Saturday, September 29, 2012

Niagara Symphony launches their 65th season this weekend

Along with everything else going on this weekend with Niagara Wine Festival events and Niagara Falls Night of Art tonight in Niagara Falls, the Niagara Symphony launches their 65th season Sunday afternoon at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University, with the first MasterWorks concert of the season.

Music Director Bradley Thachuk will be on the podium conducting an interesting and challenging programme of Russian and Canadian music, with the major work being Stravinsky's 1919 version of his Firebird Suite; also on the programme will be the Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 by Tchaikovsky, and John Estacio's Frenergy, which is a MasterWorks premiere.  The concert begins at 2:30, with the customary pre-concert chat about 1:45 in the theatre.

This season will prove to be an ambitious one for Thachuk and the Niagara Symphony, as they begin a number of new initiatives designed to pull in more subscribers and more importantly, younger subscribers.  That's not to say the music will be watered down at all; far from it, as many challenging works are on tap for the entire season, with the final MasterWorks concert in May being an all-Beethoven programme that includes the Violin Concerto and the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, known of course as the Eroica.  I've often considered Beethoven in general and this symphony in particular to be sort of the Mount Everest of symphonic music from the early 19th century, as any modern orchestra worth their collective salt wants to show they can tackle these complex and durable works.

The all-Beethoven programme in May launches The Beethoven Project, a multi-year series designed to culminate in the opening of the new Performing Arts Centre downtown, which will be home to the Niagara Symphony as well as several other local arts organizations.  I am not sure yet if the delayed date of completion of the new centre will affect those plans at all, but time will tell.  No matter, in the lead up to the big opening in 2015 we have some great music in general and Beethoven in particular to enjoy, and that is never a bad thing.

On other news fronts from the Niagara Symphony, they have rebranded themselves this year to mark the 65th anniversary season with simply nso, all lower case, with a newly-designed logo and soon-to-come website, which you'll find at  The actual offices of the nso have also changed for this season, having moved over the summer to 259 St. Paul Street in order to be closer to the new Performing Arts Centre as construction gets underway.

Also this week, we learned the Executive Director of the nso, Jack Mills, is leaving after three years at that helm that saw the search for a new Music Director and selection in 2010 of Bradley Thachuk to lead the orchestra, and do much to rebuild the audience base and confidence in the orchestra after many years of difficulties on a number of fronts.  I liked working with Jack and had a great deal of respect for him and what he brought to the position, so I wish him all the best as he moves on to his next adventure.

In Jack's place as of now is actually a familiar face as the new Managing Director of the nso, Candice Turner Smith, who held an interim leadership position with the orchestra from 2007 to 2009 and kept things together until Jack arrived.  Candice has great arts management credentials and it is exciting news she will be at the helm as we head closer to the new home of the nso in 2015.

Once again this season I hope to be welcoming patrons in the lobby before, after and at intermission at nso concerts, with a wealth of musical treasures available for purchase, starting with tomorrow afternoon's concert.  I look forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces and many new ones as the season progresses.  Do stop by and say hello, and you might even find a CD or two you want for your own personal collection.

By the way, this week I issued a special edition of my FINE MUSIC NEWSLETTER, highlighting much of this information and listing in my Mike's Picks section a number of affordable recordings tied to performances coming up this season with the nso.  If you are not on the mailing list, email me at and I can send you a copy of the current newsletter and add you to the mailing list.

Let's celebrate 65 years of music-making with YOUR Niagara the nso!

September 29th, 2012.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

DAPA welcomes you to downtown St. Catharines

Last week I mentioned in this space I would be attending the annual DAPA season announcement at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, which was scheduled this year to dove-tail nicely with all the Art City activities going on around the downtown last Saturday.  Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the entire presentation, but I was able to get a quick look at what's to come for the 2012-2013 season for those of us who enjoy live theatre and dance throughout the fall/winter/spring season.

