Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two more shows at the Stratford Festival...

Hard to believe we're already at the end of July as I write this, and I have been knee-deep, as it were, in summer theatre for the past month. So time to get caught up over the next few weeks on summer offerings at both Shaw and Stratford. This weekend, we'll look at two offerings this season at Stratford; later in the week we'll look at two more from Shaw.

Overall, Stratford is having a stellar season. I have not seen a single show thus far I could not recommend; some are obviously better than others, to be sure, but none so far I am recommending you avoid. That being said, the new production of Cole Porter's musical "Kiss Me, Kate" requires some forewarning.

Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, with a book by Sam and Bella Spewack, debuted on Broadway in 1948 and won Porter a Tony Award for best composer and lyricist. The show also received the first-ever Tony for best musical. It was well-deserved, as Kiss Me, Kate is brimming over with Porter's trademark wit and clever lyrics, along with easily-remembered tunes that have withstood the test of time. The story, of course, focuses on actor-director Fred Graham, who is preparing for the opening of his musical adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew at the Ford's Theatre in Baltimore. Fred plays the male lead of Petruchio in the production, opposite his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, as Kate. With insistent bill-collectors dogging Fred every step of the way, the backstage bickering spills out on to the stage in their production of "Shrew".

This production on the Festival stage, directed by John Doyle, is great fun, but I personally found the first act, focusing on their production of "Shrew", to be played far too broadly for my liking. I got the sense some in the audience weren't in on the joke, thinking the 'bad' Shakespeare was perfectly alright. The other somewhat annoying factor was the abundance of underwear onstage in the first act. Oh sure, I know we're watching actors stage a live show, but there were too many BVD's or whatever for my liking.

Performances are very strong in this show: Chilina Kennedy is interesting here, in a role quite different from her star vehicle Evita. Here, she plays Lois Lane, or Bianca in Shrew. Juan Chioran has a much meatier role here as beleaguered Fred Graham than in the thankless role of Juan Peron in Evita, and he makes the most of it. Monique Lund, playing is ex-wife Lilli, is supremely elegant in her real-life role; her Katherine in Shrew, however, is way over the top.

Once you get past the first act, the second takes you more behind the scenes and more into the hearts and minds of the characters themselves, and that's when this production really shines. The music is great; the cast is solid; and the staging is very good. So be prepared for vaudeville, almost, in the first act, and a real musical in the second act. If you know that going in, you'll have a grand old time.

Kiss Me, Kate, continues at the Festival theatre until October 30th, and rates a respectable three out of four stars.

William Shakespeare's romantic comedy (sorry to term it that way, Wil!) As You Like It, has probably been produced at Stratford more than just about any other Shakespeare play, I would venture a guess. It's easy to see why: it is certainly one of his more accessible plays with a universal story of love triumphing over all, and everyone is happy in the end. Not much to dislike there. I can't count the number of productions I have personally seen at Stratford, but I can certainly count this new production one of the best I've seen.

First off, I should point out this is probably the most musical non-musical you'll ever see: there are several strolling musicians onstage throughout the show, breaking out into joyous song at the drop of a straw boater, as it were, and everyone seems to get into the act. The show is directed by Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff, and he resists the temptation to go over the top with this show; that works to the advantage of everyone involved. Scenic designer Debra Hanson has worked with Des to create a beautiful show set in the 1920s. I have never been a big fan of modern-dress Shakespeare, but I think even the Bard himself would be happy with this show: it is elegant, gracious, and the all-white wedding scene a the end is a nice capper for the whole evening.

One of the overriding visual themes throughout the show is Debra Hanson's depictions of butterflies, right down to the butterfly motif on the thrust stage floor itself. It all creates a romantic, light and airy feel that makes this one of the most accessible Shakespeare productions you're ever likely to see.

