Friday, December 30, 2011

Saying goodbye to 2011...and a couple of theatrical titans

Everyone compiles and/or reviews year-end lists at the end of December,  as we look back on the year that was and reflect on the impact those events might have later on.  I've done that and I suppose most people have as well.  But as I review the many arts-related events that have unfolded this past year, especially locally, there is no shortage of things to reflect upon.

The final designs of the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre and adjacent Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts would have to top this list around these parts.  The excitement builds, as does for some the anxiety of how we keep the proverbial bums in all those seats once it opens.  The folding of the St. Catharines & Area Arts Council in the spring has to be considered one of the low points in this area, as it probably could have - and should have - been avoided.  Plus, the start of Bradley Thachuk's tenure as new Music Director of the Niagara Symphony this season would have to be considered a newsworthy event in the arts as well.

There are others, of course.  Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects' first annual Busker Festival in August was an absolute hit with the public and will be a tough act to follow; and speaking of Lyndesfarne, their fall show at the Sullivan Courthouse Theatre, Willy Russell's "Educating Rita" was a very special show indeed.  Of course, we would certainly be remiss if we didn't mention the 50th Anniversary season for the acclaimed Shaw Festival, which brought in record crowds for some exceptional live theatre, highlighted by the huge hit production of Lerner & Loewe's "My Fair Lady", never staged at Shaw before, oddly enough.

But two events I will remember for a long time involved Stratford Festival pioneers Peter Donaldson and John Neville, both of whom passed away this past year and both of whom I would like to remember here for a few moments.

Peter Donaldson was a consummate pro:  he excelled in drama, comedy and even musicals.  He was a mainstay at the Stratford Festival for many years and there is not a single performance I ever saw him give that was not exceptional in one way or another.  His dramatic acting was without equal; yet he know how to get the most of a comic turn with the best of them.  And one performance in particular a few seasons back in the Stratford 'family' show "The Scarlet Pimpernel" remains forever etched in my memory banks.  It was not his best performance, to be sure, but the aplomb he brought to the heroic character with dazzling fights and feats of daring onstage thrilled many that season, I know.  It was typical of Donaldson:  a role you might not think he was right for initially and after you see it, you can't help but imagine anyone else doing a better job with it.  Donaldson was just that good, over and over again.

Peter had been battling cancer for many years, finally succumbing to the disease in January of this year.  He was only 58 and had so many more years ahead of him as a great actor.  Sadly, lung cancer claimed him far too soon.

The second passing received surprisingly little press, I found.  The former Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as it is now called, John Neville, passed away in November at the age of 86.  From his time at London's Old Vic in the 50s through to his memorable years when he came to Canada, first as Artistic Director of Edmonton's Citadel Theatre from 1973 to 1978, Halifax's Neptune Theatre from 1978 to 1983 and later as Artistic Director at Stratford from 1985 to 1989, Neville met many challenges head on and never flinched.  He made a lot of friends and theatrical fans along the way, too, including this reporter who unfortunately never had the honour to meet him, only know him through is exemplary work at Stratford.

When Neville came to Stratford first as an actor and ultimately as Artistic Director, he always exuded a calm demeanour and almost patrician air I found, in addition to perfect diction and a voice that was truly one of a kind.  My best memory of Neville was in the title role in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Festival Theatre.  I recall the production caused no small amount of controversy at the time, but it is one of those roles I will always remember him for.

He came to the helm of the Stratford Festival at a critical time:  in dire financial straits at the time with some pretty uninspiring theatre before he arrived, Neville turned the Festival's fortunes around in just three seasons with the savvy that comes from someone who has seen the best of times and the worst of times.  He was the first Artistic Director to stage a musical on the main stage, for example.  Now, you can't imagine going to Stratford without seeing one on the Festival Stage.  He also programmed Shakespeare's three late romances in one season; it proved to be a gamble that for the most part paid off handsomely.  I remember all three of those productions to this very day!  This past season I came across a poster for the final season during Neville's time as Artistic Director and it is amazing what good memories remain to this day of so many of them from that one season alone.   John Neville made the Festival a far better place in his time there, and they have never really looked back since.

In later years, Neville starred in the title role in Terry Gilliam's epic The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, and later still he became famous for his role as "The Well-Manicured Man" on the cult series "The X Files."  But for me, his time at Stratford holds the greatest memories for me.

Neville had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for some time, finally succumbing in Toronto in late November.

A lot of great theatrical notes this past year, and some tragic losses, too.  Peter Donaldson and John Neville remain for me, two of the most tragic as 2011 draws to a close.

Happy New Year!

December 30th, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

How do you spend Christmas Eve?

We are almost at the end of another furious holiday buying season, with most people going down to the wire Christmas Eve afternoon, I gather.  I have been done my shopping for almost a week now, since I know this final week is so busy with my duties at CKTB RADIO and running my music business, A Web of Fine Music.  Saleswise, I don't think this will be my best December ever, but it should at least be respectable.  I will tally up the numbers next week once I have a chance to catch my breath and analyze the proverbial tea leaves then.

For me personally, Christmas has been a much too hectic and stressful time, and I have made efforts to alleviate that stress over the past several years.  I have had some success, but those successes are still rather small.  That said, I look forward most of all to what comes after the commercial aspect of the season is done and before the big day actually arrives.  That, of course, means Christmas Eve.

For 21 years, I have had the pleasure and honour of hosting the radio broadcast of Midnight Mass, live from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in downtown St. Catharines, as I will again this year, my 22nd consecutive.  Since 1989, I have not missed a single broadcast, although I did come close in 1998 when I slipped on ice and fell a few days before Christmas, thoroughly destroying my right arm and landing me in hospital.  I had to beg the surgeon to release me in time for the broadcast, which I did in a very poor state of health before collapsing in bed very late.  I should have stayed in hospital, of course, but you know how it is when you feel you simply have to do something that means a lot to you.

In the early years, I wrote the script from scratch every year on an old Underwood manual typewriter I still own.  By the turn of the new century, I was dipping my fingers into the computer technology age, with somewhat mixed results.  Nowadays, with a completely modern Apple iMac computer and the ability to save the script each year and simply update the pertinent information each time, I have managed to cut down my scriptwriting time by over half.  That is one good thing about computers, I will concede.  This year will be somewhat different, though, as I plan to have the script written in the afternoon rather than Christmas Eve itself as in past years.  With Christmas falling on a Sunday this year, I don't expect a very busy December 24th this year, and I certainly won't be out until early evening making final deliveries as in past years.  So I might actually be able to relax and enjoy some peace and contentment Christmas Eve before the broadcast begins at 11:30.

Over the years I have made music a very important part of my Christmas Eve ritual, putting aside the more popular fare for more traditional choral music reflecting the solemnity of the moment and the impending joy of Christmas morning.  Often I would pull out my historic 1959 recording of Handel's Messiah with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting, now long out of print, unfortunately.  I have also for many years enjoyed the glorious Archiv recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players of the Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning by Michael Praetorius.  It has a sound that simply takes your breath away and I never tire of it.

More recently, I have enjoyed a Chandos recording by Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia along with The Joyful Company of Singers, performing Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols/The First Nowell/On Christmas Night.  It is a simply beautiful recording of glorious carol singing by an expert group.  It is still in stock at  I will be adding two new recordings to my Christmas Eve listening this year, both of which are also currently available through my website A Web of Fine Music.  The first is A Steinway Christmas Album by pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who appeared last month with the Niagara Symphony.  It is a stylish piano collection of familiar and not-so-familiar carols and seasonal music, ranging from Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride to December from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons.  The second is a Chandos Super Audio recording by the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge, entitled On Christmas Night.  Familiar material such as Coventry Carol and Silent Night are here, of course, as well as less-familiar choral pieces such as The Lamb by Sir John Tavener and Out of Your Sleep by Sir Richard Rodney-Bennett.  The sound is amazing and expansive, and the singing is superb.  Any of these discs in stock would make great additions to your personal Christmas music collections, and are still available through my website, by using the order form provided, or by simply emailing me directly at

So, however you choose to celebrate or observe the night of December 24th, I hope you do it with music.  For my part, I want to take this opportunity to thank you both for your patronage of A Web of Fine Music and reading my blog postings in this space every week.  It is nice to know you are out there, and I appreciate the support on both fronts.  Whatever this season means to you and however you choose to observe it, I wish you only the best for the season and the coming New Year ahead.  Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Festivus, whatever you are celebrating and however you choose to celebrate it.  Celebrate with music, and hopefully great music for the season courtesy of A Web of Fine Music!

Happy Holidays!

December 23rd, 2011.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

T'was the weekend before Christmas...

I know that title suggests I am going to wax poetic this weekend, but that isn't necessarily the case.  I will, however, offer up three ideas for holiday entertainment this weekend you might want to take in, assuming of course you are through with your Christmas shopping.  If you are, congratulations!  If not, I have some concluding thoughts just for you...

I have often written about the quality theatre Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects provides at the Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.  Well today, you have two opportunities to catch some nice theatre and help support the fledgling company at the same time.  This afternoon at 3 and again this evening at 7, Shaw Festival actor Ric Reid will be reading the holiday classic "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas.  It is just a reading, rather than fully acted out, but Ric can handle it with great panache, so you'll be more than well entertained.  This also happens to be a benefit for Lyndesfarne; your ticket includes a glass of wine and hors d'oeuvres, and a chance to win a case of Jackson Triggs wine!  For more information and tickets, call Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects at 905-938-1222.

