Friday, July 29, 2011

A hit and a miss at the Shaw Festival

Of all the shows at the Shaw Festival this season, and there are many recommendable shows, none is garnering more interest than the 50th Anniversary season celebration on the Festival stage of Lerner & Loewe's musical "My Fair Lady."  Everyone agrees it was about time this timeless musical, based of course on Shaw's play Pygmalion, made it to the Shaw Festival during this celebratory season; after seeing the show, you have to ask, "Lady, why did it take you so long?"

The musical version of Pygmalion, which premiered on Broadway in 1956, remains for me one of the most perfect of all examples of the golden age of the American Musical Theatre.  The book and lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner is perfectly married to the music of Frederick Loewe, resulting in a veritable cornucopia of classic songs almost everyone has heard before and yet, they have not aged one bit.  Who doesn't have memories of Julie Andrews' thrilling "I Could Have Danced All Night"; Rex Harrison's touching "I've Grown Accustomed to her Face" or Stanley Holloway's rollicking "With a Little Bit of Luck"?  They have all stood the test of time and remain standard musical theatre fare to this very day.

So how does the Shaw production measure up?  Well, in a word, wonderfully, thank you very much.  Oh, the Stratford Festival production of a few seasons back was a far more lavish affair, to be sure, but I think we have the superior cast here, and that makes for a very satisfying production overall.  The sets are, comparatively speaking, rather simple overall, and have trouble filling that cavernous stage, but the costumes spare no expense.  You won't so much be wowed by the sets in this production as feel comfortable with them.

The cast is huge and almost without exception very strong.  As Henry Higgins, Benedict Campbell is marvellous:  his singing is acceptable and he doesn't come off as quite a cad as he could when he shows disregard for Eliza after the ball.  As Eliza, Deborah Hay is amazing; her transformation from cockney flower girl to a cultured society woman is handled so effortlessly and with such skill it is simply breathtaking.  The only disappointment, I found, was Patrick Galligan's Colonel Pickering.  Galligan just seems to go over the top too often to make the character all that likeable, I found.

Supporting cast members are all strong, from Sherry Flett's Mrs. Higgins to Neil Barclay's Alfred Doolittle, on down the line.  The large cast never fails to impress with their ensemble work.

Director Molly Smith has crafted a very enjoyable revival of My Fair Lady, and it deserves the full houses it will garner through to the end of the season.  It plays at the Festival Theatre until October 30th and rates a very strong 3 out of 4 stars.

The second show at the Festival Theatre we'll examine here is a bit of an oddity by J.M. Barrie, The Admirable Crichton.  Not Admiral Crichton, as at least one newspaper erroneously reported recently.  Barrie is best known, of course, for Peter Pan, and there is some Peter Pan in this show that predates his popular classic by two years.  Crichton premiered in 1902 and Pan in 1904.  Like Peter Pan, a well-to-do English family is transported to another land; in this case an island when their ship goes down in the ocean.  They are left to fend for themselves as help never arrives, and those stiff-upper-lip English upper class folk gather round their servant, Crichton, to help them survive their ordeal.

It is a nice enough story, but not of the calibre Barrie later perfected with Peter Pan.  There is not much meat on them bones, as it were, and as a result the rather flimsy plot line means director Morris Panych has chosen to flesh it out and dress it up with some clever touches that bring a lot of music and humour to an otherwise mundane play.

The animal characters that string the play together, including The Wolf played by Billy Lake and The Crow played by Heather McGuigan bring much-needed comic relief at regular intervals, weaving the story together with music everyone will remember growing up with.  They are almost the stars of the show, really.  Panych has also chosen to add credits to the start of the show on a screen in front of the stage that works particularly well, as if we're watching an old movie.

The rest of the cast is good, considering what they have to work with here.  Steven Sutcliffe's Crichton is clever, gentle and never over-the-top, and David Schurmann's The Earl of Loam, the head of the English household stranded on the island, is good, if not particularly memorable.  Other cast members worthy of mention include Guy Bannerman as Mr. Tompsett; Gray Powell as Lord Brocklehurst; and Patty Jamieson as Mrs. Perkins.