For the uninitiated, DAPA stands for the Downtown Alliance for the Performing Arts, an umbrella organization for seven of Niagara's more innovative performing arts companies, all of whom use the space at the Courthouse Theatre for their activities.  Missing this year is Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, one of the larger tenants in the space, as they moved earlier this year to the Seneca Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls.  Time will tell if the audience moves with Kelly and her theatre company, and I will be writing more about them in the coming weeks.  But the remainder of the companies ulitizing the theatre space at the Courthouse Theatre, Carousel Players, Essential Collective Theatre, neXt Company Theatre, Niagara Dance Company, Stray Theatre, Suitcase in Point and Theatre Beyond Words will all be filling the space with some creative ventures throughout the coming months.

In all, 19 different productions, festivals and special events will be presented, 16 of which will operate out of the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre.  According to Jane Gardner, General Manager of Carousel Players, "This year many of our companies are premiering new work by Niagara writers and choreographers" including Carousel Players themselves, who will be opening their season with Water Under the Bridge on October 13th.   It's described as a new participatory play for children set in 1812 and is written by St. Catharines-basd writers Carrie Costello and Michaela Washburn.

Essential Collective Theatre, specializing in producing contemporary Canadian playwrights, will present White Crow by local writer Dawn E. Crysler over two weeks from November 22nd to December 2nd.  The play tells the story of a young girl struggling to keep the family farm running while coping with the early onset of her father's dementia.

neXt Company Theatre presents Khalida, a new play written and directed by David Fancy, a professor at Brock University, about a man in flight from the Middle East who finds himself in an oil-producing country in the economic North.  The play runs from February 26th to March 2nd at the Courthouse Theatre.

Niagara Dance Company will be expanding its programming of contemporary dance works, workshops and mentorship opportunities for Niagara performers and choreographers with Merge, a new Cultural Capital of Canada project featuring choreography with a theme of "Crossing Boundaries" by local artists Elizabeth Chitty and Artistic Director Mary Jo Mullins.  The production runs from November 16th to the 18th at the Courthouse.

Meantime, Stray Theatre presents The Country by Martin Crimp, one of Britain's most exciting playwrights.  The story involves a couple who have uprooted themselves and moved out of the city in order to get away from...something.  But have they?  We'll find out when The Country plays from October 18th to the 27th at the Courthouse.

Suitcase in Point presents a new Sketch Comedy Workshop Presentation that builds on their very popular Cabaret series, which will run February 2nd of next year.  They will also be hosting the 5th annual In The Soil Arts Festival in venues throughout St. Catharines from April 26th to the 28th.  This is fast becoming one of the premiere spring music festivals in the area, and just keeps getting better every year.

Finally, Theatre Beyond Words presents their ever-popular Potato People:  Tales from the Garden 2013 for family audiences from March 8th to 9th next year.  They also have a new work in the development stage called Mr. Punch, based on the writings of Neil Gaiman.

All seven professional theatre and dance companies came together in 2008 to form DAPA, in order to develop and promote audiences in downtown St. Catharines in advance of the opening of the new performing arts centre downtown.  That venue, of course, has been delayed due to projected cost overruns on the bidding process, so the projected completion date is now the fall of 2015.  That can't come soon enough for most of us, but I think everyone realizes we can't afford to screw it up, so if it takes some extra time to get things done right, so be it.  The people I talked to Saturday evening remain optimistic about the future of the centre, so that is a good sign.  Let's keep thinking positively on this and hope for the best.  it might not be the fancy shrine we were first promised, but at least we'll have a modern, purpose-built performing arts centre in the downtown core, and that remains the target.

In the meantime, lots of great theatre and dance await us at the Courthouse Theatre in the coming season, so let's get out and support our performing arts organizations!

September 23rd, 2012.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Final two shows at Shaw and Stratford

It's hard to believe we've arrived at the end of another season of writing about my two favourite theatre festivals in Ontario, Shaw and Stratford, but here we are, three months after I began writing for another summer season.  I have two shows left to write about, one from each festival, and then I will take a short break before doing a final overview later in the month on how each festival performed this year.

