Saturday, November 30, 2013

HPO & NSO set to entertain this weekend

Last evening I wrote about the Shaw Festival Film Series kicking off this afternoon in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  But if you are looking for some live music instead, or perhaps want to do it all, well you can this weekend.

Both the Hamilton Philharmonic and the Niagara Symphony perform this weekend with widely varied programmes with a twist, and both very worth your time and consideration.

First of all, this evening the Hamilton Philharmonic along with Music Director Jamie Sommerville present Tom Allen's Classical Goodtime Variety Show.  Needless to say, the special guest artist is Tom Allen, the ever popular CBC Radio 2 host who happens to weave music and words together better than anyone else on the public broadcasting airwaves in this country at the moment.

I miss Tom in the mornings now, but always enjoy his take on music history after lunch most days, even though the back half of the show after about 2:30 usually means I tend to tune out most days.  But he is good, and will certainly be a welcome addition to the concert this evening at Hamilton Place.

Along with well-known pieces such as Handel's Water Music and the Overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni, Tom will also host his popular orchestral cage match, where the audience decides whether they want to hear Berlioz' March to the Scaffold from Symphonie Fantastique or the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah.

The concert will also mark the final time Jamie Sommerville will play the French horn with the HPO before his time with the orchestra comes to an end; he will play the much-loved Rondo from Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 1 in D major, by the way.

If you want to go, the concert is tonight at 7:30 at the Great Hall at Hamilton Place, and tickets should still be available through the box office by calling 905-526-7756, or online at  You can also take a chance in person tonight, but with this concert I am not sure I would be willing to take that chance.

Meantime, our own Niagara Symphony Orchestra kicks off December with their Masterworks 2 concert tomorrow afternoon at 2:30, with a concert entitled simply Reminiscing...  Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducts the NSO and welcomes guest soloist Lauren Segal for the concert.

Lauren Segal is one of the new crop of up-and-coming Canadian opera singers to watch for in the future, and you can catch her this weekend performing one of my favourite song-cycles of all time, Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer.  Many singers have recorded this music over the years, from Fischer-Dieskau to another Canadian singer of note, Catherine Robbin, who made a lovely recording of the song-cycle for CBC Records many years ago.  That recording is still a treasured part of my personal CD collection.

Also on the programme tomorrow afternoon is John Estacio's Variations on a Memory and Schubert's wonderful Symphony No. 9 in C major, known as the "Great".

This is also the weekend for the annual Niagara Symphony fundraising Silent Auction in the lobby, before the concert and during the extended intermission.  You never know what you might find at the Silent Auction, but it is guaranteed to be worth a look.  Last year for example, I successfully bid on Power of Attorney and Will preparation for two courtesy of Patrick Little, a Niagara Symphony board member.  That to me was a deal of the century, so that's an example of what you can find on the tables in the lobby.

What you won't find in the lobby this weekend is me; because space is tight I am not setting up this weekend, but I plan to be there, so by all means keep an eye out for me if you have any questions on music or looking for something as a holiday gift this season.

For tickets, call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext, 3257, or pick them up at the door before the concert, and prepare to do some Christmas shopping!

See you at the Symphony!

November 30th, 2013.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Shaw Festival Film Series set to get underway

I promised last week I would update the winter film series this weekend, so let's get right to it, as the series starts up again for the ninth year in a row at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Essentially, the film series is divided up into two sub-series: the more popular Feature Films that screen Saturday afternoons at 3 pm and the more esoteric Documentary Films that screen Friday evenings at 6 pm.  All screenings are at the comfortable Festival Theatre, which is an ideal location for a film in order to escape winter's chill for a while.

The Feature Films begin this Saturday afternoon, in fact, with the screening of Golden Globe and Oscar winning filmmaker Susanne Bier's romantic comedy Love Is All You Need, starring Pierce Brosnan and Trine Dyrholm.  The feature films continue until February 15th of 2014.