The Admirable Crichton is a nice enough way to spend an evening at Shaw, but really, there are better alternatives for your theatre dollar at Shaw this season.  It continues to October 29th at the Festival Theatre and rates two out of four stars.

Incidentally, the pit orchestra for both shows includes a lot of local talent of note, including Doug Miller on flute and for My Fair Lady, Toronto's own Erica Goodman on harp.  Both orchestras sound great, by the way.  Oh, and the original soundtrack to My Fair Lady, with Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway, is available through my website, A Web of Fine Music, and you can find it at

July 29th, 2011.                        

Monday, July 25, 2011

Busy weekend at the Shaw Festival

This past weekend was full of Shaw events and interesting theatre, so now the weekend is done, I thought I would gather my thoughts together and offer up some observations on events both onstage and off this weekend.

Last week, I received an invitation from Don Rubin, President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, to join a group of critics in town for the Festival for a lunch in the Heaslip Lounge to talk with Michael Billington, theatre critic of The Guardian newspaper in London, England.  Michael was in Niagara-on-the-Lake to take part in a weekend conference, The Speed of Ideas, a theatrical forum, along with award-winning playwrights Tony Kushner and Suzan-Lori Parks.  Mr.  Billington was to lecture at the forum on Sunday, following several days attending plays at both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals.

It was wonderful to hear Mr. Billington's thoughts on the newspaper industry in general, the theatre critic's role today in particular, and what he thought of some of the plays he has seen over the past several days.  An affable and easy-going gentleman, Mr. Billington has been theatre critic for The Guardian for 40 years now, which is rather phenomenal when you stop and think about it.  I have been reviewing live theatre and musical events for over thirty years myself, but not full-time.  I have done it simply as a sideline.  Here is someone who's life begins late morning and ends late in the evening after filing his daily column; truly a marathon man in the world of theatre!

On the Shaw plays he had seen the last few days, it was interesting to note Mr. Billington observed a couple of plays on the bill this season are so rarely staged even he hasn't seen them before, and if he hasn't, likely nobody else living has, either!  It was a nice tip of the hat from someone outside our immediate area who recognized the value of the theatre we sometimes tend to take for granted here in Niagara year in and year out.  His comments were very positive, and that was good to hear.

Theatre critics from the print and electronic media were invited to the luncheon, so I considered myself fortunate indeed to be included in some very accomplished company.  I used to be a member of the Toronto Drama Bench and the Canadian Theatre Critics Association years ago, but gave them up when I started to see less and less live theatre for awhile.  But now that I am doing more than ever, I might have to reconsider that decision from years ago; it was a great feeling sharing time and thoughts with several like-minded individuals in the industry.

On Sunday, I attended one of the more interesting Shaw productions this season, playing at the Courthouse Theatre until October 8th, On The Rocks.  This play, subtitled A Political Comedy, dates from 1933, published the following year.  The play was first produced at London's Winter Garden Theatre in November, 1933, where it ran for 41 performances.  There was a British revival in 1975, and the only major production of the play in the United States was in New York in 1938, where it ran for 66 performances.  Not a long run on either side of the Atlantic, to be sure, and when you consider the first and only Canadian production came at the Shaw Festival, directed by Christopher Newton, in 1986, you can see this play has not had a lot of exposure over the years.

Part of the problem, as is so often the case, is the fact Shaw plays are not the easiest to sit through depending on what the actual production is like.  I remember that 1986 production at the Courthouse Theatre, which provided significant challenges even then for Newton.  This time, the political commentary Shaw provides is suitably updated by Michael Healey and is directed by Joseph Ziegler.  Much of the same challenges remain, but at least the dialogue is not quite as archaic as it once was thanks to Healey.  You know he has tinkered with the script when you hear someone say they "wanted to puke!"  That was not Shaw, you can be sure!  But overall, the adaptation is workable and worthwhile, making On The Rocks a much more enjoyable vehicle for this very strong cast.

