Saturday, August 31, 2013

You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream!

Since it is the last holiday weekend of the summer (we're told) and I have been dealing with a lot of heavy-duty stuff lately, I thought today I would take a delicious detour off the information highway and offer a sweet taste of the past, a very early version of social media if you will you might still be indulging in this weekend.

I must admit I have a soft spot in my heart for classic dairy bars.  Yes, it's true.  If I am driving along a country road somewhere and I come across one, I simply have to stop in.  Not just to see it, but to experience it.  My purchase of choice is almost always a chocolate shake, or if available, chocolate malt.  I know, I know, it is not the healthiest choice but being a reluctant vegetarian now I think I am allowed to treat myself every now and again in the nicer weather.  So let's hop in the car and explore some of my favourite dairy bars around Ontario I have experienced and if you have a favourite not listed here, by all means message me about it and I might include it in a follow-up column.

Avondale Dairy Bar  Still the local champ for people in Niagara, and locally owned and operated on Stewart Road in the heart of wine country near the Welland Canal.  When I began working in St. Catharines in the spring of 1981, I had a call from a listener at CKTB Radio after I talked about this very subject on the air and he told me I simply HAD to discover the Avondale Dairy Bar.  He even arrived at the station during my shift one day with not one but two chocolate shakes for me to try!  Now that is a devoted fan.  When I finally hit the road to find it I got hopelessly lost, being new to Niagara at the time, but eventually did and yes, it was a little bit of local nirvana for your humble scribe.

Baskin-Robbins Yes, a corporate entity with locations all over the place, but I still have memories of double chocolate fudge milkshakes growing up (and also out, apparently).  In fact, when I moved to St. Catharines and wasn't getting lost looking for the Avondale Dairy Bar, I remember driving down Geneva Street and seeing Baskin-Robbins to my left.  Yes, I had to stop, thinking this city is really quite civilized, you know?  Sadly, it closed some years later and the location is now a computer store, but Baskin-Robbins is back in the Garden City with a new location in the little plaza next to the swanky new LCBO store in the Fairview Mall.  Yes, as an investigative reporter I had to check it out.  It is good, but no double chocolate fudge ice cream that I could see.

Ricky's Big Scoop Snack Shop  Located in downtown Thorold on Front Street with a snazzy new setup after leaving their former location on Pine Street, this is still one of my favourite local hangouts.  Ricky actually owns and runs the business, and takes great pride in offering great quality and fair prices.  I love the retro look and the chocolate malt shakes, and you always get lively conversation whenever you visit.  It is a happenin' place in downtown Thorold with lunch items ranging from pressed 'sammiches' and wraps to burgers and even a butternut squash & quinoa burrito.  Still have to try that one of these days.

Hewitts Dairy Bar  The undisputed king of dairy bars in my humble opinion when you are travelling outside of Niagara.  Located on Highway 6 just north of Jarvis on your way to Hamilton, it is the quintessential meeting place for local folk who have breakfast, lunch and even dinner there at the iconic counter with very reasonable prices.  I have been known to make the drive to Hewitts just to go to Hewitts, and enjoy the drive through the countryside there and back.  Still about the best chocolate malt you can find anywhere, still served in the metal mixing cup with a straw, the way it should be.  There is also Hewitts health food store in the heart of Jarvis where you can buy all sorts of great things, but the dairy bar is the social hub of the community and where you have to be.  I am just getting the urge to drive there now as I write about it...

Reid-Riverside Dairy Bar The dairy bar of choice in Eastern Ontario.  There is a smaller location on Highway 2 between Cobourg and Port Hope, but for the full-on Reid-Riverside experience you take the main exit off the 401 at Belleville and follow everyone in town to the massive Reid-Riverside complex just a few kilometres off the highway.  It is styled like a castle with lots of family-friendly activities during the summer, including a giant cow in the dairy bar with a big red button you press to hear it moo.  Yes, it is popular with people taking pictures and my girfriend at the time is in a pic I took years ago when we stopped there on the way to Montreal one summer.  I lived and worked in Belleville  briefly before moving to St. Catharines and it was one of my favourite discoveries in the Bay of Quinte area.  The best part?  You can still get a small shake for only a dollar.  It's true!  Worth the trip for just that...

Kawartha Lakes Dairy When Sophie and I vacationed in Huntsville this past June, I discovered this beautifully kept gem on the main highway just on the edge of town, even equipped with a drive-through window.  What a concept!  But of course I had to go inside to experience the true dairy bar magic, and I encourage you do as well.  Lots of gift items and things to buy as well as ice cream, which is exceptionally good.  You can buy the ice cream locally at your Avondale store, by the way.

Jenn & Larry's This is a fairly recent addition to downtown Stratford, located on York Street just behind Ontario Street in the heart of town.  I have gone in the last couple of years and it is a great little place.  The old-style interior is so retro you have to smile; the shakes are excellent, but I have no idea how they have been able to avoid the long arm of Ben & Jerry's for so long, since I am sure that American ice cream maker would not be pleased by the similar sounding name.  But wait, it is a genuine name with roots in small Sebringville, just northwest of Stratford.  The original Jenn & Larry's location was a going concern for many years but I never had a chance to experience it unfortunately.  But the new location in Stratford is great fun to visit and always worth your time when you are in town.

St. Clair Dairy Bar  Located in east-end Toronto and if I remember correctly actually on St. Clair Avenue, this one I hope is still there.  It is about 10 years since I was last there and it was such a pleasure to discover.  Not the best decor you will find in a dairy bar, but hey, you're there for the ice cream, right?

So, where is Stoney Creek Dairy on this list you ask?  Actually, my discovery earlier this month it is no more is what prompted me to think about this column and get it together for this weekend.  I was in Hamilton for a meeting earlier this month and on the way out of town I decided to stop at the Stoney Creek Dairy Bar located just outside the downtown core.  What I found was an empty lot with fencing all around it where the dairy bar used to be.  I did some searching online this past week and discovered it was this weekend last year they closed for good.  It had closed before, but reopened to much fanfare a few years ago and seemed to be doing great whenever I was there.  It truly was one of the focal points of the neighbourhood in Stoney Creek.  According to the article in the Hamilton Spectator I read, it is now going to be home to a seniors complex.  Too bad, really.  I mean, we sure do need more affordable  housing for seniors, but where are they going to go for ice cream on those warm summer nights?

