Saturday, June 28, 2014

Shaw Festival scores a winner with obscure comedy

My reviewing schedule at Shaw is underway at a reduced level this season due to my changed career path, but I am back nonetheless, thrilled to be experiencing some great summer theatre once again.

Earlier this month I was at the Court House Theatre for the St John Hankin comedy The Charity that Began at Home, subtitled A Comedy for Philantropists.  Directed by Shaw Artistic Director Emeritus Christopher Newton, this play defines what the Festival does best:  champion plays by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.

Shaw's plays of course receive pride of place at the Festival, but he is such a larger-than-life figure even today many of his contemporaries have long been forgotten.  All the more reason for the Shaw Festival to dig into the theatrical archives to find rarely-performed gems that help us realize there was more to the early 20th-century in a theatrical sense we should be enjoying and learning from.

St John Hankin, as Newton reminds us in his Director's Notes, was one of the five major playwrights associated with the Royal Court Theatre in London.  Shaw was by far the most famous, but his equally-talented contemporaries who also made up that group included  Harley Granville Barker, John Galsworthy, John Masefield and St John Hankin.

Newton explored Hankin's plays in the 1990s and at the beginning of the new century he decided to take a chance of The Return of the Prodigal, which turned out to be a huge hit at the Festival.  Newton returned a few years ago with another Hankin play, The Cassilis Engagement, which I vividly remember as one of the best plays that season, due in no small part to the magnificent work of the late Goldie Semple in that cast.

This season, Christopher has chosen Hankin's The Charity That Began at Home, an Edwardian comedy that premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1906.  Assembling again a very strong cast and featuring the tasteful designs of William Schmuck, Charity pushes all the right buttons and makes us realize yet again how clever and cutting edge Royal Court productions were at the turn of the last century.

In the play, set at Lady Denison's country house at Priors Ashton, a collection of social misfits come together for a weekend in the country, at the invitation of Lady Denison herself, played with great style by the inimitable Fiona Reid.  Her misguided plan was to bring together under one roof - hers - several people who would never otherwise be invited to such a social gathering for any number of reasons, if only to prove to herself and the rest of her family everyone should be treated with respect and dignity no matter their station in life.

A noble gesture, indeed.  But it soon falls apart as we meet a blowhard General Bonsor, played by Jim Mezon; the chronic complainer Mrs. Horrocks, played by Donna Belleville; the fidgety Mr. Firket of Neil Barclay; and the approving minister Basil Hylton, played by Graeme Somerville.  It is Hylton who encourages Lady Denison in her social philanthropy early on, but being forced to reconsider his values once he too realizes perhaps this was not such a good idea to begin with.

If it is true you can't pick your family but you can pick your friends, there are surely times you would not choose either.  None of these invited guests would be worthy of becoming friends of Lady Denison and her family; her family for their part do her no favours either.  Lady Denison's daughter Margery is being wooed by guest Hugh Verreker, for example.  Julia Course is sweet and fetching as Margery, and presents a nicely human element to the story, but she chooses to overlook Mr. Verreker's shortcomings at least initially.

Lady Denison's sister-in-law, Mrs. Eversleigh, played by Laurie Paton, will have none of the charity being played out here; she sees through most of the characters in the household and tries her darndest to bring Lady Denison to her senses.  Paton is the strict school-teacher we all remember trying to avoid in our childhood.

While The Charity That Began at Home will not be the biggest box office winner at the Shaw Festival this summer, it embodies all that is great about the Festival, with a wonderfully brilliant ensemble cast under the knowing direction of Christopher Newton.  This play predates Noel Coward's Hay Fever by several years, but the humour is just as pointed and biting.  It's a shame Hankin is all but forgotten today.

Kudos to Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival's Artistic Director, and former Artistic Director Christopher Newton for unearthing another theatrical gem for us to enjoy.  No charity needed here; this play rates a strong three out of four stars.

Th Charity That Began at Home continues at the Court House Theatre until October 11th.

June 28th, 2014.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

News and notes on the arts in Niagara

Just a few things crossed my desk this week I thought I would share with you in my mid-week arts blog, covering music and a new book launch this weekend.