The plot involves the British Prime Minister, embroiled in coalition talks at 10 Downing Street to keep his government afloat amid tough economic times during the Great Depression.  As Prime Minister Sir Arthur Chavender, Peter Krantz is quite effective, even though he appears more of a dolt than statesman at times.  His nemesis, Sir Dexter Rightside, played with great pervasiveness by Steven Sutcliffe, almost owns the entire first act as he rails upon the government and their misguided socialist plans born of the prime minister's two-week vacation when he actually had time to 'think.'  The tension reaches its apex when Sutcliffe, in full flight and turning his venom on Dame Adhira Pandranath, who emigrated from India years before, referring to her as a 'bitch' with the dreaded N-word as the adjective.  The audience audibly gasped at the cruelty of the remark.

This is a cast that can make something of this difficult play:  in addition to Krantz and Sutcliffe, strong performances are offered by Thom Marriott as Sir Broadfoot Basham; Mary Haney as Miss Hilda Hanways and Cherissa Richards as Pandranath.

This will not be the most popular play this season, a fact driven home on Sunday by a very small audience in attendance; however those who do venture to enter Shaw's world refocused by Michael Healey will not be disappointed.  On The Rocks is a challenge worth taking this season, and rates a respectable three out of four stars.  It continues at the Court House Theatre until October 8th.

July 25th, 2011.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Some outdoor entertainment to take your mind off the heat this summer

My apologies for not writing on the weekend as is my custom, but I had a few days off and promised myself I would unplug myself for the week as well as my old computer, as I set up my new I-Mac, which I am still learning how to operate, by the way.  But this is the first blog written on the new beast, so we are making progress.  I also had several Shaw shows to attend on the weekend, so I will be writing extensively about those in the coming weeks as the season continues for our two major theatre festivals in Ontario.

In spite of the heat, or perhaps because of it, just a short little entry here with a couple of ideas for some outdoor entertainment that is always around us here in Niagara.  The first is an event happening this evening (July 20th) at Montebello Park in downtown St. Catharines.  Driftwood Theatre is on the road again this summer with their so-called "Bard Bus Tour" that brings Shakespeare to the masses in several Ontario communities.  They stop in St. Catharines this evening for their one local appearance, beginning at 7:30.

Shakespeare's Scottish play, Macbeth, is the offering this year, so not many laughs out in the park this evening.  But well-acted Shakespeare is always welcome, and this group appears to have a pretty good track record for producing open-air Shakespeare.  Macbeth is referred to as "the Scottish play", of course, by those superstitious thespians who fear mentioning the title alone could curse the production given past experiences over the years.  Whether you believe the curse exists or not, you should try to get out and enjoy the play tonight.

The performance is a pay-what-you can affair, although it is suggested the donation should be around $ 15.00.  That's pretty affordable Shakespeare if you ask me!

Another idea involves a quick drive down the QEW to Charles Daley Park in Lincoln for their Sunset Music Series, which runs Tuesday evenings during July and August, rain or shine, at the amphitheatre overlooking Lake Ontario.  Performances range from Sandy Vine and The Midnights next Tuesday evening, for example, to Jimmy Marando's Orchestra on August 2nd; the Lincoln Concert Band on August  9th; TiannaH & Jazz with a Twist on August 16th; Steve Burnside Blues Band on August 23rd; and wrapping up with Flat Broke on August 30th.

I attended the TiannaH performance last season and plan to attend again this year.  She is a great local singer and has a great backup band to accompany her, and having met this wonderful lady on many occasions, I always look for an opportunity to catch some great music when my schedule allows.

The venue is very scenic, with seating on the lawn leading down to the amphitheatre, and food is usually available on site from local vendors as well.  Best part of all? The concerts are free, so you can't beat that.

Get out and enjoy a little slice of summer one evening and forget about the heatwave for a little while!