Overall, the cast is very strong, with some very good individual performances from the likes of Paul Nolan as the lovestruck Orlando; Andrea Runge as an engaging Rosalind, later disguised as Ganymede; Ben Carlson is very good as the court fool, Touchstone; and Cara Ricketts is quite impressive as Celia, later disguised as Aliena. Other notable performances include Mike Shara, Brian Tree, and Brent Carver as the sad-sack Jacques. Quite a departure for him, but he pulls it off. And speaking of departures, you can't help but take notice of Lucy Peacock as Audrey the goatherd.

This may not be a Shakespeare production for the purists, but for those who enjoy a good story well told, beautifully set and expertly directed, this As You Like It can't help but please all but the most jaded theatre-goers. As You Like It continues at the Festival theatre until October 31st, and rates a very enthusiastic four out of four stars.

July 31st, 2010.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Elora Festival in full swing until August 1st

I wrote earlier in the month about the wide variety of music festivals within a very short drive of home, with Music Niagara, of course, being the closest of all in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I plan to get up there before too long to catch some of their musical offerings, which appear to be as varied and interesting as always.

Today though, I want to write about the other music festival I enjoy attending every year, in beautiful Elora, Ontario, just a little north-west of Guelph. It has been several seasons now we have escaped to Elora, staying at the same B&B (The Vickerage) and spending the Sunday afternoon shopping in town to support the local economy. It has become one of the highlights of our summer, as we love the town and the friendly people who live there.

Last Saturday, we attended what I thought would be a very well-attended jazz concert at the cavernous Gambrel Barn, just at the entrance to the town. Sadly, there were many empty seats for the Chris Donnelly performance Saturday evening; my best guess is about 200 people showed up for the show, including us, and that's a pity. Those of us in attendance caught a rising young talent just on the precipice of hitting it big (we hope!) in an engaging, easy-going concert that ran the gamut from his own inventive compositions to a lengthy tribute in the second half to the late Doug Riley, an inspiration to Chris and indeed to many of us who knew and respected his music for many years.

Chris is soft-spoken, polite to a fault, quite young, and possesses a fabulous keyboard talent I'm sure we'll see and hear more of in the years to come. Before and after the concert and at intermission, he mingled with the crowd, talking to whomever wanted to chat with him about his music, and that means a lot to concertgoers, I think. That, incidentally, is one of the nice things about the Elora Festival: not only do you get up close and personal with the artists during the performance, you will more than likely have a chance to meet them at the performance or afterwards. Everyone appears at ease and enjoying the moment when music and the beautiful surroundings come together as one.

On Sunday morning, as I did last year, I attended the 11 am service at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in downtown Elora, where during the Festival the Elora Festival Singers are the choir performing all the music during the service, with Artistic Director Noel Edison conducting and at last Sunday's service, Michael Bloss was the organist. As observed last year, this is a wonderful way to experience the choir in a setting they are very familiar with, and enjoy the splendour of St. John's Church for about an hour and a quarter on a Sunday morning. I would encourage everyone attending the Festival on a Saturday or Sunday to include the Sunday morning service in their plans.

This is the 31st season for the Elora Festival, which began in 1979 under the title "Three Centuries Festival" with Noel Edison leading things from the very beginning. Still to come during the final weekend of the Festival, Jayme Stone performs at the Gambrel Barn this evening; pianist Andre Laplante performs at Knox Church Sunday afternoon at 4; and next week Trio Magellan kicks off the final weekend on Thursday evening at St. John's Church; a show titled "Give My Regards to Broadway" takes to the Gambrel Barn Friday evening while singer John McDermott appears Saturday night at the Barn; and it is wonderful to see Thorold's favourite musical son, organist Andrew Henderson gives a recital Saturday afternoon at 4 pm at St. John's Church. We so rarely get to hear Andrew nowadays, as he is very busy in New York City most of the time, so this performance will be well worth attending.

For a complete listing of concerts, dates and ticket availability, call the Elora Festival at 519-846-0331 or 1-888-747-7550, or log onto their website at

Here's to another great year in Elora!