Let's begin with the final production I saw at the Shaw Festival this year, Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, in a new version by Richard Eyre.  This production, which continues at the Court House Theatre until September 29th, is directed by Martha Henry and stars many of the finer actors at the Shaw Festival this season.  Henry, who is more closely associated with her acting and directing duties at Stratford, made this trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake count as she has given us one of the better Heddas we've seen in a long time.

Now, Hedda Gabler is not for everyone, I'll say right off the top.  It will be a bit of a tough go for some people, but if you are prepared for that going in, and I suspect most will be, you will be rewarded with a richly detailed and nuanced production with just enough tension as Henry holds the directorial reigns taut.  Granted, things get a little too melodramatic towards the end, but you almost can't avoid it with this play, as it puts many a modern-day soap-opera to shame.

I love the sets and costumes designed by William Schmuck, which nicely set off the production in the intimate setting of the Court House Theatre.

It is the cast, though, that truly makes this show special, with Moya O'Connell in the title role simply magnificent.  I'm told she took great pains to even be able to play the piano herself in this production; testament to her dedication to getting the role just right.  She does, giving Hedda the right balance of cleverness bordering on insanity without quite going over the edge.  Hers is a chilling character study of a woman bent on destruction, that of others around her and ultimately, herself.

O'Connell is backed up by Jennifer Phipps in a typically splendid turn as Berthe; Mary Haney as Juliana Tesman and Patrick McManus as Hedda's husband, George Tesman.  But that role of George Tesman does provide some problems, however, as you are struck by how far apart on an emotional and intellectual level the two characters truly are in this production.  How they were attracted to each other, much less marry, is a mystery, really.  He is a scholarly man who is more interested in words rather than women, it seems, and she is icily aloof, making you wonder how they even noticed one another to begin with.  In a modern setting, perhaps, it would be like Penny and Sheldon actually hooking up in Big Bang Theory!  Not going to happen...

The other performance of note is Jim Mezon as the crafty and cooly calculating Judge Brack, who knows what he wants from Hedda and how to get it.  His interest in her is purely unemotional, as evidenced by his coldness when he quietly leaves the final scene in the play.

This Hedda Gabler, the second Shaw production of the play, will leave audiences spellbound.  It is an exceptionally well-crafted work and well worth your attention before it closes on the 29th of the month.  Hedda rates a very strong three out of four stars.

Now, on to the final show at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this season.  Shakespeare's Henry V was getting a lot of attention early on this season when I talked with locals in the know and the feeling was this would be a lavish production for the 60th season at Stratford, and Artistic Director Des McAnuff's swan song before leaving at the end of this current season.

Thankfully, McAnuff has shunned the excessive stage effects and given us a pretty stark and brutal interpretation of the play.  Often edited to omit the execution scenes, McAnuff here opted to show the execution of Lieutenant Bardolph, for example, in a particularly effective and chilling manner at the end of Act One.  Bardolph, one of the late Falstaff's companions, is a genial fellow who is well played here by Randy Hughson, and his execution is an image you'll take with you long after the play ends.

In spite of the brutality in Henry V, McAnuff wisely accentuates some of the more humorous and lighter moments in the play, especially when Catherine, the daughter of the French King is being wooed by King Henry V.  Catherine, played with great charm by Bethany Jillard, is a delight as we watch her try to learn English in order to converse more clearly with the victorious Englishman.  Her attempt to understand 'elbow' for example, is a delight to watch.

As Henry, Aaron Krohn is both brutal and charming, and in command of the stage throughout the production.  He is clearly smitten by Catherine and appears genuine in his desire to woo her properly.

Others in the cast worthy of mention include James Blendick with that wonderfully mellifluous voice of his as the Archbishop of Canterbury; Tom Rooney as an effective Pistol; Lucy Peacock as Pistol's wife and Ben Carlson as the Welshman, Captain Fluellen.  Also worthy of praise are Keith Dinicol as Captain MacMorris, and Irishman, and Juan Chioran as the French ambassador Montjoy.  I was also interested to see Deborah Hay, long a Shaw Festival stalwart, in a small but effective role as Alice, Catherine's lady-in-waiting.