The second of two Christmas concerts by the Niagara-area chamber group Glissandi takes place this evening at 7:30 at Fonthill United Church in Fonthill.  "Glissandi Christmas" features Deborah Braun on harp, David Braun on violin and Douglas Miller on flute.  They are joined by Shaw Festival actor Guy Bannerman for an evening of poems and short stories intertwined with seasonal music.  The Christmas spirit will be celebrated with narratives by Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and many others.  Tickets are available through the Gallery Players website, or by calling 905-468-1525.

Finally, down in Hamilton this afternoon and this evening, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra will present their annual Holiday Pops concert, titled "A Gospel Christmas."  The Toronto Mass Choir joins the HPO and Music Director James Sommerville for gospel arrangements of favourite Christmas carols along with some familiar orchestral selections.  Performances at the Great Hall of Hamilton Place are this afternoon at 2 and this evening at 7:30.  There is even a special dinner/show combo special offered for the evening show, with a three-course dinner at Incognito Restaurant and Wine Bar along with a ticket for the evening show.  Just call the box office for more details, at 905-526-7756, or go online to

Now, as I write this, many people are out holiday shopping this weekend, as I will be briefly this afternoon.  But for all intents and purposes, my Christmas shopping is done.  But do you give any thought to how and where you do your Christmas shopping?  I know you've heard this before, but I can't stress enough, especially in these challenging economic times, to show support for local business and service organizations  who are there ready to serve you all year 'round.  The local economy should be important to you, even if you might find a slightly lower price elsewhere.  I say this because all too often people head out of the area and many cross the border in order to save a few dollars.  But what you save now might cost you later.

Think about it this way:  if something has to be returned or proves defective in some way, a local business you support throughout the year will be more inclined to accommodate your requests after the sale because, quite simply, you have invested in the business by buying there throughout the year.  I can't stress enough how important this is.  I speak, incidentally, as both a retailer myself and a consumer.  Just this morning I picked up my last two official Christmas gifts at the St. Catharines Farmers' Market.  I see these people all year 'round, so why would I not buy from them for the holidays as well?  It just makes sense.  Oh, and by the way, the items I purchased were well priced and exactly what I was looking for.

As a retailer, I will say in the music business, this is the busiest time of year, but I am never too busy to help you and find exactly what you are looking for to please the music lover on your Christmas list.  It is tight for ordering special requests now, but it is possible in some cases, but I also have stock that might just be what you're looking for.  I also offer gift certificates for those hard to buy for people on your list.  My website, A Web of Fine Music ( is ready to help you out throughout the year.  I offer a complete list of Mike's Picks selections and a complete Calendar of Events throughout the year, but if you don't see what you are looking for, simply use the order form provided on the site or just email me directly at  And being a website, that means we never close!

Happy Holidays from A Web of Fine Music, and from all local retailers who benefit from your loyalty throughout the year!

December 17th, 2011.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Getting into the Christmas spirit this weekend in Niagara

I am a little tired tonight following a very long day, but I have some thoughts I want to share before putting my head down to rest in advance of a very busy weekend in Niagara for this reporter.

I don't know about you, but I have had a heck of a time getting into the Christmas spirit this year.  Maybe it is the weather; maybe it is all the news the last few weeks that works against getting all warm and fuzzy as usual at this time of year.  I don't know...but I do know this journalistic Grinch had his hard heart softened up more than just a little today as I was heavily involved again this year with the annual Great Holiday Food Drive put on by Astral Radio stations at 12 Yates Street in St. Catharines.  My full-time job is, of course, morning show producer on Newstalk 610/CKTB, who along with 97.7 HTZ-FM and 105.7 EZ Rock, joined forces on the front lawn to fill a couple of St. Catharines Transit buses with food and toys for Community Care of St. Catharines & Thorold.  It was, to put it simply, an amazing day.

When things wrapped up at 6 pm and the last bus pulled away with Santa himself at the wheel, under police escort of course, residents of St. Catharines-Niagara had come through with an astounding total of $ 238,000 in food and cash to help out those less fortunate in the community at a difficult time of year for many.  What can you say after a display of human caring of that magnitude?  Yes, it warmed my heart for sure, as it did many others.  But more than that, it helped make Christmas a more bearable time for many in the community who really need our help.  On behalf of all of us involved today, thanks to everyone who took part and helped out a very worthwhile cause again this year.

Now, if you feel like doing a little holiday celebrating this weekend, the Niagara Symphony joins forces with Chorus Niagara for a triple-bill Christmas celebration at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at Brock Centre for the Arts.  The concert, titled Home for the Holidays, features Niagara's premier 100-voice ensemble teamed up with your Niagara Symphony, directed by Chorus Niagara Artistic Director Robert Cooper.  It promises to be a truly festive event, with one of the many highlights being a reading of the ever-popular Brother Heinrich's Christmas by former CBC As It Happens host, Barbara Budd.

What is especially interesting is the fact there are three, rather than the customary two performances of the Holiday Pops! concert this weekend:  Saturday afternoon at 2:30 and evening at 7:30, and Sunday afternoon at 2:30.  All three will be near sellouts I would imagine, but your best bet for tickets at this stage would likely be the Saturday evening performance.  For tickets, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or log on to  If you're going, it is suggested you bring a new, unwrapped toy or gift card to benefit Gillian's Place, formerly Women's Place in St. Catharines.

Needless to say, I will be in the lobby for all three performances before, after and at intermission, with lots of great musical ideas for gift giving for yourself or others on your Christmas list.  Yes, lots of Christmas music, too.  But if you don't see exactly what you want, I will do my very best to find it for you in time for the big day on the 25th.  Time is getting tight, but I always find myself working some musical magic in the final two weeks leading up to Christmas.

Finally, one other event coming up on Sunday might be worth your attention as well.  Suitcase in Point Theatre presents their annual Christmas Cabaret Sunday evening at The Merchant Ale House in downtown St. Catharines.  Performance times are 7 and 10 pm, with admission Pay What You Can, although $ 10 is respectfully suggested.

The cabaret is titled Lethal Reindeer Games II - No One is Safe! and declares war on Christmas...sort of.  Only the best team of reindeer detectives can save the holidays from the usual gang of bad guys, we're told, and through sketch comedy, surprise guests and lots of Christmas cheer, it all works out in the end.  Oh, and a nice touch is a suggestion to bring a non-perishable food item or more for Community Care.

So there you have it.  Lots to do this weekend to rid your soul of any remaining Grinchiness this holiday season.  Enjoy!

December 9th, 2011.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

All Hail Handel's Messiah!

It is the time of year for pilgrimages to concert halls around the country for a performance of Handel's beloved oratorio, Messiah.  If you scan the arts listings for almost any community with either an orchestra or choir or both at this time of year, there is bound to be a performance of Messiah somewhere.  But how often do you even think of Messiah at Easter, much less see a performance at Easter?

This is the odd history of arguably Handel's most famous work.  He wrote it between August and September 1741, based on a libretto supplied by clergyman and writer Charles Jennens, who had been trying to persuade Handel to return to English oratorio following his last two Italian operas, which were poorly received.  An offer to participate in a season of oratorio performances in Dublin, Ireland the following year provided the impetus Handel needed to return to a musical form he knew very well.

So it was Messiah, based on the birth and Passion of Christ, premiered at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13th, 1742, with revisions coming in 1745 for the famous Foundling Hospital performances.  It remained immensely popular until his death in 1758 and has been a standard-bearer for Christmas performances the world over to this very day.  The sacred, non-dramatic oratorio was a first for Handel, with a text divided by Jennens into three parts:  the first deals with the Prophecy of the Messiah and its fulfillment.  The second goes from the Passion to the triumph of the Resurrection and the final part deals with the role of the Messiah in life after death.

Around these parts, we have the advantage of two choirs who perform Messiah regularly.  Chorus Niagara performs the work every other year at Christmas, with Artistic Director Robert Cooper wisely choosing to leave you wanting alternate years so he can create another Christmas program to fill the seats.  However, those who need their Messiah fix every year can catch a performance during those alternate years with Laura Thomas' choir, Choralis Camerata, as is the case this year.

Robert Cooper is leading the Niagara Symphony and Chorus Niagara next weekend in a Christmas programme at Centre for the Arts, Brock University, as the two groups join forces again on the stage of the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre.  I will write more about those performances next week, but this weekend, your Messiah fix is provided by Choralis Camerata with two performances.  The first is tonight at 7:30 at First Grantham United Church in north St. Catharines; the second is tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 at the modern and expansive St. Alexander Roman Catholic Church in Fonthill.  Tickets for both performances are available at the door.

I try to catch at least one Messiah performance every year, but some years it just won't happen, which might be the case this year.  Once a number of years ago, I decided to do two performances in a single day in separate cities for some unexplainable reason, so in the afternoon I was at the Chorus Niagara performance in St. Catharines and Sunday evening I attended another performance at the River Run Centre in Guelph with the Guelph Chamber Choir.  Theirs is a very traditional performance done every year, but Gerald Neufeld always presents a finely-tuned performance I have enjoyed many times in the past.  Cooper  for his part, always works to present a different angle to Messiah, partly I suspect to keep the audience interested, but more importantly to keep the singers on their toes.  It usually works.