The rest of the Feature Film series lines up this way:

December 7 - Unfinished Song
December 14 - Short Term 12
December 12 - The Hunt
December 28 - The Sapphires
January 4 - The Way Way Back
January 11 - Don Jon
January 18 - Blue Jasmine
January 25 - Philomena
February 1 - August:  Osage Country
February 8 - Enough Said
February 15 - Inside Llewyn Davis

You'll notice Philomena in there, which is just opening in theatres now in Niagara, so you can see the series has a nice mix of new and not quite so new to keep you entertained.

The six-film Documentary series kicks off January 3rd at 6 pm with Twenty Feet from Stardom, an American documentary film by veteran documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville.  The film shows us a glimpse into the lives of the unknown backup singers whose voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music.

The rest of the Documentary Film series lines up like this:

January 10 - Casting By
January 17 - We Steal Secrets:  The Story of Wikileaks
January 24 - Scatter May Ashes at Bergdorf's
February 7 - Good Ol' Freda
February 14 - Muscle Shoals

Again, the films are fairly contemporary, and I have found the documentaries to be generally more interesting than the feature films, but that's just my opinion.  Make of it what you will!

New this year is a fundraising event featuring A Royal Affair, the Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated historical drama film directed by Nikolaj Arcel.  The fundraising event benefits the Festival Film Series and is scheduled for February 22nd at 7 pm.  There will be a post-show reception with food and wine available, and will be held in the Macdonald Heaslip Lounge at the Festival Theatre.  Tickets for the film and reception are $ 85; for the film only, just $ 25.

Returning this year will be the enormously popular Gathering Niagara's LunchMarket at the Feature Film Series, which is a great way to extend your film experience at Shaw.  Local food trucks and vendors set up before the Saturday afternoon screenings about 1:30 pm.  This feature is still fairly new to the film series, but has proven to be very popular indeed.  No overpriced popcorn, as far as I can tell, by the way...

The tickets for either series are $ 12 per film, with a Festival Film Pass available for $ 130, and an 8 film "Stocking Stuffer" pass going for $ 88.  You can also purchase a pass to all six documentary films for $ 60.  For tickets to either series as well as individual tickets and of course the fundraising event on February 22nd, call the Shaw box office at 905-468-2172, or log on to

You can also access the complete film lineup by going to or go to the Calendar page of my website at  You can access film descriptions at

Both film series have proven to be very popular beyond Niagara-on-the-Lake, so be sure to leave yourself lots of time to get parked and find a good seat, and even hit the food vendors beforehand if you are so inclined.

See you at the movies!

November 29th, 2013.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Shaw Festival news

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the 2014 season announced at the Stratford Festival, and I knew before the month was out I would be doing the same for our very own Shaw Festival, who are currently riding a tide of good feelings following a very successful 2013 season in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The 2014 season will be the Shaw's 53rd season, and for me it is hard to believe it has already been two years since the big 50th anniversary season with that fabulous production of My Fair Lady.  But for the Festival, as celebratory as that season was, it was perhaps best to put it in the rear-view mirror since they experienced a financial loss that season due to the increased costs incurred in celebrating the milestone.  As mentioned in an earlier column, 2013 was very much a bounce back season for Shaw, so it is onwards and upwards for one of the greatest theatre companies in North America, and they are right here in our own backyard.

One of the nice things for the coming season will be the return of several familiar faces to Niagara-on-the-Lake, including Deborah Hay, Fiona Reid, Mary Haney, Kate Hennig, Kevin Hanchard, Gordon Rand, Thom Marriott, Fiona Byrne, Jonathan Tan, Norman Browning and the one and only Jennifer Phipps.  All great performers, true, and it will be wonderful to welcome them all back.  But consider this:  did you miss them, really?

I don't mean that as a slight to any of them in any way.  My point is, Shaw casts their shows so well and has such a deep pool of theatrical talent to draw from, they find the right people each and every year.  One of the nice things about having two great theatre festivals in the province, Shaw and Stratford, is that many of these performers can and do travel from one to the other and back again.  Going to one festival does not preclude them returning to the other in the future, and I think that kind of genial democratic approach is to be admired.

