Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Christmas conundrum

I will admit it.  I have a great deal of trouble finding the Christmas spirit these days.  Maybe because I am getting older, but I think it is more a reflection of how busy and over-commercialized the season has become.

I know it seems to have always been over-commercialized, but these days it just seems to be all the more so, when you go into a store or the shopping mall in October and they already have the piped in Christmas music going full tilt.  Geez, the Halloween decorations are not even down yet!

So it is with trepidation I admit to finding it more and more difficult to find the spirit of Christmas, or whatever your personal celebration at this time of year might happen to be.  I'm there now, and in full Christmas music listening mode these days.   Right now listening to one of my all time favourite classic Christmas recordings, The Glorious Sound of Christmas with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.  This is an early-60s recording with arrangements by Arthur Harris that still sound great today, and I am all too happy to supply you with a copy of the CD at a great price through

But I defiantly hold off on listening to Christmas music as much as possible until the first of December.  Why?  Simply because we get overloaded with it every year, and I want to at least try to keep it fresh sounding and enjoyable until Boxing Day.

Same goes for the rituals of Christmas as we know them today.  I may hit a Christmas bazaar or two in November, but it isn't until December I really pay attention to the season and begin my Christmas shopping.  When I do, I am quick and methodical in my pursuit of the perfect Christmas gifts, and make sure it is all done early.  I finished today, in fact, and have no intentions of going anywhere near a shopping mall until after Christmas.

Several years ago I tried avoiding the usual shopping haunts altogether and instead shopped locally, preferably in small, locally-owned shops in our city centres, and I must admit it has erased a lot of the stress we put on ourselves at this time of the year.  I actually enjoyed chatting with owners of shops I actually go into the rest of the year, and took great pleasure in finding things you just won't find in the mall.

So that's what I do every year now.  This year I visited shops in downtown Port Colborne, downtown Thorold, downtown St. Catharines and even Port Dalhousie.*  Every visit concluded with a smile and the knowledge I contributed to the local economy rather than some global conglomerate with little or no ties to Niagara.

Still and all, I find it difficult to actually find the spirit of Christmas the rest of the time.  I certainly didn't find it the last couple of weeks trying to drive around Niagara, as I encountered so many impatient motorists who should know better and would do well to take a deep breath and just slow down.

I also found it difficult to find in the several lineups I found myself in from time to time, standing near others obviously fuming over losing precious time in a lineup.  Again, take a deep breath and just try to relax.  You will get everything done, and even if you don't the world likely won't end as a result.

I did, however, find plenty of Christmas spirit the last Saturday in November when I and several of my Canada Post colleagues collected Letters for Santa along the parade route for the Thorold Santa Claus parade.  Just seeing those hopeful faces as they handed you their personally-written letters could not help but melt the heart of the most jaded person.

Just last Sunday evening I attended a fabulous Christmas concert at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, part of the Christmas Tidings Ontario tour by Ensemble Vivant, the wonderful chamber group fronted by an old friend, Catherine Wilson.  Catherine and I met over 20 years ago now and have kept in touch ever since, and I find that quite rare in the entertainment world where an artist will not only recognize you but actually know you from one visit to the next.

Catherine managed to take some of the traditional, hackneyed Christmas music and breath new life into them in semi-formal dress.  Arranger Rick Wilkins provided most of the charts for the concert, and each and every one of them was polished to a high lustre, free of the gaudy tinsel and garland others dress the tunes up with.

It was a pleasure to hear Ensemble Vivant actually enjoy the music they were playing, which truth be told, they have been playing together for quite some time now.  But you would never know it with their fresh approach to classics such as Greensleeves (What Child is This?) Silent Night and even It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.  Add to that the young and innocent voices of the Chorus Niagara Children's Choir and for me, Christmas was beginning to sound enjoyable again.

The tour is continuing as we speak, so if you see Ensemble Vivant's Christmas Tidings tour coming to your community, I suggest you check your Grinchly heart at the door and enter a world of beauty and youthful optimism.

So now I am almost ready for the season.  I say almost because in my line of work, delivering the mail for Canada Post means we are busier than ever at this time of year, and I anticipate the coming week to be very busy and heavy with plenty of last-minute parcels and Christmas cards to deliver.  That will mean long days, weary nights, and occasionally a screw-up that will make you shake your head in desperation.  But it will also involve people smiling at the door as you deliver their cards, letters and parcels, and even an occasional gift from those thankful for services rendered throughout the year.

Yes, Christmas can get you down.  But I have found if I look beyond the commercialization of the season and just dig a little deeper, I will be richly rewarded with the treasures of the season at hand.  I suggest you do the same if you suffer, like me, the anxiety that comes around this time of year.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to one all all, and let's meet back in this space one last time before Christmas actually arrives.

Have a great weekend!

December 17th, 2016.

* For the record, this is a partial list of the shops and businesses I visited this year, all of whom provide a warm welcome and unique gifts you would want to give on Christmas morning:

Arlies Flowers & Gifts, Port Colborne
Figg Street Co., Thorold
Stems Etc., St. Catharines
The British Boutique, St. Catharines
St. Joseph's Bakery, St. Catharines
St. Catharines Downtown Farmer's Market

Saturday, December 3, 2016

It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas...

I must admit I am a bit of a slow starter when it comes to delving into my Christmas music library.  Though extensive, I usually wait until December before I start pulling out my favourites to listen to again.  I just can't get into the spirit of the season until December, no matter what the merchants might otherwise wish.

So it was on December 1st I started listening to some of my evergreen favourites and feeling a little bit warm and fuzzy inside.  But to experience the extreme warm and fuzzies, you have to get out there and experience some live music with some like-minded souls.

Fortunately right now there's a wealth of concerts and events coming up sure to fire up the holiday magic for even the most jaded listener.  Herewith a look at a few of my favourite things coming up this week, beginning with tonight...

The Brock University Choirs directed by Harris Loewen presents a concert entitled Laudate:  Praise! tonight at 7:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

Along with guest instrumentalists, the choirs will perform seasonal and other choral selections by a number of composers including several from Niagara, including Blake, Butler, Loewen, Phelan and Royal.  Many of those names will be familiar to anyone following the Niagara choral music scene over the years.

The concert, part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts Viva Voce! choral series, is very affordably priced at $15 for adults and only $10 for students and seniors, and only $5 for those connected to the eyeGo high school program.  You can pick up tickets at the door or in advance by calling the box office at the PAC at 905-688-0722.

Two other concerts with the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts come up this Tuesday at the PAC as well.  The final RBC Foundation Music@Noon recital for the fall season takes place Tuesday at noon in the Cairns Recital Hall, and it is absolutely free of charge.  This one will feature piano and guitar students from the School of Fine & Performing Arts.  And Tuesday evening at 7:30 The Sounds of Music will come alive in Partridge Hall.  That's the title of the concert featuring the University Wind Ensemble from Brock's Department of Music, conducted by Zoltan Kalman.

Billed as "an evening of brilliant works", the concert will include works by Verdi, Richard Rodgers, Frank Ticheli, a World Premiere by Michael Kositsky, and the ever-popular Trumpeter's Lullaby featuring soloist Graham Young.  There will also be a number of Christmas selections featuring the children's choir "Enchorus" directed by Catherine Richardson.

Seating is by general admission and tickets are only $10 for adults and $5 for children 14 and under or those participating in the eyeGo program.  It's totally free for current students of the MIWSFPA with a valid student ID card.

Sunday afternoon up in Guelph the Guelph Chamber Choir presents their annual Carols for Christmas concert at St. George's Anglican Church at 2:30 pm.  St. George's is one of the truly magnificent churches in all of Ontario with an warm ambiance and lots of old wood and marble.  It is a joy to hear choral music there, and you'll hear a wealth of it tomorrow as the choir is joined by the Winter Trio, made up of Sharlene Wallace on harp, Ben Grossman on hurry-gurdy and percussion and Ron Korb on flute.

There will be traditional and not-so-traditional seasonal music along with readings appropriate for the season featuring a number of readers from the community.  Tickets are available now by calling 519-763-3000 or you can pick them up at the door tomorrow afternoon.

Next weekend a couple of family-friendly Christmas concerts will take place at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, beginning with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra's first Classical Family concert of the new season.  Entitled A Symphony of Stories, the performance will feature the NSO conducted by Bradley Thachuk along with narrators William Vickers and Karen Wood.  They'll present a couple of very popular children's classics, Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and William Blake's perennial favourite The Snowman.

The concert will take place in Partridge Hall at the PAC on Saturday and Sunday afternoon with both start times at 2:30 pm.  Pick up tickets at the door or call the PAC box office in advance at 905-688-0722.

Finally, the Christmas Tidings Tour is in full-swing across Ontario and comes to the PAC next Sunday evening at 7:30 pm.  The concert features Ensemble Vivant led by Toronto-based pianist Catherine Wilson, who have performed together for over 25 years now.  They are well-known for their chamber music work across the country and were referred to by the Toronto Star as "Canada's Chamber Music Treasure."

It will most certainly be a holiday-themed show, so be prepared to become un-Grinchified next Sunday night at the PAC.  The addition of local children's choirs for the concerts wherever they perform pretty much guarantees that.

I've known Catherine for a lot of years now, having met in Elora about 1991 when Catherine was giving a recital for the late, lamented Guelph Spring Festival.  We kept in touch over the years since then and renewed acquaintances a couple of years ago when she performed at Brock as part of the ENCORE! music performance series hosted by the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.