If you need a recording of Messiah, there is no shortage of available recordings ranging in price from $ 20.00 to almost $ 100.00, depending on the label and performance.  One of my favourites "old-school" performances dates from 1959 with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the RPO and Beecham Choral Society on RCA Victor.  The full-length work is out of print, I believe, but I do have stock on the highlights disc if that interests you.  A more contemporary, smaller-scale recording that is highly-recommened is on the Naxos label, with the Choir of New College, Oxford, directed by Richard Higginbottom.  It has been around for a few years now, but remains one of the better contemporary recordings of Messiah currently available.

Messiah recordings of every description, along with everything else musical you want or need for Christmas are always available through my website, A Web of Fine Music, at  Just send me a request on the order form provided or email me directly at  Oh, and don't forget to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus!

December 3rd, 2011.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Niagara Symphony and John Laing Singers both perform in separate concerts this weekend

We're fast approaching the time of year when there are almost too many concerts and theatrical events to handle, but with some careful planning you can catch a number of worthy musical events in the coming weeks, many of which will put you in the mood for the holidays.

This weekend for example, the Niagara Symphony Masterworks 2 concert takes place Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre, Brock University.  Now, the concert itself isn't holiday themed, per se, but the off-stage attractions certainly are.  This is the annual Silent Auction event, held every year to help raise funds for the Niagara Symphony and hopefully strike a few names off your gift list.  Last year I successfully bid on a couple of winery group tour events that just were not gathering many bids, so both I acquired at ridiculously low prices.  But that is the magic of the event.  You never know what you'll find, and what you will successfully bid on, until the end of the concert.

Along with original art, gift items, cultural events and attractions, winery tasting tours and more, there is the  annual opportunity to successfully bid to conduct the Niagara Symphony and be a "Maestro for a Moment."  I toyed with bidding on this last year, and this year just might.  But I don't know if I would have the nerve to actually get up and conduct the orchestra, given the fact I have no prior experience doing so.  Oh sure, they provide you with a lesson and a baton, but the rest is up to you and I don't know if I could withstand the jitters to be successful.

All that aside, there is also a concert to enjoy onstage tomorrow as well, leading off with the sublime Symphony No. 35 by Mozart, the one known as "Haffner."  The concert ends with Mendelssohn's wonderfully evocative Symphony No. 4 in A Major, known of course as the "Italian."  In between is the Canadian premiere of "Shadows" by Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, a globally-commissioned piano concerto featuring the pianist who performed the world premiere of the concerto recently, Jeffrey Biegel.  Jeffrey gained some sort of notoriety in recent years for recording for Naxos the Piano Concerto by Leroy Anderson, performed by the Niagara Symphony just last season.  I have the concerto in my personal library, and the Naxos recording is readily available through my website at any time, by going to and sending a request on the supplied order form.

Tickets should still be available for the concert either through the box office in advance or at the door. In advance, call the box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.  Normally I would be set up in the lobby with lots of music for you to purchase from A Web of Fine Music, but with the Silent Auction taking up so much space in the lobby before the concert and at intermission, I will simply be there as a listener and prospective bidder, so I will hopefully see you there!

Also on this weekend in the Hamilton area is the critically-acclaimed John Laing Singers, who perform a concert Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon titled ""Sumptuous, Satisfying, Sublime and Simple."  The Saturday concert is all but done as I write this, of course, but if you are in the Hamilton-Burlington area tomorrow afternoon you can catch the performance at 3:30 at St. Matthew-on-the-Plains Anglican Church on Plains Road in Burlington.  I have never been inside the church but have had an opportunity to see it from the outside and it looks impressive.

The concert will feature Christmas music from a wide diversity of sources, from Bach to Poulenc, Vaughan Williams and Sandstrom, as well as carol settings from Poland and Peru.  Guest artists joining the John Laing Singers will be soprano Charlene Pauls and organist Paul Grimwood.  This is the first Christmas concert designed by their new artistic director, Dr. Roger Bergs, who takes over from the retiring John Laing himself.

Tickets are available in advance by calling 905-628-5238 or going online to, or picking them up at the door prior to the concert.

Incidentally, the John Laing Singers have a wonderful Christmas disc out titled "Merrily Sing We" that I love to listen to throughout the holiday season.  I have copies available through A Web of Fine Music ( or email me directly at

Enjoy the weekend!

November 26th, 2011.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Update on the new Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines

There has been much anticipation about the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre, set to rise on the vacant site at the corner of St. Paul and Carlisle Streets in downtown St. Catharines.  This week, city council heard a presentation from Gary McCluskie, lead architect from Diamond + Schmitt Architects in Toronto on the project, and there was both good news and bad news on Monday evening.

The good news is council unanimously endorsed the design and budget for the project; the bad news is the endorsed project is both smaller and costlier than originally planned.  Smaller insofar as fewer seats in each of the four venues in the complex and less office space and front-of-house space than originally proposed.  Most people seem to agree the reductions are manageable, although Janis Barlow, representing the user group committee providing input on the project, has suggested in no uncertain terms any further reductions would clearly reduce the viability of the centre.  In other words, smaller is not always better.

But the increased costs involved are somewhat troubling.  The original price tag of $ 54 million has now grown to $ 60.7 million, up $ 6.5 million.  Government funding remains the same, at $ 42 million combined from the federal and provincial governments, with the remainder expected to be raised within the community.  To that end, the city has decided to hire a professional fundraiser to narrow that gap and come up with the necessary extra funds.  Let's hope that person is very good, whomever he or she may be, as one worries this might not be the only increase in the cost of the project.  In addition, while I sense many in the community are behind the project as it stands, further increase in costs would not be welcome by the public at large, I suspect.

So, basically, we are left with a smaller complex that will cost more.  Where have we heard that before, eh?  Seriously, though, I doubt many would care about the shrinking office or front-of-house space unless it directly impacts them, of course, and the reduction in seating in each venue is not large, so most will not even notice it, one hopes.

I echo those thoughts, but worry about the costs involved for the tenants we are building the performing arts centre for.  I have stated in this space before we have to keep it affordable for the groups using the facility, but a discussion on this with one member of one of those user groups last month signalled alarm bells for this reporter many tenants might well be priced out of the marketplace if they have to increase ticket prices in order to meet the increased rent to use the facility.  Then where will we be?  A white elephant while those same user groups retreat to their old venues once again?  We can't afford to let that happen, so it is imperative everyone involved realize this has to be affordable for all concerned, on both sides of the footlights.

There is still time to work out the problems and keep this project on the rails, but with final design details nearing completion, I think it would be best to deal with any concerns people have sooner rather than later.  I have long been a big supporter of the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre and remain so to this day; but let's keep this a user-friendly facility everyone will be proud of for years to come.  It will be the jewel of our downtown and indeed our Region so long as costs are kept under control and the design is not further watered down.

November 24th, 2011.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

News and Notes on local theatre in November

Last week I wrote about some of the local theatre in the area on right now, from Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, Department of Drama a Brock University and Garden City Productions.  I still have to get to GCP's production of Gypsy before it closes next weekend, and unfortunately this weekend I have too much on the plate to catch anything at all, but I did attend the season opener for Lyndesfarne and want to pass along a few comments here before getting on to other things.

I have often written of the quality of the productions from Kelly Daniels, Artistic Director of Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects.  Most shows have a small cast and the set changes are kept to a minimum if needed at all. Most times, the set stays the same throughout the show, which is great in the theatre space they use, the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.  The season opener is Willy Russell's entertaining Educating Rita, starring Daniels' husband Ric Reid and Jenny L.Wright, both members of the Shaw Festival acting ensemble.

Ric played Dr. Frank Bryant in two previous productions of Educating Rita over the past number of years, the last one a few years ago when he suffered a heart attack while onstage.  He came through it, of course, and is probably a lot healthier now than he was at the start of the last production.  He also has experienced a lot more about life since the first time years ago as a young man, making this portrayal of Bryant a much more rewarding and richer experience for both him and us.  His co-star in this production, Jenny L. Wright,   has great fun with her role, a 30-something mother in England who feels her education is wanting.  She turns to Bryant for some special tutoring, and in the process teaches him more than he probably teaches her.

Both have interesting perspectives on their respective characters, making for a fairly satisfying theatrical experience for the audience.  The pivotal scene happens in the second act when Jenny, playing Rita, finally overtakes her teacher when it comes to what has been learned, vividly illustrated as each is finally seated in the other's spot on the stage; Frank sits in the guest's chair while Rita takes charge behind his desk.   It is then you see the fundamental shift in focus take place.

Educating Rita may not be the best production Lyndesfarne has given us, but it is a darned good one, and well worth your consideration during the month of November.  You have performances this evening and Sunday afternoon this weekend, and performances again next week from Wednesday to Sunday at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.  Tickets for all performances are available by calling the box office at 905-938-1222 or going to

Now, some news to get caught up on at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake before we call it a day today.  The 50th season ended October 30th, and the season was a good one both artistically and financially.  Shaw reported a 5% increase in attendance over the 2010 season, due in no small part to the smash hit musical My Fair Lady at the Festival Theatre.  In fact, My Fair Lady is the best-selling production in Shaw Festival history.

Financially, the numbers tell the tale:  according to Executive Director Colleen Blake, season attendance numbers reached 274,800, an increase of 13,000 over the past season.  Box office revenues translate into an overall economic impact of more than $ 100-million annually for the Province of Ontario, bringing added tourism to the Niagara Region in particular and Ontario in general.