Certainly part of the travel might be due to the roles offered, but partly it is the different personalities and how they interact with each other.  Theatre is all about teamwork on every level, and so a clever and perceptive artistic directer knows how to assemble a cast from their own talent pool and where they have to go to hire the rest.  All the performers know each other and many have worked with fellow actors at both festivals over time.  I like that.

Often, an actor very closely associated with one festival heads to the other and you just have to see them to see how the harmonic convergence works out.  I remember years ago the late, great Stratford actor William Hutt was lured to Shaw by Christopher Newton for one magical season, and I remember that performance to this very day.  So too, Shaw's Goldie Semple, whom we lost far too early in her career, appeared several seasons at Stratford as well.  What's more, in each and every case, these actors appear right at home in their new theatrical setting for that particular season.

So, what's on tap for Shaw in 2014?  Here's the lineup:

CABARET - Previews start April 10; opens May 10 and closes October 26.
The big news here is the return of Deborah Hay to play the pivotal role of Sally Bowles, playing opposite Juan Chioran as The Emcee.  The show is directed by Peter Hinton, who wowed audiences this past season with Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde.

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY - Previews start May 15; opens June 7 and closes October 25.
Philip Barry's romantic comedy stars Moya O'Connell, Gray Powell and Patrick McManus, and is directed by Dennis Garnhum.

THE PHILANDERER - Previews start June 26; opens July 12 and closes October 12.
Bernard Shaw's evergreen story of a philandering rake is directed by Lisa Peterson, and stars Gordon Rand as the charismatic Leonard Charteris opposite Moya O'Connell's Julia Craven.  Also appearing are Marla McLean, Michael Ball and Ric Reid, among others.

A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR - Previews start June 28; opens July 12 and closes October 11.  This play by Tennessee Williams is very seldom staged, which means it is a perfect vehicle to rediscover at Shaw.  The all-female cast brings this one-act play to life with Kate Hennig, Deborah Hay, Julian Molnar and Kaylee Harwood making up the female foursome here.  The play will be directed by always reliable Blair Williams.

THE CHARITY THAT BEGAN AT HOME:  A COMEDY FOR PHILANTHROPISTS - Previews start April 25; opens May 10 and closes October 11.  Written by St. John Hankin, this rarely-seen comedy will star Fiona Reid, making her first Shaw Festival appearance in ten years as the misguided matriarch Lady Denison.  Also in the cast are Julia Course, Martin Happer, Graeme Somerville, Laurie Paton, Sharry Flett, Donna Belleville, Jim Mezon and Neil Barclay.  Now that is a great cast!  Directing will be Christopher Newton, so this one will certainly be a must-see.

THE SEA - Previews begin June 3; opens July 11 and closes October 12.  This Edward Bond play marks the first time the playwright is presented at Shaw, and once again Fiona Reid appears in the cast, along with Patrick Galligan, Wade Bogert-O-Brien, Peter Millard, Julia Course and many others.  Eda Holmes directs this comic view of pre-WWI England.

ARMS AND THE MAN - Previews start April 4; opens May 9 and closes October 18.  Bernard Shaw's classic comedy about love, war and so much more stars Martin Happer, Kate Besworth, Graeme Somerville, Laurie Paton, Norman Browning, Peter Krantz and Claire Jullian, and will be directed by Morris Panych.

WHEN WE ARE MARRIED - Previews starts May 7; opens June 6 and closes October 26.  Real-life couple Thom Marriott and Claire Jullien are one of the trio of couples in this comedy by J.B. Priestley.  Also in the cast are Patrick Galligan, Kate Hennig, Catherine McGregor and Patrick McManus, among others.  Joseph Ziegler will direct.

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK - Previews start June 28; opens July 25 and closes October 12.  Jackie Maxwell directs this Sean O'Casey play that marks the return of Shaw stalwart Mary Haney, who appears along with Jim Mezon, Benedict Campbell, Andrew Bunker, Corrine Koslo and many others.  It will also feature original music by Paul Sportelli.

THE MOUNTAINTOP - Previews begin July 16; opens July 26 and closes September 7.  This play by Katori Hall features the return of Kevin Hanchard, last scene at Shaw in Topdog/Underdog and The Millionairess.  Here, he plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. opposite Alana Hibbert as a young hotel maid named Camae.  The play will be directed by Philip Akin.