Another casualty in the last few years was for a long time my personal favourite, the Christie's Dairy Bar in Grimsby and Beamsville.  I used to go to the location in Beamsville almost weekly back in the 80s, and loved the archaic look of the place.  I was told at the time the elder Mr. Christie came in for lunch every day and they simply kept it open for him.  When he passed away a number of years ago, they promptly closed the dairy bar shortly afterwards.  Then you had to drive down to Grimsby for the main Christie's location complete with convenience store attached, but that too was closed some years ago.  I always preferred Christie's ice cream locally, and although you can still find it in stores around the Region, the diary bar is now long gone.  Too bad.

Oh, and of course, we can't forget the local social hangout in downtown St. Catharines for generations, the iconic Diana Sweets which closed for good back around 1996.  It was a full-service restaurant as well as having the classic soda bar setup you always remember from the movies.  It was THE place to be in St. Catharines, especially after the annual Grape & Wine Grande Parade in September.  It fell on hard times in later years and eventually opened only for breakfast and lunch, but I remember fondly my last visit there about a month before they closed in 1996, when I sat at the soda bar and just drank in the history along with my shake.  It was a gem of a place and nothing else will ever compare to it.  The interior was gutted and much of the gumwood booths and such the last I heard were still in Buffalo in an antique store basement.  The soda bar was sold years ago, I'm told.  The location is now a fast-serve eatery and Diana Sweets is still on the inlay at the entrance but that is about all that remains now, unfortunately.

So there you go, my totally arbitrary, steeped in tradition memories of dairy bars old and new around Ontario.  You certainly will have your favourite, so let me know if it didn't make the list.  I'd love to hear from you!  Now I have an urge for a chocolate shake somewhere soon...

August 31st, 2013.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Final two shows at the Shaw Festival take you to sunny Italy!

As Labour Day weekend approaches, people are thinking of escaping one last time before the kids go back to school.  If you can't afford a trip to Italy for example, I have the next best thing:  a couple of shows at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake will take you to sunny Italy with interesting results.

One of the more anticipated shows at the Court House Theatre this season has been the Alan Guettel musical The Light in the Piazza, which premiered in Seattle in 2003; it opened on Broadway two years later, running for over 500 performances.  The musical is based on the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer and was made into a film in 1962, starring Olivia de Havilland and George Hamilton.

The musical took much longer to come to fruition, largely due to composer Mary Rodgers - daughter of legendary composer Richard Rodgers - inability to convince her dad to take on the task of writing the score.  She then turned to her son, Adam Guettel, whose Floyd Collins was performed at Shaw several seasons back.  Guettel finally settled on Craig Lucas to write the book and they were off and running.

Guettel's music is in a word, exquisite.  That being said, you will not come out of the theatre humming a single bit of it.  That is not an unfair comment; simply put, the music is very intricate and genuinely touching, but instantly memorable it is not for most people.  I quite like the score, in fact.

As for the story itself, it tells the tale of an attractive and well-to-do American woman by the name of Margaret Johnson, who leaves her husband at home and travels with her daughter Clara to Europe in the 1950s.  Clara catches the eye of a young Italian man named Fabrizio, who falls hard for the American girl and wants to marry her.  Margaret reluctantly allows Clara and herself to meet Fabrizio's family and with the obvious language barrier, Clara's secret somehow is not revealed to them.

The secret?  Clara is mentally challenged, with the intellect of a twelve-year-old, although she doesn't quite come across that way in the musical.  It is almost beyond comprehension that even with an obvious language barrier between both families, Margaret is unable to convey Fabrizio's family the truth about young Clara.  And when his family finally objects to the match, it is not over Clara's mental capabilities but rather the actual age difference between the two lovers.  Oddly, it is at this point Margaret fights for the two lovers to stay together in spite of Clara's condition rather than continue to try to keep them apart.

To be honest, I didn't find an obvious age difference between Jacqueline Thair's Clara and Jeff Irving's engaging Fabrizio.  In this production, at least, they looked fine to me.  But I also found it hard to believe Clara had the intellect of a twelve-year-old when she finds herself alone with Fabrizio and somehow knows enough to initiate some form of physical contact with him.

The cast, directed here by Jay Turvey, is very good; along with Thair and Irving, Patty Jameson is excellent as mother Margaret; Juan Chioran is debonair and a true Italian as Fabrizio's father, Signor Naccarelli; and Kaylee Harwood is solid as another member of the Naccarelli household, Franca.

The sets are simple and nicely done on the small Court House stage, and they certainly do conjure up images of sunny Italy without overdoing it.

The Light in the Piazza is a nice, thought-provoking production, but certainly will not be for everyone.  The subject matter can be troubling:  how could anyone allow this marriage to go ahead, notwithstanding the situation with Clara?  I mean, would you allow your daughter, mentally challenged or not, to marry into another family you barely know in a foreign land in a very short period of time?  I somehow doubt it.

The show continues at the Court House Theatre until October 13th and rates a three out of four stars.

The other Italian-themed show at Shaw this season is over at the larger Festival Theatre, where Matthew Barber's Enchanted April takes centre-stage through to October 26th.  Based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, the show is directed by Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell.  The novel has been adapted three times for the stage:  in 1925, in 2000 and then again in 2010 as a lyric musical with music by Richard B. Evans.  The Barber play dates from 2000, moving to Broadway in 2003 where it ran for 143 performances.

The first thing I would suggest you do upon entering the theatre for this show is to check all logic at the door, thank you very much.  It's a fun play, but the plot is really so implausible:  can four ladies from very different walks of life in England, none of whom have ever met before, really coexist in a sun-drenched island paradise for a month?  It does stretch the imagination somewhat, I admit.

The play opens on a grey, rainy London day in 1922, where grief following the war still hovers over the city.  Wanting to escape all that, Lotty Wilton sees an ad in the paper for an Italian villa for rent for the month of April and sets about finding others to join her on this great adventure.  First up is Rose Arnott, wife of Frederick Arnott, a well-heeled London couple; then comes loose cannon Caroline Bramble who views the whole thing as a lark, and matronly Mrs. Graves, who is your traditional stiff upper lip Brit.