Now, the 51st season gets underway in April, 2012, with eleven different productions on four stages, with casting being announced for many shows this past week.  For the flagship musical Ragtime, for example, the musical will showcase Thom Allison and Kate Hennig and will be directed by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell.  More information on the upcoming season can be found on the Shaw Festival website, at  And if you just can't wait to get your tickets, call the box office at 1-800-511-7429.  If you are a member, you can order tickets now; if not a member yet, you have to wait until January 14th.

Enjoy the weekend!

November 12th, 2011.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Theatre is alive and well in Niagara in November

Now that we're in November and the Shaw Festival has wrapped up for another year, you might think we're deficient in live theatre in Niagara at this time of year.  Nothing could be further from the truth, as many smaller, local theatre venues thrive in the winter months with some pretty inventive programming.  Take the next week for example:  we have two openings this weekend and one next weekend, all of which I will touch on today.

First up is Garden City Productions' fall show, Gypsy, the musical based on the life of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee.  The musical has been hugely popular for years now, with a wonderful production at Shaw not that many years ago, in fact, with Nora McLellan as a fabulous Mama Rose.  This new production is directed and choreographed by Di Nyland-Proctor, a local legend when it comes to staging musicals and dance-themed productions.  I have known Di and her husband Frank for about thirty years now, as they were two of the first people I got to know when I moved to St. Catharines in 1981.  Both Frank and Di did work for CKTB Radio back then; Frank as the popular morning man and Di hosted a short little feature each day on cooking, titled, if I remember correctly, Someone's In the Kitchen with Di-nah...ah yes, the memories are flooding back now.  Amazing what you remember as you get older, eh?

But I digress.  Gypsy is a sometimes gritty musical that can be a disaster if not handled properly, but Di knows what to do with it as she has been in productions of Gypsy herself in the past.  This new production with Garden City Productions features Laurel Broczkowski as Rose and Breton Lalama as Louise, among others.  I have a personal connection to this cast as well, as Laurel has been an acquaintance of mine for years now, and Chelsea Di Franco of St. Catharines plays the part of Elektra and lives just up the street from me.

GCP puts on some pretty ambitious shows, and this one promises to be no different.  Gypsy officially opens tonight and runs Thursday to Saturday evenings with a Sunday matinee through to November 20th at the Mandeville Theatre at Ridley College.  Tickets are available by calling 905-682-1353 or going online to

Also opening tonight and one I will be attending, is the season opener for Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects in St.Catharines, celebrating their seventh season with the award-winning English comedy Educating Rita by Willy Russell.  The play was first commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered in June, 1980 at the RSC's Warehouse.  It went on to tour successfully more than once, and was eventually made into a successful movie as well.

Lyndesfarne specializes in small, intimate cast productions best suited to their space downtown at the Sullivan-Mahoney Courthouse Theatre.  There are only two people in the cast:  Ric Reid as Frank and Jenny L. Wright as Rita.  Both are Shaw Festival alumnus, and Ric is also married to Lyndesfarne's Artistic Director and director of this production, Kelly Daniels.

Educating Rita is a story about discovery - a woman's journey and transformation through her education, and a man's desire to live life again.  From what I saw in the preview rehearsal last week, we're in for a treat starting tonight.

Educating Rita opens tonight and runs through to November 18th, Wednesday through Saturday evenings, with a Sunday matinee.  Tickets are available through the box office by calling 905-938-1222, or online by going to

Finally, next weekend the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University presents Tennessee Williams' American classic Orpheus Descending at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock.  It opens Thursday evening and runs through until Saturday only.  Directed by Virginia Reh and designed by Brock Dramatic Arts graduate Michael Greves, the play showcases the talents of students in the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock:  Trevor Ketcheson, Rebekka Gondosch, Cassandra Van Wyck, Robyn Cunnigham, Josh Davidson, Evan Mulrooney, Derek Ewert, Nadia Watts, Vanessa Ancevicius, Brad Deiter, James Lowe, Matt Viviano, Justine Benteau, Mallory Rivest, Lauren Beaton, Anna MacAlpine and Madison Rosca.  That's a good-sized cast, but as I have found in the past, the students at Brock rise to the challenge every time out and I have no doubt this time will be no different.

Orpheus Descending opened on Broadway in 1957 and was adapted for the screen two years later, starring Marlon Brando.  This particular production celebrates the 100th birthday of this great twentieth century American playwright whose works have been prominently featured in recent seasons at both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals.

Tickets are very reasonably priced and available through the Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or going online to

Enjoy the theatre!

November 5th, 2011.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Marilyn I. Walker Centre for Fine & Performing Arts takes shape downtown

Much has been written, by myself and many others, about the forthcoming St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  It is easily the most visible change coming to the downtown core in several generations; however, it is just part of the massive complex soon to take shape downtown.

The less-publicized part of the whole project, so far at least, is the new Marilyn I. Walker Centre for Fine & Performing Arts, located adjacent to the performing arts centre and incorporating the now vacant Canadian Hair Cloth building below St. Paul Street.  Plans have started and stalled over the last while as the provincial government came on board with $ 26.2 from the Open Ontario project, and of course the ball got rolling with a $15 million donation from the Walker family.  Now, plans begin to take shape and we can see the fruits of the last several years' labour finally come to bear.

This past week, members of the media and public were invited to Market Square in downtown St. Catharines to hear from the Dean of Humanities at Brock University, Douglas Kneale, and the lead architect on the project, Michael Leckman, Principal with Diamond + Schmitt Architects in Toronto.  What we saw was a short slide show of what plans are taking shape for the Centre, with ground scheduled to be broken on the site in the spring.

The plans are, to say the least, exciting and ambitious.  There will be new facilities built, of course, but the main focus for many is on the re-purposing of the Canada Hair Cloth building, which will be a very prominent part of the whole complex.  Architect Leckman was excited to report two other, smaller buildings on the present site will also be incorporated into the overall design, so there is really minimal loss of what is already there.  You could not ask for a better outcome on this, and it comes off looking like a win-win situation for everyone involved.

More detailed plans and notes can be found on the website, from Brock University.  You'll be able to see how everything is integrated into the overall design and how it will coexist with the performing arts centre.  Between the two, that entire stretch of St. Paul Street, while not all visible from the street, will be totally transformed within a few years.  If you approach the site from the 406, especially heading northbound, the change will be astounding.  Finally, a use for at least part of the lower level parking lot!

The new complex is set to welcome students and faculty by September, 2014, and will bring 500 new people to the downtown core on a daily basis.  That alone will help to transform the downtown; just think of the events next door at the performing arts centre in the evening and on weekends primarily, and you can see a lot of extra bodies coming into the downtown core on a regular basis.

Now, all we have to do is see if the much talked-about spectator facility will come to pass downtown, and if it does occupy the remainder of the lower level parking lot, that will make for a pretty vibrant downtown, don't you think?

That last plan is still a ways away, of course, but it might just happen.  If it does, we should be able to please the sports, arts and academic crowds in one huge location downtown.  Let's hope it all comes together, but even if the spectator facility does not actually happen for some time yet, this dual-role complex combining the performing arts centre and the School of Fine & Performing Arts will do quite nicely, thank you very much.

We should be able to get all this done; the old Jack Gatecliff Arena was built in the depths of the depression in 1934, and by the turn of the last century we had an actual opera house near the foot of Ontario Street, so all this building is not without precedent.  If our forefathers could do those projects back then, surely we can find the wherewithal to get the job done today.  Let's hope so; I hope we don't grab and hold on to that proverbial brass ring.

Exciting times ahead!

October 29th, 2011.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Niagara Symphony Pops! series gets underway this weekend

The Niagara Symphony Pops! series gets underway this weekend at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre down at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, and it promises to be a fun couple of concerts.  They go this evening at 7:30 and again tomorrow afternoon at 2:30.  In keeping with the time of year, they are calling this a Hallowe'en Spooktacular.

Music Director Bradley Thachuk and Associate Conductor Laura Thomas team up to lead the Niagara Symphony in music ranging from music from Star Wars and Phantom of the Opera to Pirates of the Caribbean; from the March to the Scaffold from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King.  In other words, music for next weekend, this weekend to inspire you for kids coming to the door trick or treating.  Heck, the Symphony is even inviting people to dress in costume for the concerts, although I would be rather surprised if many actually do.

Tickets should still be available for either concert, although I would imagine this evening would be easier than Sunday afternoon for getting good seats.  Contact the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 for ticket availability, or just show up at the box office before either concert and take your chances.  For both shows, I will be in the lobby with a wide selection of music available for purchase from A Web of Fine Music, many at special sale prices.  If you don't see what you want, let me know and I will do my best to get it for you.

Earlier this month the Niagara Symphony got their season underway with their first Masterworks concert of the season, and generally speaking it was a well-performed and very well-attended start to the new season as Bradley Thachuk began his new tenure with the orchestra.  The McMillan Overture, rarely heard these days, was nice to hear again, and the second half performance of the Dvorak Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" was very well performed and great to hear again.  The Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture by Tchaikovsky that rounded out the concert was interesting, but a little ragged in spots, I found.  But overall, a good start to an important season for the Niagara Symphony.