Catherine is coming to town with her group and I am especially looking forward to the visit!  You can call the PAC box office for tickets at 905-688-0722, and in fact if you are a Groupon fan they have a sweet deal available right now, as you can get half-price tickets to the concert through Groupon and then picking them up at the PAC box office.

So there you go - a wealth of concerts that won't break the bank this holiday season.  Even the Grinch could appreciate that!

Have a great weekend!

December 3rd, 2016.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Lots to see and do in Niagara this week

As usual, November means lots of concerts and theatre-related events are on the go, many of which often have a holiday theme to them.  While I am trying to hold off on listening to any Christmas music until the start of December, that is increasingly difficult once I leave my office and go into practically any other public space.

Still and all, there is lots to see and do this coming week on the music and theatre scene locally, so let's look at a few examples you can experience for yourself and perhaps you too will be able to avoid the holiday music crush just a little while longer...

The ever-popular community-based theatre organization Garden City Productions opened their fall show last evening at the Mandeville Theatre at Ridley College.  It's a bit of a departure from the traditional musical theatre norm for the troupe:  Monty Python's Spamalot, which as the promotional material explains, is "A new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Many find anything to do with Monty Python to be uproariously funny; I tend to run hot and cold on the British humour, but friends of mine who have already seen the show say this is one very funny production.  John McHenry is the director and choreographer and John-Luke Anderson is handling music director duties.

Spamalot continues Friday and Saturday evenings through to December 3rd with Sunday matinee performances at 2 starting tomorrow and the next two Sunday afternoons.  For tickets and more information, go to www.GCP.TIX.COM or call 905-682-1353.

One of the finest examples of local chamber music is Gallery Players of Niagara, based out of Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The concerts are always inventive and the musicians often change with the concerts, so you get a wide variety of musical styles to suit most every taste.

Their new season kicks off tomorrow afternoon at 2 at Silver Spire United Church on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  That's one of their performance venues; others include Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, depending on the concert.

Sunday's performance is entitled Bohemians in Brooklyn and it's described as "a potent mix of cabaret, social history, very juicy gossip, glorious music and all parts fun."  With a description like that, it should come as no surprise the concert is headed up by Tom Allen, the host of Shift on CBC Radio 2, who performs on trombone as well as narrating the concert.  He's joined by Bryce Kulak on vocals and piano; Lori Gemmell on vocals, harp and guitar; and the one and only Patricia O'Callaghan on vocals and percussion.

This should be an enlightening and enjoyable afternoon of music and conversation, so if you feel the need to get out of the house, I can't think of a better place to be on a cold November Sunday afternoon.  For tickets, go to or call 905-468-1525.

The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts kicked off their Viva Voce! Choral Series tonight along with the Walker String Ensemble in north St. Catharines, but there is still plenty of time to catch the next RBC Foundation Music@Noon recital at the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  The Tuesday noon-hour recitals feature both students and faculty from the Department of Music at Brock's Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts and run through to the end of the school year in the spring.

This Tuesday, November 22nd the Voice students will take to the stage at the PAC, followed on November 29th by the Instrumental students.  The final recital before Christmas break will be on December 6th when Piano and Guitar students perform.

No tickets are required and the recitals, just under an hour in length are absolutely free of charge.

Finally, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra presents their second Masterworks concert next Sunday November 27th at 2:30 in Partridge Hall at the PAC, with a concert entitled The Art of Passacaglia.  The title derives from the first piece on the programme, Oskar Morawetz' Passacaglia on a Bach Chorale.  Also on the programme will be the Brahms Symphony No. 4 and the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin joining the NSO conducted by Bradley Thachuk.

In addition to the music, the annual Silent Auction will be held in the lobby with lots of holiday gift ideas, all helping to support the NSO.  For tickets call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

So there you go - lots of entertainment without a single Christmas carol in the bunch.  That is no easy feat in late November!

Enjoy your week.

November 19th, 2016.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Friday night in downtown St. Catharines with some great music

It had been awhile since I had attended a performance at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, save for a Tuesday noon-hour recital a couple of weeks ago.  So when the invitation came in to attend the season opener for the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts Encore! Professional Concert Series, I jumped at the chance.

This series never fails to impress me with the breadth of talent from all areas of music, based either locally or on tour from elsewhere.  Each and every performance is of a uniformly high calibre, and I can't think of a single performance I've attended that was not in some way memorable.

What does trouble me, however, is the lack of public support for the concert series.  I've written about this before, when the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts was still based up at Brock, and I noted at the time the concert series should attract a wider audience once it moves down the hill along with the rest of the arts featured at Brock.

There is more aggressive marketing of the concerts now, as part of both the Marilyn I. Walker School themselves and the umbrella marketing of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, where the concerts are held now.  But still, I see mostly students at Brock in the audience, and that's a shame.

Oh sure, the public is there alright, but still not in the numbers we'd like to see.  Perhaps in time that audience will grow, and I hope it does.  These are really enjoyable, affordably-priced concerts you can attend right in the heart of downtown St. Catharines at a pristine new venue.

Last evening, for example, the series kicked off with the recently-formed Walker String Quartet, named of course after the Walker School next door, along with clarinet virtuoso Zoltan Kalman.  Kalman, along with the rest of the members of the Walker String Quartet, are all members of the Niagara Symphony along with handling other musical assignments elsewhere in the province.  The quartet is made up of Vera Alekseeva and Anna Hughes on violin, Andrew Simard on viola, and Gordon Cleland who is Principal cellist with the Niagara Symphony.

The group performed the String Quartet in D minor by Haydn, and were joined by Zoltan Kalman for two quintets, the Clarinet Quintet in B minor by Brahms and the ever-popular Clarinet Quintet in A major by Mozart.  All were presented with style and elegance; nothing fancy but certainly strong, nuanced performances across the board.

The next concert in the Encore! Professional Concert Series will see the Rondeau Brass Quintet with Laura Thomas on percussion performing January 20th; The Canadian Jazz Scene with John Sherwood on February 10th; and the piano duo of Anagnoson & Kinton on March 10th.  Tickets to all these performances are available by calling the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722.

I do want to add a few asides on my experience last evening, all of them positive, I might add.  Once again, hearing music in Partridge Hall is a wonderful experience, and I am looking forward to hearing the full forces of the Niagara Symphony in their new home sometime this season.  Up until now most of the performances I've attended have been smaller ensembles and the sound has been exceptional.

Although I noted one of the stage lights appeared to burn out during the performance last evening (rather strange to have that happen so soon) the venue is everything you could want in a first-rate concert hall of this size.

I also noted in the lobby at intermission the PAC now has several varieties of tea for sale along with coffee.  That's an oversight I lamented last season when I first attended a performance there.  Not everyone is a coffee drinker and I appreciate the powers that be noting and correcting that issue.  I also quite appreciate the gentle yet obvious bell system for calling you in to the hall for the rest of the performance.  It isn't jarring like some are; rather refined I'd say.  It was a nice surprise.

Now, I recall at some point there was talk of a proper marquee outside the PAC that was still to come.  Is that still a go?  I have not see or heard anything about it since, and it would be an important addition to the facade of the PAC.

Finally, although people I saw hunting for a parking spot close by the theatre might feel otherwise, it was wonderful to see downtown alive with people attending so many different events in our city core on a Friday night.  There were events in at least three of the PAC venues last night and the Niagara Ice Dogs were playing at the Meridian Centre down the street, so parking was certainly at a premium if you chose not to use the city-owned parking garages.  But hey, the parking is there, and now we pay the price for a vibrant and active downtown.  You can't have everything!

So all in all, it was a great night out.  For me, a seven-minute walk from my house and world-class performances almost every week of the year.  What more can you want?

Have a great weekend!

November 5th, 2016.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A busy week in the arts coming up

As October prepares to transition into November, there are plenty of reasons to stay inside and enjoy some great music, theatre and dance in the coming week, both here in Niagara and beyond.  So let's take a look at a few of the highlights.

This weekend the Elora Festival Singers kick off their winter season at their home base, St. John's Church in Elora on Sunday afternoon.  The concert, entitled Valiant Hearts, pays tribute to the valour of Canadians here in Canada and elsewhere in the world.  With Remembrance Day coming up soon, this is a perfect way to remember and honour those who have served so well over the years.

I was at St. John's Church a couple of weeks ago and it is still one of the nicest, most welcoming churches you'll find anywhere.  For tickets, call the Elora Festival Singers box office at 519-846-0331 or toll free, 1-888-747-7550.

The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts in downtown St. Catharines has a couple of musical events coming up this week you will want to attend.  The first is the Tuesday Music@Noon recital in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  These recitals by faculty and students at the school of fine arts are always free and from what I can see, very well attended.

This Tuesday November 1st the recital will feature piano, vocal and instrumental students and it begins promptly at noon.

On Friday evening, the Encore! Professional Concert Series gets underway with the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts welcoming the Walker String Quartet to Partridge Hall at the PAC.  The Quartet, made up of Vera Alekseeva, Anna Hughes, Gordon Cleland and Andree Simard, are joined for this concert by Zoltan Kalman, the Department of Music's clarinet instructor at Brock.

The concert begins at 7:30 Friday evening and will feature music by Brahms, Mozart and Haydn.  For tickets, call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

The Hot Ticket series at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre has a couple of performances lined up this week as well.  Proartedanza, founded by former National Ballet of Canada dancer and choreographer Roberto Campanella will present a programme featuring two works, Diversion and Fearful Symmetries.