The four ladies who finally agree to the adventure are all well cast here, although I did find Moya O'Connell's Lotty Wilton to be a little too "Pollyan-ish" for her own good.  Tara Rosling as Rose Arnott is the reasoned half of the team, as they meet the other two players in this unlikely adventure.  Marla McLean is just sexy enough given the time period as Caroline Bramble, and Donna Belleville is wonderful as the cranky matron who is reluctant to change of any kind.  Yet, she somehow decided this little excursion might just be worthwhile...

Let's not forget the two husbands involved here:  Jeff Meadows as Mellersh Wilton and Patrick Galligan's Frederick Arnott who are both taken aback by their respective wives' decision to spend an Enchanted April in a secluded Italian villa, and then accept an invitation to join the ladies during the second act.

The other two key players in this little adventure are Kevin McGarry as Antony Wilding, the gentleman who rents them the villa and then somehow always seems to be around while they are there, and the housekeeper Costanza, played with great flair by one of my favourite Shaw performers, Sharry Flett.  Imagine not only learning your lines for a production, but learning them all in Italian!  She does, and never misses a beat.

Once you get beyond that grey, grim first act in rainy London, the second act is a riot of colour in William Schmuck's over-the-top Italian villa set.  It just screams exotic and truly lends itself to the wild story that unfolds in the second act.

Is Enchanted April a great play?  No, I wouldn't say so.  But great fun?  You betcha!  Just go and have fun and leave your worries at the door.  Isn't that what good comedy is all about, anyway?

Enchanted April continues at the Festival Theatre until October 26th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Enjoy the theatre!

August 29th, 2013.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Stratford Festival offers two solid Shakespeare productions

Just returned from my final visit to the Stratford Festival for this season, and once again, it proved to be a most rewarding trip.  I now have lots of late-season shows to write about before their season is done, so those will come in the coming two weeks as we wrap up my reviews from both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals.  Today, though, two of the bigger Shakespeare productions at the Stratford Festival this season I have not yet had a chance to write about.

Romeo & Juliet is one of the guaranteed Shakespeare crowd-pleasers, and I have lost count how many times I have seen it at the Festival over the past thirty-plus years.  I have seen just about every variation on it imaginable, in just about every time-period imaginable.  But this new production, directed by Tim Carroll, takes the story back to the beginning, as it were, and gives us a very traditional, period-costume production I found to be - with a few exceptions - quite enjoyable.

The first thing you need to know about this production, as Tim Carroll writes in his Director's Notes, is that  it follows the Original Practices idea of presenting not so much an "authentic" production from Shakespeare's time as a representative theatrical piece from the Elizabethan stage.  In the show, they try to take their cues from the actual text as to when actors remove their hats or draw their swords, for example.  In Carroll's words, "to feel that one is getting closer to the mind of Shakespeare and the world he wrote for and about."  Carroll should know; as he spent a lot of time working at the rebuilt Globe Theatre in the U.K. the past several years.

One of those Original Practices is based on practicality from that era:  with no electric lights available, performances would have been during the afternoon, usually, so the light does not change to suit the scenes.  As such, this production plays with the house-lights on and that will prove a little disconcerting to some, and a boon to others who just can't put their smart-phones down during a performance.  Shakespeare never had to deal with that conundrum, did he?

I love the period costumes, making this about the purest production of Shakespeare you'll likely have seen in a long time.  I am not crazy about the proliferation of bells during the show, but what can you do?  They seem to be everywhere.

The cast is a little uneven in this production, with Daniel Briere's Romeo being the constant weak link here.  He looks good, but just lacks the acting chops next to Sara Topham's exceptional Juliet.  She is a joy to watch; he not so much.  Other than that, the supporting cast members are generally very good, although I would like to have seen a little more nastiness from Tyrone Savage's Tybalt.

Romeo's compatriots are uniformly good here:  Jonathan Goad as Mercutio and Skye Brandon's Benvolio; as are Kate Hennig as Juliet's nurse and Tom McCamus as Friar Laurence, whose potions pose problems for both young lovers in the end.

Overall, not everyone's cup of tea is this new production of the star-crossed lovers, but for those of us who like our Shakespeare neither shaken nor stirred, this Romeo & Juliet fits the bill quite nicely.  It continues on the Festival stage until October 19th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

At the other end of the theatrical spectrum in Stratford this year is Shakespeare's so-called "problem play", Measure for Measure, and this one just happens to be in modern dress.  Again, wretched productions of Measure for Measure abound, but this new production directed by Martha Henry is certainly one of the better ones I've seen over the years.

Henry mentions in her Director's Notes she was part of the famed Robin Phillips production of Measure for Measure he directed at Stratford in 1975, which came back for a second season a year later.  That was before my time for covering the Festival, and I am sorry I missed it after seeing her efforts as director here.

Set in Vienna in 1949, which Henry notes being a post-war setting lends itself nicely to the intrigue, chance, opportunity and "picking up whatever you can in the street in order to make a living", the show features predominantly dark sets, but overflows with lots of nice touches that altogether make this modern-dress Shakespeare more palatable.  There are several instances of pantomime throughout the show that bring laughter from the audience and keep things moving along nicely.

The action of the play takes place over the course of just four days, as the Duke leaves in the early hours of Saturday morning, leaving his second in command Angelo in charge, and returning on Tuesday to utter mayhem.  Henry notes much of the action in the play actually takes place at night and in fact, few of the characters actually seem to sleep.  I noticed that during the play when Stephen Russell as Prevost, or jailer, seems just as fresh and alert past midnight as he was earlier in the day.  How does that happen?!

The cast is very strong here, each adding little touches that make this a very enjoyable production indeed.  Geraint Wyn Davies is quite level-headed as Duke Vincentio, who wants to leave Angelo in charge and then wander the streets incognito in order to witness what transpires while he is supposed to be away.  As always, this masquerading as someone else leaves much to our imaginations, but it works nonetheless.

Tom Rooney's Angelo is abrasive, abusive and just downright mean from the word go; Stephen Ouimette as Lucio is exceptional; and Carmen Grant's Isabella is a standout and very sexy indeed.