July 24th, 2010.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Two more shows at the Shaw Festival...

Now that we're back into the routine again after a short vacation, it's time to start getting caught up on shows I have been attending over the summer months; this weekend we'll look at a couple of Shaw Festival offerings.

Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard plays at the Court House Theatre until October 2nd, and right off the top, let's say this one is an acquired taste for some theatregoers. That being said, if you have acquired the taste for Chekhov's rather sombre offerings, this is a very good production of The Cherry Orchard. Directed by Jason Byrne, the version used is by Tom Murphy, an Irishman with a clear love of Chekhov. This will not be the most exciting theatre you'll see this season, but it is a finely crafted tale, nicely presented on the Court House stage.

The Cherry Orchard premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre in January, 1904, on Chekhov's birthday, in fact. The same production transferred to New York in 1923 during a season of Russian plays. The only other Shaw Festival production was way back in 1980, directed by Patrick Mason, in an adaptation by Trevor Griffiths.

With limited space to work with, designer Peter Hartwell has come up with simple but effective sets and costumes that nicely depict the era and the rather austere livelihood led by the characters in the play.

The cast is very strong in this production, with Laurie Paton showing a quiet dignity and dominance in the role of Lyubov Andreyeyevna Ranyevskaya; Robin Evan Williams is equally effective as her daughter Anya. Two of the male leads in the cast are also particularly strong: Jim Mezon as Leonid Gayev, brother to Lyubov, and Benedict Campbell as a businessman named Yermolay Lopakhin. Others of note in the cast include Gordon Rand as a student, Neil Barclay as a landowner, and Al Kozlik in a small but important role as the manservant Fir.

As mentioned, this won't be a play for everyone, but if you like Chekhov, you'll probably enjoy this production of The Cherry Orchard. It runs at the Court House Theatre until October 2nd and rates three out of four stars.

The second show we'll look at this week is Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, last seen at the Shaw Festival in a memorable production at the Court House in both 1995 and 1996. This production at the Festival Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, runs through to October 31st.

I still have vivid memories of the last production at Shaw, with a very strong cast featuring Norman Browning in the lead role of Sir Robert Chiltern. Browning's rather gruff nature seemed to mate well with the character, so the choice in this production of the always eloquent Patrick Galligan makes for a decidedly different take on the role. Neither performance would be considered better than the other; just very different takes on the role. Galligan is joined here by Catherine McGregor as his steadfastly supportive wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern. Watching this production, I couldn't help but wonder if when planning for this production, Maxwell hadn't had the late Goldie Semple in mind for this role. McGregor does a fine job here, but I kept thinking of Goldie in the role while watching the production.

The rest of the cast is equally up to the task here, including Moya O'Connell as the conniving Mrs. Cheveley, who has some not-so-honourable designs on Sir Robert; Marla McLean as daughter Mabel; and Wendy Thatcher as Lady Markby. But two male roles really stand out here: Lorne Kennedy plays a very gruff Lord Caversham, who never seems able to come to terms with the seemingly free-spirited Viscount Goring, played with great style by Steven Sutcliffe. Goring is seem by many to be a self portrait by Wilde, and it is easy to imagine after watching Sutcliffe save Sir Robert's bacon, as it were, from Mrs. Cheveley. Their meeting in the second act is one of the highlights of the play.

An Ideal Husband, clearly a play looking at the issue of clemency, premiered at London's Haymarket Theatre in January, 1895, transferring to the Criterion Theatre in April of that year before being withdrawn the day after Wilde's trial for "gross indecency" began. One would have to think, with Viscount Goring winning the day for Sir Robert Chiltern, thus enabling him to accept a cabinet position in the government without the stench of scandal following him, was Wilde's way of reminding the public of the day they should not be so narrow-minded in their perception of him personally, or Goring in the play.

Other than an interesting updating of period costumes and very clean-lined sets, this is a very faithful presentation of Wilde's play, and I am sure it will be a popular item this season at Shaw. It rates a very strong three out of four stars, and continues at the Festival Theatre until October 31st.

