Saturday, October 28, 2017

Revisiting Stratford to see what's new and not-so-new this season

My far better half and I don't get to Stratford, Ontario as regularly as we once did, although we did manage two weekend getaways this year.  I wrote of the most recent visit two weeks ago when I reviewed the Stratford Festival's wonderful production of Guys and Dolls, which closes at the Festival Theatre November 5th.

But I promised at the time to write further about the changes we've seen this season and are on the horizon for the city, and there are several.

Perhaps it is the fact I don't get to Stratford as much as I used to when I regularly reviewed productions over the entire season - a perk I enjoyed in my previous career for about 32 years - but visiting the city now becomes more of an event anticipated by us both than it used to.  Visiting Stratford now has become, well, more special due to the increased infrequency of our visits.  And I say that with much reluctance as we both love immersing ourselves in the culture, dining and shopping experiences in abundance in the city.

We stay at the same B&B each year, Dusk to Dawn on Brunswick Street, which is perfectly situated to walk easily to all four theatres.  Hosts David and Tessa make you feel like royalty and the breakfast is exceptional.  Chrissy the dog, though not allowed in guest quarters, greets guests at the door upon arrival and is a treat.

My wife, who is vegan, is very particular where we eat while away, and now has three exceptional restaurants catering to her particular tastes without sacrificing mine.  There are others, of course, but the three she loves to visit are Stratford Thai Cuisine on Wellington Street in the heart of the city, and Fellini's and Mercer Beer Hall & Inn, both on Ontario Streets.  Though not entirely vegan, they have a wide variety of choices that can be easily adapted to a vegan lifestyle or are dedicated to it already.

For shopping, there is rarely time enough in the schedule to allow for enough browsing at Bradshaw's and Watson's Bazaar on Ontario Street, and several smaller shops in the city centre.  Watson's, incidentally, is still home to one resident cat, down from about three or four a few years ago, and I always come packed with kitty treats when I visit the store.

So those are the constants from year to year, more or less.  Each new season brings change, and this one is no different.  Let's look at a few of those now, as some will impact your next visit if you plan to go to Stratford in the future.

The first thing we noticed when strolling the city centre this past August was the reconfiguration of the venerable Market Square adjacent to City Hall.  For years the home of downtown angle parking and the city bus terminal, it was always a busy place.  Add in Ken's French Fries truck on the corner and the spot was usually teeming with people all day long.

Now the parking has been reduced and the centre section has been reconfigured to accommodate a true city square for public gatherings such as the Sunday Slow Food Market.  I like the look, especially when we visited in the summer when a giant bell collection was on display for use during the Stratford Summer Music performances in the space.

Not sure where Ken's French Fries has relocated to, but the bus terminal is now located outside the city core entirely, which is not too popular with the locals, I hear.

I am sure many have also grumbled about the lost parking spaces but really, there is still plenty of parking on most days in the city core, all of it unbelievably well-priced compared to other cities we have visited.  The Civic Square concept is one that is catching on in many cities and I hope soon it will take root again here in St. Catharines.

In the summer I also read with great interest the plans for the proposed Grand Trunk Community Hub.  Located at the Cooper site within the city, I am assuming the space would provide a larger and better-equipped community space available for use year-round.  Yet there is currently a lot of lobbying going on by local arts and cultural organizations for the inclusion of a dedicated Arts and Culture Centre within the hub, able to accommodate performances and events planned by the nearly 30 arts and cultural groups within the city.

Those groups, including Stratford Summer Music, Stratford Symphony Orchestra, Perth County Players, the Kiwanis Music Festival and a host of others, have formed collectively under the banner of the Stratford Arts & Culture Collective.  Co-chairs Ron Dodson and Chris Leberg say they are trying to create a more liveable city incorporating the arts and culture community to a greater degree.

Ideally, they would like to see the space include a new art gallery and perhaps even a 600-seat theatre space all members of the collective could make use of.  Sound familiar?  For years here in St. Catharines our local arts and culture groups lobbied hard for a dedicated space downtown and look what happened:  with forward-thinking city council members and the heft of all levels of government providing seed money, we now have both the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University and the adjacent FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

From humble beginnings great things can happen.  Not overnight but certainly over time, so I applaud members of SACC for pushing the envelope in Stratford and I wish you luck in the future.  Good things will happen when you present a clear vision and dedicate yourselves to seeing it through.