July 20th, 2011.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Shaw Festival 50th Anniversary season gets underway

The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake celebrates their 50th anniversary this season, and you know the creative minds in charge plan to pull out all the stops this year to make it a year to remember.  The musical My Fair Lady, never before performed at Shaw, is the big draw this year as you can imagine.  I finally get to see the show this weekend.  But what of some of the other offerings at Shaw this season? I've been to my first two shows, and let's get the season underway with a look at what I've seen so far.

The big Shaw play this season, at the Festival Theatre through to October 7th, is Heartbreak House directed by Shaw's Artistic Director Emeritus, Christopher Newton.  I am thrilled to see Newton's work back on the mainstage this year; his productions almost always fit like a comfortable old pair of shoes you can't part with.  So it is with Heartbreak House, an unwieldy play at the best of times, and definitely a long sit here as well.

By nature, Heartbreak House is a very long, wordy play in the best (or worst) Shaw tradition (depending on your point of view on Shaw...).  But sure direction from Newton, who knows how to get the best out of a very strong cast paired with fabulous set design work by Leslie Frankish go a long way to make this beast at least more bearable.  Don't get me wrong, it can get pretty tedious at times, with actors going on and on with Shaw's interminable speeches, so as such this will not be a play for everyone.  But Newton makes it all worthwhile in the end, even if the end comes after 11 pm, three acts and two intermissions.

The story, of course, revolves around the house of Captain Shotover, brilliantly designed to resemble a ship, and a grand one at that.  People come and go, all the while under the watchful eye of the grizzled old Captain, played here to perfection by Michael Ball.  He claims to be near death throughout the play but in the end, manages to steal away young Ellie Dunn, played by Robin Evan Willis, from the wealthy and progressively befuddled Boss Mangan played by Benedict Campbell.  This is after Shotover regularly reminds Mangan that HE is too old for Ellie - what a wily old guy the Captain proves to be!

Others in the cast also put in great performances here, particularly Patricia Hamilton as Nurse Guinness and Laurie Paton as Ariadne, Lady Utterwood.  The Hushabyes, Hesione and Hector, played by Deborah Hay and Blair Williams, respectively, also put in good performances.

Heartbreak House may not be to everyone's liking, but if you can withstand the three-plus hours, you will be rewarded with some fine ensemble work.  It rates a three-out-of-four stars at the Festival Theatre.  For others, they will be reminded of writer David Randolph's quote after attending a performance of a certain Wagner opera years ago:  "Parsifal - the kind of opera that starts at six o'clock, and after it has been going three hours, you look at your watch and it says 6:20."  Well, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea...

The second show I have attended this season is a little gem at the Court House Theatre by Irish playwright Lennox Robinson, Drama at Inish - A Comedy.  Robinson is another of those rare finds for the Festival; his plays are not widely known on these shores, although I suspect this is not the last we'll see of his plays at Shaw.  Directed by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, this is a lovely little tale of a touring theatre company taking high-quality theatre out into small backwater towns and villages in Ireland, hopefully entertaining the masses who are more used to circus shows and other low-brow entertainment.

The theatre troupe, led by husband-and-wife team of Hector de la Mare and Constance Constantia, stop in the little Irish seaside town of Inish and stay at the Seaside Hotel.  There, the action of the play unfolds as the locals get their first, close-up look at so-called 'real actors'; of course, Hector and Constance played by Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo respectively, are suitably over-the-top in every respect, full of themselves and the importance of their mission.  The proprietors of the hotel, played by Ric Reid and Donna Belleville, earnestly want to bring some real culture to their townsfolk; still, many of the performances show few paying customers actually in attendance.  Was it ever thus...

The set design by William Schmuck is wonderful right down to the finest detail, and Maxwell keeps things moving along at a good pace.  The cast is uniformly strong; along with the aforementioned Marriott, Koslo, Reid and Belleville, all of whom put in solid performances here, top marks also go to everyone's favourite class clown, Mary Haney as Lizzie Twohig, trying valiantly to keep things humming along at the little hotel, and Peter Krantz as councillor Peter Hurley, who just can't seem to get a handle on things going on around him.

