Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lots to do on a winter weekend in Niagara and beyond

The last weekend of February is here, and if you are starting to feel a little bit of cabin fever this month, I have some worthwhile events you might want to attend this weekend, all of which are affordable and local.  Afterwards, you'll be primed and ready to crash on the couch for the Oscar telecast on Sunday night.

First off, the Niagara Symphony is set to sizzle this weekend with the third of their four Pops! concerts this season.  Tonight at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30, Associate Conductor Laura Thomas leads the orchestra in a concert titled February Fiesta, featuring a programme of tangos, rumbas and other so-called "hot" favourite dances.  Don't know if the limbo is included, though...

In addition to the usual members of the percussion section, steel drums will be added for this weekend's concerts, and they are fiendishly deceptive instruments to play.  I once had an impromptu lesson on steel drums from a friend who played in one of the local steel drum ensembles, and it isn't as easy as it looks.

Guest artist for the concert is Lisa Lubin, born in St. Croix and a Canadian resident from a very young age.  Lisa began to play the steel drum as a way of staying connected to her culture, and now performs with her own band and even teaches the instrument in St. Catharines.

On Sunday afternoon, the Niagara Symphony Silent Auction winner from last November, Patrick Little, returns to the podium after conducting Offenbach's Can-Can last season.  He was the successful bidder again this year and we can only imagine what his wardrobe choices will be this season; hopefully no wardrobe malfunctions will occur!

I will be at both concerts this weekend, of course, with lots of great music available for purchase in the lobby before, after and at intermission tonight and tomorrow afternoon.  Tickets should be available, either at the door or through the Brock box office by calling 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.  I would imagine the Saturday night concert has better seating than Sunday afternoon, but you should be able to get into either one if you want to have some fun this weekend.

Elsewhere this weekend, the Chorus Niagara Children's Choir performs this Saturday evening at 7 at Silver Spire United Church on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  The concert is titled Graced with Song and will highlight the young up and coming choral stars in the community.  For tickets, you should be able to pick them up at the door or go to

More choral music is available just a short drive down the QEW as well this weekend, as the acclaimed John Laing Singers with organist Christopher Dawes and Schulte Strings present Mystery and Majesty Saturday night at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 3:30.  The Saturday concert is at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton; the Sunday afternoon concert is at St. Paul's United Church in Dundas.

Mystery and Majesty will explore contrasting sounds and musical ideas this weekend, from Handel's wonderful Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest to Haydn's jubilant Te Deum, from Mendelssohn's mighty Psalm 98 to Arvo Part's serene Berliner Messe.

Tickets for either concert are available at the door, or in advance by calling 905-628-5238 or going to

Finally, tonight is the final opportunity to catch neXt Company Theatre's fundraising production of the famous comedy horror musical, Rocky Horror Show, which was written by Richard O'Brien and was first staged back in 1973.  Personally, I have never seen the attraction of going to The Rocky Horror Show time after time, but people do and will continue to do so.  Who am I to question, then?  Besides, in addition to being a fundraiser for the company to help with future work for neXt Theatre Company, it will also feature a collaborative fundraising venture benefitting AIDS Niagara.  So it will help out in the community on several levels, and that's a good thing!

Performances wrap tonight at 8 and 11:30 pm, at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, and tickets are available at the door or through the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

So there you go, lots to do this weekend and none involves a huge amount of money but each provides a wealth of entertainment value for the money spent.

Enjoy the weekend!

February 25th, 2012.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

February brings thoughts of summer theatre already!

I don't know if it is the result of the uncommonly mild winter we've been experiencing this year, but I am already thinking ahead and anticipating the summer theatre season at both Shaw and Stratford.  Both seasons look good, and with the arrival this week of season brochures from both festivals, I was able to dive in and start picking my dates for reviewing shows again this summer, which I believe will be my 30th consecutive year attending both Shaw and Stratford.

