Sunday, February 19, 2017

Foster Festival gears up for Season Two

It doesn't seem possible we are already talking about the upcoming second season of the Foster Festival in St. Catharines, but here we are anticipating summertime laughs at the PAC.

If you were not paying attention the last couple of years, the Foster Festival was formed by Executive Director Emily Oriold and Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone to celebrate the plays of Canada's favourite playwright, Norm Foster.  Foster, who has been a summer theatre circuit staple for over a quarter of a century, now has a festival devoted entirely to his vast body of work for the stage.

In the inaugural season in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, the Foster Festival presented three Foster plays, each playing for about 3 weeks each, running from late June through to late August.  Two Foster classics were staged along with a premiere of a new Foster play; the Festival has as part of its mandate to premiere at least one new play by their namesake playwright each year.

The first season started slowly but as the word got out this is no ordinary summer theatre festival, sales picked up and by the end of the summer everyone was pleased with the outcome of the first season.  Would there be room for improvement?  Of course there would be.  But was it the right decision to base the Festival in downtown St. Catharines?  I would have to say absolutely yes!

Foster himself appeared in the first play of the season, On a First Name Basis, and attended the opening nights of the following two plays.  So he is very much a part of the Festival that bears his name.

This year, the Foster Festival unveils not one but two new Foster plays as they continue to gain a foothold in the busy summertime entertainment schedule here in Niagara with a roster of new and returning artists both from the Shaw Festival and movies and TV.

The season kicks off June 21st with the World Premiere of Screwball Comedy, directed by Patricia Vanstone and starring Joanna Douglas, Kevin Hare, Darren Keay and Eliza Jane Scott.  Keay returns after a successful run in last year's World Premiere, Halfway to the North Pole.

Screwball Comedy is set in 1938 and involves budding reporter Mary Hayes, trying to break into the male-dominated world of newspaper reporting.  Full of snappy period dialogue, this comedy sends up the screwball comedies we all remember seeing in the theatre while growing up.

Foster's Old Love opens July 12th, and features the real-life husband and wife team of Janet-Laine Green and Booth Savage as Molly and Bud.  Also starring is Melanie Janzen, who wowed audiences last year as the trio of women in Here on the Flight Path.

Old Love, also directed by Vanstone, is a story of courtship, rekindled romance and the importance of hope in everyday life.  Bud is divorced and Molly is recently widowed.  At her husband's funeral, they meet...

The third and final play of the season is the second World Premiere of the season at the Foster Festival, a play titled Lunenburg.  Again directed by Vanstone, the play features the return of Melanie Janzen along with Shaw veteran actors Peter Krantz and Catherine McGregor.  Lunenburg opens August 2nd and will close down the Festival on August 18th.

Lunenburg is set, naturally, in Lunenburg Nova Scotia, and mixes love, mystery and a lot of laughs as American widow Iris Oulette and friend Natalie arrive in town to a house she's recently inherited from her recently deceased husband.

If you did not attend last year's Festival, I urge you to take some time and discover what's happening in downtown St. Catharines this summer.  The Foster Festival is the only Canadian theatre festival to celebrate the work of a living playwright.  And with Foster already having written about 60 plays to date, the Festival has lots of material to draw upon in coming seasons.

Foster, for his part, is now an Officer of the Order of Canada, a honour bestowed on him back on December 31st.  It is an honour richly deserved and befitting a playwright who has made so many laugh and think for so many years.

To find out more about the Foster Festival, visit their website at  You can purchase tickets directly through the site or through the FirstOntario PAC box office by calling 905-688-0722.

With spring just around the corner, can summertime fun be far behind?

Have a great week!

February 19th, 2017.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Enjoying a night out swinging with John Sherwood & Friends

It has been a little while since I last wrote in this space, and for that I apologize.  A busy schedule and really feeling tired from a lot of work lately have kept my creative juices from flowing freely.  But with renewed interest after a bit of a break, I hope to return to writing on the arts and other related topics on a semi-regular basis.  Maybe not every week as in the past, but on at least an occasional basis.

So with that out of the way, a heartfelt thank you goes out this weekend to the friendly staff of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts in downtown St. Catharines.  Once again they were kind enough to invite this humble scribe to their Encore! Professional Concert Series at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

I've written before about the uniformly high quality of the performances offered in the series, and also the lamented general lack of interest on the part of the general public.  Try as they might, the School of Fine Arts just couldn't seem to gain a foothold on growing their audience for exceptional classical and jazz concerts in Niagara.

But perhaps they are beginning to turn the corner, if Friday evening's performance is anything to go by.  The largest venue at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre was almost full this time around to welcome to the stage local jazz favourite John Sherwood and his musical friends.  Now granted Sherwood is a pretty safe bet almost anywhere, as his performances are usually well attended wherever he goes.

Still, if the Encore! Professional Concert Series needed a cure for their identity crisis, John Sherwood provided it in spades.

John must have worked well in advance to book the talent he brought with him on stage Friday night, as they are all first-rung jazz masters on the Canadian scene in their own right:  Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Pat Collins on bass, Mike Murley on saxophone and none other than Terry Clarke on drums.

The programme was called Canadian Jazz Scene, although save for an obvious tip of the hat to Oscar Peterson to lead off the proceedings, the rest of the evening featured the group as either a trio or quintet on a collection of jazz standards from literally all over the world.

John and the boys were swinging hard at times, gently swinging on occasion and at least once offered a hybrid of the two, including on Pat Metheny's classic James.  But no matter the tempo, everything was anchored by that rock-solid foundation offered at the keyboard of the majestic Steinway & Sons Concert Grand by John Sherwood himself.  He truly is a master of the instrument.

John also happens to be the resident piano tuner for all the pianos at the PAC, so he knows them inside out to begin with, and was able to coax just the right amount of sound and swing throughout the evening.

The evening was inexplicably cut short as they introduced the final tune, I Want to Be Happy when the fire alarm began to sound and everyone had to file out a little prematurely, greeted on the street by the wailing of fire engine sirens coming down St. Paul Street.  I have not heard officially what caused the problem, but rumours persist about a malfunctioning popcorn machine on site.

No matter, things were popping and hopping all night long inside the PAC and I doubt anyone would feel hard done by when the alarm finally did sound.

It's a funny thing about John.  He could probably write his ticket to perform with anyone he wanted anywhere in the world, he is that good.  But he chooses to stay right here in his adopted home town where he grew up and built up his musical career.  We are all the richer for it, of course, but one wonders what kind of offers he's had over the years.

I recall having a wonderful meeting with John at his north St. Catharines home about 5 years ago now when I was researching the whereabouts of one of the two famous grand pianos that used to grace the massive radio studio where I used to work at CKTB Radio.  Turns out the larger of the two is now John's personal piano at home, fully refurbished and looking astounding after all these years.

In an odd twist of fate, my current job as a letter carrier for Canada Post has seen me deliver John's mail on several occasions over the past year!  He is not aware of the fact I am sure, but I smile whenever I approach his house, knowing the connection between my former career and the piano sitting just beyond the front door of his north St. Catharines home.

Thanks again John and friends, for a very entertaining evening of jazz classics from the Great American Songbook.  And thanks to the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts for inviting me to enjoy the show on Friday night.

Have a great week!

February 12th, 2017.