Further along in the casting we find solid performances by Patricia Collins as Mistress Overdone and Randy Hughson as Pompey.  I did, however, find Brian Tree's over-the-top portrayal of the duty-bound  constable known as Elbow to be a bit much, given that it borrows heavily from the German police officer featured in the Mel Brooks film "Young Frankenstein" back in the 70s.  It is fun, but just a bit too much, thanks.

Overall, Henry delivers the goods with this new production of Measure for Measure, continuing until September 21st at the Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theatre.  It, too, rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Enjoy the theatre!

August 26th, 2013.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Four trombonists for the St. Louis Symphony look to you for help

When I am at concerts such as the Niagara Symphony throughout the year, I am often asked if the orchestra has any recordings available and if so, do I have any available for purchase.  As I explain to people who ask, issuing a disc of any type, but especially classical, is an expensive proposition.  As such, new recordings are becoming fewer and far between.

Individual artists can often produce a recording in a home studio should they choose to and handle a lot of the production and post-production duties themselves or with the help of others, and contract the actual manufacture of the disc out to another organization.  Many don't even bother and offer the recording as an MP3 download through their website.  For these musicians, the modern digital age can have some advantages over the old days.

With classical music, and especially recordings of larger-scale orchestral works with full orchestra, this model often is simply not a viable option.  While many larger orchestras in North America and Europe have resorted to issuing recordings themselves of live performances on their own labels (the London Symphony Orchestra in the U.K. is a prime example), many other competent, quality orchestras are left in the musical lurch.

There was a time such record companies like Sony, RCA and others would issue a recording contract to an orchestra and cover the expenses of recording the ensemble for commercial release.  More often than not, the recorded work was a tried-and-true classical warhorse guaranteed to generate at least some sort of return on their investment.  These recording costs could easily top $100,000 or more, depending on the ensemble, venue and repertoire being recorded.  That means they need to sell an awful lot of discs in order to turn a profit.  In this day and age, that is no longer guaranteed.

In the past several years we have seen the OSM (Montreal Symphony Orchestra) lose their lucrative Decca recording contract, for example, largely due to the expense of recording such a large ensemble.  Even the Toronto Symphony has not recorded widely in recent years for the same reason.

One logical alternative many orchestras now turn to, including the Buffalo Philharmonic, for example, is to jump on the Naxos bandwagon in order to record new discs.  Naxos has always specialized in recording works off the beaten path as well as tried-and-true standards; the catch as I understand it is they forego the paying of royalties and pay out a flat fee for the recording session itself and then the ensemble is left out of revenue generated by sales of those same recordings.  But they do get their recordings out there and for many, that is better than nothing.  At least they are recording and they get some money out of it at the start.

Enter into this situation the four trombonists of the St. Louis Symphony, who this past January pooled their resources, rehearsed and worked with recording engineer Paul Eachus of Oberlin Conservatory for three solid days of recording on the stage of the E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall at Washington University to produce their new album, Fleur de Lis.  To give you an idea how much work is involved in producing just this one disc, they spent 20 hours in the studio and had over 500 takes in order to get the recording just right.  Granted, this is not a full orchestra recording we are talking here, but that's a lot of studio time and that costs a lot of money!

So the four, Tim, Jonathan, Vanessa and Gerry have launched a Kickstarter campaign on Facebook in order to seek out investors willing to make a financial contribution, however small, to the campaign to help pay for the project.  You can find the page by using this link:

As they point out in their Facebook posting, time is of the essence here.  The campaign only runs until September 5th and with the St. Louis Symphony season set to begin in September, they have to get the rest of the work done on the disc soon.  As of today as I write this, they have 125 backers at a variety of  pledge levels, with the total pledged now exceeding the $ 6,000.00 goal by over a thousand dollars.  Your pledge can be from $ 5 to over a $ 1,000.00 and you can do so by following the instructions on the page.

As an incentive, you can receive thank-you gifts ranging from digital tracks from the new disc to a hard copy along with an invitation to their Fleur de Lis CD Release Party in St. Louis on September 10th.  Of course, you have to get to St. Louis yourself, but it is a nice gesture!

The disc is comprised almost entirely of works written for the four by St. Louis-based composers or arranged by the group to showcase the group's versatility.  That means everything from Hindemith piano fugues to Bruckner vocal motets to even the Magic Flute Overture by Mozart, all arranged and performed on trombones.

Incidentally, the significance of the Fleur de Lis title is reflected in the fact it is a symbol of St. Louis' French heritage.  The fleur de lis is everywhere in local architecture and even the city flag, which I for one did not know.

Now, there is a local connection to all this, which is why I am writing about it.  The principal trombone for the Niagara Symphony, Steve Fralick, sent me the link to this campaign earlier this month; his daughter Vanessa is one of those four trombonists and you might be aware of the fact she will be coming north to ply her trade with the Toronto Symphony in the near future.  Make no bones about it, Vanessa is the real deal, and she along with her talented colleagues in St. Louis are looking to all of us to help with a very ambitious project.

Give it some thought...are you in?

August 23rd, 2013.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Two very challenging and interesting shows at Shaw this season

I wrapped up my season at the Shaw Festival on the weekend, and will be wrapping up my Stratford visits this week as well, so let's get back to the business at hand and get to the rest of the reviews still on the docket before summer is done.  Today, two very interesting shows at the Shaw Festival.

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, arguably his best play, dates from 1993 and premiered in London.  It is alternately set in two different time periods - 1809 to 1812 and the present, whenever that might happen to be.  As such, it can get a little confusing going back and forth over the course of the play, but ultimately the audience is rewarded with a rare gem of a play that was already sold out before the first curtain went up at the small Studio Theatre last month.

All the action takes place within one room in Sidley Park, a large country estate in Derbyshire, England.  In this one room, we learn of the close relationship of Thomasina Coverly and the dashing Septimus Hodge, two of the inhabitants of the home in the earlier time period, set against the modern-day investigative efforts of Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale to learn more about the past members of the Coverly clan from that earlier period.

The premise is really quite clever and the dialogue is razor sharp throughout.  But the real fireworks are between Diana Donnelly's hard-edged Hannah and Patrick McManus' almost over-the-top researcher Bernard, almost at odds with each other from the very beginning, challenging each other's theories and ideas, all the while being oddly attracted to each other as the verbal jousting continues.