The Shaw brochure arrived first, and I was fearful the big blowout for the 50th season last year would result in a scaled-back season this year.  Recent news the Shaw Festival ran a deficit last year in spite of record attendance was also cause for concern.  The quality was certainly there last year and people showed up to take it all in, with several productions being both box-office and critical successes.  The flagship production of My Fair Lady was nearly a sellout all season long and far and away their most successful show ever.  But heavy promotion of the season to achieve those attendance records resulted in the shortage at the end of the year.

This year, I'm told, promotion of the season will be scaled back somewhat, but those worrying quality would suffer should have their fears allayed early on with a look at the playbill this season.  The big musical and, some would say, the big gamble, is the mounting of Ragtime, which has always proven to be a fascinating vehicle yet difficult to properly stage, it seems.  Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell tackles this musical beast at the Festival Theatre, with an all-star cast including Thom Allison, Patty Jamieson and Jay Turvey, among others.  The other biggie at the Festival Theatre is Sir Noel Coward's Present Laughter, directed by longtime Shaw actor David Schurmann.  This is the sort of thing you would naturally expect former artistic director Christopher Newton to undertake, but he is directing at Stratford this season; more on that later.

Other shows at Shaw this season worth keeping an eye on are His Girl Friday at the Festival Theatre; Shaw's The Millionairess at the Court House Theatre; Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at the Court House; Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti at the Court House Theatre; and Shaw's Misalliance over at the Royal George Theatre.

Much was written last season when the upcoming playbill was announced, as no Bernard Shaw play was to be staged on the Festival stage this year.  I understand their concern, yet economics dictate Shaw only warrants a smaller venue in this day and age and his plays will do just fine, thank you very much.  For more on the Shaw season and to purchase tickets, call 1-800-511-SHAW or go to

Meantime, The Stratford Shakespeare Festival gears up for their 60th season this year, and they will be pulling out all the stops, much as Shaw did last year, with much to celebrate.  The production that will likely get most of the attention this year doesn't even open until August 2nd:  Christopher Plummer returns to perform his one-man show A Word or Two, taking the audience on an autobiographical journey of the actor's storied career.  Whether or not Plummer wins an Oscar for his performance in Beginnings last year, people will likely pack the Avon Theatre for this show, which only runs to August 26th.

But that's not all at Stratford this year.  Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre opens the season May 28th, starring Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay, and directed by that former Shaw Festival artistic director, Christopher Newton.  I am really looking forward to this one, seeing what insights Newton brings to the Bard's lighthearted work, assisted by designer Santo Loquasto whose work for the National Ballet of Canada over the years has been amazing.

The big musical coming up will be Warren & Dubin's classic 42nd Street, highlighted by the return of singer/dancer Cynthia Dale after a long hiatus, opening in May at the Festival Theatre as well.  But there are three more musical offerings this season, as Gilbert & Sullivan make a welcome return to the Avon stage with a new production of The Pirates of Penzance, starring Sean Arbuckle as the Pirate King and Amy Wallis as Mabel Stanley; and the family offering this year is the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Avon Theatre, featuring Donna Feore as choreographer and director.  The final musical offering is the World Premiere of Wanderlust by Morris Panych with music by Marek Norman, based on the poems of Robert Service.  That's another one I am particularly looking forward to.

Other offerings at Stratford this season include:  Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Henry V, Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker and Sophokles' Elektra at the Tom Patterson Theatre.  It promises to be a season full of surprises, so I would advise booking tickets early this year for some of the more interesting offerings, especially Plummer's A Word or Two.  For tickets, call 1-800-567-1600 or go to

Here's to summer approaching!

February 18th, 2012.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Lots to do on a February weekend in Niagara

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, perhaps you plan to spend some special time with that certain someone this weekend prior to the big day.  If that is the case, allow me to make a few suggestions of things you can do this weekend, many of which will help out some very worthwhile causes.