So there you have it.  I can hardly wait to see many of these plays next season!  If you want more information on all shows and of course, buy your tickets, go to

Next week, we'll look at the always-popular winter film series at Shaw, which gets underway next weekend.

November 24th, 2013.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hitchcock tonight at the Niagara Falls Museum

Okay, maybe the title of my posting is a little misleading, but it caught your attention, right?  Actually, my far better half and I ventured to the newly-renovated Niagara Falls History Museum at 5810 Ferry Street this evening for the final film in the Hitchcock series, which has been going on through the fall months.

Tonight's film was a somewhat lesser-known Hitchcock film, The Wrong Man, from 1956.  Starring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles, the film is apparently based on a true story, and Hitch just happened to take it to heart, producing what was for him at least, a rather touching look at how a case of mistaken identity can not only change lives, but can very nearly destroy them, too.

If you have not seen the film you really should rent it or in modern parlance, download it to your computer (from a reputable source, of course).  It is a little longer than some of Hitchcock's classic films, but even at 105 minutes it seems to be cut too short at the end.

Shot in glorious black and white in New York City, although much of the inside scenes were shot on a soundstage somewhere, it really takes you back to a much simpler time with different values and people's misconceptions looking downright archaic in this day and age.

What I liked about the film is the very fact it is from an age when cell phones were not readily available, so you had to wait to find a rotary dial phone, for example.  A time when men routinely wore a shirt, tie and suit wherever they went, and of course, a fedora was pretty much standard equipment.  The men just look great, frankly, and I miss that in modern day society.  Heck, even the criminals are reasonably well-dressed in this film!

Yes, the women dress conservatively and well, too, but that is almost expected from that era.

The film series is a relatively new experiment at the newly expanded and renovated Niagara Falls History Museum, and I think they might very well be on to something here.  The room for the film screenings is, shall we say, cosy, but full to capacity on this night for the free screening.  The museum itself is absolutely spectacular and certainly a credit to the City of Niagara Falls and indeed the Region.  If you have not been, you really should spend some time down there, and now is a perfect time with the tourist season done for another year.

As for the film series, this round is done now, and programmer Joan Nicks, who introduces each film, has planned a science fiction film series for the winter months, starting in February.  Sci-fi films are not really my thing, so I might sit the next series out, but if you are interested, here is the lineup for the next series:

February 6, 2014 - Blade Runner/Ridley Scott, 1982
February 20, 2014 - Solaris/Steven Soderberg, 2002
March 6, 2014 - Moon/Duncan Jones, 2009
March 20, 2014 - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy/Garth Jennings, 2005
April 3, 2014 - To Be Announced (but Joan promises it will be a surprise!)

The science fiction film series will tie in neatly with a new exhibition opening at the museum January 16 to April 20, titled Space.  According to the handout this evening, you'll be able to stretch out under the stars in a portable planetarium and see a moon rock on loan from NASA brought back to earth from an Apollo mission.  Now that, I could get interested in.

Anyway, a great turnout tonight for the final Hitchcock film, and it was nice to meet up with local traveller George Bailey, formerly of the Niagara Parks Commission, and my own personal history idol, Niagara Falls and NPC Official Historian Sherman Zavitz.  You just never know who you'll run into at the museum on a rainy, cold Thursday night!

For more information on the Niagara Falls History Museum, go to, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

November 20th, 2013.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A week's worth of great art in many forms in Niagara and beyond

I was looking at the line up of events over the next week the other day, and I was amazed by the variety of the interesting things you can see and do in Niagara and beyond.  So I gathered together a bunch of them for my weekend arts blog entry to dispel the theory once and for all there is nothing to do at this time of the year than get ready for Christmas.  Incidentally, for me, that season will be starting rather late this year...

The first event is actually well underway now:  the annual STRUTT Wearable Art Weekend is upon us again, livening up an otherwise blah November weekend with wild creations and revelry designed to dispel any notion Canadians don't know how to have a great time.