One of the more anticipated musical events of the summer season in St. Catharines is the annual SCENE Music Festival, coming up this weekend at Montebello Park.  This is a new venue this year, as clearly the event had outgrown their previous home at Market Square in downtown St. Catharines.

I think Montebello Park will turn out to be a wise choice for the festival, as the central location and larger open-air expanse is ideal for venues such as this.  I know people living in the immediate vicinity might think otherwise, and in fact I count myself as one who does live just a few blocks away from the park, but it is summer, the event is hugely popular, and with just about every other musical event happening now at the park over the summer months, why not SCENE as well?

Anyway, the event runs Saturday and Sunday with single day and weekend passes available at  There are too many musical acts to list here, but some of the bigger names this year include Matthew Good, The Sheepdogs, Marianas Trench, Arkells and Lights.

We can usually hear most of the musical events from our sun room each summer evening, so this weekend will be no different I suspect!

I also received a note from my friends at Primavera Concerts this week about their 10th anniversary season coming up, which in itself I find rather hard to believe.  They have an early-bird special on at the moment through to June 30th, with special pricing for either 4 or 5 concerts next season.

The upcoming season looks quite interesting too, by the way, with a Strauss party with trumpeter Guy Few and pianist Stephanie Mara planned for November 23rd; Patricia Green and harpist Judy Loman January 25th; the group Sonic Escape on February 15th; Quartet Molinari of Montreal on March 15th and the Cecilia String Quartet with cellist Shauna Rolston on May 17th.

Primavera Concerts has proven to be one of the more creative local musical institutions the last decade and they are looking to build on that in the coming years.  I have attended some of their concerts in the past and they consistently deliver an exceptional concert experience.

For more information on the deals being offered until June 30th, go to

Finally, there is a book launch of note this weekend I wanted to mention as well in this space, as it involves a gentleman I have known casually over the years as he and his wife lived just down the street from me for many years.

Author and speaker Jack Veffer will launch his new book, "Science and Religion Is a Match Made in Heaven" this coming Friday evening from 6 to 9 pm at the store his wife operates on James Street in downtown St. Catharines, Design by Catherine.

There will also be a "Meet the Author" session this Saturday from 10 until 2, also at the James Street location.

This is the second book for Mr. Veffer; the first was an autobiographical tome entitled "Through the Eyes of the Child:  Survival of the Holocaust", which told his story as a child-survivor of the holocaust.  That book became a best-seller, which is especially gratifying considering Jack took to writing rather late in life.  But he seems to be a born author, so the second book will be much anticipated, I'm sure.

The new book is rather lighthearted in nature, I'm told, and is based on questions he posed to his learned friends about existence and energy and the work that needs to be done in this existence to reach the soul's ultimate destination, he says.  Should be an interesting read.

So there you go - never a dull moment in Niagara!

June 25th, 2014

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Some random thoughts as the weekend comes to a close

Well, I must apologize first of all for not writing before Sunday evening this weekend, but the entire week has been running away from me since the beginning, and even now I feel I am playing catch up before finally retiring for the night.

I hit a bit of a milestone this past week, and I am almost afraid to talk about it yet, but give me a bit of time and I will come clean in this space.  But for now, some random thoughts on the week just passed and the weekend now wrapping up.

I tweeted this week about something that has been bugging me lately, and I suspect I am not alone.  If you, like me, work in an environment that listens to so-called 'life-rock' stations (I will refrain from noting the call letters of the local station, although being a powerhouse you'll likely know who they are).  This week my endurance ran out for the John Legend song All of Me, a dreary, syrupy effort you know will be the first dance song at weddings for the next couple of years or so.

Don't get me wrong on this:  I have more patience than most since I come from the radio industry and worked in music radio much of my adult life.  But for heaven's sake, there must be something better out there than this piece of music...PLEASE!  Once or twice you hear it and okay, it isn't bad, but when you hear it several times a day, well, I just about want to toss the radio out the window.

It begs the question, when is it too much of a good thing, and is this as good as our music is going to get from here on in?  If so, let me off at the next commercial break, as I can't take it anymore.

There, I've gotten that off my chest; now on to other things...