First off, the 6th annual Chorus Niagara Sing-a-Thon is on Saturday from 10 am to 3 pm at the "most famous food court in the world", as they say, at the Seaway Mall in Welland.  That, of course, was the scene of their now-famous "flash mob" performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah in November of 2010, the video of which is at about 35-million views on You Tube.

Chorus Niagara, like many other arts organizations in the area, always comes up with inventive ways to fundraise and raise awareness of their cause, and the Sing-a-Thon is a fun and easy way to show your support this weekend.  Local celebrity guests will take a turn at the podium directed the choir, with necessary direction from Artistic Director Robert Cooper, of course.  You can sponsor a particular chorister, as I have done, or the whole chorus if you wish, for whatever amount you wish, either in person tomorrow or in advance online by going to Canada Helps.  There are always surpasses in store at the Sing-a-Thon; last year for example one chorister received a marriage proposal!  So who knows what might happen this year.

There are two performances in St. Catharines Saturday evening involving local musicians, either of which are sure to provide you with ample entertainment.  The Avanti Chamber Singers, with Lesley Kingham on organ and conducted by Harris Loewen, present Haydn's "Little Organ Mass" at St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street at 7:30 Saturday evening.  The performance, in the Viva Voce Choral Series presented by the Department of Music at Brock University, features the mixed ensemble including several Brock staff and Music alumni.

Tickets are available at the door tomorrow evening, by the way.

Also Saturday evening, The Gallery Players of Niagara have a rather inventive concert planned for the Niagara Artists Centre at 354 St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  Starting at 8 pm, performers Douglas Miller, flute; Eric Mahar, guitar; and Penner MacKay, percussion, present Silence is Golden, a fascinating journey through silent film with accompanying music improvised on the spot.  Film will be from the 16mm film archive of the Niagara Artists Centre, including:  Le Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) 1902 by Georges Melies, and La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) 1928 by Germaine Dulac.  Douglas Miller will round out the evening with a new solo composition featuring his many exotic flutes, titled "Into the Pool".

Again, tickets are available at the door tomorrow evening.

Now, two other items of note prior to Valentine's Day.  I would be remiss if I didn't plug my own music website, A Web of Fine Music ( if you are still looking for that perfect musical gift for someone on Valentine's Day; it is too late to order in at this point but I can assure you I have some great gift ideas if that's what you're looking for.  Just email me using the order form on the website or directly at

Finally, and I know this is a little off my usual musical plane, but I can't stress how important it is to get this message out this weekend.  If you have considered acquiring a cat to add to your family, now is the time to do it.  The Lincoln County Humane Society is full to the rafters with lots of loveable "purr pals", and this weekend their shelter on Fourth Avenue is hosting an Adopt-a-Thon from 10 am to 4 pm both Saturday and Sunday to find homes for some of their friendly felines.  The price is very attractive, by the way.  You can find out more by going to their website or Facebook page.

I personally have three rescue cats here, and although I might not have room for a fourth, I am planning to visit on Saturday to see the activity and visit with some of the kitties.  Believe me, you will never find a more loving, beautiful friend for life than a rescue cat, and the LCHS needs your help to adopt as many kitties as possible this weekend.  The need is urgent, and your help is very much appreciated.

What a fabulous Valentine's gift for that special someone:  the gift of life for a loving, deserving rescue cat!

February 10th, 2012.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Where is everyone in downtown Niagara Falls?

I promised at the beginning of the year I would report on my findings once I had spent some time in downtown Niagara Falls to see what has been happening since my last visit some time ago.  I have written frequently about the revitalization plans both in downtown St. Catharines and in Niagara Falls; I have written several times in the past months about St. Catharines, so let's look today at Niagara Falls.