So, lots of theatre to watch, and lots of great music, too. Keep in mind Music Niagara gets underway in Niagara-on-the-Lake this weekend, and this past weekend the Elora Festival kicked off in Elora. I will be up that way briefly this weekend, so I will have more to say about that next week.

Enjoy the weekend!

July 17th, 2010.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Project Niagara idea shelved in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Well, we got the computer back in short order and with a good cleaning and tune up from the good guys at Beatties Basics on Vansickle Road, the old beast is up and running again, so thanks to Tony and the gang for the help! That being said, I have to jump on this story as it is fresh off the wire this afternoon and I suspect this will be a topic of conversation in the coming days...

Remember the hotly-debated Project Niagara plan to build a summer home for the Toronto Symphony and National Arts Centre Orchestras in Niagara-on-the-Lake? It was a hot-button issue this time last year after the announcement was made the plan would indeed go ahead on a 268-acre side on Lakeshore Road presently owned by Parks Canada. Well, it was announced late this afternoon in a press release from the National Arts Centre in Ottawa the two orchestras would end efforts to create an international summer music festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

This has been in the works with both orchestras for over five years now, although it really only came to the public's attention in the past year or so. The intent was to create an international summer music festival in Niagara that would rival both the best in the world, such as Tanglewood or the Salzburg Festival in Austria. It was projected the Project Niagara initiative would pump close to $ 100-million annually into the Ontario economy.

The proposed site is presently closed off to the public, and for most of the past century the property was used by the Department of National Defense for training exercises. That in itself seems rather ironic in this day and age, having a vast area just outside of a tourist town for training exercises for the Department of National Defense! There would have had to be a major cleanup of the site which Parks Canada was willing to do, and there would also have to have been major infrastructure improvements in the area, beginning with the widening of Lakeshore Road in that area - no mean feat with much of the surrounding area now occupied by residential developments both new and old.

According to Peter Herrndorf, President and CEO of the National Arts Centre, in the release that went out today, "It's been an extraordinary labour of love for everyone involved, and we hope that others will follow in our footsteps to pursue this dream in the years to come." Andrew Shaw, President and CEO of the TSO, stated "The feasibility and sustainability work on this concept is now done, and perhaps when the economy improves others will revive this wonderful idea."

So, even though it is "a wonderful idea", why have the two CEOs and their respective organizations gotten cold feet? One can only speculate at this early stage, but one suspects the economy might have more than a little to do with it, as this was a major undertaking for both orchestras that realistically could only be used a few months of the year at most. I wonder if the efforts of those opposed to the Project Niagara plan had something to do with it as well, as they were indeed vocal over the past year or so. Perhaps, too, they just felt the time was not right for such a costly undertaking regardless of the economy. But what we do know is the plan is dead for the time being and likely won't be revived anytime soon.

Personally, I liked the idea of such a large undertaking, as it would bring much-needed tourism dollars into the area and certainly complement the existing arts institutions in Niagara. And with the new performing arts centre moving forward in downtown St. Catharines, the two venues would certainly offer a one-two punch for those who patronize the arts. But perhaps that was part of the problem: two much arts space available for too few patrons of the arts. Now who would have thought that would ever be the case in Niagara, eh? I don't want to say the downtown performing arts centre would steal some of the Project Niagara thunder, but one has to wonder if two large-scale venues in Niagara would or could be sustained in the long run.

Perhaps, too, the opposition was simply too vocal to be ignored? Who knows. What I do know is Music Niagara, our present, home-grown music and arts festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, set to get underway this week for another wonderful season of music-making, will be no doubt breathing a sign of relief. They may lack the dollars to bring in the big guns of classical music and the large-scale venues to house the performances, but the Music Niagara festival seems to fit Niagara arts patrons like the proverbial glove, so maybe this is a blessing in disguise.