Earlier this evening The Sound of Light featuring the Gallery Players of Niagara performed at the W.S. Tyler Factory in the Samuel Building, where even earlier a Wearable Art Expo was on display, showing off pictures of wearable art from the previous ten seasons or so of STRUTT.  The pics come from the creative lens of NAC member Brian Youngblut, and will be on display throughout the event this weekend.

Of course, the Big Event is the Saturday evening Runway show, also in the Samuel Building of the W.S. Tyler Factory in St. Catharines.  This is literally a spectacle that knows no bounds, and having one of the most creative artistic souls in the city living right next door to me in Sandy Middleton, I know almost first-hand how seriously people take the Runway show and all the events surrounding it.

If you want to check your logic at the door and escape for a night of visual and musical stimulation (musical score performed live by The Sadies, by the way), contact the Brock Centre for the Arts box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 for tickets to the event on Saturday evening.  The doors open at 8 and the show gets underway at 9.  It should be about as much fun as socially-acceptable Canadians allow themselves on any given weekend.

I wrote about the Avanti Chamber Singers concert coming up Saturday evening at 7:30 in an earlier blog post on choral concerts in the month of November, but I want to revisit it again here since there is more news now on the CD being released officially at the concert tomorrow night at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street.  The concert is titled "Blessed Are They".

The latest "Voices of Niagara" CD, Vol. 4 in the series and titled "Gate of the Year", presents a creative compilation of music, structured to take the listener through the seasons of the church year.  As with past releases in the series, each track has a Niagara connection of some sort, with most being recorded for the first time.

Composers represented on the disc include local composer John Butler with his Requiem; Nathaniel Dett, the Chair of the Dept. of Music at Brock University, Matthew Royal; Gail Poulsen of the Niagara Symphony; the late Professor of Music, Ronald Tremain, and others.  Many of these will be performed at the concert tomorrow evening, along with music by Durante and Mozart.

The Avanti Chamber Singers, directed by Harris Loewen, used to be known as the Niagara Vocal Ensemble.  They will be joined by organist Lesley Kingham and musicians from the St. Catharines Chamber Music Society.  The choir is presented by the Department of Music, part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts at Brock University.

Tickets are available at Ryson's Music in downtown St. Catharines, or tomorrow night at the door.  Needless to say, the new CD will also be available for purchase at the concert.

Elsewhere this weekend, I don't often get the chance to write about the ambitious season offered by the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society, but this weekend they are embarking on a special project they call Haydn 68, wherein they will present all of the quartets of Haydn this season, and who for all intents and purposes invented the string quartet.

The first Haydn weekend brings twelve quartets to audiences at the Music Room in Waterloo, all performed by the acclaimed Attacca Quartet.  There are four concerts in all this weekend, presenting three quartets at each concert, at 2 pm Saturday and Sunday afternoon and 8 pm Saturday and Sunday evenings.  There is a whopping discount for attending all four in the weekend, by the way, so keep that in mind.

For tickets, call 1-519-886-1673 or email

Once the weekend is done, we're not done with great theatre and music in Niagara, either.  Next Wednesday, November 20th, Essential Collective Theatre presents Sky Gilbert's An Evening with Lucky Jim Lacroix, featuring Jason Cadieux and Stephanie Jones.

This is Hammer Theatre's production of Gilbert's newest work, an up close and personal look at ex-contract killer Lucky Jim, played by Cadieux, who has agreed to give a talk at the local community centre.    Looks like an interesting show, and if you have seen Gilbert's earlier show CRACk, also presented by ECTheatre, you pretty much know what to expect.

Shows take place at the Sullivan-Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines and are staged Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, with a Sunday Pay-what-you-can matinee at 2 pm.   There is a warning, by the way, adult themes and strong language are part of the show, but hey, if you have been following the Rob Ford saga in Toronto this week, there isn't likely much you haven't already heard.

For tickets visit or pick them up at the door before the show.