Drama at Inish - A Comedy is a nice way to spend an afternoon or evening at Shaw; it isn't going to big one of the really big shows this year, but it doesn't have to be.  It will, however, make you glad you made the effort to attend.  Sometimes, that is compliment enough, Mr. Robinson.  It plays at the Court House Theatre until October 1st, and rates a respectable three out of four stars.

July 8th, 2011.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Some thoughts on Canada Day weekend and good news stories on the arts

As we continue through the Canada Day long holiday weekend in Niagara, I hope you're enjoying some time off to spend with friends and family.  I found myself in Niagara-on-the-Lake twice yesterday; first for a fabulous lunch on the patio at Strewn Winery on Lakeshore Road, and wandering the shops in the Old Town along with several thousand other tourists who had the same idea.  It was fun, though, and the Canada Day celebrations at Simcoe Park were a real treat.  Even snagged a small slice of the Canada Day cake being handed out late in the afternoon!

In the evening, we were back in Niagara-on-the-Lake for a performance of Drama at Inish - A Comedy by Irish playwright Lennox Robinson.  I'll have more to say on this production when I review the first two shows at Shaw this season next week, but for now, consider it a definite 'go see' this season at Shaw.

Today, a couple of local good news stories involving the arts I thought I would share with you.  First, I know I wrote extensively about the Niagara Symphony last weekend; that was before I realized I missed one important performance coming up for them this summer, and that is this Friday evening at 8 pm in Welland.  Once again, the Niagara Symphony will be performing at the annual IlluminAqua 2011 music festival at the Merritt Park Amphitheatre in downtown Welland.  The Niagara Symphony kicked off the inaugural season there a few years ago, and it is nice to see them back again this year.  Associate Conductor Laura Thomas leads the orchestra along with featured soloist Elton Lammie; the same pairing at Market Square in downtown St. Catharines on Canada Day.  Tickets are available online at

I have never made it down to Illuminaqua, I am sorry to say, but I have promised myself to catch the Niagara Symphony this coming Friday night.  Working as early in the morning as I do, even Friday evening is a challenge for me to stay up late now, but since I am having a stay-at-home vacation this week, I should be fine and ready to go on Friday, and I am looking forward to seeing and hearing what all the positive comments have already told me about this great summer music venue.  Should be fun!

The 50th anniversary Summer Music Camp also kicks off for children enrolled this summer on Monday, at Ridley College.  Countless musicians have come through the Niagara Symphony Summer Music Camp over the years, including some who now play with the orchestra.  Associate Conductor Laura Thomas also directs the program, and will be busy in the coming weeks directing her young charges at Ridley College.

The other good news arts story this week involves Carousel Players, the theatre group based out of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Catharines.  Carousel Players is devoted primarily to school children and introducing them to theatre at a very young age.  Artistic Director Pablo Felices-Luna and General Manager Jane Gardner work diligently to provide intelligent, thought-provoking theatre for the young 'uns to get them started on theatre and the arts early, and they are to be congratulated for their efforts.  I remember a couple of months back attending an annoucement MPP Jim Bradley was to make at the start of a performance brimming with children in the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre, and Jim mentioned to everyone there he wanted to stay for the performance himself as he loves seeing the childrens' reactions to the events unfolding on stage.

Well this week, the Dora Mavor Moore Awards, the Toronto-area theatre awards handed out each year, held their annual shindig, and Carousel Players were nominated for two Doras over the past season, and that is great news!  Unfortunately they didn't win, but even being nominated is quite an honour for our group here, as they are up against some pretty high-powered competition for the awards.  Jane told me this week they were thrilled to be nominated, and she has good reason to be proud of the achievements of Carousel Players over the years.

Speaking of years, Carousel Players just announced their 40th anniverary season, and they are indeed in a celebratory mood these days.  You can check out the new season listings on the calendar page of my website, A Web of Fine Music, found at, or going to

Have a great remainder of the holiday weekend!

July 2nd, 2011.