Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Show Must Go On in Niagara Falls!

Often I write about events happening at higher-profile venues such as the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, both in downtown St. Catharines, or the Shaw and Stratford Festivals in the summer months.  But there are lots of smaller-scale community groups and professional dinner-theatre venues putting on shows on a regular basis too.  The problem is, they sometimes get overlooked in favour of the bigger events and venues.

So this weekend I want to pay tribute to a long-standing theatre tradition based in Niagara Falls that has literally been packing them in for nightly dinner shows for years, and perhaps overlooked by some as being "too touristy for me".  The truth is, it provides an exceptional venue for young, up-and-coming musical performers and an exceptional value for their patrons.

I'm talking, of course, of Oh Canada Eh? on Lundy's Lane, founded and co-owned by Jim Cooper and Anne Robinson.  My far better half and I have ventured down to catch a few shows there over the years, and have always been impressed both with the show and the dinner provided.  Our most recent trip, this past Monday evening, was a perfect case in point.

We had heard of their new show, literally titled The Show Must Go On, featuring music of the 60s and 70s.  Since Sophie is a big fan of music of that era she was excited to invite a couple of friends and we made it a foursome for dinner and the show.

The show is written and directed by Lee Siegel, a musical child of that era who has extensive theatrical experience both locally and beyond, including the Stratford Festival.  In his program notes, he warns patrons this show is unlike any other they have seen at the venerable log cabin and he's right.  It is louder, showier, and edgier than we've seen in the past, introducing several new performers to the Oh Canada Eh family in the process.

At first blush you might be surprised at some of the musical content presented in medley form, as there is certainly some riskier material than we've seen in the past.  But looking at the audience at the performance we attended Monday night, not a single person didn't know most if not all of the songs on the programme and some even moved with the music while seated at their tables.

That's the whole idea, of course.  Keep it interesting but be sure to present a crowd-pleasing show.  This Siegel achieves effortlessly, stringing together hits ranging from Tears of a Clown, He's So Fine, War, When a Man Loves a Woman, Freebird, Spinning Wheel and a host of others.  He also designed the lighting for the show which works particularly well in the compact space of the dinner theatre.

You can pack as many great songs as you can into a show and it can still fall flat if you don't have the right cast to execute your plan but again, Siegel has scored a winner with this young, knowledgeable and energetic team of performers.  True, most if not all of them were not even born when much of this music was first popular, but we've all grown up with it all around us so it is unlikely any of it is the least bit unfamiliar to this cast.

We only know the first names of the singers, Alexandra, Alex, Ann-Marie, Andrew, Mason and Melissa, but many are known in the community for their other work over the years.  All of them imbued their solo numbers with a lot of feeling and worked well together on the ensemble pieces, but the biggest standout in the cast, I think, is Ann-Marie, who gets the show rolling with a circus-themed medley of The Show Must Go On.

The performers are backed by a small but talented group of musicians:  Jake Zapotoczny or Rob Kilian on piano, Adrian Juras or Nick Stevens on bass, Thomas Reid on drums and Bryce Moore or Brad Krauss on guitar.  They even get their shot at the solo spotlight in the show as well.

Audience participation is carefully grafted into the show too, so be careful where you choose to sit if you would rather not find yourself the subject of one of the songs in the show, for example.

On the subject of seating, if you have never been keep in mind the best value for sitting close enough but just far enough away is what's called Maple Leaf seating, which we always choose.  The dinner is served family style so be sure to greet your table-mates upon arrival as you will be passing things around before the show starts.

The dinner is basic but exceptionally well-presented and the service is very efficient.  It is amazing they can produce the quality of dinner they do for such a large crowd on time every night, no matter what.  You usually have your choice of several meat dishes along with potato and vegetable, with dessert and coffee or tea available during the intermission break.  If you have dietary restrictions they appear to have no problem fulfilling those, too.  Sophie, for example is vegan and she finds their alternate dish for her much to her liking so she doesn't feel singled out at all.

Many of the performers actually work as servers before the show starts so it is important to keep in mind they are working extremely hard for your enjoyment both on stage and off, so keep that in mind and tip appropriately, please.