Finally, the ENCORE! Professional Concert Series for the Department of Music at Brock, part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts, continues next Friday evening, November 22nd with Night Songs, featuring faculty pianist Karin Di Bella along with guest artists from the Niagara Symphony, Vera Alekseeva on violin and Austin Hitchcock on French horn.  The concert features music by Russian, French and Italian composers from the early 20th century, along with a trio for violin, French horn and piano by Johannes Brahms.

The concert takes place at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University next Friday at 7:30 pm.  You can purchase tickets in advance at the Brock box office or at the door the evening of the concert.

I love the programming offered by the Department of Music at Brock, as it is always so varied and well programmed, so if you have not already done so, you should try to catch at least one of their many concerts offered over the course of the season.

So there you go, no reason to feel the least bit bored this week in Niagara!

November 15th, 2013.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

News from the Stratford Festival

I have been falling behind with my updates on what's been going on in the arts world as of late, so I will do my best to rectify that situation in the coming weeks as I bring you up to date on the news coming out of many of our arts organizations in Niagara and beyond.

The Stratford Festival has been busy lately even though the season is over, as planning is already well underway for next season, and already we are getting updates on a regular basis as to what is coming up next season at Stratford.

The past few seasons Stratford has been running a weekly bus service direct from downtown Toronto to the Festival, and returning after the evening show for a very attractive rate.  It is an interesting option for many people like myself who find it tiring on that long drive home after the theatre in the evening, and other commitments prevent us from staying overnight.  I wish the same service could be offered from here in Niagara, but that likely will never happen.

But it has been announced next season there will be regular bus service provided for theatre-goers travelling in from the Detroit area for a fee of only $ 40 per person.  Considering the amount of gas involved and all the driving, not to mention the Ambassador bridge crossing at Windsor, you can see where that option should prove very attractive indeed.

I don't think I have ever been at Stratford in the summer when I have not run into someone from Michigan state, where the Stratford Festival is almost a religion for some.  I can see this being a very popular run for the Festival.

Speaking of travelling, Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino along with Executive Director Anita Gaffney are both in England right now meeting with counterparts at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

One of the news items coming out of that trip, announced earlier this week, is the fact the Stratford Festival next season will launch an annual series of films of its productions to movie houses around the world, making them the first major theatre company in North America to act on this initiative pioneered by the two British theatrical institutions.

Stratford has a long history of recording their productions for DVD sales in their gift shops, such as the ever-popular Brian MacDonald Gilbert & Sullivan productions of several years ago.  Many Stratford shows over the years have also been filmed for broadcast on television here in Canada, as well.

But now, they will take on the world and show just how special our interpretations of the Bard's works really are and how they measure up on the world stage.  The ultimate goal, according to Cimolino and reported this week in the Globe & Mail, is to stage and then screen the complete works of Shakespeare.  This will give schools across Canada the opportunity to replace their foreign productions of Shakespeare's works with Canadian productions on DVD.

This will no doubt prove to be a win-win for the Festival, as they help to nurture the young theatre goers in Canada so they will hopefully become the subscribers of the future, and showing the films around the world generates more interest in the Festival on an international level.

Now, they won't start filming everything, of course, just select productions in each season at least at first, but it is a start.

Looking at the playbill and casting for next season, released just recently, you can easily see where the filming will begin next season, and the obvious first choice would have to be King Lear, which will feature the return of stage and screen actor Colm Feore in the title role.  He has not been back at the Festival in five years, and his name still has drawing power beyond Canada's borders.  Reliable veteran Stephen Ouimette will play the Fool opposite Feore in Lear, by the way.

Feore will also be appearing as Archer in The Beaux' Stratagem, directed by Cimolino at the Festival Theatre next season.  Also appearing in the cast will be Lucy Peacock, Martha Henry and Mike Shara, so that will be one to watch for next season as well.

Other highlights on the playbill for 2014 include two musicals once again:  the ever-popular Man of La Mancha will be onstage at the Avon Theatre with Tom Rooney and Chilina Kennedy as Cervantes and Aldonza, respectively; and Josh Franklin and Chilina Kennedy pair up for The New Gershwin Musical, Crazy for You, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore at the Festival Theatre.