Diversion features choreography by Robert Glumbek and is described as an explosive, high-energy work; Fearful Symmetries, choreographed by Campanella himself, is actually a World Premiere.  It explores the choreographer's experience as an immigrant to Canada in juxtaposition with the current generation of young artists influenced by urban aesthetics and pop culture.

Proartdanza performs Wednesday night at 7:30 in Partridge Hall.

The following night the same hall will play host to the first of the season's Classic Albums Live concerts, this time paying tribute to The Band - The Last Waltz.  The film documented The Band's seminal farewell concert, of course, which many in the area still remember fondly.

The concert begins at 7:30 on November 3rd at Partridge Hall, and tickets to these and all the Hot Ticket concerts are available by calling the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

And next weekend choral music is front and centre both here and in Guelph.  Here, Chorus Niagara kicks off their new season at Partridge Hall at the PAC with a performance of the magnificent Mendelssohn oratorio Elijah, with Robert Cooper conducting.

Chorus Niagara is the Niagara Region's premiere symphonic chorus, performing classic choral masterpieces, new commissions, modern and even seldom-heard works.

The season opener for Chorus Niagara is next Saturday, November 5th at 7:30 pm.  Tickets are available by calling the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

And the Guelph Chamber Choir also performs next Saturday night at the River Run Centre in downtown Guelph, with a performance of the popular African Sanctus by David Fanshawe.  The work brings cultures together through a fusion of recorded African music, percussion, live choir and rock band.  Also on the programme will be Gary Diggins' Musical Postcards of Africa with soprano Sheila Dietrich.

Tickets to the performance are available by calling the River Run box office at 519-763-3000.

Have a great week!

October 29th, 2016.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

An Artful day in Niagara

Since I have another rather light week for delivering mail, as in no work as of yet this week, I have been taking advantage of the down time to experience some of the pleasures I don't often get a chance to enjoy when the workload is pretty steady.  Today that included attending a couple of arts-related events in St. Catharines.

Last summer you might recall the first season of The Foster Festival took place in downtown St. Catharines at the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  It is the first-ever festival devoted entirely to the work of Canada's greatest and most prolific living playwright, Norm Foster.  The nine-week season included three Foster plays, including one World Premiere in August to wrap up the season.

The season started a little slower than expected, I think, as people got used to a theatre festival in the summertime in downtown St. Catharines.  After all, it has been a long while since theatre of any kind took place over the summer months in the city core.  As The Foster Festival chugged along during its inaugural season, it indeed pick up steam and people were talking about the high quality of the performances and just how nice it is to go out on a summer evening and have a nice dinner followed by some great live theatre.

This is what downtown St. Catharines is all about now, and not just in the summer months, either.  The PAC and the neighbouring Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts are both offering plenty of reasons to come downtown all season long.  And just down the street at the Meridian Centre
entertainment of a different sort plays out courtesy the Niagara Ice Dogs and various road shows coming through town.

So today, many arts supporters gathered at Brock University's Rodman Hall on St. Paul Crescent to hear what is in store next season for the 2nd instalment of The Foster Festival.  It's safe to say you can plan to laugh at regular intervals next summer at the PAC.

While this past season saw one World Premiere, next season will see two.  The first, Screwball Comedy, opens June 21st and runs through July 7th.  The story is set in 1938 and centres around Mary Hayes, a budding reporter trying to break into the largely male-dominated world of newspapers.

The second play of the season will be Norm Foster's Old Love, a play he wrote about 7 or so years ago, and it will run from July 12th to the 28th.  The two main characters in Old Love, Bud and Molly, meet up at her husband's funeral and things just sort of grow from there.

The third and final play of the season will be the second World Premiere, Lunenburg, which is being described as a "work in progress".  In other words, Norm is still writing it so we don't have a lot of details on this one yet.  But we do know it opens August 2nd and will run to August 18th.

The Foster Festival is headed up by Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and Executive Director Emily Oriold, and today they both expressed their gratitude for the support offered both by the City of St. Catharines and citizens of the city who have come together to show their support for the fledgling festival.

Some said it couldn't be done.  But they did it, and with style, too.  The productions last summer were exceptionally well done, and there is little doubt the festival will be a summer staple in Niagara for years to come.

You can already buy your tickets to next summer's shows by calling the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.  More details on the upcoming season can be found by going to

Speaking of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, I took advantage of the free time today to attend the third Music@Noon recital sponsored by the RBC Foundation in the Cairns Recital Hall at the PAC.  Every Tuesday at noon through the Brock school year, faculty and/or students in the Department of Music at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts come over to the PAC to perform a free recital over the noon-hour.

Today, Patricia Dydnansky on flute, Colin Maier on oboe and Karin Di Bella on piano presented a delightful programme of largely trio pieces by Berlioz, Bach, Doing, Delibes and Franz Doppler.  The whole concert lasted about 40 minutes, and I was happy to see a very well-attended event once again.

This is a wonderful opportunity to do something different over your lunch hour if you happen to be downtown anyways, and it is absolutely free.  What more could you want?

Next week November kicks off with a recital by piano, vocal and instrumental students from the Department of Music.  The fall season runs through to December 6th, with the winter season starting up January 24th and running through to April 4th.

For a complete list of all the concerts and other events with the Department of Music, go to

Have a great week!

October 25th, 2016.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Lots to do in the city this week!

Although the weather may have turned and we now feel autumn has finally arrived, there is no need to stay inside and shut yourself off from the world.  Unless you really want to, of course.  But if you feel like getting out and experiencing some culture in the coming week, it will take several forms in downtown St. Catharines.  Let's look at a few examples of what you can do in the coming days.

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra kicks off their Pops! season in Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre tonight and tomorrow afternoon, with a programme entitled Close Encounters with John Williams.  Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducts the orchestra in music from a bevy of Williams' blockbuster scores, including Star Wars, Jaws, Superman, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, ET, Schindler's List, Harry Potter and so on.  You look at that list of movies and for many of us, that's what many of us grew up with over the years.

Maestro Thachuk will also be the soloist on the haunting theme from Schindler's List, by the way, one of the less bombastic of Williams' familiar scores.

Performances are tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow afternoon at 2:30.  Although tickets should be available for either performance still, better seats likely remain for this evening's performance.  Call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

Also at the PAC tonight in association with the neighbouring Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, the Department of Music is presenting Guitar Extravaganza II.  The first edition of this concert last year was a huge success, so round two will once again bring together Brock University students, alumni and faculty members, performing with regional guitarists, guitar teachers, composers and special guest artists for an evening of solo and small ensemble guitar performances.

The concert's grand finale will be "The Mighty Niagara Guitar Orchestra", collectively performing the North American premiere of the Fantasia para una dama for solo guitar and guitar orchestra.  The work is composed and will be conducted by Brock University guitar instructor Timothy Phelan and will feature Canadian guitar virtuoso Emma Rush.

The concert begins at 7:30 this evening in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and tickets are only ten dollars each for adults - you can't beat that?  Well actually you can, as the concert is free to current students of the MIWSFPA with a valid student ID card.  How cool is that?

Although this next item is more political than anything else, I think it will appeal to a lot of people due to the coming US elections and the fact it will be screened at the Film House at the PAC this coming Wednesday evening.

The Department of Political Science at Brock will be presenting the third film in the department's Politics and Film Series, The War Room,  the influential 1993 documentary about the first time a Clinton ran for President of the United States.  The film offers a behind-the-scenes account of Bill Clinton's insurgent and what many at the time thought was an improbable campaign for the presidency, in the process offering an illuminating contrast to the present campaign between Bill's wife Hillary and Republican candidate Donald Trump.

The screening will be followed by a discussion of the film as well as the current presidential race with Brock political scientists Stefan Dolgert and Blayne Haggart.  I interviewed Blayne for my show Inquisitive Minds on Brock Radio (CFBU-FM) a couple of years back, and he was always an engaging person to talk to.

Presented in conjunction with the PAC Film House, tickets are only nine dollars general admission or seven dollars for Film House members.  Call the box office at the PAC at 905-688-0722 for tickets.

The second season of ECT, Essential Collective Theatre in Robertson Hall at the PAC gets underway this week as well with another politically-charged event, the staging of a play entitled The Fighting Days by Wendy Lill.  ECT Artistic Director Monica Dufault will be directing the play that opens Thursday evening, October 27th.

The Fighting Days is set in Winnipeg during the years 1910 to 1917, and focuses on real-life characters Francis Beynon and Nellie McClung and their fight for women's right to vote here in Canada.  During that time period, of course, Canada entered World War I and the resulting conscription crisis divided the suffragists:  should all women have the right to vote, or just Dominion-born women who are sending their husbands and sons off to battle?

In this day and age it is hard to believe that argument was even necessary but times have certainly changed in the past 100 years.  In the overall scheme of things, that really isn't that long ago, really.

The Fighting Days is co-presented by the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, with performances running through to November 4th at the PAC before heading out on a tour of the Niagara Region.  It kicks off another season of compelling, local theatre by a dedicated team able to tap in to what matters to audiences today.

Tickets are available by going to

Finally, the next local performance of Johnny Cash:  Man in Black featuring Marty Allen takes place a week from tonight, October 29th at 7:30 pm at Grace Anglican Church at 238 Geneva Street in St. Catharines.

