Saturday, June 30, 2012

Celebrating Canada Day weekend in Niagara

Hard to believe the Canada Day long holiday weekend is upon us already!  If like me you remember when it was still called Dominion Day in this country, well, award yourself an extra gold star today.  If you are not currently on the road heading out of town for the weekend or worse still, in that two-hour lineup to cross the border at the moment I am writing this, you might be looking for something to do in the area to keep you entertained this holiday weekend.

Obviously, the big musical event this weekend is Saturday night in Niagara-on-the-Lake when The Tragically Hip headline the big concert at Butler's Barracks in the evening.  It is not a sellout, so if you still harbour some masochistic tendencies that involve lineups that last forever and traffic like you wouldn't believe, go ahead and knock yourself out.  It should be quite an event, but if you were relying on the promoters of the concert to come forward with lots of up-front information on the thing, well, as I found out this week, you had better just consult their website.  They just didn't have the time to talk about it on the CKTB morning show this week, as I tried several times to book someone to do just that. But I digress...anyway, don't take blankets and lawn chairs as you can't use them, and enjoy the music if you get close enough to hear it.

That's not the only game in town this weekend, of course, but it has necessitated a program change for the Shaw Festival for Saturday evening.  While afternoon performances will go ahead as planned today, the evening performances at all Shaw venues have been cancelled and rescheduled, because the traffic management plan would prove to be a nightmare for those trying to get to any of the theatres tonight.  You can go to the Shaw website at to see the rescheduled dates for tonight's shows.

In St. Catharines tonight, there is an organ recital at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria at the corner of Church & Lyman Streets beginning at 7:30.  It may not be The Tragically Hip, but for those of us who go we can happily refer to ourselves as the tragically unhip, perhaps... The performers tonight, incidentally, are Dr. Gordon Atkinson, the former organist and music director at the Cathedral from 1981 to 1987, who now lives in his native Melbourne, Australia, and Christopher Trikilis, who also is based in Melbourne.  Just think, they left the dead of winter down under in order to enjoy our hot summer weather here in Niagara!  I will be introducing the performance this evening but not the music individually, as Gordon and Christopher will be doing that themselves, and if you go, it is a free-will offering concert.

The funny thing about Canada Day weekend this year is some of the events are on Sunday, July 1st, and others are on the statutory holiday, Monday, July 2nd.  So we get to spread it over two days this year which is kind of nice; you just have to know which day your event is.  The Niagara Symphony, for example, will be part of the City of St. Catharines' Canada Day festivities at Market Square downtown, with their annual free Canada Day concert from 4 to 5 pm.  Guest artist is Lisa Brillon, from Phantom of the Opera fame, and Associate Conductor Laura Thomas will be leading the orchestra for the concert.  Bring your lawn chair, even though there is no lawn, and enjoy the free concert at Market Square!

Finally, there are lots of 1812 events going on around the Region in the coming days and weeks, so you will not be able to escape the pomp and pageantry associated with the Bicentennial this summer.  For example, the annual Friendship Festival in Fort Erie at Mather Arch this weekend is geared toward the celebrations, and the Fireworks displays over Niagara Falls this weekend will likely tie in to the celebrations as well.  On July 5th, there is a Battle of Chippawa Memorial Ceremony planned at 7 pm at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 396 in Chippawa to honour those who served on the Chippawa Battlefield on July 5th in 1814.  Throughout the summer, the RiverBrink Art Museum in the Village of Queenston presents RiverBrink's War of 1812 Exhibition through to October 28th.  Included in the exhibition is the only known portrait of General Isaac Brock created during his lifetime.  It is on loan from the States of Guernsey Museums and Galleries and is back in Canada for the first time in 200 years.  That's reason enough to go to the museum this summer!

So there you go.  Lots to see and do if you want to go out and enjoy the Canada Day holiday weekend.  But one request I will make in closing:  if you are celebrating the Euro Cup Soccer Final on Sunday, please be mindful of where you live on Monday and take down your flag of choice in soccer and put up a Canada flag.  That goes for flags on cars, too.  I think it would be a nice gesture to show support for the country you choose to call home now - Canada.

Happy Canada Day weekend!