There will be not one but two productions of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream next season as well.  One will be at the Festival Theatre directed by Chris Abraham and starring Stephen Ouimette as Bottom along with Evan Buliung and Jonathan Goad sharing the roles of Tatania and Oberon, believe it or not, and Chick Reid as Puck along with Tara Rosling as Lysander.

The second production of A Midsummer Night's Dream will be presented as a Chamber Play, directed by Peter Sellars at a location yet to be announced.  There will be a group of four actors playing all of the roles:  Sarah Afful, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstrom and Mike Nadajewski.

The rest of the 2014 playbill will feature Alice, based on Alice Through the Looking-Glass adapted for the stage by James Reaney; Noel Coward's Hay Fever starring Cynthia Dale and Lucy Peacock; Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna in Shakespeare's King John; Seana McKenna playing the title role in Brecht's Mother Courage along with Geraint Wyn Davies and Ben Carlson, directed by Martha Henry; Geraint Wyn Davies and Yanna McIntosh in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra; and newcomer Jenny Young will play Queen Christina in Christina, The Girl King at the Studio Theatre, directed by Vanessa Porteous.

So there you have it.  I'm already excited about next season and this past season only ended last month!  Ah, anticipation...

See you at the theatre!

November 10th, 2013.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

News and notes around Niagara this weekend

Even though we're into the dark days of November in Niagara, we still have lots to look forward to, both indoors and out.  We still have some fall colours to enjoy, for example, and for the time being at least, no snow.

Several arts-related items crossed my desk by way of digital media this week, so let's get to them.

First off, one of the finest local theatre companies around, Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, launches their 9th season in Niagara and their 2nd in downtown Niagara Falls this weekend.  The first showing of Willy Russell's ever popular Shirley Valentine was actually this evening with a preview performance; the show officially opens Friday night at the Seneca Queen Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls and runs through to November 24th.  The story of a housewife who wonders where her life has gone is always a crowd-pleaser, and this new production promises to be no different.

The one-woman show stars Nora McLellan, a theatrical tour de force in her own right and 22-year veteran of the Shaw Festival.  Nora has been nominated four times for Dora awards and will be best remembered in recent years for her amazing performance in the Shaw's production of Gypsy.  The world needs more Nora McLellans!

Anyway, tickets are available for evening and matinee performances by calling the box office at 905-374-7469 or going to

Speaking of the Shaw Festival, it was reported yesterday the 2013 season proved to be a winner both artistically and financially, attracting over 270,000 people, which works out to 71% of capacity, to a total of 744 performances in four theatre spaces.

The ten productions brought in box office revenues of over $ 16 million, the highest ticket sales in The Shaw's history.  That means the audience has grown a respectable 10% over the previous season.

Not surprisingly, the increase came primarily from within Canada, with ticket sales growing 19% in the Golden Horseshoe and almost 15% in Toronto alone.  Audiences from the United States and abroad accounted for one-third of ticket sales, indicating the border issues are still a problem for Canadian tourism.

The detailed financial report on the season will be presented January 31st at The Shaw's Annual General Meeting.  I would think that will be a rather festive event early next year...

Finally, speaking of festive events, and I know many of us are unprepared for the onset of the Christmas season, the annual Winter Festival of Lights kicks off this Saturday afternoon at 2 pm in Queen Victoria Park.  Things get underway with a special tribute to Niagara's Korean veterans, organized in conjunction with the Niagara chapter of the Korean Veterans Association.

But the real fun gets underway once darkness falls as the lights come on and another spectacular season kicks into high gear.  This year, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra will be part of the Opening Festivities in the park, taking the stage at 7:45 for a 15-minute set as the orchestra provides the musical soundtrack to the opening fireworks display.

Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducts the orchestra, and you can imagine the precision involved in timing the orchestra to coincide with the fireworks display, but he assures everyone he can handle it and have fun at the same time.  By the way, the reason their set is so short is due to logistics, really. It will be quite cold up on that stage by Saturday evening, and a lot of those musical instruments are very expensive, so you can't take chances on destroying a musician's livelihood in one evening.  So the set will be short and sweet - and free!