Marty Allen is North America's premiere Johnny Cash performer and has in fact recorded at the famed Sun Records studio in Memphis, the same studio where Elvis began his career as well years ago. Allen has toured the show extensively as far away as Australia, and is currently touring several Ontario communities.

Tickets are available at several locations, including the church office on Geneva Street, C&C Arts in the Fairview Mall, Rainbow Pure Water in Niagara Falls, the UPS Store in Niagara Falls, and Semenuk's Esso in Fonthill.  You can also order tickets by phone by calling 905-325-5704.

So there you go - lots to see and do just steps away in the heart of St. Catharines.

Enjoy your weekend!

October 22nd, 2016.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Believe it or not, I survived my first year at Canada Post!

Last week I and a number of my esteemed colleagues passed a milestone of sorts - we passed the one year mark as casual employees at Canada Post.  So with that in mind, I thought I would offer up a few thoughts on the first year and where life has taken me.

When I wrote in this space last winter that I had passed my probation period of 480 hours of service, thus entitling me to a full Canada Post uniform of my own rather than hand-me-downs, I remember writing at the time I was afraid I wouldn't make it through.  I still have to stop and think about that fact on a regular basis.

As mentioned in my earlier post, this is a very difficult job and I suspect few actually appreciate the work that goes into being a casual letter carrier.  I certainly didn't before I started the application process last summer.

Once you pass the several hurdles that get you to the training sessions, you soon realize the mail carrier culture is entirely different than any other you have experienced.  The colleagues I work with are without exception a dedicated, detail-oriented group of people who take pride in their work and the responsibility of delivering your mail day in and day out.

There are plenty of quirky individuals, of course, as is the case in most organizations, so you regularly hear good-natured joking, singing, mock angst about the number of catalogues we have to deliver and so on.  The depot during the morning sort, which is how we all start our day, is a noisy and sometimes nerve-wracking affair.

Some days are easier than others, such as late in the week when the mail is usually somewhat lighter than say a Monday, when it can often be a nightmare and delay you actually hitting your route for the day.  Following a holiday weekend, the problem is compounded even more.

On the sorting aspect, I am still slower than most of the others, although I am better than I was this time last year for sure.  If I have the luxury of staying on the same route for a week or two at a time, as I was the last two weeks, I pick up my speed as I become familiar with the sorting case I am on.  But often, as is the case for the casuals who don't have a route of their own, you are working on a different route every day, and that brings with it a certain amount of difficulty for people such as myself.

You would think the sort would be simple and straight forward, but as those who have done it for years will tell you, doing a different route every day is not for everyone, as you have to get used to a new sorting case each time and once out on the route, you have to search out mail boxes and house numbers quite often.

Those are things the average person receiving their mail every day don't realize.  The person who does the route every day learns all the short-cuts, the lawns and other obstacles to avoid, and where the mail box actually is.  This means they are generally faster on the route.

For a casual such as myself, you take longer until you get to know the route, and each day you're on it you usually get a little bit faster each day.  It just makes sense:  familiarity is a decided bonus in this job.

Since I often hit the street later than the person who usually does the route, I am usually hitting the milestones along the route later than usual as well, which prompts some to ask why I'm "so late".  I'm not really late, as we are allowed to deliver the mail until 8 pm actually.  It is just later than you are used to.

I had many a route in the early going that kept me out there until that 8 pm cutoff, although thankfully I have not see that in quite awhile.  But even finishing at 4 or 5 as I often do now is considered late by most.  Part of it is unfamiliarity with the route, but it is also the fact I am not a young man anymore and walking in all kinds of weather carrying a good-sized load of mail with me tends to slow me down a bit.  Hey, I'm not a kid anymore!

Still, even I was taken aback this summer when I approached an older gentleman sitting on his porch and when I handed him his mail he said "You're late!"  I looked at my watch:  it was 12:50 pm.  Delivering the mail is about the only job I know where delivering over the noon-hour is considered "late".

I have over the past year come up with many explanations for my tardiness on the route when the inevitable "You're late!" crops up.  Most are true; some are gently fabricated to an extent.  But all are offered up with sincerity and a genuine hope they have a good day in spite of my late arrival.

The thing to keep in mind is not everyone is going to get their mail in the morning.  If I am delivering to a larger route of say, over 900 points of call, I physically can't get them all done before noon.  I would like to, but as I said earlier, I'm not a kid anymore.

I never realized while delivering mail at an apartment building I would become such an attraction for the residents.  Often when I arrive, especially if I am later than they are used to, many of them congregate in the general area of the mail room and their boxes and watch me do my job.  I have no problem with that per se, but I wonder why it is so entertaining.  I often hear a variation of "I never get any mail anyways" as the person patiently waits for me to finish my job in the mail room.

But what I have really discovered over the past year is the uncanny knack of many area residents to either camouflage or try to hide their mail box - if indeed they have one at all.  Along Bunting Road, for example, mail boxes are often dispensed with in favour of the old-style milk box at the side of the house.

The more obvious the location of the mailbox the better.  Hunting around the back of the house for a mailbox, as I have had to do quite often, slows you down even more.  I know it is your home and you can do what you want on your own property, but it is always appreciated when a well-presented and clearly marked mailbox is within easy view as we approach the property.

On the subject of mailboxes, I would like to suggest once again a nice mailbox needn't be fancy, just functional.  A lid that is rusted in the open or closed position, boxes barely hanging on the wall or on the ground somewhere on the property are regular occurrences on mail routes.  I marvel at the number of people who have a lovely new home, yet the mailbox is nothing but a rusty afterthought lying on the porch floor.

The issue of house numbers can be perplexing, too.  Or rather, the lack of them.  In a perfect world, every house would be numbered in perfect sequence.  In the real world, however, that just doesn't happen.  Double lots, later additions to the street and so on all affect the numbering system, yet if the house doesn't have a number clearly displayed, it presents a problem for your mail carrier.  Again, if it is the same route every day you grow accustomed to the anomalies and work with them; as a casual you have to figure these things out on the fly.

Those are my main pet peeves after the first year on the job.  It has been a year of discovery to be sure, and I look forward to more "discoveries" in the year ahead.  But if I may offer a few gentle suggestions here in conclusion, your friendly neighbourhood mail carrier will serve you more efficiently day in and day out:

- Clearly display the house or unit number and don't paint it the colour of the house itself.
- Maintain your mailbox and think about where it is situated in relation to the access points.
- In the winter, be sure to clear the snow on walks and steps, salting if necessary.
- In the summer, consider leaving water bottles for your overheated mail carrier.
- If there are any special instructions the carrier should follow, they should be clearly marked.
- If you get misdirected or mail for someone no longer living there, simply display it prominently on the box for pickup by your mail carrier.  Marking it Return to Sender leaves no guesswork for us.

So there you have it.  I have learned a lot over the first year, and it has been fun.  This is really a great job, even with the weather conditions and obstacles we encounter throughout the year.  So I don't regret the decision to join the fraternity for a moment.

Tomorrow morning a number of us who started roughly the same time will be gathering in Niagara Falls to celebrate our first year together, and swap stories from the routes we cover.  Nothing I would rather do with some great colleagues I now call good friends.

Have a good week!

October 20th, 2016.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Culture Days is underway!

This is a big weekend not only in Niagara but around the country as we celebrate Culture Days.  So before the day gets any older, let's take a look at some of the events happening today and tomorrow in and around Niagara you might want to support.

Culture Days is a Canada-wide celebration that just happens to be the largest-ever public participation campaign courtesy the arts and cultural communities throughout the country.  Events include free hands-on activities that invite the public to see what goes on "behind the scenes" in the artistic community, including artists, creators, historians, architects, curators and designers to name but a few.

Here in St. Catharines, much of the activity will be happening downtown, the heart of the arts district in Niagara.  Events are already underway or will be shortly at various locations including the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, Rodman Hall and many other venues.  You can access a full listing of events in the city this weekend at the City of St. Catharines website at

One of the biggest events will happen throughout the afternoon at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre as they celebrate their first anniversary this weekend - hard to believe it has been open for a full year already!  There will be events happening throughout the venue including tours by staff and volunteers, so that will be a great place to start your Culture Days experience.

One of the more interesting events at the PAC is the Instrument Petting Zoo, a free event running through to 3 pm presented by the Niagara Symphony Orchestra and the Niagara Youth Orchestra, with instruments on loan from Long & McQuade in downtown St. Catharines.  Musicians and staff from both organizations will be on hand to guide visitors in an interactive, hands-on exploration of orchestral instruments.

This is a great opportunity to see up close how the instruments work and perhaps light a fire under a young, aspiring musician in your family, or just find out for yourself what a bassoon really looks like, for example.  The event takes place on the stage of the Cairns Recital Hall at the PAC and is perfect for kids of all ages.

You can walk next door to the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts as they welcome guests for guided tours as well, and you can say hello to Boomer the Badger at the David S. Howes entrance off the Raceway.  You might prefer to tour the facility on your own or experience the more formal guided tours by staff, which are now underway.

There is also a poster exhibition of research from the Faculty of Humanities, and an exhibition of contemporary art in the MIWSFPA Art Gallery, open until 4 today and tomorrow.

Both the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts are fully wheelchair accessible.

The events happen elsewhere in downtown St. Catharines as well, with my neighbour Sandy Middleton hosting events at her cozy photographic and art studio above the OddFellows Hall on James Street throughout the afternoon today, and my friends at CFBU-FM, the Brock Radio Station, are holding an open house from noon to 2 pm today.  The station is located in the downtown student residence, the former Welland House Hotel, at 30 Ontario Street.