For more information on the SACC and the group's proposed Stratford Arts and Culture Centre, visit their website at

Finally, we cannot talk about events in Stratford without discussing the big news this year, the proposed replacement for the aging Tom Patterson Theatre.  The current theatre space, rented by the Stratford Festival from the city annually for over 40 years now, is well past its best-before date.  It includes the Kiwanis Community Centre and adjacent Stratford Lawn Bowling Club.

The Festival has secured a promise of $20-million in provincial government funding for the new theatre, and just this week announced Board Chair Dan Bernstein and his wife Claire Foerster are supporting the initiative with a whopping $10-million pledge.  Bernstein is Senior Strategist and Director of Bridgewater Associates in Westport, Connecticut, where they live.

Still, the Festival will have to launch a $100-million campaign to provide the capital for the new theatre and to establish a fund for future operations.  So if things go ahead as planned, expect to hear plenty about the fundraising initiative in the future.

The proposed new theatre will be designed by acclaimed Canadian architect Siamak Hariri and, according to a press release issued by the Festival, "envisions a theatre of warm stone wrapped in a glass curtain that both reflects and reveals the picturesque Avon River, which the theatre overlooks."  Warm stone?  Most of the stone I have encountered in my time is pretty cold, but hey, who am I to throw a damper on the fundraising party?

If the plan goes ahead, and it is still a big IF at this point, the old theatre would be torn down this winter and work would start immediately on the new venue, I'm told.  It would not be ready for next season, of course, to the new season would be scaled back just a bit to accommodate the reduced theatre space available.

Predictably, community groups are divided on the proposed new theatre, although most acknowledge the old one is due for replacement.  But many want to relocate the new theatre to a new space and leave the current community space for the community to use.  That would still necessitate considerable upkeep on the old structure and there have been no promises as to how that would be paid for, from what I can see.

The only logical choice is to build on the current spot and I am sure that is what will happen, but it would be nice to include a green space within the plan for the Stratford Lawn Bowling Club rather than move them out after all these years.

At two public meetings held at the Rotary Complex recently, it was learned the Festival could potentially purchase the land from the city rather than continue to rent.  That would save the Festival about $80-thousand a year in rental fees alone.  But there are still considerable costs to be incurred going forward on the project, so it is by no means a done deal yet, as I understand it.

Hey, the only constant is change.  I spent many an intermission in the summer months watching the lawn bowlers next door do their thing, and years earlier at the downtown Avon Theatre I recall going next door to Pounder Brothers Hardware for a browse during intermission at that theatre.  That changed and people survived, so hopefully the changes at the Patterson Theatre will result in positive change and few hurt feelings as well.

So, lots happening in Stratford this season.  I think I'll have to get back more often to keep up on what's happening in the future.  It could be an interesting off season to be sure.

Have a great weekend!

October 28th, 2017.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Stratford Festival's Guys & Dolls a hit!

Since I no longer work full time in the radio industry, I no longer have the privilege of attending and reviewing live theatre events on an ongoing basis as I did in the past, so nowadays it is a hit and miss proposition for me.  But when I do attend I feel the need to wear my reviewer's hat as in days of old and give my take on a particular theatre or music event.

Such was the case last weekend as my far better half and I travelled to Stratford for an overnight stay at our favourite B&B and catch a couple of rush seats for the big musical this season, Guys and Dolls.

First off, let me say rush seats are not what they used to be.  I know we are supporting the arts and all that, but there didn't appear to be much of a rush for rush seats for the Sunday afternoon performance, from what I could see.  Even at that, the theatre was just over 65 per cent full at showtime, from my best guess.

It is interesting to note we attended both festivals this past month, the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, each time catching their big musical for the season.  Maybe it is just me, but with the acrimonious atmosphere we appear to be living in today as far as the world is concerned, something light and escapist seemed to fit the bill just fine, thanks.