Watching all this unfold are Valentine Coverly, played by Martin Happer, a dedicated academic who also happens to be Hannah's man, and Chloe Coverly and Gus Coverly, a young mute who shies away from confrontation and the noise it brings with it.

All the performances are exceptionally strong, with Diana especially as the foil for Bernard.  She is both somewhat bitchy and sexy at the same time.  Bernard is the kind of know-it-all you love to see get what's coming to him.  Other strong turns are provided by Nicole Underhay as Lady Croom and Michael Ball as the servant Jellaby in the earlier time period.

I love the bright, airy English-garden sort of room depicted in Sue LePage's design, although I question why everyone in the modern era seems to have a proper costume change other than Bernard Nightingale.  He changes his shirt and tie, but would it kill them to provide him with another suit so he doesn't look like he owns just one?  Just a small point, but it was rather odd.

Arcadia is directed by Eda Holmes and is far and away one of the best shows at Shaw this season, continuing an impressive track record at the small Studio Theatre.  Unfortunately for those who didn't get their tickets early this show is already sold out and the run can't be extended beyond the end-date of September 7th.

Arcadia rates a very strong 4 out of 4 stars.

Over at the Royal George Theatre, another contemporary play is on stage through to October 6th:  Irish playwright Brian Friel's Faith Healer, which opened on Broadway in 1979.  It is a pretty grim play with not a lot of humour in it until the second act, but for those up to the challenge it comes with its own rewards.

Essentially, Faith Healer is a play about memories:  theirs and ours.  The three characters in the play recount their own memories of time spent on the road for many years, playing to small crowds in small towns, offering whatever glimmer of hope the audience members can find in their otherwise unfortunate existence.

You see, Frank, the central character, is a so-called Faith Healer, going from town to town attempting to cure those afflicted with any number of ailments through their faith.  He has more misses than hits, as you can imagine, but there was one night, recounted in a faded newspaper article carried by Frank, when he hit the proverbial jackpot and managed to "cure" no less than 10 people in the audience that night.  Only one, Frank recounts, bothered to thank him afterwards, a farmer who paid him handsomely for the effort, which Frank and his lady Grace squandered on living the high life for that brief period before it was all gone and they were nearly penniless once again.

Their sorry existence is recounted in four monologues, delivered first by Frank, then Grace, then Teddy their manager, and finally by Frank again.  The scene is played out in a dank, plain meeting-house with a poster on the wall proclaiming the "Fantastic Francis Hardy" appearing for one night only.  You can just imagine the poor souls trudging in clinging to one last bit of hope they can better their lives if only Francis could heal them, too.

The grim nature of the play is only alleviated by Teddy in the second act, beautifully played by Peter Krantz, who offers some levity on the many experiences the three had encountered on the road for so long.  He offers as well a few moments of Fred Astaire singing "The Way You Look Tonight" on an old scratchy 78, the very record they played at every show for so many years.  All three characters refer to the song being part of the show, but all three pass the buck as to who came up with the idea for it.

The central character of Frank, or Francis Hardy, is played with great depth by Jim Mezon, who directed a production of this play over two decades ago in Toronto; his long-suffering lady, named Grace, is played by Corrine Koslo and she paints a pathetic picture as she drinks throughout her monologue.

The text is very dense and quite challenging, as all three actors never interact with each other, only directly with the audience.  I can imagine the challenge faced by the actors who are used to that interaction on stage.  The challenge for us in the audience is to listen to these monologues and consider just who is closest to relating what actually happened many years ago.  Three actors, three perspectives on the same story, each with their own set of embellishments.

Director Craig Hall keeps the play on the rails throughout, but it comes down to the exceptional performances that make this play work.  Still, this will be an acquired taste for many at the Shaw Festival this season.  It is worth the effort, ultimately, but the road is littered with lost dreams and hazy memories of a hard life spent on the road with little reward.

Faith Healer continues at the Royal George Theatre until October 6th and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.

August 18th, 2013.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A special day for St. Catharines and our new Performing Arts Centre

After my blog posting from the weekend I decided to take a few days off from writing and reflect a bit on the news of the past week for your humble scribe.  If you missed that posting, you can scroll down below this post and read all about it.

I must admit I have been touched greatly by the words of support and encouragement; it is wonderful to know so many people are willing to reach out and be there when you really need them.  I have been up and down this week emotionally, with an occasional panic attack such as the one I experienced earlier this evening.  But overall, I am doing my very best to accept my present situation and move on with as much grace and equanimity as I can muster.

So thanks again for the kind words everyone and I will keep you posted on any future developments.

Now, it was back to the arts beat today with some very good news in downtown St. Catharines regarding the new Performing Arts Centre.  Over the summer months, looking at the PAC-cam set up on the site you can view on the City of St. Catharines website ( there didn't appear to be much going on at the corner of St. Paul and Carlisle.  All that changed recently with the digging of the foundation starting to get underway with a flourish.

Now, we can see a crane on sight, just one of many soon to spring up over the downtown skyline as the Performing Arts Centre, the adjacent Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University, and down the street the new spectator facility all begin to take shape.  There is activity in and out of the PAC site on a daily basis now, and that is encouraging to see.

Today, dignitaries and just plain folk such as myself gathered on a grassy spot under a big tent just across the street from the site of the new development to celebrate the pouring of the first concrete for the foundation.  It is at that point you realize this is actually happening and there is certainly no turning back now.  Nothing like a little perseverance on the part of our city fathers and provincial & federal elected officials, eh?

Peter Partridge, the centre's fundraising cabinet chairman, emcee'd the event and welcomed MPP Jim Bradley, MP Rick Dykstra and Mayor Brian McMullan all to say a few words on behalf of their respective governments in support of the project, now expected to be completed in the fall of 2015.  But it was left to Greg Wight, president of Algoma Central Corporation to make the big announcement today; Algoma is the first corporate donor in the $5 million fundraising campaign.  The obligatory big cheque was presented to the audience in the amount of $250,000 on behalf of the 2,000 employees of Algoma Corporation.