June 30th, 2012.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Stratford Festival season gets underway with two winners

Earlier in June I ventured out to Stratford for my first visit of the season and caught my first two shows, so let's get underway with my reviews of offerings at Stratford during their 60th season.  However, before I do, I have a small matter of disclosure to take care of here to be perfectly honest with you.

The weekend we were in Stratford, June 9th & 10th, we caught Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker on the Saturday night and had Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing scheduled for the Sunday afternoon.  That was the plan; however following The Matchmaker on Saturday evening, some version of the proverbial "creeping' crud" overtook me so that by Sunday morning I was barely able to stand up, with a fever and pounding headache.  In spite of it all, we made it to the matinee performance but had to abandon the show at intermission.  Now this is something I have never had to do in over thirty years of writing on the theatre; but that day it was just not worth it to continue.  The chills, the fever, and well you know how it goes...we did, with my far better half taking the wheel for the drive back as I   reclined and did my best to cope with the situation.

That being the case, my review of Much Ado About Nothing is incomplete, and I wanted to state that at the outset.  Too bad, as it was perfectly wonderful for the first act!  So let's look at Much Ado first and then move on to The Matchmaker.

Much Ado About Nothing was of particular interest for me due to the fact former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton, whose work I have greatly admired over the years, was the director of this production, and I was more than a little interested to see what he did with Shakespeare.  I was not disappointed.  While it is set in a more modern time than Shakespeare originally envisioned it,  in this case late 19th-century Brazil, it all seemed to fit together with an easy elegance Newton is well known for.

Christopher Newton mentions in his program notes he has never actually been to Brazil, although he has always found the country to hold a certain magic for him.  Perhaps this is why it all seems to work: it is a product of his imagination more than anything else, and isn't that a part of theatre to begin with?  The direction is light yet clearly defined, with a lavish set showing off several typical Newton touches.  Truly, this production is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.

The cast, at least in the first act I saw, was very strong.  Former Shaw Festival standout Deborah Hay appears as Beatrice, niece of Leonato and is very good in the role.  Other standouts include Richard Binsley as the comical Dogberry, James Blendick as Leonato, Ben Carlson as Benedick, and Juan Chioran as Don Pedro.

I wish I could have seen the rest of the performance, so hopefully I can revisit the show before it closes October 27th.  It plays at the Festival Theatre, by the way, and I think it would be unfair to rate the show until I have seen the whole thing.

Now, on to Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, also at the Festival Theatre.  This production sports probably the closest thing to an all-star cast at the current Stratford Shakespeare Festival:  Tom McCamus in the pivotal role of Horace Vandergelder; Cara Ricketts as his niece, Ermengarde; Chick Reid as his maid, Gertrude; Mike Shara as Cornelius Hackl, chief clerk in Vandergelder's store; Geraint Wyn Davies as Malachi Stack, who is looking for employment with Vandergelder; Laura Condlin as milliner Irene Molloy; and Nora McLellan as Miss Flora Van Huysen, a wealthy spinster who almost single-handedly overtakes the second act of The Matchmaker.  But what of the female foil for Vandergelder, Dolly Gallagher Levi?  How about Seana McKenna in a very strong comic performance here.  You don't get much better than that, really.

To be honest, I found the action rather slow and almost plodding in the first act until McKenna makes her first appearance; when she does she clearly takes control of the situation much as her character takes  control of Vandergelder, and she proves to be the glue that keeps this almost over-the-top production together and on the rails.  Everything simply comes alive when Dolly takes to the stage, always being the centre of attention as The Matchmaker, ultimately wanting to make the Big Match for herself before the end of the play.

There are lots of twists and turns in the plot, each one more unlikely than the previous one, but it just adds to the fun of this theatrical equivalent to a roller-coaster ride.  Add in a lavish set and great costumes and strong ensemble work all directed by Chris Abraham, and you have what amounts to a definite crowd-pleaser at Stratford this season.  It certainly won't be your most challenging theatrical experience this season, but it is about as much fun as you can have without resorting to a full-on farce.

The Matchmaker continues until October 27th at the Festival Theatre, and rates a very strong 3 out of 4 stars.