Maestro Thachuk has said he wants to reach out and find new ways to communicate with the audience and build the audience, and to that end this week many people who attend the Niagara Symphony received an email called "In Your Ear", which is basically a short version of program notes and recommended recordings near and dear to the conductor's heart.  I like the idea, and it is quite well done.  Keep in mind, though, not all the recommended recordings might be available at the moment; with that in mind, you can always contact me through my website at or email me directly at to see if one you're interested in is indeed available.  If it is, I can certainly get it for you; if not, I can usually come up with a suitable substitute.

So, a new and so far promising season gets underway for the Niagara Symphony, and the first with Bradley Thachuk at the helm officially.  Time will tell if the 64th season will turn out to be a vintage year for music-making, but let's hope it is.  The Niagara Symphony needs to grow their audience and at the same time, fulfil the hope and promise generated by the extensive talent search of a couple of seasons ago.

See you at the symphony!

October 22nd, 2011.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Final two weeks at Shaw & Stratford Festivals

My apologies for being a little late getting this written this weekend, but I am battling a cold and as a result I am in slow motion mode for a couple of days while I try to recuperate.  Better late than never, as they say...

We are now, as of this writing, two weeks away from the end of the 2011 seasons for both the Shaw and Stratford Shakespeare Festivals.  If you think you are out of luck this season, you are in for a pleasant surprise, as there are several shows available for your enjoyment still.  To be honest, this is the ideal time to go to either festival, in fact, as the fall colours are still in full blaze, as it were, and the crowds are thinner on the area streets.  Well, perhaps somewhat...but each town, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford offer lots for the visitor even at this late point in the season, from shopping to sightseeing to exceptional dining experiences.

Show-wise, lets quickly review what is still open at both festivals for the remainder of the season:

Shaw Festival - The big show this year, of course, is the 50th anniversary celebration production of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady, the first time oddly enough the festival has produced the classic musical.  I found the show captivating due mainly to the performances, with Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle and Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins.  I found the Stratford production a few seasons back to be more lavishly dressed, but this production had much more meat on the proverbial bones, as it were.  The performances are all first rate.  But as good as this show is, and it is good, don't overlook the other shows still open at Shaw.  Tennessee Williams' classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues until October 23rd at the Royal George Theatre and although is a long sit, is well worth the commitment.  I loved the set and most of the performances, including Jim Mezon as Big Daddy and Moya O'Connell as Maggie.  Also at Shaw, the production of Candida, while not the best effort of this show they have produced over the years, is still worth seeing.  It is the Shaw play that opened the festival 50 years ago, so for that reason alone, I think, it is worth your time this season.  Look for good performances by Nigel-Shawn Williams and Claire Jullien.  Finally, the main stage production of The Admirable Crighton by J.M. Barrie continues to the end of the month as well.  I was less enamoured with this production, frankly, but the staging is exceptional and the performances are great.  Just not a lot of meat in the script, I found.  Maybe Barrie was saving his best for Peter Pan, after all, which debuted a couple of years later.  Several shows have specially-priced tickets available for the remainder of the season, so go to

Stratford Shakespeare Festival - There are several recommendable productions still running at Stratford this year, including two of the season's big hits this year:  Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Webber/Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar.  Twelfth Night is even more musical than ever, with several new songs written for the show; director Des McAnuff has crafted a beautifully modern and sleek production, and due to an exceptional cast it all works.  Look for standout performances by Brian Dennehy as Sir Toby Belch and Stephen Ouimette as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, companion to Sir Toby.  Moliere's The Misanthrope is lavishly designed for the Festival stage, and features some outstanding performances as well, most notably by Ben Carlson as Alceste and Sara Topham as the woman he loves, Celimene.  The two big musicals at the festival this year, Jesus Christ Superstar and Camelot, have been packing them in all season and continue to do so.  Jesus Christ Superstar is pretty much a sellout for the year, but you might be able to score a last-minute ticket or two just before the show starts; Camelot is big and a spectacle in its own right, as befits the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  In JCS, the cast includes Paul Nolan in the title role and Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene, and the entire cast will be heading to La Jolla, California for a run after it closes in Stratford, and finally makes it to Broadway next spring.  In Camelot, Geraint Wyn-Davies makes a magisterial King Arthur, and Kaylee Harwood plays his Guenevere, ultimately wooed by Jonathan Winsby as Lancelot.  At the Avon stage, two productions continue:  the adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, and Harold Pinter's The Homecoming.  Grapes is pretty grim, as you can imagine, but some exceptional performances make it all worthwhile, including Evan Buliung as Tom and Chelina Kennedy as Rose of Sharon.  Pinter's The Homecoming is gritty and quirky, and definitely an acquired taste.  But standout performances by Brian Dennehy as Max and again, Stephen Ouimette as his brother Sam make it all worthwhile.  A late-season opener, The Homecoming was lightly attended when I was there in late August, so you might have a good chance to get some great seats for this show.  For all shows this season in Stratford, go to

Both festivals have announced their lineups for next season, of course, and each looks promising.  At Shaw, the big musical will be Ragtime, which has had a checkered history of performances both in Toronto and on Broadway.  In Stratford, the family show will be the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  There have been complaints already about Shaw not having main stage performances of Shaw's plays next season; they will be featured at the Court House and Royal George Theatres next season.  Over at Stratford, there are complaints their playbill includes only three of Shakespeare's plays.  Well, you can't please everyone in both cases, of course, but they have to put bums in the seats, and if it works, how can you argue with their logic?  We'll see how next season plays out and assess the results this time next year.

So that's it; enjoy some great theatre before the month is done and I guarantee you won't be disappointed!

October 16th, 2011.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Two Niagara ladies of song making their mark this Thanksgiving weekend

As the Thanksgiving weekend is upon us, I wanted to share a few words about a couple of ladies in Niagara I have had the pleasure of knowing for awhile now, and whose music brings a lot of pleasure to a lot of people - myself included.

TiannaH and her group, Jazz with a Twist, perform throughout the Niagara area and beyond throughout the year, doing everything from private and corporate functions to open-air performances in the summer and clubs throughout the year.  TiannaH is a jazz singer who has her musical roots firmly entrenched in the gospel and spiritual music of her ancestors.  For several years, in fact, she was the featured soloist with Laura Thomas' Choralis Camerata choral group, who would perform a tribute to Black History Month each February at a church or two in some part of Niagara.

I know the concert well because I was always honoured to be asked to be the narrator and as such, I had a ringside seat to some of the best spiritual singing you'll hear in Niagara.  Last summer, I took myself down to Charles Daley Park to hear the other, more familiar side of TiannaH, as a jazz singer with her group at the amphitheatre.  She was back again this summer but alas, I missed the performance in August.

If you ever get a chance to catch a performance with TiannaH, do so; you will not be disappointed.  In fact, although it is really short notice, you can tonight at one of her regular haunts, the Jordan House Hotel in Jordan, right where Regional Road 81 (otherwise known as Old Highway 8) turns left and heads down into the Jordan Valley.  She'll be there from 9 to midnight tonight; if you miss that performance there will be many more in the months to come, so keep an eye out for her at a nice bar near you!

The other lady I love to hear is Juliet Dunn, who has made her home in St. Catharines for some time now with her husband Peter Shea, after spending several years living in Paris and travelling the world.  In fact, to this day the pair spend part of the winter months performing on cruise ships in the warmer climes, a gig many other singers would kill for, I suspect.

Juliet's years in Paris have inspired her most recent CD, titled "C'est Si Bon", recorded with her group known collectively as Le Trio Parisien.  The disc covers a lot of musical ground, ranging from the familiar title track to the Piaf classic, La Vie En Rose and Padam, among others.  The disc actually came out about a year ago now, but Juliet told me on the phone this week she had been so busy, they just hadn't had a chance to celebrate the release before now.

Celebrate they did last evening in downtown St. Catharines as Juliet and Peter and their musical friends held a CD release party at Stella's on James Street.  I unfortunately had to miss the event, since it was a busy election night and my more serious job too precedence last evening.  The evening provided a chance to hear music from the disc, of course, and also to find out more about Juliet's ambitious "Twilight Jazz" series, to be held every Thursday night at Stella's featuring performances by some of Niagara's best jazz musicians.  When I get the lineup I will be posting it on the calendar page of my website, at

Also on my website, on the Mike's Picks page in the jazz section, you'll find Juliet Dunn's newest disc for sale.  It is a fine recording and I encourage you to give it a try.  You can order it through my website or just email me directly at and I will take care of it for you.

There is another opportunity to hear Juliet in an entirely different venue each weekend now, too, as she has nicely settled in to the early morning 6 - 9 am spot hosting the weekend morning jazz programme at Toronto's JazzFm, 91.1.  I caught a bit of her show last Saturday, and she sounded great on her first time on the air there.  Juliet sounded absolutely giddy about the regular gig when I talked to her this week, but of course, let her get used to those cold January mornings driving to Toronto early in the morning and we'll see how she feels!  I know; I do it every day on my way to work down at CKTB Radio here in St. Catharines.

Happy Thanksgiving, and let's give thanks for some of the great talent we have right here in Niagara!

October 7th, 2011.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A busy first weekend of October in Niagara

I usually like to get my weekend blog entry done first thing Saturday morning, but the day has been so busy already, the first chance I have had to sit down and write is now, so here goes...