This wonderfully generous gift not only gets the ball rolling, but also allows Algoma naming rights to the centre's main lobby area.  It will now be known as the Algoma Central Corporation Community Lobby.  Other naming opportunities will no doubt be pursued as the project continues; now the lobby and the main hall (Partridge Hall) have both been spoken for.

A nice gesture as part of the event this morning was the ability for all of us in attendance to "make our mark" as it were, in the newly-poured cornerstones of the centre.  For my part, I simply wrote my initials with the year below with my index finger.  Others got far more creative, but I just couldn't come up with anything else worthy of posterity.

The hope is, of course, we will all "make our marks" in a financial sense by giving to the fundraising campaign as the construction continues.  This will be a test of the community support for the project to be sure, but everyone - myself included - remain optimistic the community will put their money where their hearts lie and financially support the PAC.

When it is completed, the St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre will house four performance spaces ranging from a 775-seat concert hall (Partridge Hall) to the 187-seat film theatre.  In between there is the 300-seat recital hall and a 210-seat theatre/dance space.

Now, let's wash that new concrete off our hands and fingers, roll up our sleeves and get on with constructing this showpiece for the arts in Niagara!

August 15th, 2013.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

In other news...I am now unemployed.

I try not to get too personal in these postings, as it is primarily aimed at promoting the arts in Niagara and beyond, but occasionally something happens and I feel the need to share it with you.  This is one of those times.  So bear with me as this could be a long one.

Here are the numbers:  40 years in radio; just over 32 at CKTB Radio in St. Catharines; about 8 years producing and booking interviews for the morning show with Tim Denis; 15 minutes on Thursday morning as it all came to an end.  Now, if you are expecting a venomous tirade from your humble scribe, sorry to disappoint you, but this is neither the time nor the place for that.  I prefer to celebrate my time there and the wonderful people I have had the honour and pleasure of working with for so many years.

Since I arrived at the station in May of 1981, the last hire for the outgoing Burgoyne family that owned the stations for many decades, I have weathered no less then seven ownership changes, each time learning a new corporate culture and adapting to the new reality.  The latest change that saw us under new corporate ownership yet again was worrisome to me from the very beginning due to my length of tenure and the nature of the corporate business model being followed not only in broadcasting but in many businesses today.  But I remained hopeful and optimistic, remaining a team player both on the local and the corporate level.

Still, new ownership brings changes and that was the case this week barely a month after the new corporate ownership was in place.  Thursday morning, myself, Joe Cahill, Promotions Director Michelle Williams and Promotions head for Hamilton/St. Catharines Dave De Rocco were all told in private meetings our services would no longer be required.  About 15 minutes later we were all done, trying to come to grips with this new reality.

I understand the need to adhere to a bottom line and the fact new ownership brings with it inevitable change, so I know this is always difficult both for those let go and those who remain.  I can't speak for the others, but for me, I was hoping my experience, knowledge of the local market and desire to produce a winning product might count for more than it obviously did.  And although I accept the reality of the situation I and the others now find ourselves in, I cannot accept the swiftness of the decision and the assumption the local product will not be in some way affected by these moves.

The radio industry is a funny business, really.  I have in all my years seen much worse scenarios played out in stations across the country than what we saw here, of course.  For me personally I remember the late 70s working in Oshawa as morning show host on the FM station and returning from vacation only to find someone else doing my show.  I was given a place in the lunchroom and was expected to find something to do.  I did.  I found a better job about a month later.  So here, I can certainly keep things in perspective and know it can be and often is worse for others who suffer the same fate we did on Thursday.

For those of you not familiar with what I have been doing for the past 32 years at CKTB, I was hired by the late Bob Reinhardt, one of the radio managers I learned to respect more than many I had worked with up to that point, along with Program Director Bob Johnston, who offered the evening music programme "Niagara by Night" from 7 to 12 midnight.  From there I added other shows I hosted over the years, including nostalgia shows to an entertainment-based interview show where I interviewed everyone from professional circus clown teachers to legendary dancer Ginger Rogers, with whom we discussed everything from modern movies to breakdancing.

In my time I also produced every sports broadcast imaginable from baseball to hockey and football to basketball, all the while not knowing a thing about any of the sports!  I had a brief stint hosting a radio call-in show without benefit of a producer to screen calls for me, taking each call as it came in - talk about working without a net!  Also for awhile I worked morning and evening split-shifts producing both talk shows for the late Doug Hobbs and John Michael, a period I always referred to as my "chuckles and knuckles" era.  And of course, there was the long stretch I was producing a string of ethnic programmes each evening ranging from Italian to Hindi.

But perhaps my most rewarding time was spent hosting my long-running classical-music show "Classically Yours" which had two runs, both in the 80s and then again in the early 90s when management at the time begrudgingly allowed me to play what they referred to as "that classical crap" on the air.  I forged many friendships while hosting that show and still know people who remember it fondly.

What won't I miss?  Certainly, the early mornings that saw me rise about 3 am to start researching stories of the day online and the long hours searching out and booking interviews, often long past my expected bed-time in the evening.  Oh and the occasional call-back about 11 pm from people wondering why I was in bed already!

Okay, that was then and here we are now.  So where do we go from here?  Well, in the short term I plan to try to keep my online music business going, which you can find at as long as people want to buy hard copies of recordings of every description.  I also plan to continue writing my blog in this space, and in fact after a brief rest period this month I hope to increase the frequency of my postings come September now that I have more time to devote to it.  In fact, since the local arts scene has more or less been my chosen beat for many years now, I plan to increase my reporting on same in this space come the fall as well.

But longer term, we still have to see.  The reality of the situation is I still have bills and a mortgage to pay, and the settlement I received only goes so far.  I am looking at any and all opportunities I can find out there at the moment, and keeping my fingers crossed this veteran broadcaster, communicator and digital ink-stained writer might find a new home at which to hang his hat.  While I would love to continue in the radio broadcast field, I'm certainly aware of the fact my next position likely will be outside that realm, and that is fine with me.  As they say, a change is as good as a vacation.

My resume certainly will be updated this week.  I think the last time it was updated we were still using chisel and hammer on stone tablets.  And yes, I will be looking for professional help with my job search.