This weekend the first Niagara Integrated Film Festival was held at several venues throughout the region, in particular at the Landmark Cinemas at The Pen.  It was a four-day affair with some pretty innovative programming and great opportunities to see films (and in particular documentaries) you would not otherwise have available in this area.

I was only able to catch one of the films tied in to the Festival, a documentary on the birth of the co-operative food market movement early in the last century.  It is an idea that has been refined and realigned for a new generation, and co-op food stores are now springing up throughout North America again.  A new one opened just outside of Buffalo and one in Hamilton recently, and we are hard at work bringing our very own, the Garden City Food Co-Op to fruition hopefully by 2015.

The film was screened Friday evening at the Niagara Artists Centre on St. Paul Street and I must say, even though the NAC venue is a small one, the place was packed to the rafters, and many of those in attendance are already founding members of the local co-op.  Bodes well for both the future of the Garden City Food Co-Op and by extension, the Niagara Integrated Film Festival.

This is just the kind of innovative, forward-thinking programming we need in the Region, especially with new venues for showing films coming online locally in the near future.  The Niagara Integrated Film Festival is apparently the brainchild of Bill Marshall, the man who founded the Toronto Film Festival long before it got all highbrow and snooty.

The numbers are not in as of this writing, but I suspect the first Niagara Integrated Film Festival will certainly not be the last.  We're on to something here, so let's nurture it and show we have an appetite for something more than just rom-coms and Disney family fare.  Congratulations to all involved in putting on a great event this weekend; take a bow, people, you deserve it!

By the way, if you want to know more about the Garden City Food Co-Op, go to their website at, or find them on Facebook.  We need YOU!

Finally, I have taken note of the return of the pedestrian mall in downtown St. Catharines earlier this month, on a stretch of James Street now closed off to vehicular traffic from King Street to the entrance to Market Square.  Last year you might recall, it didn't get off the ground until August and lasted until October.

This year everyone is better prepared and the entire summer is being given over to the pedestrian mall idea with an eye towards making it permanent some time in the future.  But for now we have to make do with pavement underfoot and some nice tables and chairs to sit on.

The city has done a great job sprucing up the area a little more this year, with nice park benches and patio umbrellas now installed, and lots of planters as well.  It really is a nice little refuge in the heart of the city, and this Tuesday the Civic Square summer season will officially kick off with several performances throughout the day by Canadian guitarist Pavlo, who will be playing at noon, 5 and 6:15 pm this Tuesday.

The Pavlo shows are organized by the new Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines, who have booked a variety of shows for the new outdoor space throughout the summer.  Kudos to them for getting things on track and making the Civic Square a happening place this summer.  The Tuesday concerts dovetail nicely with the return of the evening farmer's market at Market Square next door, which is back for the summer season as well.

Just two more reasons to come downtown and enjoy what's happening in the heart of St. Catharines.  And the best part is this is only going to get better!

June 22nd, 2014.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Summer music festivals gearing up in Ontario

It's that time of year I want to hop in the car and head to a wonderful Ontario destination to take in some great music and ambiance.  Yes, I'm speaking of course of the summer music festival season, which is less than a month away in most Ontario locales.  So let's take a look at some of my favourites and why you might want to make the trip.

Locally, the 16th season of Music Niagara kicks off July 12th and runs through to August 10th at several locations in and around the Old Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Music Niagara always programs a wide variety of concerts ranging from classical to jazz, vocal to choral music in churches, smaller venues and right out in the open, such as at Simcoe Park in the heart of the town.

This year local favourites Quartetto Gelato perform July 12th, and one of the finest choral groups anywhere, The Elora Festival Singers, perform a supper concert August 2nd on the grounds of St. Mark's Anglican Church.  There will also be the customary jazz concerts on patios around town along with a wide array of local talent performing.

Music Niagara has always had a strong local presence, and is very deserving of your time and attention again this summer.  For tickets and full concert listings, check out their website at, or call 1-800-511-7429.