June 27th, 2012.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Shaw Festival season openers

It is that time of year again, when I make myself presentable (well, try to at least...) and head off for some great summer theatre both in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford, as the province's two major summer theatre festivals are now in full swing.  I have been to both festivals already, so let's get started on my annual reviews of offerings at both Shaw and Stratford.  This week a couple of the current offerings at Shaw, and then next week we'll look at the first two offerings I've seen at Stratford.

Once again Shaw Festival Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell has unearthed another forgotten theatrical treasure by Githa Sowerby.  Having previously programmed her somewhat better-known Rutherford and Son and others over the years, people are now at least familiar with the name Githa Sowerby.  This play, A Man and Some Women, dates from 1914 and premiered at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester in October of that year, but the run was cut short by the First World War.  The play was not produced again, incredibly, until 1996 when it was revived in Bristol.  So this, I believe, is the first fully-mounted production in North America of A Man and Some Women.

This Sowerby gem explores the family dynamic of a man and some women literally thrown together by virtue of birth and of course, social obligation.  We meet the Shannon household on the eve of their mother's death, as the man in question, Richard Shannon, finally has had enough of his two sisters and his wife, all three of whom want nothing from Richard than his hard-earned money.  Concerns over what mother was leaving them in her will were paramount to all three ladies, oblivious to the fact Richard had been dutifully supporting them all these years without obvious complaint.

This Victorian-era potboiler sees the put-upon Richard's anger simmer through the first act, finally exploding in verbal fireworks in the short second act as he decides he has had enough.  The sisters suspect he has been having an affair with Jessica Hendred and try to trap him. all of which sets off the fireworks that follow.  As a result I find the first act rather ponderous before things really get moving, so keep that in mind if you go:  give it a chance to blossom and grow on you which it will.

Director Alisa Palmer directs a fine cast here, with Graeme Somerville superb as Richard; Kate Hennig and Sharry Flett as the two Shannon sisters; and Jenny L. Wright as Richard's wife, Hilda.  Each possesses a sharp tongue and wit, although Sharry seems the somewhat more level-headed of the trio and realizes too late how unfair they have been to Richard.  Did he have an affair?  Well, it turns out Jessica, a somewhat sexy Victorian single woman is indeed the woman he loves, but he was never unfaithful to his wife and two sisters.  But after all cards are on the table and Richard decides to leave, Jessica refuses his offer to join him saying "Don't leave one prison for another."  Some profound thoughts and dialogue in this fine little play.

A Man and Some Women won't be a huge hit this year I suspect, but it will quietly win over more converts to Sowerby's fine craftsmanship throughout the season-long run.  The play runs at the intimate Court House Theatre through to September 22nd and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

One of the bigger shows on the Festival Theatre stage this year is Noel Coward's more or less autobiographical comedy, Present Laughter, which runs through to October 28th.  Directed by David Schurmann, the cast is strong and the set is simply gorgeous.  Still, this will be an acquired taste, as you have to love Coward to appreciate it; otherwise Steven Sutcliffe as Noel Coward, aka Garry Essendine, will become very tiresome very quickly.

The plot, such as it is, centres around Essendine and his glamorous life during the golden age of theatre in the 20th century, when people would fall all over the 'big star' in order not only to further their own careers, but to simply bask in the glow of his popularity.  Coward was nothing if not charming during his life, and that quality shines through in this production as he presents a public persona of a charming bon vivant and in private, has trouble making the hard decisions that simply have to be made.  But then, that's what he has a staff for, right?

Sutcliffe is great as Essendine, although as stated earlier he will wear thin rather quickly if you are not a fan of Coward's charm.  His support is offered primarily by Mary Haney as Monica Reed, his sharp-tongued personal assistant who is always running interference for him.  Haney as always is great, and it is nice to see her in a role that is both funny and classy.  She isn't just another clown here.

Some of the people attempting to hang on his coat-tails for various reasons include Julia Course as Daphne Stillington, who wants help with her career and ultimately wants to help his as well; Jonathan Tan in a hilarious turn as Roland Maule, a writer who should probably give it up; and Moya O'Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt, who vamps her way into Garry's apartment and ultimately into his life as she decides Garry is more fun than her husband.  You get the picture.  Lots of people translating into many compromising situations and they spin out of control as the play goes on.