But  I want to impress upon everyone who happens to read my message today two things.  First, I am open for business.  I am looking, and I am eager to contribute and make a difference for another organization no matter what it is.  There is still lots of creativity and desire in these bones just waiting to be utilized.  So if you hear of anything, please keep me in mind.  Second, I harbour no ill will towards anyone involved in this present situation my esteemed colleagues and I find ourselves in.  What's done is done and it is time to move on.  It was a great ride and I for one consider myself lucky to have been a part of it for 40 years.

Finally, I want to thank everyone I have had the pleasure and honour of working with over the past 32 years at CKTB.  Rather than sound like an Oscar thank-you speech that goes on too long, I will simply say you all know who you are.  There have been many, both past and present who have been friends, confidants and trusted colleagues.  The family I have known at 12 Yates Street will do anything for you whenever the need arises.  That's just how they are and I for one am humbled to have spent so many years working alongside them.

I have gotten to know a lot of wonderful people over the years, both personally and professionally, and I will miss those relationships.  So please don't be a stranger.  You can comment through my blog post of course, but it might be better to email me directly at or call me at 905-682-9303.  I will always look forward to hearing from each and every one of you!

The last couple of days I spent quietly coming to gips with this new reality, working through the shock, the hurt, and yes the anger.  Although I can't promise I won't feel twinges of any of those again in the future, my sister reminded me this week when one door closes another will open, and I am ready to pass through that door for my next Great Adventure.  Come with me and let's share it together!

August 11th, 2013.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Some thoughts on downtowns here and afar

I just returned from a whirlwind tour of parts of New York State, and had a chance to see first-hand how some downtowns are faring, and comparing them to some of our own here in Niagara.  Not quite the good, the bad and the ugly, but read on for my take on that most elusive of urban dreams, a vibrant downtown...

I have written many times about our downtowns both here in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls in particular, and how considerable sums of money - both public and private - are being spent to revitalize city cores in Niagara.  In Niagara Falls, every time I visit Queen Street, or "The Q" as it is affectionately now known, there seems to be something new to experience.  While that is good, it is often cancelled out by another business that has given up the struggle and closed up shop.  Some are long established businesses like My Country Deli and others are more recent startups that couldn't get a foothold in the downtown core.

Overall, downtown Niagara Falls is faring better than I expected and on my last visit a few months ago I was generally pleased by what I found.  But much more work needs to be done in order to keep the businesses there open and bring in new businesses to fill the available empty spaces.  What is needed most, I think, is a different mindset on the part of local residents who often believe - wrongly I feel - there is simply nothing to bring them downtown in the first place.  That will take a lot longer and more than just money, but something simply has to be done in order to convey the message Niagara Falls' downtown is open for business.

Here in St. Catharines, we have many new projects on the go in order to revitalize our downtown, beginning with the new parking garage across from the downtown bus terminal, completed just over a year ago.  Work has begun on three major projects along St. Paul Street, too:  the new Performing Arts Centre, the Marilyn I. Walker Centre for the Arts at Brock University incorporating the old Canada Haircloth building, and of course the much-anticipated spectator facility taking shape in the lower-level parking lot.  It is funny in a way more people are anticipating the spectator facility than anything else, but such is life in Canada when sports - and hockey in particular - are foremost in many people's minds.  As for me, I may never go there, but I recognize the need for the facility so don't begrudge my taxpayer dollars going towards it any more than those going towards the Performing Arts Centre.

Other ideas are coming to fruition in downtown St. Catharines as well.  We apparently have a new temporary civic square coming later this month along part of James Street opposite the Market Square/parking lot area, between Church and King Streets.  Now why this is not up and running already is open to plenty of conjecture, of course, and I had a chat about this very subject just last evening with Councillor Matt Siscoe while we both took in the new Tuesday evening farmer's market which debuted this week and runs for six weeks.  Would it not have been wiser to have the civic square idea settled like around June, I asked?  By the time they get it up and running it will be about the third week of August.  The response was basically, we are lucky to be getting it this late in the season given the acrimonious debate behind closed doors that apparently took place on this idea.

I think the civic square idea is a good one and worthy of our support, but a temporary one will only take us so far.  We need a permanent square in order to be truly successful, and for inspiration we need only visit downtown Guelph, where they rebuilt the area in front of their downtown City Hall fronting Carden Street with a wading pool/ice rink, lighting and seating areas, and lots of attractive new streetscaping details.  It is a model others can and should follow, including us eventually.  I visited last month late on a Saturday evening and several people were still in the wading pool at 10 pm.  Many eateries and entertainment establishments throughout the downtown were hopping, and that is what you want to see.

Our temporary civic square will be a pilot project and I hope it does fly.  So to, I hope the new Nighttime Farmers Market takes off and becomes a permanent attraction downtown.  The first one last evening from 3 to 7 pm appeared to be well attended and most people - vendors and visitors alike, seem to have been happy with the result.  There was lots of entertainment, food and wine and beer available for purchase, as well as the nearly full complement of market vendors you would find on a Saturday morning.  This project will run only to September 10th initially, but if it is well received it could become permanent.  I hope it does, as it showed yet again people will come downtown if you give them a reason to.  The first market night was an unqualified success.

There is another aspect to downtown St. Catharines not found in other downtowns I have visited, designed to make the core more accessible to walkers.  Local history booster and social media expert Robin McPherson came up with the idea to post proper signage intended to show walkers the distance between different downtown venues.  Need to get from Market Square to Montebello Park, for example?  There's a sing pointing the way and the distance you will travel.  It is a novel idea and an example of the efforts being utilized right here at home to make the downtown a more user and pedestrian-friendly place to be.

So, on the weekend I travelled down to Salamanca, New York for a weekend getaway, and to use that as a base in order to discover the area.  It was more than an eye-opener.  Downtown Salamanca has become a bombed-out shell of its former self, with lots of old character buildings simply boarded up and abandoned.  The ones that have survived are mostly cigarette shops operated by the Seneca First Nations.  We stayed at the old Dudley Hotel in downtown Salamanca, and it has seen better times to be sure.  But it is a survivor, owned by a devoted lady who simply won't allow it to die.

Most of the people who visit Salamanca come for one reason only:  the Seneca Casino on the outskirts of town.  We didn't go, but we did drive by it several times and it is the only bright light left in the area, really.  People come and stay at the hotel, take the shuttle to the casino, and then in the morning leave town.  Not much help for the rest of the town, unfortunately, but such is life in a depressed part of New York State where the local economy is now governed by a casino.  Something to think about, would you not agree?