Down in Niagara Falls, the Niagara Falls Museums are also participating in Culture Days this weekend.  Today and tomorrow the Niagara Falls History Museum on Lundy's Lane will feature free admission, and offer behind the scenes tours by the curator twice daily at 11 am and 1 pm.  The renovated space at the museum is an exceptional space, so if you have yet to experience it for yourself, this is the weekend to do it!

Culture Days is happening around the country with over 900 cities and towns participating.  You can find out more what's happening by going to

Enjoy your weekend!

October 1st, 2016.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

News and Notes from the Arts

With September now well underway, the local arts scene starts to heat up with lots of events happening throughout the Region.  In St. Catharines especially, there is plenty to see and do in the coming weeks, so let's take a look this weekend at some of the news items that have visited my inbox relating to the arts in Niagara:

- The Niagara Symphony launches their 2016/2017 season this afternoon at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines at 2:30 pm.  Entitled "Light Transcendent", the first Masterworks concert of the new season features Music Director Bradley Thachuk conducting the NSO and special guest soloist Anthony McGill, Principal Clarinet of the New York Philharmonic.  Bradley and Anthony have been friends for many years apparently, so this will be an interesting and genial meeting of the musical minds on the Partridge Hall stage.  The feature work will be Mozart's ever-popular Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622, one of his very last works.  Also on the programme will be the Symphony No. 6, "Pathetique" by Tchaikovsky and a Canadian work, Toward Light by Royden Tse, receiving its World Premiere performance, in fact.
The NSO had a huge season last year, their first in their new home, with ticket sales up considerably.  Now we'll see if the first-year momentum can be maintained now that people are familiar with Partridge Hall.  For tickets, call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

- Brock University's Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts announced their new season recently, entitled "Breaking the Surface", celebrating the bond between the community and the new arts centre in downtown St. Catharines.  The plan this season is to build on last season's momentum with the new arts school next to the PAC and hopefully broaden the community's understanding of how the arts relate to urban issues and contribute to cultural development in the Niagara Region.  There are more than 45 events planned this season ranging from live performances, exhibitions, concerts and artist talks, on stage, in studios and galleries and at regional venues.

A few of the events planned this season include The Ash Mouth Man presented by Stolen Theatre Collective and Brock's Department of Dramatic Arts continuing today and again from September 23rd to the 25th; Guitar Extravaganza II October 22nd in the Cairns Recital Hall; and the In Light and Darkness Exhibit from November 22nd to December 9th in the Art Gallery.  The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts will also be front and centre for the Culture Days Open House this year, held at 15 Artists' Common from September 30th to October 2nd.  For more on events coming up at MIWSFPA check out their website at, or find them on Twitter and Instagram @miwsfpa and on Facebook at miwsfpa.

- Speaking of Culture Days, the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre will be participating again this year and celebrate their first birthday Sunday, October 1st from 11 am to 3 pm.  Lots of free activities are planned for the Culture Days and birthday celebration, ranging from interactive drama workshops to National Film Board short screenings in The Film House to the Niagara Symphony Orchestra's Instrument Petting Zoo!  There will also be guided tours by PAC staff and volunteers, as well as facility tours of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts next door.  Oh yes, there will also be cake at 12 noon.  Need I say more?  You can find out more about events coming up this season at the PAC by going to their website at and more on Culture Days events at

- Another of the primary tenants at the PAC is Essential Collective Theatre, performing in Robertson Hall.  I received my new season package in the mail this week, and ECT will kick off their second season at the PAC with The Fighting Days by Wendy Lill, directed by Monica Dufault.  Set in Winnipeg during 1910-1917, the play looks at the real-life characters of Frances Beynon and Nellie McClung and their fight for women's right to vote.  The play runs from October 27th to November 4th and then will tour the Region in November and is co-presented by the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  In the new year, ECT will be staging The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey, again directed by Monic Dufault.  The award-winning play deals with Miles, a young actor from the city who comes to live and work on a Southern Ontario farm as research for a play he is writing called The Farm Show.  The play will run at the PAC from February 24th to March 3rd of next year and again is co-presented by the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  For tickets and more information call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722 or go to or

That should give you a sampling of just a few of the events coming up in the coming weeks.  Many of these will be included shortly on the Calendar Page of my website,, and I will be writing more about these and other upcoming events as the dates draw nearer.

Have a great weekend!

September 18th, 2016.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Some Niagara food for thought...

After taking the Labour Day weekend off from writing, I thought I would get back into the swing of things this weekend with a look at some of my favourite foodie things I have had the pleasure of discovering or rediscovering over the past several months.  Here in Niagara we are truly blessed with everything you could possibly need to set the perfect harvest table!

Over the past year or so I have been enjoying the best locally-made, Montreal-style bagels made by The Bagel Oven here in St. Catharines.  Owned and operated by Jess Bretzlaff and her husband Steve, they operate out of the commercial kitchen at the Congregation B'nai Israel and Jewish Community Centre on Church Street in downtown St. Catharines.

Jess is an optimistic and positive force of nature, and you can't help but feel good about dealing with someone who signs their emails with the line "Take good care, and remember to enjoy life's simple pleasures."  That's just the type of person she is and her optimism translates into superlative baking.

The bagels are available in several different varieties including vegan, and she also bakes amazing challah bread with or without raisins.  In fact, right now Jess is preparing for the Jewish New Year coming up on October 3rd, which will mark the first day of the year 5,777 on the Jewish calendar.

The High Holidays will mean a busy schedule for Jess and her team, but she always seems to find time to fill orders as they come in, so you can contact her through the website at or directly by phone at 289-696-4518.

Jess offers delivery to your door and also provides her bagels and breads at several pick up locations throughout Niagara, including Mahtay Cafe downtown and Richard's Deli on Lakeshore Road.

What to put on your fresh local bagels?  How about fresh local honey?  I became reacquainted with the exceptional creamed honey offered by Rosewood Estates Winery in Beamsville recently, and it is just wonderful.  The winery specializes in artisanal meads, and that requires honey, of course.  They have their own apiary on site operated by 3rd-generation beekeepers and have made quite a name for themselves with their several varieties of mead available for purchase.

The side line of course is if you're producing honey for making mead, you might as well offer it for sale on its own as well, and they again have several varieties available at the winery located in a spectacular hilltop location overlooking the Beamsville Bench.

My favourite is the estate-produced creamed wildflower honey, which is great on toast or of course, bagels.  Liquid varieties are also available if that is your preference.

You can find out more about Rosewood Estates Winery by going to their website at

Speaking of honey, I became acquainted with another operation in Niagara-on-the-Lake recently when B-Y's Honey Farm held their open house at the farm in late July.  During the open house you could tour the grounds, sample their many varieties of honey produced on site, and learn more about the work that goes into producing honey of exceptional quality.

The family-owned and operated business also provides beekeeping supplies and classes, pollination services, bee removal and of course, honey products such as liquid honey, pollen, Royal Jelly, candles and wax.

I brought home a jar of the liquid clover honey, which is unpasteurized and free of additives, as are all their honey products.  The farm does not spray, keeping their operations totally organic.  In their brochure, they use the clever slogan, "Don't be a hater, save the Pollinator" and they mean what they say.

Local beekeeper Ed Unger started the business in 2009 after noticing the decrease in honey bees and knowing how important they are to our very existence.  As a result, they educate the public as well as provide premium-grade local honey at the farm gate.

You can find B-Y's Honey Farm at 996 Concession 6 Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and their website is  You can also call them at 905-984-4408.

We are now blessed with a number of supper markets throughout the region throughout the summer months, and it was while visiting the Port Dalhousie Supper Market this summer I was introduced to the relatively new food truck business Ello Gov'na, owned and operated by chef Charlie Clowes.  They claim they provide "smashing good nosh" and hope to put to rest the eternal notion all British food is either uninteresting or unhealthy.

On the night I visited, I was able to sample their creative take on the traditional English banger, which of course is a form of sausage.  It was delicious!

Started earlier this year, the hope is to grow the business to the point they can open up their own stand-alone restaurant, but for now they travel the Niagara supper-market circuit to build their clientele.  That should be no problem if they maintain the quality I enjoyed this summer.

You can find out more about their food-truck business at

Also this summer I visited Chocolates Etc. on Welland Avenue, just steps away from our home in St. Catharines for their Customer Appreciation Day back in July.  If you remember the venerable Yurchuck's Candies from years past, this is the business that replaced Yurchuck's at the corner of Clark and Welland Avenue.

Many weekends in the summer you can hear music on the patio as you enjoy the locally-made chocolate and gelato available year-round.  Espresso, cappuccino and other drinks are also available.

The gelato varieties include regular and vegan options, including a dark chocolate ice I sampled that will knock your socks off.  I still have to stop in to try the vegan shake made from the chocolate ice, and that will happen soon!

This is one of the happiest corners in the city, and a must-stop on these hot evenings even as September marches on.  You can find them at 100 Welland Avenue.

Finally, I want to offer a tip of the hat to all the organizers of the first-ever Facer European Festival held the Monday of the August holiday weekend.  The festival, running from noon to 9pm, ran almost the entire length of Facer Street in St. Catharines, one of my favourite food destinations for many years.