This Henry the V will certainly add to the lustre of the 60th anniversary of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and be a suitable sign-off for Artistic Director McAnuff.  It runs to September 29th on the Festival Theatre stage, and rates a very strong three out of four stars.

Enjoy the theatre!

September 14th, 2012.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

An art-filled weekend in St. Catharines coming up

The return of some cooler weather in September often brings with it some interesting outdoor and indoor events that take your mind off the leisurely days of summer when the beach is often the most-desired destination.  So it is this weekend in St. Catharines when the first annual Art City takes place downtown on Saturday from 12 noon to 10 pm.  This is part of the Niagara Nights of Art initiative that has grown out of the designation of Niagara as the Cultural Capital of Canada in 2012.

You might remember the late, lamented Night of Art held in October for a few years, sponsored by the St. Catharines and Area Arts Council.  I attended several of those before the council folded over a year ago, taking the Night of Art with it.  This will have a somewhat similar theme, although it is on a Saturday rather than a couple of hours on a Friday evening, and a lot of it will take place during the daytime on Saturday to hopefully make this a more family-friendly event.

There will be a number of workshops at several locations downtown, including Silver Spire Church on St. Paul Street, Ryson's Studio of Music on Court Street and Bansaree Indian Cuisine on St. Paul Street.  Outside events will be largely centred on St. Paul Street between Court and Carlisle Streets.  The workshops range from hip hop dance or jazz dance workshops to bucket drumming workshops, among other events.  There will also be something called a mask petting zoo, put on by Theatre Beyond Words which sounds really interesting.

Art installations include interactive rug hooking at Wally Wemnants on St. Paul Street with Alexa Fraser and at the CRAM gallery on James Street, Family Album by my neighbour, Sandy Middleton where you can visit the past through old family photos.

Performances range from Aaron Berger at Out of the Past on St. Paul Street and The Lucky Ones at Liberty Bikes on Bond Street to the St. Catharines Chamber Music Society at Silver Spire Church.

The best part of all, these events are all free throughout the day this Saturday from 12 noon to 10 pm.   For more information go to

Also tied in with all this activity is a performance by Great Lakes Swimmers tonight (Thursday) at Centre for the Arts, Brock University at 7:30, and A Walk Through History twice daily through to Saturday at Victoria Lawn Cemetery at 5 and 7 pm.  The Great Lakes Swimmers will perform free of charge; the walks at Victoria Lawn are $ 8, and you can register by calling 905-984-8880.

So all in all, this is a lot more activity than we used to have on that Friday evening in October up until a couple of years ago, so let's hope people come out and support this ambitious initiative.

Also tied in with the weekend is the annual Season Launch announcement of seven Niagara Performing Arts Companies at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre put on by the Downtown Alliance for the Performing Arts (DAPA) on Saturday evening.  This is not open to the public but I will be attending and reporting on the evening in this space in the near future.  The DAPA announcement each September is one I always look forward to, as it involves a lot of great creative minds in the area, all working out of the Courthouse Theatre.  Notably missing this year will be Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, which has moved operations to downtown Niagara Falls this year.

There have been a lot of events already in the Region tied in with the Niagara 2012 Cultural Capital of Canada designation, including the first annual Mount Carmel Fine Arts Show held last weekend in Niagara Falls.  Look for more in the future, too, as we continue to celebrate the arts in Niagara throughout the year.

Should be a fun weekend in downtown St. Catharines!

September 13th, 2012.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Two more winners at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

We're getting down to the wire with the theatre seasons at both Shaw and Stratford, with my final reviews for both coming next week.  But this weekend, before we get to that point I have two of the more interesting shows at the Tom Patterson Theatre this season, both of which close towards the end of this month.

I heard good reviews from locals about the musical Wanderlust, based on the poems of Robert Service. This work, both commissioned and premiered by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, is directed by Morris Panych, with Panych providing the book and additional lyrics as well.  The music and orchestration is by Marek Norman and the dance choreography is by Diana Coatsworth, who also appears as one of the bank tellers in the production.