There has been no shortage of events this weekend in Niagara, three of which I will recount here as I will be involved in all of them.  The first, actually, I already have been, and I have the sore feet to show for it!  Now, I know this doesn't have anything to do with the arts, per se, but it has everything to do with giving back to the community and helping out a charitable organization worthy of our help.

This morning I was down at the Pen Centre as preparations were underway for the sixth annual Walk a Mile in HER Shoes event, benefitting Gillian's Place in St. Catharines.  If you know of Gillian's Place, you know of the important work they do in the community; if you don't, you should know they provide shelter and vital help to women escaping abusive relationships in St. Catharines.

A couple of years ago when the former Women's Place moved from their cramped downtown quarters to the renovated Victoria School on Niagara Street, I toured the facilities at the opening and was impressed with the new facility and the exceptional care they provide for clients who come to them.  There might indeed be a day when these services are not needed, but until then, places like Gillian's Place will need our help to raise funds and awareness for this problem.

So once again this morning, myself and many, many other like-minded men strapped on stilettos, pumps, and just about anything else with high heels to walk the one mile perimeter of the Pen to raise funds or awareness for Gillian's Place.  It is quite an event now, with record crowds turning out both to participate and to watch at the Pen.

I arrived just in time to pluck a promising-looking pair of black high-heels in a men's size 8 that I thought would do the trick, and after some buckle hassles, I was ready to go, teetering back and forth.  I did the walk with no problem, but I am finding as I get older (!) my back is aching by the end of it, but that is a small price to pay for the help we try to give to Gillian's Place cause.  I can rest the next day, sort of, but for clients of the shelter and the workers, there really is no rest.

After the walk and the awards had been given, it was announced a record number of donations came in this year:  $ 74,500 was raised for Gillian's Place, about $ 20,000 more than last year.  Phenomenal!  I offer a teetering tip of the hat to my fellow participants and supporters, as well as the tireless volunteers and workers from Gillian's Place who really need our help.  Well done, boys!

Now, on to other things happening this weekend in the arts I want to highlight.  Sunday morning at 11 am, the public is invited to the Shaw Festival rehearsal halls for a free, one-hour presentation by actors Sharry Flett and Guy Bannerman on manners and related topics from the past to the present day.  Shaw Festival actors know more than a little bit about this, of course, as they deal with it all season long as they present plays from the past and the present that will at some point involve manners in some shape or form.

The presentation is part of the provincial Cultural Days events planned for this weekend throughout Ontario, and this one in particular interests me, as an avid theatre goer for many years now.  The discussion is free and no tickets are required; just go to the stage door at the festival theatre prior to 11 am to attend the event.

Later on Sunday, the Niagara Symphony will kick off their new season, their first with Musical Director Bradley Thachuk on the podium full-time.  It promises to be a gala event as a season full of musical promise gets underway, and I am hoping the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre is almost full to the rafters to welcome our Niagara Symphony back for another season.

On the programme Sunday afternoon are three orchestral works:  an Overture by Sir Ernest MacMillan; the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture by Tchaikovsky, and in the second half, the ever-popular Symphony No. 9 in E Minor by Antonin Dvorak, the one known, of course, as "From the New World."  All three works will test the orchestral prowess of the Niagara Symphony, and will offer a suitable launching pad for  what promises to be an exciting symphony season down at the Centre of the Arts, Brock University.

Once again this season I will be attending, too, with my table set up in the lobby before, after, and during intermission at the concert with a wide selection of music for you to (hopefully!) purchase.  I will have an added surprise tomorrow, as well, but that won't be disclosed until I am set up before the concert.  So if you go, be sure to pay me a visit and say hello.

Tickets are still available for the concert, and can be had by stopping at the Brock box office before the concert or calling them at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Who says there is nothing to do in Niagara after the Niagara Wine Festival is done for the season?

October 1st, 2011.

Friday, September 23, 2011

New performing arts centre in St. Catharines one step closer

Earlier this week, I attended a special open house on the future site of the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre downtown on St. Paul Street.  Lots of others took the city up on their invitation as well, resulting in a real crush of people huddled under tents and umbrellas due to the rain Wednesday afternoon, but even the weather failed to dampen the spirits of those in attendance, myself included.

On hand for the first look at conceptual design plans supplied by architect Gary McCluskie of Diamond and Schmitt Architects in Toronto was a real cross-section of people throughout Niagara, all keenly aware of the importance of this project and the fact we have but one chance to get this thing right.  For that reason, I think many might have been pleasantly surprised by what they saw, as the design is basically set now; there is still a six-week period before the plans are finalized, during which time some tweaking of the design can take place.

But overall, what we saw this week is basically what we'll see once the project is completed in a couple of years or so.  Some people were suggesting the facade was rather bland, based on the graphic included in the electronic invitation sent out by city hall earlier this month.  But it wasn't really a true reflection of what was to come, and once we saw detailed design plans this week, everything seemed to be falling into place quite nicely.

In total, the $ 54-million centre will house an 800-seat concert hall, a 150-seat dance and theatre hall, a 180-seat film theatre and a 250-seat recital hall.  That is in addition to the adjacent space, also designed by Diamond and Schmitt, that will be the new home of Brock's School of Fine Arts.  Together, they will totally transform that stretch of St. Paul Street and with it, hopefully much of the downtown core altogether.  But more on that in a moment.

As for me, I like the plans, calling for a sort of three-pod design backing onto the sloping area towards Highway 406, with the front facade made up of glass and limestone right on St. Paul Street.  It is clean, modern, and at the same time in keeping with what buildings will remain on St. Paul Street.  Lots of wood on the interior, as it appears, will lend a warmth I think will certainly contribute to the overall acoustic of all the spaces, especially the large concert hall.

That is the key, of course, getting the acoustics right.  Many a lovely-looking concert hall has had terrible acoustics, such as Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, which received a major makeover years ago to help improve the sound there.  It is one of those things you simply have to get right the first time, so here's hoping this design team headed up by Gary McCluskie brings all their experience to the design table in that  regard.

Now, to the surrounding area.  I noted while visiting the site this week, already surrounding buildings are looking better, as many landlords are now investing more money into their properties and attracting many new, more upscale tenants. Just look across the street from the new home of the performing arts centre to see proof of that:  a nicely rejuvenated facade housing many businesses, including a stylish new cafe named Mahtay.  This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course.  There is money being spent to rejuvenate the old Leonard Hotel, for example, and the new parking garage on Carlisle is well on its way to completion.  So gradually that whole area will look better, and we can only hope that eventually spreads down the rest of the street and along adjacent streets in the years to come.  It will be a slow process, but the ball is now rolling, and things look good so far.

So, the early report card on progress on the new venue? I would give all parties an A at this point, as real progress is being made, and we can finally see the transformation taking place.  It can only get better, and when was the last time we said that about our downtown core?  Interesting, and fun times are on the horizon.

Let's enjoy the ride!

September 23rd, 2011.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Another great season of entertainment coming to downtown St. Catharines

Last week, I paid my annual visit to the Courthouse Theatre in downtown St.Catharines for the season launches for eight Niagara arts companies that use the venue, known collectively as DAPA, the Downtown Alliance for the Performing Arts.  Collectively, the organizations are presenting 26 different productions, special events and festivals in Niagara the coming season, with 15 of them at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre downtown.

Here's a brief overview of what was presented and what we can expect in the coming months:

Carousel Players:  They've created three new plays for young children for their 40th anniversary season; in fact, there will be a 40th anniversary party everyone is invited to at Market Square on June 3rd.

Essential Collective Theatre:  ECT produces contemporary Canadian playwrights, and in fact their newest production takes the stage starting September 30th, Trout Stanley by Claudia Dey.  There will also be the 6th annual reading series featuring new works by Niagara playwrights, and even Shakespeare will make an appearance of sorts at the Courthouse Theatre on March 3rd with Raoul Bhaneja's Hamlet.

Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects:  Artistic Director Kelly Daniels has decided this year to move the Young Company production of Our Town to the Courthouse for performances next April.  There will be two additional plays in their subscription series, Educating Rita in November and Memoir in February.

neXt Company Theatre:  NCT brings back the cult classic The Rocky Horror Show in February, and in the more immediate future, this weekend they present a documentary celebrating Niagara's migrant workers Sunday evening at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.

Niagara Dance Company:  Niagara Dance Company will expand their programming of contemporary dance works, workshops and mentorship opportunities for Niagara performers and choreographers this season.

Stray Theatre:  They will be presenting Where's My Money by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Patrick Shanley, the author of Moonstruck and Doubt.

Suitcase in Point:  They will be presenting their 10th season with the return of the ever-popular In the Soil Festival in April, as well as offering four special cabaret events in downtown St. Catharines.  There will also be a premiere of a new play about female daredevils at the Courthouse Theatre next February.

Theatre Beyond Words:  The creators of the famous Potato People have been expanding their horizons in the past few seasons, and this season will be presenting two plays for families on both sides of the border at the Leary Theatre at Niagara University as well as at the Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.

The groups that make up DAPA have shown in the past they can provide creative, thought-provoking professional theatre for downtown audiences for several years now, and I expect this season to be no different.  I have often found the performances to be on a par with what you'll find in larger theatre cities if not better, and they are successfully filling the void for live performing arts in the city's core during the fall/winter/spring months.  They depend on your patronage to a great extent, however, so I would suggest you give serious consideration to some of their offerings this season when you want a night out on the town.  DAPA has a great deal to offer patrons of the arts throughout Niagara!