Just down the QEW the 27th season of the Brott Music Festival gets underway in just a few days, June 19th to be exact, featuring a performance of the Mozart Requiem.  It is always one of the first to get going, and one of the last to wrap up, too.  This year's edition ends August 14th with a Grand Finale concert featuring a ballet performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Since its inception in 1988, the Brott Music Festival, under the direction of Artistic Director Boris Brott, has grown to become the largest non-profit orchestral music festival in Canada, and the only one with a full-time professional orchestra-in-residence, the National Academy Orchestra.  The orchestra pairs talented young musicians with older, more established mentor musicians and the idea seems to work quite well, with many of those same young musicians now holding down chairs in major orchestras across the country.

For more on the Brott Music Festival, held a venues throughout Hamilton and Burlington, check out their website at, or call 1-888-475-9377.

Out in Stratford, the annual Stratford Summer Music festival gets underway July 14th and runs through to August 24th this year.  This is always one of the most ambitious and creative music festivals around, holding concerts in churches and other locations around town, as well as on the Avon River with the popular Bargemusic concerts, and new this year will be something called Bicycle Opera.  We'll have to see what that's all about!

Artists this season range from jazz artist Jane Bunnett to the Celtic Blue Highlanders and just about every other musical ensemble you can think of.  I don't know how much of an opportunity I will have to get down to Stratford this season, but I would love to make time for some of the Stratford Summer Music events this year.

For more information, check out their website at, or call 1-866-288-4313.

Nearby in picturesque Elora, one of the best music festivals in all of Ontario kicks off their 35th season July 11th with lots to celebrate.  The Elora Festival runs through to July 27th this year and features everything from a kids camp to organ recitals to large-scale concerts in the wonderfully rustic Gambrel Barn on the edge of town.

I look forward to going to Elora every year for their festival, and this year I can't resist two concerts at the Gambrel Barn, the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, who will be performing Sunday July 13th at 4 pm.  One of the top five choirs in the world, the Choir of Trinity College will be performing music ranging from Byrd and Tallis to more modern composers like Part and Lauridsen.  The second concert I plan to attend is the Last Night of The Proms concert Saturday evening, July 26th.  Noel Edison and the choir and orchestra will lead the audience in all the usual crowd-pleasers, from Jerusalem to Rule Britannia and of course, Land of Hope and Glory.  I still have my tie depicting the British flag, so I might just have to bring that with me on the trip!

Also featured this year will be The Brodsky Quartet, The Gryphon Trio and the opera father-daughter team of Richard and Lauren Margison on July 19th.  As I have mentioned in past years, always try to make time too for a Sunday morning visit to the home church of the Elora Festival Singers, St. John's Church in the heart of town, and attend the church service.  The music and the venue are magnificent, and I always come out feeling refreshed and invigorated.

For more on the Elora Festival, go to their website at, or call 1-519-846-0331.

If you plan to drive north to Muskoka this season, why not plan to visit Parry Sound for the 35th annual Festival of the Sound?  The festival runs from July 18th to August 10th this year and many performances take place at the Charles W. Stockley Centre for the Performing Arts.  Artistic Director James Campbell has programmed a wide variety of events this year including the customary concert cruises on the water.  One of the highlights has to be the final concert of the season August 10th, featuring The Elmer Iseler Singers along with orchestra and soloists in a performance of Beethoven's majestic 9th Symphony.

For more information, go to, or call 1-866-364-0061.

Finally, if you are heading to the nation's capital this year, the 20th annual Chamberfest Ottawa gets underway July 24th and continues until August 7th.  The proper title is actually the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, and it began in 1994, growing every year since.  Performances this year include the Don Byron Quintet with special guest Divine Brown on July 25th and Shakespeare's Songbook with The Toronto Consort July 26th.  Other performances include the Cecilia String Quartet, the Rosebud Chamber Players and Sondra Radvanovsky in recital.

For more information, go to, or call 1-613-234-6306.

I will be updating my website calendar page in the coming weeks with all this information as well, and you go find that at, and click on the Calendar page at the top to find out what's coming up in Niagara and beyond.

Enjoy some great music this summer!

June 14th, 2014.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Weekend events worth noting

Although the weather might make you want to stay home this weekend and get some work done in the yard, you can celebrate your fine work by spending part of the weekend celebrating the arts as well, and I have a few events this weekend to keep in mind if you are so inclined, plus one to mark on your calendar for next weekend as well.