For me, I always enjoy seeing a Canadian commission at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, but you have to ask yourself, will Wanderlust have a life after this Stratford run ends September 28th?  I certainly hope so, as this show deserves a life on several stages beyond Stratford and indeed, beyond Canada's borders.

Now, don't get me wrong.  This is not the Great Canadian Musical; it isn't particularly deep, either; but it does possess that unique feel-good feeling that makes you want to smile and just enjoy the show for what it is.  This isn't a pretentious show, and providing you know that going in, you'll be just fine.  Bob White, in his programme notes for Wanderlust, notes correctly Service was well aware his work was never going to be taken seriously.  But he seems to have been more than content to have the approval of his audience in lieu of that of critics, notes White, and I think most people seeing the show will be accepting of it on that level.

Wanderlust is a light and airy work, full of fun and telling a delightful tale of Service and his devotion to the written word.  Like the poems themselves, the musical moves at an easy pace, smiling all the way.  And who cannot smile while reminiscing with some of Service's more memorable works, including, of course, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew"!  I grew up with an old, kitschy painting recounting the tale visually, and I have never been able to get rid of that painting.  It lurks in my closet somewhere, waiting to make me smile once again.  That is the power of Robert Service's writings:  they make you feel good no matter how long it has been since you last heard or read them.

The cast for Wanderlust is very strong, with Tom Rooney quite engaging as Robert Service himself, still toiling at The Canadian Bank of Commerce by day and staying behind overnight to write his poetry.  Randy Hughson is his boss, Mr. McGee; and Robin Hutton is Robert's love interest, sort of, Louise Montgomery, playing the role with more than a little sex appeal.  The supporting cast is equally as strong, including Xuan Fraser as Blount and Dan Chameroy as Dan McGrew.

It was interesting to see Lucy Peacock continue to evolve as a fine character actor following many years of leading roles.  My, how the winsome young Lucy Peacock we were introduced to at a press conference in downtown Toronto in 1983, I think it was, as a member of that season's Young Company has grown into one of the finest female character actors on the Stratford stage.

Wanderlust may not be deep, but it is worth exploring all the same.  Even if you have never heard the poems of Robert Service, which I would find hard to believe, you will discover a new world waiting to be discovered here.  Wanderlust continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 28th and rates a strong three out of four stars.

Also at the Patterson Theatre, but clearly on another plane entirely, is Sophokles' Elektra, translated by Anne Carson.  Greek tragedy is, well, tragic, and this production is no exception.  That being said, director Thomas Moschopoulos keeps things moving with a production featuring a very clean, spare design by Ellie Papageorgakopoulou and exceptional lighting by Itai Erdal.

This is a very contemporary take on Elektra and it works very well, making it much more relatable to modern audiences.  However, some of the speeches, delivered in an almost rap-like monotony, can become a little tedious at times.  Credit Peter Hutt, though, as the Old Man, to make them more interesting than some.

The rest of the cast is very strong as well, including Ian Lake as Orestes, son of Clytemestra, and E.B. Smith as Pylades, Orestes' companion.  Yanna McIntosh as Elektra and Laura Condlin as her daughter Chysothemis are equally strong; but the real kudos go to Seana McKenna as Clytemestra, Queen of Argos.  Her command of the stage is never an insignificant factor in any production she appears in, and Elektra is no exception.

Elektra herself is a lone wolf, deceived to the point of near hysteria, which carries through to the climax of the play; the final scenes are gripping and well worth the journey.  This is a production clearly not for everyone, but from every angle it is a spellbinding performance and certainly deserving of your attention should you decide to take up the challenge.

Elektra continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 29th and rates a strong three out of four stars.

Enjoy the theatre!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Two more winners from the Shaw Festival

We are getting into the time of the year when I love going to our two major theatre festivals in Ontario, Shaw and Stratford, because the crowds in each respective town diminish somewhat, while the weather is still pleasantly warm and the theatres are still humming along.  Plus, the deeper you go into September, the more fall colours you get to enjoy along the way to the theatre!

This weekend, let's look at a couple of shows at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake that are very impressive, each continuing until mid-to-late October.