Enjoy all that Niagara has to offer this weekend!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A tale of two pianos

Regular readers of this space might recall I wrote back in February about finally discovering the whereabouts of one of the two pianos that once graced the large studio at CKTB Radio in St. Catharines.  There was back in the day, a full-size concert grand from Steinway & Sons, alongside a smaller but still huge Heintzman grand piano.

In the old days, much of the programming on radio stations was produced live and locally, in studio every day.  That meant studios had to be big enough to hold large groups such as choirs or even small orchestras on occasion.  Many stations had at least one piano and a staff pianist to accompany singers during recitals, or provide musical recitals themselves.  So it was CKTB until the early 60s housed these two massive pianos in an equally massive studio at the front of the building, with one of them played regularly by Clarence Colton, who would play and chat and generally fill the air with an amiable sort of patter you simply never hear on the radio anymore.

I discovered quite by accident earlier this year one of those long-lost pianos resided in a house of an elderly couple in the south end of St. Catharines, and of course I had to investigate.  I contacted the couple and went for a visit on a bright, cold February day.  They bought the smaller of the two pianos, the Heintzman, when the station was renovating the studios back around 1967 if I remember correctly, and at the time it was a mess.  Lots of building materials from the renovations covering it and such; in other words, it was in pretty rough shape.

They bought it, restored it, and now it sits in their living room, painted a nice off white, and it looks simply grand.  They told me at the time they believe this was the piano Clarence Colton played years ago in the studio.  But they also mentioned the fact the piano was badly out of tune, and could I recommend a piano tuner in the area?

Turns out I could, and here is where we pick up the story and bring it to a lovely conclusion.  I had planned to write about this some months ago but life got in the way and of course, I no longer work at CKTB Radio, so the story fell by the wayside.  But I thought now, before I am too far removed from my former employer, I would complete the story of the other missing piano.

The piano tuner I recommended was jazz pianist John Sherwood, who tunes pianos by day and plays jazz on them by night.  I met John years ago when he used to play around town and visit the late, lamented Downtown Fine Music every now and again.

I had his business card so I called him up.  After several missed calls back and forth, we connected back in the spring and I told him the story of the piano in need of tuning, and the fact I was still looking for the larger Steinway & Sons concert grand.  Turns out John knew about the Steinway, and in fact, knew where I could find it.

I was amazed - what luck!  John told me HE owned the missing Steinway, and it resided in his home in north St. Catharines!  In may I made some time on a Saturday afternoon to visit John at his home and finally got a look at the Steinway & Sons piano that sat alongside the Heintzman in the CKTB studios years ago.

John told me he bought the piano from Ridley College, where it must have been moved when it left the CKTB studios back in the 60s.  When he found it, again it was in pretty rough shape, and once he moved it out of Ridley he had to do a full restoration from the ground up.  The end result is nothing short of astounding, as it is quite simply breathtaking.  It is black, huge, and sounds amazing.  It takes up almost one room in his large bungalow.

John also showed me the makings of a home studio he is working on, including a classic Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck like I remember working with at CHFI-FM in Toronto back in the 70s, and a full production-studio quality sound board for mixing musical tracks.  It was still waiting to be set up, but all the pieces were there, it was just up to John to find the time with his busy schedule to finish the job.

But the piano was the reason for the trip and after he gave me an impromptu recital, I took several pictures and off I went, confident I had finally solved the riddle of the missing pianos from the early days of CKTB Radio.

Ah, but there is still one mystery left to solve, although now I likely won't follow up given the fact I no longer work at CKTB anymore, but John seemed to think Clarence Colton used to play the Steinway piano rather than the Heintzman.  Who knows, maybe he played both?  Without investigating further we'll never know, but if you have any input on this or know yourself, drop me a line and let me know.

But for now, the mystery is solved and I can move on to other things...what a fascinating piece of our local broadcasting history in St. Catharines.  And I am proud to say I was a part of that history for 32 wonderful years.

Things change and we move on, but every now and then it is nice to revisit the past and remember something special, and finding those two great pianos qualifies for me as one of those special moments.

Have a great weekend!

November 2nd, 2013.