While I don't mean to pit both major festivals against each other here, it is hard not to draw comparisons between the two big musicals being offered this season.  While the Shaw Festival revived a nicely updated version of a 1937 musical poking fun at the British aristocracy, the Stratford Festival decided to bank on a tried-and-true Broadway classic by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls, harkening back to the 1940s when New York City was a hotbed of gamblers, gangsters and particularly unsavoury characters.

Described as a "musical fable of Broadway", Guys and Dolls dates from 1950 and is based on a story and colourful characters dreamed up by the one and only Damon Runyon.  Music and lyrics are by Frank Loesser with a book by Jo Sterling and Abe Burrows.

The story is well-known by now:  a bunch of gangers and gamblers are trying to stay one step ahead of the law as they try to find new and creative places to hold their all-night crap games, wagering whatever and whenever they can.  Into this less-than-ideal atmosphere march the local unit of the Salvation Army, trying to save souls from the evils of gambling and such.

The Sally Ann brigade is led by a winsome young lady named Sarah Brown, played with great charm here by Alexis Gordon.  Somewhat naive and of good moral character, she cannot see the forest for the trees at times as she and her band of dedicated soul-savers work tirelessly on a thankless task.

Sarah meets up with the sorry lot of gamblers and finds herself strangely attracted to Sky Masterson, one of the gambling kingpins who wagers a bet he can whisk her off to Cuba for a quick dinner getaway.  She accepts and gets more than she bargains for when the drinks take effect.  So, too does Sky, played nicely by Evan Buliung, who falls hard for Sarah and starts thinking maybe it's time to turn over a new leaf.

Into this mix of good and not-so-good characters add Sean Arbuckle's convincing take on Nathan Detroit and his long suffering girlfriend cum fiancee Miss Adelaide, played with great style and sexiness by Blythe Wilson.  Nathan gets roped into marrying showgirl Miss Adelaide after stalling for fourteen long years in order to help secure a gambling spot for the guys.

Supporting cast members that stand out are numerous in this first-rate cast, including Steve Ross' snack-eating Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Mark Uhre's ultra athletic Benny Southstreet.

But as good as this cast is, and they are collectively very, very good, the real star of the show is director and choreographer Donna Feore, who just seems to go from strength to strength at Stratford, proving to be the director/choreographer of choice now for the ultra-important big-scale musical on the Festival Theatre's thrust stage.

Her work here is simply breathtaking, with many moments when you sit watching the cast and wonder just how they do what they do without colliding on stage.  She's that good.  Feore has the cast to back up her ambitious steps, of course, but her vision is what drives this show from start to finish.

Sure, the storyline is somewhat dated to be sure, and gender equality is not really part of the mix here.  But you check your logic at the door here as you do with Shaw's slick Me and My Girl and just enjoy the show.  There simply is no better way to spend a fall afternoon at either festival than to catch either musical before they close.

The run for Guys and Dolls has been extended to November 5th as have several other shows at Stratford this season, so you still have plenty of time to see the show before it closes.  For this fan of great musicals, Guys and Dolls rates a solid 3 out of 4 stars.

For tickets and more information, call the box office or go to

Next week, more on our trips to Stratford this season and things to see outside of the theatre at any season.

Have a great weekend!

October 14th, 2017.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Remembering Thanksgivings past & present...

It's been a little while since I was regularly posting in this space again, and for that I apologize.  Busy work schedule with very early mornings lately have meant little or no brain power left when I finally sit down to write.  But a holiday weekend seems the perfect time to revisit some thoughts I have had lately while working around the house.

I'll dispense with the arts reporting for this weekend since Thanksgiving weekend is here, and many of us find ourselves in a somewhat more reflective mood than usual.  The crisp fall days and cooler nights tend to do that as we realize the winter is not that far off.

After living in our present home for about 16 years now, we've accumulated a lot of stuff.  Much of it, as many others discover too, they can certainly do without.  So I have been spending a lot of time in the basement lately sorting through boxes and seeing what we can discard and what we should keep.  It is a tedious process as anyone who has done the same can attest to.

Much of the stuff I've sorted through lately has been related to my late parents, as many of their personal things ended up in our basement since I'm the only family member living in Niagara with them.  That means wading through boxes and boxes of photographs of all of us growing up, none of them ever digitized.  That will be a tedious project I might leave for retirement, if I get to it even then!

