Friday, August 11, 2017

Foster Festival finale a fun, fitting way to end Season Two

So Wednesday afternoon of this week my far better half and I took shelter from the heat and the sun at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre as we caught the third and final Norm Foster play in the festival that bears his name.  The play, Lunenburg, is a world premiere and well worth your time before it closes next week.

Norm as you probably know is arguably Canada's most successful playwright ever, having produced oh, about 150 plays or so since the whole thing started with The Melville Boys back in 1984.  But until last year there was not a festival devoted to his creative genius.

That all changed when Emily Oriold, Executive Director and Patricia Vanstone, Artistic Director, decided the brand-spanking new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines would be the perfect venue for the new venture.  They approached Norm Foster and he agreed, no doubt feeling humbled at the prospect of a festival devoted to his works.

It's true what they say that "All good things come to those who wait" as those who have waited for just such a festival are being rewarded with some exceptional theatre for their summertime pleasure.

There were two world premieres this season, the first opening the second season back in June.  Screwball Comedy was a hit out of the gate, although I wrote at the time I didn't really think it was his best work.  Following a presentation of an older Foster play, Old Love in July, the second world premiere opened last week and it is vintage Norm Foster.  Like a rose wine with a fresh bouquet...

Okay maybe that's a bit much but hey, I was in a good mood after the performance this week.  And with good reason.

Lunenburg is set, of course, in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and offers up a tale of love both old and new, betrayal, mystery and of course, plenty of comedy.  It involves two American visitors, Natalie and Iris, with Yankee drawl in full flight, coming to visit the Maritime home of Iris's late husband.

Iris is in mourning, of course, at the loss of her husband of four years but nothing could prepare her for what she discovers upon her arrival.  Thanks to talkative next-door neighbour Charlie Butler, Iris discovers she has been "the other woman" in a relationship that saw her late husband sharing his bed and life with not one but two wives.

The fact he would spend half the month with Iris and the other half of the month outside the country in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia never seemed to bother her; she just assumed he had business dealings outside the country every month.  Oh he had business all right...but let's not let get too far ahead of the story here...

You see, Iris's dear, departed husband was in fact leading a double life.  The news courtesy of neighbour Charlie leaves Iris thunderstruck.

While all that is going on, things start 'going on' between Iris' friend Natalie and neighbour Charlie.  A recurring gag sees them in a passionate embrace just as poor old Iris happens on the scene trying to deal with her situation.  Darned if you can't fall in love while trying to help your best friend through an emotional crisis.

There are but three roles in this play, and all three characters are created for the first time by the exceptional cast assembled by director Vanstone.  Melanie Janzen, returning after a great debut last season in Here Along the Flight Path, plays supportive friend Natalie Whitaker.  The dumbstruck wife is played by Shaw Festival alumnus Catherine McGregor, while another Shaw stalwart Peter Krantz appears as the neighbour Charlie Butler.

Janzen is the madcap sidekick everyone loves to watch.  Following in the footsteps of such great television second bananas as Valerie Harper and Vivian Vance, Janzen has impeccable comic timing and knows just when to stop before going too far.  In every respect she is a joy to watch.

As the wife Iris, Catherine McGregor is both funny and sad, dealing with such tremendous loss and with shock at the revelations awaiting her arrival.  Although the central character in the play, McGregor wisely allows the two budding lovers to steal the spotlight more than once and run with it. She needs the support, sure, but isn't insecure enough to remain on her own during the day while the two 'lovebirds' go sight-seeing together.

The real pleasure in this production is seeing Shaw veteran Peter Krantz create the role of Charlie.  He has an innocent streak in him, but deep down inside all he really wants is another chance to "charm the ass off" a woman.  He darn near succeeds in that regard early on, but we are left hanging until the end to see if the charm wears off or not.