This latest show at Oh Canada Eh runs until April 14th, six nights a week, so there is still plenty of time left to book a night.  It is certainly one of the best shows they've done and worth your time if you want to return again or if you've never been to the theatre before.

For package pricing simply go to the Oh Canada Eh website where you can book your tickets online. It is all pretty effortless.

Have a great weekend!

March 17th, 2018.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Top Girls plays at Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts

Friday evening I attended the opening night performance of Caryl Churchill's famous 1982 play Top Girls at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.  It was the latest presentation by the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University, which calls the downtown campus home.

Top Girls is directed by Danielle Wilson, on the Faculty at MIWSFPA and the cast is made up of students in the Department of Dramatic Arts.  The play is being presented in the small but exceptional theatre space within the Walker complex in downtown St. Catharines.

Wilson has assembled a strong cast for this production, all female of course, and each one of them shines as they uncover the nuances of each individual role.  Each cast member, seven in all, perform multiple roles, with the exception of Helena Ciuciura in the pivotal role of Marlene, the seemingly successful career woman who has snagged the top job at the Top Girls Employment Agency.

To celebrate her achievement, she throws a lavish dinner party at a trendy restaurant attended by several mythical or fictional characters from history, each showing strength in a variety of ways as they each arrive at some level of social achievement.  The now-famous, dreamlike opening scene gets rather raucous at times as the wine and brandy flow and each woman talks about their climb up the social ladder and what it took to get there, including at the expense of personal relationships.

The historical figures include Isabella Bird, a Victorian traveler based in Edinburgh, Scotland; a courtesan to a Japanese Emperor named Lady Nijo; Pope Joan, who posed as a man in order to gain the papacy, only to be stoned to death when her secret was revealed; Dull Gret, a figure of Flemish folklore who comes across as a Wagnerian heroine; and Patient Griselda, the obedient and subservient wife of a Marquis in Chaucer's "The Clerk's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales.

After the opening scene the action moves to present-day and largely deals with life at the Top Girls Employment Agency, where Marlene has successfully beaten out a man for the top position.  That fact causes a bitter exchange between her and Mrs. Kidd, the wife of Howard, who was passed over for the promotion in favour of Marlene.  Mrs. Kidd suggests, of course, Marlene should step aside in favour of Howard, who was devastated to lose out to a woman now doing 'a man's job.'  You can imagine the outcome...

The final, pivotal scene between Marlene and Joyce, who we find out has raised Marlene's illegitimate daughter Angie at the expense of her own child she was carrying due to the stress, is the climax to the play.  While drinking, the two rail at each other about a number of things, but most especially the future of young Angie whom we suspect doesn't know Marlene is actually her mother.  That is, until the very end of the play.

The play is very much a product of its time, touching on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's brand of conservatism known as "Thatcherism" and even the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in the spring of 1982.  But the subject matter is timeless and certainly relevant to today with director Wilson questioning in her programme notes if women have really come a long way since the 80s or not.

There is a lot to like about this production, from the sleek, modern set design to the simple use of props following the opening scene.  Costumes are especially impressive, with lots of creativity demonstrated both with the historical figures and the career women at the agency.

Performances are uniformly good, with Ciuciura's Marlene especially strong.  But others in the cast are also impressive including Manchari Paranthahan as Pope Joan, Jeanine and Nell, and Catherine Tait as Dull Gret, Mrs. Kidd and Joyce.

Wilson directs with a steady hand and firm grasp of the subject matter at hand, so the play never lags from start to finish.  The only annoying aspect of the play, and I know how relevant it is to the action how it is being presented, is how the actors talk over themselves in the opening scene.  Oftentimes you cannot absorb all the dialogue with more than one or two actors speaking at once.

But overall, this is a strong production showing the potential of a new generation of actors in our midst, and the Department of Dramatic Arts should be suitably proud.

Top Girls continues until March 9th at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, with evening performances at 7:30 and a Sunday matinee this afternoon at 2.  Call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722 for details and to purchase tickets.

Have a great weekend!

March 4th, 2018.