A few years ago, the ambitious plans put forth by a downtown Niagara Falls revitalization group saw lots of money being poured into revitalizing buildings on historic Queen Street, which were then leased out to new clients at very attractive introductory rates with, as I understand it, higher rents charged after that initial year once the business is presumably well established.  In other words, they would allow you the foot in the door to realize your dream and once you are up and running you are charged the full rent.  On paper, it looks like a win-win situation for all concerned:  the downtown gets a number of new, vibrant businesses in newly-renovated premises, thus enticing people to come back downtown, and as a result city hall makes money on taxes collected from a number of successful commercial ventures.

But the reality, as I discovered on a stroll up and down Queen Street, now dubbed "The Q" on some signage in the downtown core, is that many of those same promising young businesses have not been able to make a go of it.  Two years ago I walked this same area with a number of storefronts fully occupied; today, only a handful of those remain.  Let's look at some of the casualties.

An exceptional florist known simply as Fresh, with a spectacular storefront treatment, now gone.  Amore Pizza with a beautiful art-deco facade, now closed.  True, there is a sign indicating a Pizza Nova franchise is looking to locate there, but when?  The Wedding Museum is now empty.  So, too is Midi Bistro.  Ditto for The Cheese Truckle and Druxy's Famous Deli, sharing space side-by-side and operated by Roger Thompson who moved his cheese operation downtown from a busy location on Drummond Road and added the deli franchise to the downtown location.   There are other casualties, but you get the picture.

There is the sad case of the Seneca Theatre, sitting empty after expensive renovations because theatre companies for one reason or another won't or can't use the space.  What a rich history this place has!  Opened about 1940 it was a movie house in the grand tradition, and even hosted the Canadian premiere of Marilyn Monroe's film Niagara, shot in the Falls, on January 28th of 1953.  Now it sits empty, with a marquee displaying the last stage show to play there, oddly enough called Rent.

Now, I'm not suggesting all is gone in downtown Niagara Falls.  There are still some going concerns and promising new businesses we can only hope will survive.  One of the most exceptional restaurants in the entire Niagara Region, Paris Crepes, is almost always busy and with good reason.  The place just oozes character.  Unique Florist is open and the displays look very creative.  Nearby is the John Newby Art Gallery and Tea Room, which although closed, the sign in the window says, until February 21st, is a place I will return to soon after it reopens to experience what promises to be a most elegant little tea parlour.

Oddly, a number of the businesses that have been there all along have survived and still manage to thrive no matter what:  Ragged Glory for CDs and old albums; Moodie's Bakery and of course, My Country Delicatessen.  Oh, and of course, an ever-present dollar store.  How do they do it, one wonders.  I have visited all of those many times over the years and they just seem to fit like a comfortable old pair of jeans you can't discard.

When I talk to people about why downtown Niagara Falls is still not picking up, it appears many just don't think about shopping in downtown Niagara Falls, thinking - erroneously of course - there is nothing down there for them.  Of course there is, but it feeds a vicious circle when they don't come down thinking nothing is there and the businesses there wither and die because of it, and then there really is nothing there. I have no idea how to address this problem other than to perhaps change the advertising campaign to get the word out better than it has been lately.  But other than than, I am at a loss to explain it.

The problem with many downtowns now is no money is invested into them, so not much happens and people lose interest in favour of big box stores and the shopping malls.  But both St. Catharines and Niagara Falls are investing heavily in their downtowns in order to reverse that trend and in Niagara Falls, at least, the people are simply not noticing.  It's a shame, really.  I have gotten to know some of the business owners both past and present down on "The Q" and they are all local business people who want to serve you and make you feel welcome in your own downtown.  What they need now is your patronage on a larger scale than you have shown in the past.

So, here is what I am suggesting.  Just once in the coming months, do as I did this past week, and drive down to Queen Street, park the car and take a stroll around.  Have lunch or dinner at one of the great restaurants or even just visit a coffee shop to see what's in store.  It won't hurt and you might be surprised by what you find.  There is a reason to go downtown in Niagara Falls, and I would like more people to just take this advice and see for themselves what is there.  And more importantly, what could be.  Is that too much to ask?

Happy shopping!

February 4th, 2012.