This first weekend of June sees Essential Collective Theatre present ECT's Playwrights Weekend at the Sullivan Mahoney Court House Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.  The event, held in collaboration with the Niagara Literary Arts Festival, begins Friday evening at 8 with solo play readings by local playwright/performers in a pay-what-you-can format.

On Saturday afternoon from 2 to 4, a workshop for playwrights will be held, including a panel discussion on the strategies and challenges when writing and producing.  Panelists include noted Fringe artist T.J. Dawe, Pat the Dog Theatre Creation's Artistic Director, Lisa O'Connell and ECT's own Jason Cadieux.  This is a free event at the Sullivan Mahoney Theatre.

Saturday evening sees two events planned for the Playwrights Weekend:  from 6 to 7:30 there will be poetry readings with Chuck Grabbe, Lesley Goodyear, Kevin McCabe and Javier Arizpe Zamora; at 8 pm there will be a performance of Medicine, written and performed by T.J. Dawe.  Both these events are also at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre, with the poetry readings free to attend, and the performance of Medicine a paid admission event, with tickets available at the door.  Tickets are $ 25.00 or $ 20.00 for students and seniors.

I received a note earlier today from Margaret Gay, the Artistic Director of Gallery Players of Niagara, and they have had to move the venue for this weekend's concert from their usual home at St. Barnabas Church to Silver Spire United Church on Sunday afternoon.

The concert, featuring Beethoven and Schubert piano trios, will be presented by David Louie, Julie Baumgartel and Margaret Gay.  They performed the same concert earlier this week in Kitchener and reports are the performances were very well received.

The problem here in Niagara is a concert of piano trios requires, among other things, a piano, and the one at St. Barnabas had to be removed for some repair work and is currently out of commission.  So what to do?  Move the concert venue, that's what.

Too bad in a way, as St. Barnabas is one of the most acoustically perfect churches in the Region, and I love the cozy atmosphere there.  But it is easier to move the concert than move another piano in for the afternoon, so that is what Gallery Players has chosen to do.

They are not travelling far away, though, just over to St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines to Silver Spire United Church.  That's the former St. Paul Street United, which merged with Welland Avenue United Church a few years ago.  It also has a warm acoustic sound, plus an excellent sound system, and it is also wheelchair accessible, which is always a bonus.

I have spent many an evening at Silver Spire, both in the audience for numerous concerts, and more than once hosting the St.Catharines Idol competition there several years ago.  Other than no air conditioning, it is a nice place for a concert.

Obviously, not everyone will be aware of the venue change, so Gallery Players will have someone stationed at St. Barnabas to direct people to the new venue on Sunday afternoon, and just to be on the safe side, they will delay the concert by half an hour to 2:30 to accommodate any late-comers before the concert actually begins.

If you need more information, go to their website, or call them at 905-468-1525.  You should also be able to pick up tickets at the door on Sunday afternoon, by the way.

Now, also this weekend, an event is happening in Toronto I thought you might want to know about, if perhaps you are there now or plan to visit on the weekend.  This comes by way of my artistically-inclined neighbour, Sandy Middleton, who says she will be back at the annual Riverdale Art Walk this weekend at Jimmy Simpson Park in Toronto's Leslieville/Riverdale area.  The event runs both Saturday and Sunday this weekend from 11 to 6 both days.

An art walk sounds like a great way to spend a spring afternoon in Toronto, and the Riverdale area is a part of Toronto with great history attached to it.  I remember growing up in Toronto and going to the old Riverdale Zoo years ago, in fact.

Sandy, a gifted photographer, will have some new photographic pieces on plywood and metal at the show as well as some mixed media encaustics and her Little Creatures art block series.

The Art Walk is this weekend, it's free and is open to the public, so if you have the time, it should be well worth the visit.  If you want to find out more about Sandy's creative work, go to her website at

Finally, next Friday (Friday the 13th, in fact!), the St. Catharines Chamber Music Society will be presenting a concert titled Severe Wonders at Covenant Christian Reformed Church at 278 Parnell Road in northeast St. Catharines.  The concert begins at 7:30 pm and tickets should be available at the door.  For more information go to the St. Catharines Chamber Music Society Facebook page.

Have a great weekend!

June 5th, 2014.