William Inge is perhaps best-known for two other plays that appeared at Shaw in recent years, Picnic and Bus Stop.  Those later plays by Inge are fondly remembered by many, myself included, as exceptional ensemble pieces at Shaw.  This year, director Jackie Maxwell decided to go back to the beginning, as it were, and direct Inge's first Broadway success, Come Back, Little Sheba, written in 1949.  While not as well known to modern audiences, it deserves the careful treatment afforded it here at Shaw until October 19th.

Come Back, Little Sheba is a very bleak and powerful comment on the evils of drinking to excess and the social consequences of doing so.  The story involves the late 40s-era couple, Doc and Lola Delaney, played by Ric Reid and Corrine Koslo, respectively.  They have a nice life in a nice neighbourhood in a nice mid-western city.  Doc is, obviously, a doctor, but he could have been so much more had it not been for his drinking problem years ago.  He is a reformed alcoholic now, but that comes to a crashing end when he finds their young border, Marie, sleeping under their roof with a young stud while promising her heart and hand to another, more respectable man.  Doc has taken to Marie very much and considers her almost to be his daughter, and the news hits him hard.

His wife, Lola, is the devoted-to-a-fault housewife who lives in fear of this moment, when her husband falls off the wagon and takes to drinking again.  Lola is not unlike the put-upon wife in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which also featured Koslo in a gripping performance opposite Jim Mezon in that production not long ago.  Here, Lola calls for help when her drunk husband arrives home and threatens her harm; his colleagues at work rush to the rescue to try to straighten him out and take him away to detox.

The scene when Doc is hauled away in the second act is sad, powerful and not to be missed.  Reid plays the role beautifully, never going over the top and yet, showing the despair the character is facing. When he is finally hauled off stage, not a word is spoken for a moment and in the audience you could hear a pin drop.  The scene is very convincing.

I love the set design of a humble home, just nicely lived in but not too fancy.  I also love the supporting cast here, too.  Julia Course as Marie is just sexy enough for the time period; her young stud, Turk, is well played by Kevin McGarry; and Sharry Flett gives a fine performance as the neighbour Mrs. Coffman.

This is a must-see at the Shaw Festival this season; you will feel for both main characters, yet wish they could get their lives straightened out.  These are not just players; we see Reid and Koslo as real people we all have known in our own lives and we find ourselves pulling for them at the end of the play.

Come Back, Little Sheba continues at the Royal George Theatre until October 19th, and rates a very strong 4 out of 4 stars.

The second play this weekend is Bernard Shaw's Misalliance, continuing at the Royal George Theatre until October 27th.  Directed by Eda Holmes, the play has lots of Shaw's famous dialogue, of course, but the play's relatively short (for a Shaw play at least) run time of two-and-a-half hours seems to fly by with this production.  Sure the first act drags a little, but the second act more than makes up for it.

The set and costume design is super sleek and stylish, with lots of great touches by designer Judith Bowden.  The ensemble work here is first-rate, with top marks going to Tara Rosling as the exotic Russian daredevil Lina Szczepanowska, who plays the role with a grand measure of good-old-fashioned sex appeal.  All the men who are drawn to her, Johnny Tarleton and Bentley Summerhays among them, played with great humour here by Jeff Meadows and Ben Sanders.  Meadows, especially, is a treat to watch due to his facial expressions.

The rest of the cast is just as strong:  Krista Colosimo as Hypatia Tarleton; Catherine McGregor as a very elegant Mrs. Tarleton; and Thom Marriott as a very appreciative John Tarleton.  I did find Peter Krantz as Lord Summerhays to be more of a bore than he ought to be, though.

The Tarleton household glides through life with not a care in the world, really, until the end of the second act when fate crashes into their roof, literally, and there before them is lovely Lina, throwing them all off their game.  It is fun to watch and of all the productions of Misalliance I have seen over the years, I think this one rates as the most fun to watch.

Misalliance continues until October 27th at the Royal George Theatre, and rates a highly-recommendable three out of four stars.

Enjoy the weekend!

September 2nd, 2012.