I have lamented in the past Krantz interpretations of characters at Shaw, but here he seems much more at ease in the role.  He spoke with my esteemed colleague John Law recently and explained it was a new experience for him to create a new role rather than offer up his interpretation of a role many before him have already made their mark on.

He hits the perfect balance here, so Peter has nothing to worry about.  He is both charming and a little devilish at the same time as Charlie.  No wonder Natalie is swept off her feet!

Lunenburg is far and away the strongest play of the season and a great way to end the season, too.  It sets the scene for an even better Foster Festival next year, when once again there will be two world premieres.

You still have time to catch Lunenburg.  It plays through this weekend as well as Wednesday through Friday of next week at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  For tickets and information, go to or call the box office at 905-688-0722.

The Foster Festival is now firmly entrenched in our summertime entertainment schedules.  If you have yet to determine if it should be included in yours, this production is the strongest argument in the affirmative yet.

Have a great weekend!

August 11th, 2017.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Irish star Mary Black coming to Midland, Ontario this coming Monday night

I can't say I have written much in this space about Midland, Ontario, although I do have a connection to the city.  Back in the 60s I remember going to visit relatives who lived in Midland at the time; I can't remember just where in the city they were, but I still vividly remember a rainy day we all gathered at the house for a family affair and my aunt fell going down the steps when leaving and broke her hip.  She ended up going to the hospital in an ambulance that day, which I will never forget.

Okay, not the greatest memory to have of Midland, I admit, and as such I am probably due for a return visit if for no other reason than to come and go without the aid of an ambulance in either direction.  But it won't be this weekend as plans have already been made, unfortunately.

But if you still have time on your hands and feel the urge to hit the open road for a trip up north, Midland is as good a place as any to visit this weekend, or any other weekend for that matter.  Besides, celebrating all we have to enjoy in Ontario during the country's 150th anniversary celebrations is not such a bad idea, is it?

This Monday evening, being the holiday Monday or Simcoe Day if you want to be more formal about it, Irish singing star Mary Black makes her only Canadian appearance on her final North American tour.  The concert will be at the Midland Cultural Centre beginning at 8 pm.

Mary Black has tried to retire from touring before, but the offers to continue performing keep coming in, so what's an established working musical legend to do?  Keep going, at least for a little while longer.  The tour coincides with the 30th anniversary re-issue of the album By The Time It Gets Dark in 1987.

Black herself says it is hard to believe it has been 30 years since that album was first released, especially since it always was one of her favourites.  To celebrate the anniversary Black and her producers took the old 24-track tapes to be "baked", a process to preserve them, which allowed the team to then do a complete remix and remaster of the original album.

The original release of that album along with her first solo album, the largely pop-oriented Without the Fanfare resulted in Black being named Best Female Artist in the Irish Rock Music Awards Poll for two consecutive years in 1987 and '88.

It was a scant two years later her groundbreaking album No Frontiers took the international music scene by storm, establishing Black as a major concert draw in North America as well as elsewhere in the world.  The recording climbed to the Top 20 of the New Adult Contemporary chart in the United States and also became a top seller back home in Ireland.  In all Black has recorded and released 11 studio albums, the last being back in 2012.

Prior to releasing her self-titled debut album in 1982, which made it to the Top Five on the Irish album charts and won the Irish Independent Arts Award for Music, Black spent many years performing with her brother and sister in nightclubs in and around Dublin.  She also spent time performing with a folk group named General Humbert.

So Mary Black is by no means an overnight sensation.  She has long since established herself as a top-calibre international artist equally at home singing traditional Irish folk tunes as well as more contemporary blues, rock, jazz and even country music.  And she will bring all of that and more to Midland's Cultural Centre this coming Monday evening.

Opening for Mary Black this Monday will be rising young artist Roisin O, one of Irelands more promising young up and coming artists.

The doors open at 7:30 and the show starts at 8; for tickets go to or call 1-705-527-4420.

Have a great holiday weekend!

August 3rd, 2017.