One of the main champions of the festival is Roberto Vergalito, who runs Roberto's Pizza Passion on Facer Street, who envisions this becoming an annual summertime tradition in the city.  Judging from the crowds on hand strolling Facer Street when I visited late in the afternoon, I think that's likely to happen.

Vergalito and his team baked a 50-foot calzone to set a world record, and from what I have heard they  achieved their goal.  How they plan to top that next year is anyone's guess!

Everyone seems to have a connection to this part of the city known affectionately as "Little Europe", and it is hoped the annual festival will act as a fundraiser to improve infrastructure on the street.  The volunteers were organized by the Facer District Merchants and Residents Association and they worked tirelessly throughout the day to make the event a huge success.

This year's festival is in the history books, but you can anticipate an even bigger and better festival next year on the August holiday weekend.  It is just the type of family-friendly event we need in the city at the mid-way point of summer.

So there you go - just a few of my favourite foodie things I discovered this summer.  Oh there are more, of course, but I'll save those for a later date.  For now, I'm getting rather hungry...

Have a great weekend!

September 11th, 2016.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Shaw Festival announces 2017 season

Earlier this month the Shaw Festival announced their 2017 season, the first under the direction of Artistic Director Designate Tim Carroll.  2017 will be the 56th Shaw Festival season.  So let's take a look at what's in store next year before some observations on this year.

The upcoming season will include 11 plays, two of which will be by Shaw:  Saint Joan and Androcles and the Lion.  Tim Carroll will direct both Shaw offerings next season.  Being a self-professed Shaw "newbie", Carroll says in the 2017 season press release he is "hoping for a season of plays that will entertain and provoke our audience as much as Bernard Shaw did his."

Carroll has readily admitted one of the reasons he took the job was the opportunity to work with what he calls "the best acting company in North America."  There's little argument there; the Shaw Festival has prided itself on exceptional ensemble work and individual star turns for many years now and quite often, they produce what could be considered a definitive interpretation of a particular play.

Still and all, with a new Artistic Director comes changes to said ensemble as some new faces appear and familiar faces depart.  It is inevitable, and happened at the end of Christopher Newton's long tenure at the helm several years ago as well.

Next season's lineup looks like this:


Me and My Girl, featuring music by Noel Gay and book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber.  Directed by Ashlie Corcoran, the musical is a reworking of the familiar Pygmalion story by Stephen Fry.

Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw, directed by Tim Carroll.  Shaw's 1924 masterpiece has been staged to great acclaim at the Festival before, so this new production will have a tough act to follow.

Dracula by Bram Stoker, adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead and directed by Eda Holmes.  Holmes hit a home-run with this season's lavish production of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance, so it will be interesting to see what she does with this new retelling of the gothic classic.


1837:  The Farmers' Revolt, by Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Murialle, directed by Philip Akin.  The first stirrings of nationhood are retold in this Canadian classic and it will be good to see this staged once again.

Androcles and the Lion by Bernard Shaw, directed by Tim Carroll.  The actual fable is more than 18 centuries old, with Shaw's take on the tale highlights the unholy alliance of religion and power.

Wilde Tales (Lunchtime One-Act), featuring Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Kate Hennig and directed by Christine Brubaker.  The four tales will be suitable for adults and children alike, and each show will be different, we're told.


The Madness of George lll by Alan Bennett, directed by Kevin Bennett.  Bennet's political comedy that proved to be a hit at the National Theatre and inspired an equally successful film.

Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Freel, directed by Krista Jackson.  Irish playwright Brian Friel tells the story about the lives and dreams of five sisters in rural Ireland.

An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Peter Hinton.  The play is an edgy take on Dion Boucicault's 19th-century play about slavery.


Middletown by Will Eno, with a director yet to be named.  If you enjoyed Thornton Wilder's Our Town this season, as I did, this modern American classic is a rather surreal response to that earlier work and should prove quite interesting to see.

1979 by Michael Healey directed by Eric Coates, in a co-production with the Great Canadian Theatre Company.  Here's your eyebrow-raiser for the season:  the play deals with former Prime Minister Joe Clark and the battle between idealism and dirty politics.  It proved at the time to be a defining moment in Canadian history and I for one remember vividly the political fallout from that tempestuous period.

Looks like an intriguing and challenging season, aimed at "stretching (the ensemble) in new directions" as Carroll notes in the press release.

Carroll has been a director of theatre and opera for more than 25 years now, beginning with the English Shakespeare Company in 1990 and including a stint as Associate Director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.  His work with the Stratford Festival here in Canada has resulted in several critically-acclaimed productions, including this season's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which has been extended at Stratford once again.

Carroll will take the helm of the Shaw Festival officially on December 1st, and present Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell will make her exit after a season with some highs and lows to end her very successful tenure in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

I've enjoyed the challenges Maxwell has presented audiences with over the years, and will miss her take on some tried and true theatrical masterpieces.  But don't be surprised if she returns in the future to direct a Shaw production again as did her predecessor Christopher Newton.

As for this season, although I've only seen three of the plays on the bill, Our Town, A Woman of No Importance and Uncle Vanya, the season has largely been an artistic success from my vantage point.  It's a nice way to end a lengthy and generally successful tenure at the helm of the Shaw Festival.

Thanks for the memories Jackie Maxwell; Tim Carroll, the stage is yours...

Have a great weekend!

August 27th, 2016.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Shaw production of A Woman of No Importance very important indeed

It is perhaps a bit of serendipity that brought Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell to programme Oscar Wilde's play A Woman of No Importance during her final season at Shaw.  After all, how was she to know what would happen in British politics during 2016?

What happened, of course, was the largely unexpected outcome of the Brexit vote and the resulting upheaval that will see England ultimately leave the European Union.  That same vote resulted too in the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and the entry of a woman once again as Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May.

In the first act of Wilde's play, Fiona Reid's Lady Hunstanton casts a knowing glance at the audience when she asks Martin Happer's Lord Illingworth if he is in favour of "uneducated people be allowed to have a vote?"  There was more than a little laughter in the audience at the performance we attended, with the outcome of the Brexit vote still fresh in our minds.

But there is so much more to this lavish production at the Festival Theatre than just being timely.  Director Eda Holmes has moved the action of the play from the original 1894 Victorian England to 1951, when the country was recovering from the outcome of the Second World War.  There was political fallout that particular year as well, as the Conservatives under Winston Churchill bested the Labour government of Clement Atlee at the polls.

The year 1951 also saw women fashionably turned out courtesy Dior's celebrated New Look, and that offers designer Michael Gianfrancesco a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the feminine silhouette with a wide array of extravagant costume designs.

His set design, too, is lavish - there are large windows and floor-to-ceiling curtains as a backdrop to the elegant set design.  Together, sets and costumes almost steal the show from the cast assembled by Holmes.

Almost, but not quite.

This cast is strong all around, spearheaded by Fiona Reid as Lady Hunstanton.  Reid is always worth seeing no matter what the play, and in this particular case we benefit from her character's social standing and knowledge of affairs happening all around her.

But it is not a one-woman show.  Holmes has surrounded Reid with a strong cast that includes the aforementioned Martin Happer in the pivotal role of the rake Lord Illingworth, who loved and left Fiona Byrne's Mrs. Arbuthnot as an unwed teen mother years ago.

Byrne is the so-called Woman of No Importance, and she finds a strong ally in the American girlfriend of her son, Gerald.  As Miss Hester Worsley, Julia Course presents a sensitive portrayal of the role, offering moral support for Byrne's character.

Her son Gerald, of course, creates an untenable situation for his mother when he brings Lord Illingworth to meet her and announces he has accepted a position as Illingworth's new secretary.  The new job brings with it social standing Gerald is quite looking forward to, but it is his mother who has to deal with the reality of the situation at hand:  Illingworth is actually Gerald's father.  So, should the two continue with plans to leave for India on business, or does this new dilemma take that off the rails?

Wade Bogert-O'Brien's Gerald is earnest and sincere, while Happer's Illingworth is much less so.  They are a bit of an odd couple, actually, leaving the audience to question if the job offer to Gerald was genuine or there were other motives involved.

Early on, Jim Mezon wanders the stage snapping pictures as a sort of one-man paparazzi in his role of Sir John Pontefract.  It's a delightful turn, but certainly one of the smaller roles we've seen from the talented Mezon over the past several seasons.

Overall, this is a satisfying production of Wilde's play, not at all mired in the past.  It still speaks to audiences today in this new production by Holmes.  The lavish sets and costumes just add to the pleasure.

A Woman of No Importance continues at the Festival Theatre until October 29th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

August 21st, 2016.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Shaw Festival brings Our Town to life in Old Towne Niagara

There is a certain sadness surrounding this season at the Shaw Festival, as everyone involved from cast, crew, office staff and theatre patrons acknowledge this will be Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell's final season at the helm.

With that in mind the gentle, bittersweet production of Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town is a perfect vehicle to capture that feeling of longing many are experiencing this season while attending the Festival.  Director Molly Smith has given us - and the Festival - the perfect sendoff for Maxwell.

As Smith mentions in her Director's Notes, Our Town remains one of the greatest American plays.  "It's plainspoken," she reminds us, "and is a deep meditation on love, family, marriage and death."  Set in turn of the century America, the play actually takes place in mythical Grover's Corners in New Hampshire, and mirrors what life was like at the time throughout most all of small-town America.

This is not an exciting play, if you equate excitement with suspense, fast pacing and computer-generated special effects.  That, of course, is what many people today are accustomed to while going to the movies these days.