My Dad was an amateur photographer of some renown, having won more than a few awards over the years including one in a Toronto Star photo contest back in the 80s for a picture he took of two cats on a roof in England many years ago.  That framed photograph will soon have a place of honour in my home office.

You can imagine the number of photo albums I have to go through after a life lived behind the camera lens, shooting pictures of the family on vacation for many years as well as photographic evidence of their many retirement trips.  How many?  Well, they drove not once, not twice, but FIVE times to Alaska for example, taking breathtaking pictures along the way.  In fact, the only state, province or territory they did not visit during their lives was, uh, New Jersey.  Could never quite figure that one out...

When Mom passed away in 2000, Dad kept going, albeit at a slower pace.  He also travelled further afield, since Mom was not too fond of airplanes.  So Dad in his final years joined travel groups going to such far-flung places as China and Iceland.  His camera was never not around his neck.

Dad never got into digital photography, preferring instead traditional black & white shots since he was largely colour-blind.  He had to rely on Mom's expertise when developing colour photographs so he could get the shadings just right.  Yes, Dad developed his pictures himself.  Years ago while growing up in Toronto, if you could not find Dad he was usually holed up in his downstairs darkroom developing photographs of the family trips we had taken.

At the time of his death in 2009 Dad still had about five 35mm cameras of various quality, all of them well-used.  When I was clearing out his things after he died I discovered there was still a half-used role of film in one of the cameras and I was curious to see what final thoughts he had in his final months.  Were there more stunning nature shots to marvel at?  I took the camera to my local Black's camera store to see what could be done.

I was given instructions on how to extricate the film from the camera without exposing it to the daylight and upon doing so, took the film in to Black's for developing.  I waited to see what would come back.  Sadly, they were all mundane shots even I could have taken, such as cars parked in the Pen Centre parking lot, for example.

I guess even Dad had run out of inspiration for his photographic art by the end of his life.  I was crushed.  But still, these were his final pictures, so they will always have a special place in the archives.

All of which brings us to this reflective time of year, Thanksgiving weekend.  Traditionally we gathered as a family to celebrate not only Thanksgiving but Dad's birthday that landed on the 10th of October and Mom & Dad's wedding anniversary, which was October 15th.  Dad would be turning 93 this year had he lived; if both Mom and Dad were alive they would be celebrating their 68th wedding anniversary.

It's a funny thing, but I find I miss them more as the years go by rather than less.  With each passing Thanksgiving I wish we could still be together celebrating as in the past, knowing it simply isn't possible.  But this weekend neither of them will be far from my thoughts as this weekend continues.

Meantime in the basement, I took great care with the wedding album still in good shape after all these years, admiring how young they looked back in 1949.  Oh Dad, you were a handsome devil back then!  Mom looked stunning.  I stopped momentarily and my heart jumped when I realized buried in a box were the credit cards Dad still had when he died.  I thought I had destroyed them years ago, although I know I cancelled them right away.  But these were physical evidence of a life well lived, there in my hands at that very moment.  I came close to shedding a tear, as it really never gets any easier to do this.

Growing up I remember Mom doing the ironing while dampening the clothes with a vintage Coke bottle with a sprinkler head attached to it.  She would vigorously shake the water out before ironing the section to perfection.  I found that very bottle in one of the boxes and I almost lost it.  God, this was getting painful...

I was both fascinated and intrigued when I found Dad's war records, as he never really discussed that part of his life much, and I noted the date of his discharge and the day of his passing were identical, separated by over half a century.  Yes, I sniffled while discovering the fact.

So at the end of this rambling reminiscence I just wanted to take a moment and remind you to cherish what you have and those around you who matter most.  It is not wise to carry grudges for years at a stretch, and if you have any this is as good a time as ever to resolve the outstanding issues and get on with living your lives.

We are all put on this earth for a purpose and for only a finite period of time.  Why waste it on anger and acrimony?  You never, ever want to regret not telling someone you love how you feel until after they are gone.  Do it now.  This weekend is ideal.

Have a great Thanksgiving weekend.  Celebrate however and with whomever you see fit.  But be thankful.  We have much to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

October 7th, 2017.