One of the other jewels in the area is the lovely Allegheny State Park, a huge nature area that runs for miles and miles.  We drove from one end to the other, stopping every now and then to take in nature's beauty.  It is really one of the wonders of the area, and yet even there the economy has shown to be a problem, as the main restaurant in the park is only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

About ten miles north of Salamanca is the picturesque town of Ellicottville, and the difference is like night and day.  Well-cared for homes, lovely gardens, neatly manicured lawns and a thriving downtown business district.  Why?  The local economy embraces the tourist industry in a big way, with skiing of course being the big attraction in the winter.  But summer months there is enough else to keep you there as well.  They host a Taste of Ellicottville this coming weekend, in fact.  This is a perfect example of a town taking advantage of their natural gifts in order to build a local economy they can depend on.

On the way back on Monday, we stopped at East Aurora, just south of Buffalo, and again, here is a downtown you just want to spend time in.  It is not unlike downtown Oakville, with lots of established businesses and great attractions such as the long-established Roycroft Inn.  This is a downtown anyone would be proud to call their own and if you have never gone I encourage you to pay a visit some day soon.  East Aurora, too, has taken their strong local economy and built upon it in order to make them a destination worth driving to.  I already plan to go back again this fall and see some more of the area.

So, there you go.  Lots of ideas shared on downtowns both near and far, and several success stories alongside success stories in the making here in Niagara, and a genuine diamond in the rough in Salamanca.  Just think of the cost of real estate down there right now...

Enjoy the rest of your summer!

August 7th, 2013.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Two winners on Tom Patterson stage at Stratford Festival

I wrote earlier this week about the fact Stratford Festival's production of Mary Stuart has been extended three times already, now running through to October 11th.  It is quickly becoming one of the must-see productions at this year's Festival, and with good reason.  It features an all-star cast, exceptional direction from Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino and a sparkling adaptation of the original Friedrich Schiller text by Peter Oswald.

The story sounds rather contemporary, too, as Cimolino writes in his Director's Notes:  "Here is a story about religious extremism, fanatics willing to die for their God, gender politics and a society struggling to find its way to democracy."  Sound familiar?  Of course it does, as it refers to any number of countries in the world today.

The play was originally written in the shadow of the French Revolution, when France had overthrown its king and become - sort of at least - a much more liberal society.  That being said, there was still bloodshed, terror and eventually a dictatorship still to come.  The year was 1800 and Schiller wrote about England rather than France or Germany and the issue of religious freedom.

There is more than enough intrigue in Oswald's new adaptation; even though you know the ultimate outcome, it still holds you in suspense.  The idea of having Mary Stuart, otherwise known as Mary, Queen of Scots, meet her English counterpart Elizabeth is a delicious one.  They never did meet in real life, as Mary remained confined to the Tower of London before Elizabeth eventually gave the order to have Mary executed years later.  What we have here is a sort of "what if" scenario; that situation we all think of being in at one time or another if we could only face a tormenter face-to-face and say what was really on our minds.

The cast really makes this production soar:  the all-star lineup includes some of the best talent from the Stratford Festival, all in top form here.  James Blendick is always reliable, as he is here in the role of Amias Paulet; Patricia Collins does solid work as Hanna Kennedy, and Peter Hutt is effective as Aubespine.  But the real accolades go to the two female leads in this production, going head-to-head for the hearts and minds of the audience.  Lucy Peacock gives a typically strong performance as the persecuted Mary Stuart while Seana McKenna is a dynamic Elizabeth.  Both these Stratford veterans rarely disappoint; here they joust in the second act's meeting scene and the sparks fly.  Oh to have been a fly on the wall if this exchange had actually happened years ago!

Other roles worthy of mention are Brian Dennehy rather oddly cast I thought as the Earl of Shrewsbury, although he was good; Geraint Wyn Davies as the Earl of Leicester and Ben Carlson as Lord Burleigh.  See what I mean about an all-star cast?  Oh, and Ian Lake as the misguided Mortimer, leather pants and all, makes quite an impression as well.

Overall the sets are spare but well executed on the Tom Patterson stage, and the largely period costumes are very lavish.

Mary Stuart continues until October 11th and although much of the run is sold out, you might still be able to get a seat at one of those last performances in October.  The production is at the Tom Patterson Theatre and rates a very strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Also on the Patterson stage is Samuel Beckett's modern masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, continuing until September 20th.  I remember seeing this play at Factory Theatre in Toronto as part of a school trip on a rainy night many years ago, and I just couldn't get my head around it.  It has been a challenge ever since then, but successive productions with exceptional casts, especially at the Stratford Festival, have given me the opportunity to understand and fully appreciate the genius of Beckett's play.

Here, director Jennifer Tarver marshals the considerable talents of several Stratford stalwarts, all well versed in the complexities of the text and the challenges it presents.  It is a challenging show, but the rewards are great.  In her notes, Tarver rightly disputes the old adage Waiting for Godot is a play in which "nothing happens, twice" by suggesting it is really very little that doesn't happen in this play.  She says Beckett takes humanity and the universe and puts them under a microscope.  While on the surface it appears nothing happens, underneath it all a lot is really going on.

Stephen Ouimette appears as Estragon opposite Tom Rooney's Vladimir and both bring a lot of clarity and when needed, humour to their roles.  They meet up with Brian Dennehy as Pozzo and Randy Hughson as his servant Lucky.  Dennehy and Ouimette always work well together as they do again here; Hughson as Lucky is truly magnificent in his suffering and the eventual unleashing of his verbal tirade in the second act.

There are two young lads taking the part of the Boy, alternating in the role:  Ethan Ioannidis and Noah Jalava.

The set is very modern and sleek, typically minimalist as the play requires.  The costumes, well, they are as you would expect, pretty old and shopworn yet perfectly suited to the production.

Waiting for Godot is certainly an acquired taste, and I have acquired that taste over the years.  It is a play that grows on you over time, and this production will not disappoint.  It rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars and continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 20th.

Enjoy the theatre!

August 3rd, 2013.