saturday night, November 21st, with the opening night performance benefitting the St. Catharines General Hospital Foundation. It runs to December 6th at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines. For tickets, call the boxoffice at 905-938-1222.

November 14th, 2009.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Lots of music around Niagara this week

Now that November is here, we start that increasingly hurried and harried descent towards Christmas, which means, among other things, there will be no shortage of musical events to take in around the Region. This week I thought we'd take a look at a few of the events this weekend and over the coming days you might like to take in.

First and foremost, this weekend is the kickoff of the the Chorus Niagara season. Niagara's premiere choral group, directed by Artistic Director Robert Cooper, presents Haydn's oratorio The Creation Saturday evening in Grimsby and Sunday afternoon in St. Catharines. Die Schopfung, or, The Creation, is one of Papa Haydn's two greatest choral works, and was composed during 1795, set to a libretto by Baron Gottfried von Swieten, and based jointly on the Book of Genesis, as well as John Milton's allegorical study of the creation and fall, Paradise Lost.

Haydn wrote The Creation basically to take advantage of the popularity of the genre pioneered by Handel, who made the oratorio a staple of choral concerts with his many oratorios, most notably, of course, The Messiah. Haydn's uplifting work has stood the test of time as well, and certainly deserves a wider audience than it seems to have had the last few years. I can't remember the last time it was performed locally or within driving distance of Niagara.

The two performances of The Creation are in Grimsby and St. Catharines: Grimsby Saturday evening at 7:30 pm at Mountainview Christian Reformed Church, 290 Main Steet East; and St. Catharines at Calvary Church on Scott Street at 3 pm. Tickets are still available for both performances by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or from any chorus member. I plan to attend both performances with many copies of The Creation for sale, both sung in German and English, as well as many other choral recordings you might be interested in. You can also go to my website at and check out my Mike's Picks page, or simply email your request to me directly at Hope to see you this weekend!

Later in the week, the Brock University Department of Dramatic Arts presents A Little Night Music, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. This was the musical that spawned the hit Send In The Clowns, of course, but there is plenty of other inspired music in the show as well. The Shaw Festival staged a wonderful production of A Little Night Music last season, and I was amazed at how witty and creative the score was, yet we only know one song from the show.

The show is directed by Virginia Reh and designed by David Vivian, and plays the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm. I am looking forward to attending the Friday evening performance, in spite of the fact it is Friday the 13th. Break a leg, guys...or on second thought, given the date, don't take that literally!

Also this week, Garden City Productions opens their fall show, Grease, a musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey about the way rock n' roll changed North American sexuality and culture during the transition years from the conservative decade of the 50s to the more individualistic decade of the 60s. Everyone remembers the movie version, of course, with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John; the stage version has also stood the test of time and is a staple of community theatre groups all over North America to this day. Garden City Productions has a long history of presenting fine productions of popular musicals, and this production promises to be no different.

The director/choreographer is Kent Sheridan, who last appeared with GCP back in 2006 when he debuted in their successful production of Chicago. Performances run November 12th to the 29th, Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 pm and Sunday matinees at 2. For tickets, call the Brock Centre for the Arts Box Office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Lots of other things going on around the Region for the next couple of months, so we'll regularly look at what's coming up so you won't miss a thing. Enjoy a night out on the town soon!

November 7th, 2009.