Sunday, May 27, 2012

Summer festival season is now upon us!

After a week's vacation spent largely at home and ignoring the internet, which explains why I didn't write last week, I am ready to head into the summer festival season with renewed vigour and excitement.  The annual summer music series are still a little ways off, so we will deal with them at a later date.  This week, let's take a quick look at Ontario's two major theatre festivals that are in full swing now.

This past week, the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake officially opened their 51st season with a slate of 11 plays on 4 stages.  This will be a slightly pared-down season from last year's celebratory 50th season, but promises to be just as entertaining all the same.

Wednesday evening, the curtain went up at the Festival Theatre on Noel Coward's Present Laughter, directed by David Schurmann and starring Steven Sutcliffe, Claire Jullien, Mary Haney and Moya O'Connell.  Githa Sowerby's A Man and Some Women opened at the Court House Theatre on Thursday evening; Bernard Shaw's Misalliance Friday night at the Royal George Theatre; Terence Rattigan's French Without Tears Saturday afternoon at the Royal George Theatre; and finally the big musical for the season, Ragtime, at the Festival Theatre Saturday night.  Other productions will open at all four theatres as the season goes on, of course, but these are the first offerings to set the tone for the 51st season.

I have yet to get to Shaw this season but am working on booking my dates throughout the summer months at the moment, so stay tuned to this space as always throughout the summer for my reviews from both Shaw and Stratford.

The other sidelight on the opening week at Shaw is the fact at the opening of Ragtime last night, twenty-four-year-old ragtime pianist Lee Cohen entertained opening-night guests in the lobby at intermission.  Lee was the winner of the highly-successful online contest, Get Ready to Rag! with his exceptional rendition of the Magnetic Rag.  The prize was to perform at intermission and Cohen also receives a Yahama Clavinova digital piano.  Wish I could have heard Lee last night, but from what I hear this young talent is pretty special, so don't be surprised if he shows up an a concert stage in the area sometime soon.  Are you taking the hint for the first season at the Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines, Niagara Symphony?

One festival down, one more to go...Monday evening the curtain goes up on the 60th season for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival with a gala performance of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing on the Festival stage.  Like the Shaw Festival at their opening night last week, Stratford pulls out all the stops and makes the evening a special 'red carpet' event that draws spectators from near and far to see who might be attending.  Many of those same people will be attending the annual garden party this afternoon in the Festival Theatre lobby and gardens.

The opening week continues with the musical 42nd Street at the Festival Theatre Tuesday evening; the family show You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Avon Theatre Wednesday evening; Shakespeare's Cymbeline at the Tom Patterson Theatre Thursday evening; the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penzance Friday evening at the Avon Theatre, and finally the opening of The Matchmaker at the Festival Theatre Saturday evening.  Like Shaw last season, there is a feeling of celebration in the air, with the added intrigue for us here in Niagara of having the big opening night production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Shaw Festival Artistic Director Emeritus, Christopher Newton.  This is one production I am really looking forward to seeing next month!

But speaking of intrigue, there is a dark cloud hanging over the Stratford Shakespeare Festival as the season is set to get underway, as the Festival finds itself in difficult labour negotiations with a possible strike by its call-centre staff of 53, who recently joined IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.  These employees have been in a legal strike position as of 12:01 am on Friday, May 25th.  Now, the Festival has a contingency plan in place in case the first strike in the history of the Festival actually takes place, but we'll have to see how successful this plan will be should the strike actually go ahead.  Let's hope for the best and a picket line won't be set up alongside the red carpet tomorrow night.

So, lots to watch for in the coming days and weeks for both festivals, and as promised, I will provide regular updates in this space throughout the summer months.

To quote that famous theatrical duck and rabbit:  "On with the show this is it!"

May 27th, 2012.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mother's Day and the Niagara Symphony

Mother's Day is this weekend, so most will be out picking up flowers or something else to show appreciation and love for Mom, and more than a few will take Mom out for brunch, lunch or dinner on Sunday as well.

For me, Mother's Day has become a bittersweet day, as I lost my Mom 12 years ago, much too soon I feel, and if possible on this day I travel to Toronto where my parents are both buried just to honour them on both Mother's Day and Father's Day.  I have lots of great memories of Mother's Day in the past, growing up in Toronto when money was tight and we didn't have a lot of disposable income kicking around.

Back then, we often took Mom out for a nice Sunday drive and on the way home, picked up a bucket of KFC for dinner.  Not the fanciest feast, but everyone enjoyed it and Mom appreciated the thought.  Life was good then, as we discovered much later in life.

I was thinking of all this while thinking of some Mother's Day music that has been popular over the years, and there is no shortage.  From the traditional Songs My Mother Taught Me to Al Jolson's My Mammy to today with Amy Sky's new recording, Alive and Awake, featuring the new single, A Mother's Love, Mom has been serenaded in song for many years now.