Most of the companies in DAPA have their own websites, but I will provide links to their sites on my website, at this coming week.  Just click on the Calendar page and you'll find complete listings for many groups throughout the Niagara Region and beyond.

Just before we wrap up, a couple of other arts-related notes to pass along as well.  This coming Wednesday afternoon, the latest plans for the new Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines will be presented at the site of the new venue on St. Paul Street.  I plan to attend and will be writing about it shortly afterwards, but you can attend yourself and get a first-hand look at what is to come for the much-anticipated St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre.  Also, the Niagara Wine Festival kicked off last evening, with lots of events planned throughout this weekend and next at Montebello Park in downtown St. Catharines.  This evening, in fact, I will be emceeing the musical acts onstage at Montebello Park, beginning with Canadian musician Mark Lalama at 6 pm and the Eagles tribute band, Hotel California at 8 pm.  If you have some wild vicarious thrill to meet me for some reason, that's where I'll be this evening.  If you come by, be sure to stop and say hello!

Enjoy the weekend!

September 17th, 2011.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Final two shows at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

I always find it hard to believe when I come to the end of another summer theatre season, as it seems I have barely just begun when it all comes to a screeching halt again.  Of course, the season ends for me, but there is still plenty of time for you to enjoy some great summer theatre either at the Shaw or Stratford Festivals.  Later this month, in fact, we'll review the late-season offerings at both festivals in case you want to pay a visit in September or October.

The last two shows I have to look at in Stratford this season are a couple of great shows, both of which continue until later October, so still lots of time to get to the Festival City to enjoy some great theatre.

Moliere's The Misanthrope opened at the Festival Theatre in August and is a beautifully staged version of the French master's classic tale of the love of several men for a winsome young lady.  The adaptation to English verse by Richard Wilbur is very well done and quite lyrical, almost making you forget it was actually written in French originally.  David Grindley's direction provides a good pace and just enough of a light touch to keep things from lagging behind.  The fabulous sets and costumes by John Lee Beatty and Robin Fraser Paye, respectively, are almost worth the price of admission alone.

But as beautifully staged as this production is, it is the cast that makes it really fly, as it were.  Ben Carlson plays the well-to-do Alceste, totally infatuated with the most sought-after widow in all of Versailles, Celimene, played by Sara Topham.  Sara is breathtakingly beautiful; Carlson is very earnest and convincing in his love for the lady.  Yet, Celimene's desire to enjoy the attentions of several suitors besides Alceste drives him to distraction, setting up some wonderful fireworks between the two in the second act.  The pivotal scene makes this production all worthwhile as both Carlson and Topham go at it on the subject of love and commitment.

The supporting cast is up to the task as well, including Juan Chioran as Alceste's friend, Philinte, and Peter Hutt as Alceste's main rival, Oronte.  Special mention must be made of Kelli Fox, a mainstay for many years at the Shaw Festival, of course, who makes a wonderful turn here as Celimene's friend Arsinoe.  Finally, Brian Tree is his usual reliable and likeable self as Alceste's valet, Dubois.

Moliere knew his audience and knew how far he could go satirizing them as he entertained them, even if they failed to recognize themselves.  But this light and airy look at the privileged class and their foibles I found left me a little indifferent at the end, wondering if we should really care about them after all is said and done.  No matter, the ride taking us to that point is an enjoyable one.

The Misanthrope plays at the Festival Theatre until October 29th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Meantime, over at the Avon stage, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming opened in late August and continues until October 30th.  It is a play both fascinating and unnerving at the same time, dating as it does from 1964.  How interesting, though, and perhaps reassuring in a way, there were grossly dysfunctional families portrayed on stage back then as well, and they don't come much more dysfunctional than this one.

Almost immediately we are introduced to the central character, Max, a crusty old widower played with great skill by Brian Dennehy.  He can praise his late wife in one breath and then do a complete 360 and trash her the next, leaving you to wonder how he can possibly be so kind one moment and cruel the next?  His nemesis right off the bat is his son, Lenny, played with razor-sharp wit by Aaron Krohn.  He is the grown-up version of the know-it-all kid, sparrring constantly with Max, finally meeting his match in the lovely Ruth, the wife of brother Teddy.  Ruth, played by Cara Ricketts, is wonderfully understated and as a result, very sexy.  Her husband, Teddy, played by Mike Shara, really has no idea what is coming in the second act, almost appearing as a deer in the headlights lost soul.  The other son is Joey, a fighter who shall we say, gets to know Ruth better than one could imagine.

Special mention goes to Stephen Ouimette's Sam, the put-upon brother of Max who never married and is a professional driver to and from the airport.  Stephen and Dennehy have a real chemistry here, first seen in their comedic roles in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the Festival Theatre.  I suspect Brian wanted Stephen for this role, and if that is the case it was a wise choice to agree on the part of director Jennifer Tarver.

The Homecoming is typical Pinter, which means an acquired taste; that was perhaps evidenced by the smallish crowd at the performance I attended in late August, but for those who choose to go, you're in for some very special performances that make it worth the effort.

The Homecoming continues until October 30th and rates a very strong 3 out of 4 stars.

September 12th, 2011.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Two late-season offerings at our two major theatre festivals

We're getting down to the final few shows at both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals this season, so we'll look at the final Shaw show opening this season and another late season offering at Stratford today, and next week wrap up the Stratford shows for the season.

The Shaw Festival has been going from strength to strength at their small Studio Theatre the last couple of seasons, and the final offering this season which opened a week ago Friday, is no exception.  Australian playwright Andrew Bovell wrote When the Rain Stops Falling as a commission for the Adelaide Festival of Arts, where it premiered in February, 2008.  The Shaw Festival production is the play's Canadian premiere, directed by Peter Hinton.

The play, to put it bluntly, is a bit of an enigma.  It looks at the Law, York and Price family histories in the context of the future, if you will.  As such, the play's first hour is more than a little confusing for many in the audience, as we struggle to come to grips with several people playing the same characters at different times in their lives.  We go from London in 1959 to Australia in the year 2039, with the plot-line following the many events that happen in the lives of the characters over that 80 year period.  Thanks to director Hinton who had the presence of mind to include a "family tree" on one page in the programme to help us understand the family lineage in each household.

Hinton has also decided to project the time/place of each scene over top of the set, which does help you put each scene in the proper context.  He also added character's names and birth & death (if applicable) dates on the backs of chairs surrounding the huge table that makes up a large part of the stage.  Trouble with this, of course, is you have to really squint to see what they say, and you can only see the chairs in front of you; the other three sides of the table are out of view to you, and with no intermission to allow you to walk around the stage and read them, you get only some of that helpful information.  By the time you realize this fact it is too late, and you have to struggle to keep up with the myriad of time and place changes.

Each character present has their own form of emotional baggage, and all effect what happens in the play at some point, as we see what happened in the past as well as in the future.  It is a fascinating concept, and  quite a challenge, but suffice it to say the challenge is worth the effort.  This is a play, as Hinton points out in his Director's Notes, wherein the characters are haunted by the past; it is a play about family and secrets and the ways in which we pass on our unresolved struggles from one generation to another.  I don't want to give away too much of the storyline, as it is difficult to do in a small space with this play, and besides I don't want to jeopardize the ending in any way.  But the journey, however convoluted it may be, will bring the audience to a heartfelt, compassionate conclusion in the year 2039, resulting in more than a few tears in the audience, at least at the performance I attended.

The cast rises to the challenge of presenting this difficult play with some degree of clarity, and each and every one is perfect for the role.  Ric Reid opens and closes the play in the year 2039 as Gabriel York, a man who is faced with the prospect of his son coming to visit him after many years apart.  Donna Belleville as the older Elizabeth Law and Tara Rosling as the younger Elizabeth Law are both great, as is Peter Millard as almost an odd-man out in the role of Joe Ryan, the second husband of Gabrielle York, played by Wendy Thatcher, who is sent packing by a wife suffering from a memory disorder.  Others in the cast worthy of note include Krista Colosimo as the younger Gabrielle York, who runs a cafe in Australia and falls for Gabriel Law, played by Jeff Meadows, who is on a mission to find out what happened to his father, sent to Australia by his wife for indiscretions back home in London.  Graeme Somerville as the disgraced Henry Law is very good and manages to pull at our heart-strings in spite of his indiscretions.  You can see the story is a complicated one just from this brief description, right?

Anyway, you don't have much time left to catch When the Rain Stops Falling; it runs only until September 17th at the Studio Theatre, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Meantime, over at the Stratford Festival, we have the prospect of another difficult storyline at their Studio Theatre, with Michel Tremblay's Hosanna, set in early 70s Montreal, when the country as a whole was coming to grips with the acceptance of gays moreso than in the past, and two men who live together in a Montreal apartment who find themselves on a journey of self-discovery.

Hosanna, as director Weyni Mengesha mentions in her Director's Notes, is "an investigation of the classic human struggle to face who we truly are."  The two characters in the play, Hosanna, played by Gareth Potter, and Cuirette, played by Oliver Becker, both have to come to grips with their own insecurities and acceptance of each other if they are to continue living together.

Hosanna is a former farm boy from the countryside, who now lives fast and loose in the big city as a hairdresser by day, and a transvestite prostitute by night.  His male companion, a leather-clad biker boy nicknamed Cuirette, still likes to think of himself as able to play the field whenever he likes.  Trouble is,  Hosanna is needs him more than he realizes, and by the end of the play he realizes he is in the same boat.