One other person in the cast is worthy of special mention here, and that is Claire Jullien as Garry's estranged wife, Liz, who exudes class and sexiness in equal measure and proves to be the anchor Garry needs again as he prepares for a major tour of Africa.  So she decides to return to him, further complicating the plot.

Present Laughter is a great ensemble piece and a really enjoyable evening of theatre, provided you know what you are getting yourself into.  It rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars and continues until October 28th.

For tickets to all Shaw performances, call 1-800-511-7429 or go to

June 20th, 2012.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Comings and goings in downtown Niagara Falls

I have written extensively in the past about the revitalization of Queen Street in the heart of downtown Niagara Falls, as the venerable street has risen and fallen with the tides of public opinion over the years.  This followed, of course, decades of neglect as businesses and customers alike left downtown Niagara Falls for the outlying areas.  But a push by Niagara Historic Developments over the past several years has given many - myself included - considerable hope better times were ahead.

For awhile, at least, they were.  Businesses lined both sides of the street, with shiny new facades and a new outlook on retailing in the downtown core.  But in a way not surprisingly, one after another many of them closed up shop when the original sweetheart deal they received from NHD was renewed with more realistic lease arrangements.  The thinking being, of course, is they would extend a helping hand the first year to new businesses, and once they are established they can afford to support themselves and give back to the leaseholders for the start up help.

It was a novel approach that met with mixed results.  Initially, the new businesses did alright with the deal, but many being unable to get a foothold on the retail marketplace when it came time to actually pay full price for the space they were occupying, they just packed up and left.  The result was more empty storefronts, although at least better-looking empty storefronts.  There were many businesses I wanted to visit while down in the area but by the time I actually got around to it  the businesses in question were already gone.

I know, they can't survive without customers and if you want them to stay you have to go down there and spend some money.  I always did when down in the area, just not as often as I would have liked, since I live in St. Catharines, not Niagara Falls.  But people who actually did live in the area and elsewhere in the city seemed to ignore the downtown even after all the investment in the area, and that I find hard to understand.  It is a vicious circle, really:  you don't go down because you think there is nothing down there and when there is finally something to see and do you don't know about it and miss out and the businesses whither and die on the vine.  I don't know who you blame for such a problem, but I suspect it isn't limited to one particular group.

Adding to this situation both good and bad are a couple of recent developments that make me wonder.  I have made no secret of my admiration for the success of Paris Crepes on Queen Street, which opened about three years ago when the new business boom was in full swing.  At first, they seemed to have it all:  regular clientele, great menu and location, and regular specials to keep bringing people back.  But something was rotten, as they say, in the state of Denmark.  Last month the owners, the Clement family, arrived at the restaurant to discover they were locked out and basically out of business.  It is unclear as to why this sudden turn of events happened, as we only have the Clement side of the story so far and they claim not to know the real reason why they are being shut out.

Phil Ritchie, the smart mind who was brought on board a few months ago head up Niagara Historic Developments, has not sufficiently explained their side of the situation yet in order for us to grasp the reasoning for the closure.  But it is a tough pill to swallow for local residents who have fallen in love with the gallic charm of Paris Crepes and the exceptional food and service.  Ritchie says he will be bringing in another business to that location soon, so we'll just have to see what transpires.  Stay tuned for further developments.

The good news on Queen Street is the fact we have new tenants for the grandly-renovated Seneca Theatre, which played host to Marilyn Monroe when the film Niagara opened at the theatre so many years ago.  The Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, headed up by Artistic Director Kelly Daniels, announced  recently they would be forsaking their downtown St. Catharines digs in the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in favour of the newly renovated space on Queen Street in downtown Niagara Falls.  Score one for Niagara Falls, as Lyndesfarne has consistently been able to deliver quality local theatre in St. Catharines for several years now.  But in a theatre not known for its track record hosting live theatre in the past, well, we'll have to see how things go.

I have heard various descriptions of the theatre space there, and so I am looking forward to visiting a week from Monday when Lyndesfarne hosts a get-together to get people interested in their new location.  I will report back afterwards, of course, but for now will simply say I hope all the horror stories of the past are now just that:  in the past.  Kelly and her troupe deserve the break and new beginning, so we wish them well in the new venture.