No, here the pace is anything but fast and there is not even a computer in the script to generate anything, really.  But what we do have is the fatherly Benedict Campbell as the Stage Manager, talking directly to the audience throughout the play, describing the action to come and keeping everyone grounded at the same time.

Campbell strings together the scenes of love, marriage, life and yes, ultimately death coming to Grover's Corners with the skill of one who has been there, lived the life himself and relay that depth of knowledge to the audience.  He strikes the perfect balance of information, commentary and gentle humour as he keeps Our Town moving along at that leisurely pace people knew all too well over a century ago.

We also know so many of these people in the play:  people like Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs played by Patrick Galligan and Catherine McGregor, and Mr. and Mrs. Webb, played by Patrick McManus and Jenny L. Wright.  These two households form the basis for much of the action in the play, as their children George and Emily fall in love and marry.

As George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the real-life husband-and-wife team of Charlie Gallant and Kate Besworth exude genuine love and affection that crosses the footlights and reaches out to touch your heart.  They are real, they are as grounded as the rest of the residents of the town, and they plan to raise their children here.

The rest of the cast is equally strong, with special mention going to David Schurmann in the dual roles of Professor Willard and Joe Stoddard and Sharry Flett as Mrs. Soames.  Really though, there is not a weak link in the cast to be found anywhere.

Not exciting enough for you?  Take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself if this is not what we all sort of long for from time to time in our own lives:  a simple life in a small-town free of the hectic schedules we are ruled by every day in the 21st century.

That is why this play appears as comfortable as a cardigan you put on at the end of a hard day at work, and why this particular production works so well.  It rings true in a world that today often clangs with dissonant noise all around us.

Director Molly Smith has crafted a beautiful play, rich in sentiment and melancholy, yet not at all maudlin or depressing.  Set design by Ken MacDonald and costumes by William Schmuck are exquisite in their clean simplicity of design, echoing a far simpler time so long ago.

Emily asks at the end of the play, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?  Every, every minute?"  Probably not, but Our Town seems like the perfect place to live your life at any time, and you might very well long to spend part of your life in a town like this while watching Our Town.

Our Town is about as perfect a theatre piece as you're likely to find anywhere, and rates a very strong 4 out of 4 stars.  It runs at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 15th.

Have a great week!

August 17th, 2016.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Final offering of the first Foster Festival season is a must-see

The third and final offering of the inaugural season of The Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre opened this week, and it's a fitting finale to the season.

The Foster Festival has the rights to premiere any and all new Norm Foster plays, and given the fact Mr. Foster, easily Canada's most-produced living playwright, has already churned out about 60 plays during his career we could be seeing several more World Premieres in the coming years.

Norm Foster has managed to take a funny situation many of us may have found ourselves in, make it even funnier with his knack for clever dialogue, and imbue the characters with a human vulnerability you don't always see in plays on the traditional summer stock circuit.

No wonder Foster plays have been the mainstay of these summer stock theatres for years now - he knows how to entertain an audience and allow them to see themselves or at least someone they know in each and every one of his plays.

This last play of the season, the World Premiere for the inaugural Foster Festival, is entitled Halfway to the North Pole.  The play is set in Stewiacke, Nova Scotia, a real-life town whose claim to fame is the fact the town is exactly half-way between the Equator and the North Pole.  How you can parlay that into a tourism industry is a little beyond my comprehension, but the play should, if nothing else, make people want to stop by on their next trip to the East Coast and check it out.

Our esteemed Mayor, Walter Sendzik in fact, visited the town on his recent summer vacation down east, and the Mayor of Stewiacke Wendy Robinson was in the audience on opening night to enjoy the show.

So what's to see in town?  Well, according to the play there's the town diner, the local watering hole down the street and...well, lots of interesting people to get to know.

Enter Dr. Sean Merritt, who happens into Stewiacke to fill-in for the regular doctor at the local clinic for a month, and he stops by the diner known as Junior's Cafe for a bite to eat.  He's from Toronto, and that provides fodder for the requisite "We hate Toronto" laughs.  He soon discovers each order at the diner comes with a heaping helping of curiosity on the part of the locals when someone new wanders into town.

Dr. Merritt gets the once over by the three ladies in town who gather at the diner every day promptly at 4 for discuss life in town, Vi, Rita and Mary Ellen.  He seems to take an immediate liking to the fourth member of the group, Janine, who runs the diner.

When the four ladies, played respectively by Lisa Horner, Sheila McCarthy, Helen Taylor and Kirsten Alter gather each day in the diner, it is sort of a Stewiacke version of The View.  Nothing escapes their attention, and they have an opinion on most everything and everyone who crosses their path.

The remainder of the play traces the route that brings this unlikely group together and charts the course for a possible future in Stewiacke for the good doctor when his one-month tour of duty at the clinic is done.

Foster plays explore the human element each time out, and here the verbal give-and-take between the doctor and Janine drives the action from start to finish, with several bumps in the road along the way. I suspect the College of Physicians and Surgeons would have a few things to say about the good doctor's attempts at wooing a local patient, but it provides plenty of comic gold for Foster to mine for a good two hours.

All of the characters get their share of great lines, but none better than Lisa Horner's Vi, whose reference to Neil Young's Heart of Gold in relation to a medical examination provides one of the funniest moments in the play.  You may never think the same way of Neil Young again!

The cast is exceptional, with Horner very nearly stealing the show as a wise-cracking wife who has drunk deeply from the well of life.  She almost does, but Sheila McCarthy's amorous Rita who falls for most any man who will give her the time of day gives Horner a run for her money.  The two are worth the price of admission alone.

I think Darren Keay's Sean Merritt was not quite up to the rest of the cast; he does well with the part certainly but the ladies are constantly upstaging him with their comic timing.

The sets, costumes and direction by Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone all hit the mark perfectly, making this one of the must-see shows of the summer season.

Halfway to the North Pole runs at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre until August 27th and you should really go and see it.  Tickets are available through the PAC box office by calling 905-688-0722.

The Foster Festival would not have happened in St. Catharines if we didn't have the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in which to play, so consider ourselves very lucky to have a festival of such quality right in our own backyard.  If you love good theatre and a great night out, consider supporting The Foster Festival before this season ends.

Have a great weekend!

August 13th, 2016.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Shaw Festival cast shines brightly in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya

There is not a lot of levity in the current Shaw Festival production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya; in fact, I don't recall ever seeing a production of Uncle Vanya that managed to break more than an occasional smile.

I've seen a few productions over the years, including several at Shaw and going back to the 80s in Toronto when Peter O'Toole appeared in a touring production that played the Royal Alex.

This new adaptation of Uncle Vanya is by Anne Baker, working with a literal translation by Margarita Shalina and the original Russian text.

To put it mildly, this is a pretty grim play with grim characters in a grim country estate and, well, things don't get much better after you sit through the better part of three hours of Uncle Vanya.

That being said, there is an awful lot to recommend this current production, on stage at the cosy Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake until September 11th.  First and foremost, the cast assembled by Artistic Director and the director of Uncle Vanya, Jackie Maxwell is absolutely first-rate.

The two standouts in the production are Neil Barclay as Uncle Vanya, and Moya O'Connell as Yelena Andreyevna.  Barclay finally breaks free from the supporting roles he has so ably been cast in for several seasons and gives a wonderful performance in the pivotal role.  Vanya is infatuated with Yelena, the wife of Serebryakov, played by Shaw mainstay David Schurmann.

Yelena is much younger than her doddering old husband, a fact that does not escape the wandering eye of Vanya, who basically calls it a tragedy her beauty is wasted on the old man.  As Yelena, O'Connell infuses the role with as much grace as can be mustered in such a grim existence, and it is easy to see why Vanya is so taken by her.  But she, alas, has little or no interest in Vanya.

As her older husband Serebryakov, David Schurmann plays a role we don't often see him in:  not a debonair and dashing society gent akin to a Fred Astaire, but rather an old, worn-out and dependent professor who has the great good fortune of having a younger trophy wife by his side.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally as impressive, including Sharry Flett as solid as ever as Marina; Patrick McManus in the role of Astrov, the hard-drinking doctor; Marla McLean as Sonya and Donna Belleville as Vanya's mother Maria.

The characters talk to each other and yes, they do argue, but rarely do they actually communicate with each other.  The appearance of a gun later in the play livens things up a bit but just adds to the tension in the estate.  All in all, they are not a bunch of happy campers.

It appears Jackie Maxwell has been saving Uncle Vanya for this, her final season at the helm of the Shaw Festival.  While it may not be her best effort at Shaw, the cast she has assembled raises the bar for ensemble acting and taking a rather plodding script and elevating it to the point the play becomes highly recommendable this season.

Granted, it is not the happiest production at the Shaw this season, but if you want to see an exceptional cast make a play come alive, this might just work for you.

Uncle Vanya continues at the Court House Theatre until September 11th and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.

August 6th, 2016.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

More music festivals to escape the summer heat

I promised a few weeks ago to round up some more of the great summer music festivals in Ontario, so with the summer heat perhaps encouraging us to head out and catch a great concert within a short drive of home, let's take a look at a few in the outlying areas of St. Catharines-Niagara.

Now, I know there are more musical festivals than what I have listed here.  Ottawa has a fine music festival, for example, but I am concentrating here on a reasonable drive from Niagara for say a day trip or overnight stay.