Now, as When the Rain Stops Falling can be seen as a confusing collection of characters, how about this with Hosanna:  Gareth Potter plays Hosanna, who is the alter ego of Claude Lemieux, the farm-boy from the sticks.  On this particular night as the action of the play unfolds, Hosanna is playing the role of his idol Elizabeth Taylor, in her role as Cleopatra.  How's that for confusing?

It all comes together in the end, as both characters come to realize the compelling universal truth that love is all that really matters.  While some parts of the play may appear to be somewhat dated to some, in many respects the story is entirely relevant today.  The seedy set and characters are as real today as they were when the play premiered in 1973, and in this production they become much more human as the play progresses, allowing the audience to actually care about them despite their insecurities and lot in life.

I can't imagine either character is easy to play, with Gareth Potter having a deeply troubled character to explore; both rise to the challenge, however, making Hosanna a challenging play worth catching this season.  Hosanna continues until September 24th at the Studio Theatre, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

September 3rd, 2011.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Two Shakespeare plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

I've just returned from Stratford and caught my last two shows of the season, The Homecoming and Hosanna, which I will write about next week as we wrap up the reviews of Stratford plays this season.  This weekend, a look at a couple of the larger-scale Shakespearean plays onstage at the Festival Theatre, both of which have much to recommend them.

The first one, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is a lesser-known Shakespeare play, but certainly a lighter work that works well for summertime theatre fun getaways.  It perhaps is not the Bard's best work, but it makes a nice change from, say, Titus Andronicus or Richard III, both onstage at the Tom Patterson Theatre this season.

Director Frank Galati has fashioned a production with just enough flash and no unnecessary props cluttering up the stage, with a cast that works well together to make a worthwhile theatrical experience.  The strong cast includes James Blendick as Master Robert Shallow, a justice of the peace who is fed up with Falstaff's constant insults.  Blendick's deep, rolling voice always resonates on the Festival stage, and as always, his presence is felt whenever he is onstage.  Master George Page, a wealthy Windsor citizen, is ably played by Tom McCamus; Laura Condlln plays his wife, Meg Page.  The other wealthy Windsor citizen, Master Francis Ford, is played a little over-the-top by Tom Rooney, and Lucy Peacock gives a typically strong performance as his wife, Alice Ford.

Enter the ever-popular, ever-broke Sir John Falstaff, who schemes to woo the wealthy Windsor wives of Page and Ford in order to solve his ever-increasing money problems.  Trouble is, of course, they are married; they also receive identical letters from Sir John and decide to act on it and basically outwit Falstaff with some mischief of their own.  Now, I am of two minds on this Sir John Falstaff, played by Geraint Wyn Davies.  On the one hand, I admire his comic abilities and the fact he really starts to make you believe he really is Falstaff, but being a traditionalist at heart, I still can't get good ol' Douglas Campbell out of my mind as the quintessential Sir John from years ago.  Oh I know, the late Douglas Campbell was from another era, and we need another Falstaff now, so Davies makes an effective Falstaff for this production.  He really comes off being quite loveable.

Others in the cast worth mentioning are Dan Chameroy as Ensign Pistol, Nigel Bennett as the French physician Doctor Caius, and Janet Wright making a strong appearance as Mistress Quickly.

This won't be the best Merry Wives you've ever seen, but let's face it, it does not show up on the playbill all that often, so this likeable production is definitely worth catching.  The Merry Wives of Windsor runs to October 14th at the Festival Theatre, and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.

Next, the much-anticipated Des McAnuff production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, also on the Festival Stage until October 28th.  From almost every perspective, this is a spectacular show, although it relies a little too much on glitz and special effects to make it a really slick show.  But you can tell almost from the get-go, this is a Shakespeare production geared to a younger audience.  It is really skewed to bring in those future theatre subscribers the Festival will need in the years ahead.

I am not against that approach; both Stratford and Shaw have to cultivate those younger patrons now rather than later, but the fear is a generation brought up on lots of special effects will expect it here as well, and eventually those effects will overtake the production so you forget the wonderful story Shakespeare has written.

Okay, that concern aside, you cannot help but like this production; even though it is modern-dress Shakespeare, it all makes sense in this very contemporary take on the classic Twelfth Night story.  Well, maybe not the sword fights, but there you go...anyway, it is a wonderful show.  The sets and costumes are at times eye-popping, and the extra music Des McAnuff and company have added to the original Shakespeare songs in the play all work very well.  If anything, this is more a musical than a play, a fact that will also appeal to a younger audience.

There are strong performances all around, led by the wonderful Sir Toby Belch of Brian Dennehy.  Brian has the time of his life here, and there is much to savour in his portrayal of the party animal Sir Toby.  His side-kick, as it were, is Sir Andrew Aguecheek; this production benefits mightily from the casting of Stephen Ouimette, who almost steals the show all on his own.  The two work so well together, you know there is a wonderful chemistry at play here.

Others in the cast include Juan Chioran as Fabian, Tom Rooney as Malvolio, and Sara Topham as a lovely Olivia.  Mike Shara makes a regal Orsino, Duke of Illyria, and Cara Ricketts puts in a strong performance as Maria.  But the special mention has to go to Ben Carlson's multi-talented Feste, a jester who sings with a great deal of heart and passion.  Carlson is just great both as a singer and actor.

From start to finish, this is a Twelfth Night almost everyone will enjoy; from the brilliant performances to the clever staging to the three original songs added to the original seven Shakespeare supplied, this show is a winner.  It rates a very strong 4 out of 4 stars, and runs at the Festival Theatre until October 28th.

August 27th, 2011.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thought-provoking, contemporary theatre this season at both Shaw and Stratford

Both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals introduced their smaller, studio theatres a few seasons back, and both use the opportunity of a smaller space to program more cutting-edge, riskier productions.  In most cases, the gamble pays off handsomely with some great productions open for only a short run.  Such is the case this season with two productions currently onstage at each festival, which we'll look at in this space today.

The Shaw Festival presented the Canadian premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog, from playwright Suzan-Lori Parks late this season, and in fact it closes this weekend at the Studio Theatre.  I attended one of the final performances this week, and it is both crude and exhilarating at the same time, employing more foul language than we are used to hearing in Shaw theatres, to be sure.  In fact, a few years ago I doubt this production would have made it to the stage at Shaw, but it has, and the work is a triumph.

Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell knew this would be a gamble, especially given the age of a large part of the audience base at Shaw, but looking around me at the performance I attended this week, young and old shared space in the audience in almost equal numbers, and almost everyone gave the performers a resounding standing ovation at the end.

The two performers, Kevin Hanchard and Nigel Shawn Williams, each give exceptional performances here, directed with a sure hand by Philip Akin.  Hanchard plays the part of Booth; Williams the part of Lincoln.  Yes, the irony is not lost on the audience, of course, as the two young men, cast adrift by their parents years before, struggle to find themselves in a tough world that is often unforgiving.

The older brother, Lincoln, plays the late American president in a carnival show, dressing up with white-face and sitting there while carnival-goers pay for the opportunity to "shoot" him.  How demeaning!  Younger brother Booth, meanwhile, shares his apartment with Lincoln, who has left his wife.  Booth, although unemployed, knows how to "acquire" things with great regularity, so manages quite well, thank you very much.

Their trials and tribulations in a seedy apartment in a seedy part of town make up the play, a telling expose on the hopelessness of the poor and how difficult it can be for them as they struggle to make a go of it.  The whole thing is very sad and quite unsettling, but also makes for some riveting theatre.

Topdog/Underdog continues at the Shaw Festival Studio Theatre until August 27th, and rates a strong 4 out of 4 stars.

Over at Stratford, their production of Canadian playwright John  Mighton's The Little Years continues at their Studio Theatre until September 24th, with a larger cast than the Shaw show, and just about as much  of an edge.

Director Chris Abraham assembled a strong cast for this tough, soul-searching play about what matters most in life, or at least what should matter most.  It begins in the 1950s with a young Kate, played by Bethany Jillard, being fed the female stereotypical career paths by both mother and her teacher.  The play progresses through Kate's life with its ups and downs and the characters she meets along the way.

The older Kate, played by Irene Poole, is a much wiser Kate, but also quite bitter and angry with the world.  Others in the cast also age and learn from life, including Grace, played by Yanna McIntosh, whose husband is away and never appears in the play.  She ends up having an affair with an artist named Roger, played by Evan Builung, who discovers much later having his work compared to the music of Barry Manilow is not necessarily a good thing.

It is amazing watching some of the characters age right before our eyes, including Kate.  But most interesting of all is Kate's mother Alice, played by Chick Reid, who is so convincing as both young mother and very old mother near the end of her life.  Bethany Jillard appears later in the play as Tanya, a young lady who found her way through life with the help of Kate's diary entries, which she read while Kate was away.  The fact Tanya learned from Kate's life experiences heartens and softens Kate somewhat at the end, and she winds up thinking perhaps, her life was not so bad after all.

There is a lot of content to this soul-searching play making it a little hard to follow at times, but it is a journey and challenge worth taking as we watch the characters age and learn from youth through to old age, and the life experiences that bring them there.

The Little Years continues until September 24th at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

August 25th, 2011.