Add to all of this the fact Kelly announced her Buskerfest, killed off in St. Catharines just months ago following a hefty debt racked up after the first one last summer, will also return to downtown Niagara Falls this summer.  It is a great event and I think it might be a good fit for downtown Queen Street too, but again, we'll have to see how the second annual Buskerfest fares financially before  we count our proverbial chickens.

Kelly says the event, moved to Friday, August 31st to Sunday, September 2nd, essentially over the Labour Day holiday weekend, will be somewhat different in make up from the St. Catharines edition last August, so obviously they have learned from some of their mistakes.  I wish them well and look forward to visiting over the Labour Day weekend this year.

One odd note in the press release though:  sponsoring the event is the St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre!  How does that work out, do you figure?  The mind boggles...

Oh well, St. Catharines' loss will be Niagara Falls' gain, and we'll see how successful this new era becomes very soon.

Enjoy the weekend!

June 18th, 2012.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Events happening this weekend in St. Catharines

As I prepare to start another week away from work and perhaps even the internet if I can, just a few words here about the myriad of things going on this weekend in St. Catharines in the arts, all of which are worth your time and easy on the budget.

First off, let me apologize for not mentioning last week about the final concert of the season for Primavera Concerts, the ambitious little arts organization that could here in St. Catharines.  Last night at St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street, Primavera presented Alain Trudel on trombone and Patrick Wedd on organ in a program that included duets and solo pieces by the likes of Host, Walton, Schnittke, Genzmer and Liszt, among others.  It was a varied and sometimes challenging programme, but those in attendance appreciated the consummate artistry of the two performers and their informative introductions to each piece.  I was invited to attend last evening, and was thrilled to be there.  I know of both musicians, of course, but didn't realize Patrick Wedd got some of his early experience here in St. Catharines when he was appointed to St. Barnabas at the tender age of 16!  Great concert last night, so thanks to Anne McPherson and the rest of the Primavera Concerts group for inviting me to attend the concert.

Now, this evening and tomorrow afternoon at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, Chorus Niagara concludes their current season with a concert of operetta highlights, opera arias and choruses titled Deep in My Heart.  Music will be drawn from Lehar's The Merry Widow, Stauss' The Gypsy Baron, Herbert's Naughty Marietta and many others.  Artistic Director Robert Cooper has assembled a huge ensemble for these performances, including of course the 100-voice Chorus Niagara, along with the Side-By-Side High School Chorale and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra.  Featured soloists include Leslie Ann Bradley, soprano; Christopher Enns, tenor; and Benjamin Covey, baritone.

Performance times are Saturday evening at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 3 pm.  For tickets, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Incidentally, two other notes about Chorus Niagara:  they performed last weekend with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bach-Elgar Choir at Hamilton Place in a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 9 that I understand was very well received; and Artistic Director Robert Cooper has been invited to the World Choir Games in Cincinnati in July, to act as an international adjudicator.  This event is commonly referred to as the "Olympics of Choral Music" so Mr. Cooper is in for an exciting time come July!

Meantime, Niagara Dance Company continues with performances this weekend at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, Saturday evening at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2.  The final main stage performance of the current season presents choreography by two local choreographers, Artistic Director Mary Jo Mullins and veteran interdisciplinary artist Elizabeth Chitty, as well as an opportunity to see work by Toronto modern dance legend Peter Randazzo.  That in itself make the performance special:  I remember seeing him back in the 70s in Toronto - he really is a national treasure.

Again, tickets are available through the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

Finally, what's better on a Sunday than a free family event?  That's what's in store tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon from 1 to 4 pm at the Market Square in downtown St. Catharines when Carousel Players celebrate their 40th birthday with a big party for everyone who wants to attend.  Featured entertainment will be by Puppetmongers and The Drumming Fools, and there will be lots of activities to keep the kids happy too.  Oh, and free ice cream, which for us big kids is a big draw as well!

It's hard to believe it has been 40 years for Carousel Players; they began in 1972 and since then, an impressive 2.7 million students, teachers and families have seen their productions.  They have also produced over 10,000 school performances.  If you have not experienced Carousel Players yet, this is a perfect opportunity to see and hear what they are all about.

Enjoy your weekend!

June 2nd, 2012.