In my last entry, I mentioned such local venues as Artpark, Music Niagara, the Niagara Jazz Festival coming up next weekend, the Lewiston Council of the Arts series, along with the Elora Festival north of Guelph.  All are still going or coming up as of this writing, although this is the final weekend for the Elora Festival.

But a short drive will reveal others worthy of note, with the first of these not that far down the highway in Hamilton.  The Brott Music Festival was founded several years ago by former HPO Music Director Boris Brott, and has been a Hamilton mainstay each summer for as long as most of us can remember.

I have spent many a pleasant summer afternoon or evening attending any number of Brott concerts in the past, although it has been a few years now since I last attended.  It is certainly a wide-ranging programme pairing young up-and-coming musicians with more seasoned, established pros.

Still to come for the Brott Music Festival this season, John Williams' iconic movie music will be front and centre for the next concert at the Mohawk College McIntyre Performing Arts Centre, next Thursday July 28th at 7:30 pm.  The festival moves to Koerner Hall in downtown Toronto for a concert August 4th at 7:30 pm, marking the National Academy Orchestra's debut at Koerner Hall.

The series returns to Mohawk College in Hamilton on August 5th at 7:30 pm for a performance by the Jeans n' Classics band and their tribute to Led Zeppelin, before hitting the road again to pair up again this season with the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound on August 7th at 2:30 in the afternoon.  That concert will once again feature the National Academy Orchestra at the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts in Parry Sound.

The Brott Music Festival wraps up August 11th at 7:30 pm with a concert full of classical favourites by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Ravel at the McIntyre Performing Arts Centre at Mohawk College.

Tickets to any of these performances are available by calling the box office at 905-525-7664, or go online to

I mentioned the Festival of the Sound up in Parry Sound on the shores of lovely Georgian Bay, and although this would constitute a weekend or at least overnight stay, the trip up to that part of the world is always enjoyable.

The Festival of the Sound kicked off earlier this month and continues until August 7th at several venues in and around the Parry Sound area.

Of particular note on the calendar are concerts featuring a Celtic Sounds Cruise at 6 pm on July 25th; a concert of Chopin and Tchaikovsky favourites on July 28th at 7:30 pm; and a performance by the Toronto All-Star Big Band on July 31st at 7:30 pm.

There is even a screening of the classic movie Amadeus, starring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham at 10 am on July 26th.

The Festival of the Sound series wraps up with a piano concert finale on August 7th at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Most of the concerts and events take place at the acoustically-perfect Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts, but some are at other locations, such as the Monday evening boat cruise on July 25th for example.

For tickets and more information, call the box office at 1-866-364-0061 or go to

Certainly one of the most ambitious music festivals each summer takes place in Stratford, Ontario, where the Stratford Summer Music series continues until August 28th at several locations in and around Stratford.  There are so many events to attend throughout the day almost every day of the festival it is enough to make your head spin, but you will find something for just about every taste in their offerings each year.

Some of the upcoming highlights include The Steel City Rovers performing over several days at 12:30 pm from July 28th to the 31st; several appearances by the Torq Percussion group, including performances, master classes and lectures throughout the coming week; The Sondheim Jazz Project at 9 pm on August 6th and Choral Vespers performed by the Choir of the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon at 3 pm on August 7th.

There's even a performance by Carole Pope at 3 pm on August 13th!

Stratford Summer Music continues to offer probably the most variety of any music festival anywhere, and they do it for the better part of 7 weeks each summer.  So if you want a break from the Stratford Festival, or perhaps add to your Festival experience, Stratford Summer Music offers a nice balance of challenging and lighter fare throughout most of the summer months.

For tickets and more information, call 519-271-2101 or go to

Finally, the Westben Arts Festival Theatre in Cambellford in Eastern Ontario presents a wide range of concerts throughout the summer months and into the fall at several venues in the area.  It too has evolved into a large-scale music festival in a small-town setting with literally something for everyone to enjoy.

Concerts coming up include Ken Whiteley and the Beulah Band on July 29th; Heather Bambrick and Friends on July 30th; the jazz group Cadence on July 31st and a concert entitled Women of Shakespeare on October 30th.  Over the Christmas season Westben presents A Westben Christmas Carol on November 26th, 27th, December 3rd and 4th.

For tickets and more information, call 1-877-883-5777, or go to

So there you go - lots to see and do if you want to get out of Niagara but not out of the province for some musical offerings this summer season and beyond.

Have a great weekend!

July 23rd, 2016.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Summer fun with the Foster Festival

Earlier this week the Foster Festival opened the second of three summer productions, part of their inaugural season at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  The mandate of the Festival is simple:  produce plays by noted Canadian playwright Norm Foster, certainly the most well-known and most-loved Canadian playwright.

In fact, it's estimated on average, there are about 150 productions of his plays each year globally.  Here in Canada, of course, his plays have been staples of the summer theatre circuit for many years now.  I've seen Foster plays in Port Dover, Sutton, Muskoka and several other locals, in fact.

Foster lent his name to the Festival here in St. Catharines when it was launched amid much fanfare last June, and it was determined at the time all Norm Foster premieres would take place at the Festival that bears his name.  The remainder of the season would feature two of his other plays, of which you can choose your favourite from a long list of Foster classics.

In June, the first-ever Foster Festival production opened, with Norm Foster himself starring alongside Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone in On A First Name Basis.  When the new Festival was announced last year, both Vanstone and Foster were starring in this same show at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope.

I unfortunately missed the first show of the season, but this week's opening of Here on the Flight Path was enthusiastically received from what I could see at the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  Although the theatre was not full to capacity for opening night, it was close, and that was encouraging.

It will take time for the whole idea of watching live theatre in downtown St. Catharines becomes second nature in this city.  We're conditioned to either go to a movie, a live theatre performance at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a summer music event or simply stay home on the patio.  The notion of heading downtown to see live theatre at all is something totally new to most generations in the Garden City.

I hope this fact is not lost on the management and board of the Foster Festival; although the first year will be challenging as they struggle to grab a foothold on the summer entertainment scene in the area, hopefully the coming years will get somewhat easier.

If the quality of the current production is anything to go by, they should be on solid financial footing in coming years.  There is simply much to like and not a heck of a lot not to like about the current production.

Directed by Blair Williams and starring the real-life husband and wife team of Jamie Williams and Melanie Janzen, Here on the Flight Path is typical Norm Foster:  take something from everyday life and make it into an uproariously funny situation.  That is the magic of a Foster play - you can't help but see yourself in many of his plays or at least, someone you know.

In this play, easily one of his funniest, we are introduced to newspaper columnist John Cummings, who writes about "Cummings and Goings" as he often reminds people.  Cummings lives in an apartment, alone and more or less recently divorced, and spends an inordinate amount of time on his apartment's balcony.

He introduces us to three of the neighbours who have shared the other half of the balcony over a period of a couple of years or so.  They are all female, and each one lives alone for one reason or another.  The first is Fay, a woman of the night who prefers not to bring her work home with her.  Next we meet Angel, an aspiring actress from Calgary whose father has deep pockets.  And then there's Gwen, broken and downtrodden at first with a healthy appetite for wine.

John gets to know all three rather well; he is the one neighbour you can count on to always be there when you need him, but you just don't want to get too close, just in case.

For Faye, he comes in rather handy one night when she actually does bring work home with her and things get out of hand rather quickly.  With Angel he offers moral support as she tries in vain to chart a course in the acting profession.  And with Gwen, he provides comfort and companionship after her life undergoes significant change.  It is only Gwen who seems to click with John with any sort of permanence.

John is a friendly sort, just nosey enough to be a newspaperman but smart enough to know when he has pushed the limits as far as he can.  He is overly chatty, very observant and at times either a little annoying or quite helpful.

As with any Norm Foster play, the writing is superb, although I sometimes get the sense he is sometimes too clever for his own good.  But he comes up with lines you can remember long after the play has ended, and that is a talent not every playwright is able to master.

In Here on the Flight Path, the most memorable moments for me come in the second act when he discovers Angel is auditioning for a part in a musical based on the novel Moby Dick, entitled "Positively Ahab" and Cummings describes it as "Grease with harpoons".  Angel for her part mistakenly refers to "Wuthering Heights" as "Withering Heights".

The set is simple yet effective, clearly demonstrating the close proximity in which many apartment dwellers live.  The students who helped the Foster Festival with the set construction did an exceptional job.

If there are any complaints with the production, it would be I'd like to see John in a more obvious change of clothes for each act.  It almost looks like he lives in the same polo shirt and pants every day of the year.  I know many men might actually appear to be doing that, but a little variety might not hurt in either case.  I also wouldn't mind seeing some semblance of an apartment beyond the sliding doors leading to the balcony.  All we see here is a black hole the actors step in and out of.  Even a painted backdrop to suggest furniture might be nice.

Okay, I know I am splitting hairs here.  Overall, the show is solid, funny, well acted and directed and very much worth your time this summer.  Here on the Flight Path continues until July 30th with both evening and matinee performances on selected dates.

For tickets and more information, call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722, or go to the Foster Festival website at

The Foster Festival should be a summer tradition in Niagara.  It has everything going for it:  great location, quality production values and a knowledgeable and experienced management team in place. Now all they need is support from the community.

Feel like a laugh on a summer's day?  Catch the latest offering from The Foster Festival and discover why we are lucky to have such an ambitious project right in our own backyards.

Have a great weekend!

July 17th, 2016.