I hope this is not the end but rather the beginning of a future summer home for one or the other or ultimately both orchestras in Niagara. Let's give it some time to settle down and perhaps revisit the idea in the not-too-distant future and see if opposing sides can work out a plan that works for everyone. And if the economy improves, all the better: we'll be in a better position to take advantage of the plan rather than lament the loss of a great idea. I don't think this is over yet, and I hope it indeed isn't. Just a stepping back and reassessing of the situation. We'll see...

July 13th, 2010.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Looking at the Stratford Festival offerings so far

While I have been on vacation, I have been at home part of the time, and away part of the time, mostly on day trips to places I have been meaning to visit. It's a nice way to get away without actually getting away. I began my two-week break by heading to Stratford for a couple of shows, and I will end it the same way, along with a couple more Shaw shows as well, so lots to write about in the coming weeks. Let's start with the first two Stratford shows I've seen so far.

One of the big musical offerings this season is Evita, the blockbuster musical from the late 70s with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. I remember seeing a production at the old O'Keefe Centre (now it's the Sony Centre, if I remember correctly...) back around 1978 or 1979, and it was pretty impressive at the time. Still, it is an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and the 80s taught us the A.L. Webber formula of writing a 'big' musical number and shaping the musical around it. You get to hear the song a lot, so you'd better like it. It's one of the main reasons I loathe the musical Cats, although I am a first-class cat person myself. It isn't the subject matter that annoys me; it's the almost total lack of musical content. Believe me, I have been vilified many times in the past for my views on the musical.

But back to Evita. This is, without question, a musical spectacle, one of the first of its kind, really, and Stratford pours a goodly amount of resources into making the spectacle even moreso. It pays off with a largely satisfying production that hits the high notes and generally wows the audience. That being said, I couldn't help but wonder why, in the opening scene depicting the funeral of Eva Peron, director Gary Griffin didn't decide to utilize some kind of scrim or other device to depict the rain falling as cast members mill about the stage holding umbrellas. As Eva Peron, Chilina Kennedy is breathtakingly beautiful and in fine voice; her husband Juan, played by Juan Chioran, somewhat less so. Nothing against Juan's performance here; he does the best he can with what meagre meat is on his character's bones; it's just hard to see him do so little when he is capable of doing so much, as he did years ago with a spectacular production of Man of La Mancha at the Festival Theatre. The rest of the cast is equally competent, with Josh Young a standout in the pivotal role of Che, Josie Marasco as the Mistress and Vince Staltari as Magaldi. That's the cast: five main performers, with the ensemble taking on the roles of the people of Argentina, etc.

I liked the show for what it is, and it will no doubt be a huge draw at the Stratford Festival this season. But I wonder if Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, also on this year and one I'll be seeing shortly, might be a better bet for the huge bus tours coming to Stratford each season. We'll see. Evita runs at the Avon Theatre until October 30th and rates a three out of four stars.

The second show I attended was Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie. It runs at the Avon Theatre until October 31st. I still remember Christopher Newton as Mr. Darling in the Shaw Festival production many years ago, and that still remains for me, the benchmark production of this play. Still, this new Stratford production has lots to recommend it, including imaginative sets and costumes that create wonderful illusions of water onstage and keep the audiences, both young and old, thoroughly entertained. But this is not all special effects: the cast is equally splendid, with Michael Therriault a standout in the title role, and Tom McCamus having great fun as Captain James Hook, who uses a hook apparently borrowed from the old Shaw production. Equally enjoyable turns come from Sara Topham as Wendy and Sean Cullen as Smee.

While this new production, directed by Tim Carroll, doesn't break any new ground, per se, I don't think anyone will be disappointed with the production. It rates a strong three out of four stars.

Now, I will be offline for a few days, as I take my beleaguered old computer in for servicing, so I won't be writing again until sometime next week...I hope! In the meantime, try to survive the heatwave...with some great live theatre, perhaps?

July 8th, 2010.