I came across a three-disc set of classic tunes for the day titled Mum's The Word, just issued by Proper Music from the U.K., and featured in my April newsletter.  It will also be on the website for the next little while in the Mike's Picks selections at  The 60 songs run the gamut of artists from Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole and many others from the golden age of popular music in North America.  Lots of fun for Mom, and for you, too!  If you're interested you can email me directly at or simply order it through the website.

Now, all these recommendations are not going to arrive in time for Mother's Day, but if there is another special day for Mom coming up like a birthday or something like that, well, there you go!  I'll be happy to help out to make a special day even more so for your Mom any day of the year!

In the meantime, something you CAN do this weekend is take Mom to the final concert of the season with the Niagara Symphony, happening Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at Centre for the Arts, Brock University.  This is the last Masterworks concert of the season, and features Maestro Bradley Thachuk conducting the orchestra in Spring's Promise by Canadian composer John Estacio, the Brahms Symphony No. 1 and the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, featuring acclaimed violinist Erika Raum.

Needless to say, I will be in the lobby before the concert and at intermission with lots of great music you and your Mom will love, all at very attractive prices.  This will be a great opportunity to show Mom how much you love and appreciate her, and show the Symphony the support they so richly deserve.  It's a win-win for everyone!

Tickets should still be available in advance by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257, or  simply pick them up at the door prior to the performance.

Celebrate Mom and the Niagara Symphony with great music this week, and Happy Mother's Day!

May 12th, 2012.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Spring is here; can summer be far behind?

First of all, my apologies for not writing last weekend, but family visiting kept me hopping all weekend long and by the time I was caught up after the weekend, another weekend was just about here, so I decided to take a break.  But without further delay, some words today on the coming summer theatre and concert season, which is fast approaching.

These days the releases from both Shaw and Stratford Festivals are coming in fast and furious, as both major theatre festivals ramp things up for new seasons with preview performances of several shows now underway.  This is a great way to catch a hot show before the full-price tickets come into effect.  It may not be the finished product as it is a preview after all, but they will be darn close at this point.

At Shaw, preview performances are already underway for the big musical, Ragtime, which I already hear is fabulous, as well as Present Laughter, A Man and Some Women and Misalliance.  Tickets for all of these productions are already available at the box-office or online by going to  The other news this week from Shaw is the fact the festival welcomes War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, whose novel has been adapted for the stage as well as an epic Steven Spielberg treatment in a film released last year.  Mr. Morpurgo, incidentally, is the son of former Shaw Ensemble member Tony van Bridge, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 87.

Michael Morpurgo will be giving an exclusive talk at the Shaw's Festival Theatre on May 9th at 11 am, and the event is open to Shaw Members and seminar attendees.  It also includes a meet and greet following his Connections to the Shaw talk.

Meantime over at the Stratford Festival, preview performances are already underway for Much Ado About Nothing, directed by former Shaw Artistic Director Christopher Newton, the musicals 42nd Street, MacHomer and Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.  MacHomer, by the way, is an early running show, as it opens today and only runs until May 26th.  Created and performed by Rick Miller, the  play is essentially Shakespeare's MacBeth enacted by characters from The Simpsons.  Sounds rather, uh, interesting, don't you think?!

Other news from Stratford this week Artistic Director Des McAnuff received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award last night at Rideau Hall, followed by a gala performance at the National Arts Centre, honouring each Governor General Performing Arts Award recipients.  Des had a great year in 2011, directing some great productions such as Twelfth Night and Jesus Christ Superstar, which is now on Broadway and has been nominated for two Tony Awards.  Aside from all that, he planned this season, the 60th anniversary season at Stratford, which sees the return of Oscar-winning actor Christopher Plummer in his one-man show A Word or Two.  For tickets, go to

Still with Stratford but moving exclusively to music, the Stratford Summer Music 12th season announced their lineup this week, including performances by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Daniel Taylor, hot young Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki and many others.  The festival runs from July 16th to August 26th, and tickets are available by going to  I will be including full concert listings on my website, very shortly.

Just down the road in Elora, my favourite summer music festival sent their season brochure out this week, and the festival this year, running from July 13th to August 5th, features performances by John McDermott, Anagnoson & Kinton, The Barra MacNeils and many others.  There's lots more planned, both classical and otherwise, so check out the website at for more and to order tickets.  Again, I will be including full event listings on my website at shortly.

And finally, I will be attending an announcement in Lewiston, New York, later this month to find out what is planned this season at Artpark, and I will be reporting on that in this space later this month.

So, lots to see and do both right at home and not too far away, and this is only a sampling of what's available to enjoy.  As information comes available I will be expanding my calendar listings on my website, so be sure to check back often for complete details and to order music throughout the summer season.

Enjoy the season!

May 5th, 2012.