Saturday, July 21, 2018

Stage Kiss at Shaw Festival a fun play, but not perfect

Much anticipation accompanied my latest visit to The Shaw in Niagara on the Lake, as the Festival was staging a modern play dating back to just 2011 by Sarah Ruhl, entitled Stage Kiss.  The play within a play concept has been mined many times before, of course, but looking at the classic juxtaposition through a more modern lens was one I was especially looking forward to.

Stage Kiss, at the compact and cosy Royal George Theatre, is in exactly the right space.  It would be totally lost on the huge Festival Theatre stage; here the intimacy of the space helps to magnify the intimacy shared by the two lead actors known simply as She and He.

In a nutshell, Stage Kiss introduces us to Fiona Byrne as She, who has been out of the acting profession for about ten years to raise a family, and Martin Happer as He, an actor who has not been working all that much as of late.  They both need this job, and as it turns out, each other too.

Both He and She were formerly lovers in what passes for real life in this play, a parody of actors actually in that former state.  At a dank rehearsal hall, both He and She come together to audition for the two lead parts not knowing the other was going to be there.  Indeed, neither has kissed the other in years and with good reason.  Things did not end well for them years ago, apparently.

But here they are, together again, kissing on stage in a play that portrays two actors falling in love and...kissing on stage.

It begs the question:  can actors kiss and not feel some sort of chemical interaction between them?  Or can those same kisses ignite passions either for the first time or all over again?

The answer appears to be the latter.  Yes, He and She fall in love all over again in spite of past history suggesting they will not succeed.  Problem is, She has a husband and a daughter; He has a girlfriend, who just happens to walk in on them in the second act as they awaken in his scruffy apartment and does not immediately put two and two together, discovering it does not add up to three.

There are lots of complications in this play within a play, not all of them deftly handled by playwright Ruhl.  But taken at face value it can be a lot of fun as the audience feels they are in on the gag and voyeurs of sorts at the same time.

The cast, under the clever direction of Anita Rochon, does a magnificent job with the script for the most part and have great fun in the process.  Fiona Byrne hits all the right notes as She; Neil Barclay is solid and quite understated as the Director of the forgotten 1930s melodrama the actors are auditioning for.  I couldn't help but think, however, he was just a bit more understanding and tolerant than some directors I have come to know over the years...

Other supporting cast members putting in solid work are Jeff Meadows as Kevin, the gay actor who perhaps has a non-professional connection to the director although it is never clearly spelled out, and Rong Fu as He's girlfriend Millicent.  She has one big scene in the play and makes the most of it.  Meadows, by mocking a gay actor's supposed inability to kiss a woman in a sensual way is hilarious to watch but one can't help but think he is doing a great disservice to those in the profession who actually find themselves in that position.

That leaves us with the role of He, and here I have a problem with the performance I attended.  I could imagine Martin Happer in this role and being a genuine love-interest to Fiona Byrne's She.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason the performance I attended featured understudy Sanjay Talwar in the role of He, rather than his usual role of She's husband.

Talwar is a talented, solid actor with lots of memorable performances at Shaw and elsewhere on his resume.  This, unfortunately, is not one of them.  He gives a solid performance here as He, but for me there simply was no chemistry between him and Fiona Byrne's She.  True he is only the understudy but still, in a pivotal role such as this I feel the entire dynamic of the play was altered more that I would have liked.

In Talwar's place in the role of the Husband, Andrew Lawrie gave a credible performance.

Oh well, no idea if it was an unscheduled absence on the part of Happer or not, but he was clearly missed at the performance I recently attended.

So, is Stage Kiss worth the visit?  If you want a fun afternoon or evening of light theatre that doesn't make you think too hard and get a behind-the-scenes look at the world of theatre, sure, it is well worth the visit.  But if you're looking for more proverbial meat on the bones as it were, I suggest you look elsewhere this season.

Stage Kiss continues at the Royal George Theatre until September 1st, and rates a moderate 2 out of 4 stars.

Enjoy the weekend!

July 21st, 2018.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Music Niagara's 20th Anniversary Season now in full swing

Last Saturday evening I was invited to the Opening Gala for the 20th anniversary season for Music Niagara, the little music festival that could, and does great things each and every year.  Rather than hold the inaugural concert at St. Mark's Anglican Church in the heart of Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake as was the case last season, this year they opted for the larger, more modern confines of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Centre.

While not oozing history like venerable St. Mark's does, the large and airy community centre, located next to the public library on your way into town along highway 55 proved to be an ideal location for the season kickoff.  It also has the advantage of a proper stage and requisite sound system in order to make the concert a pleasure to see and hear.

The featured artists for the gala were the acclaimed Hannaford Street Silver Band, a Toronto-based professional-calibre brass band making its home base at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.  To say they entertained the audience royally would be an understatement - their full, rich sound and precision made for a totally enjoyable evening of music-making.  Whether playing a spirited Suite from Bizet's opera Carmen or more contemporary works by The Beatles or Harry James, they come prepared to play and executed the programme with panache.

That being said, I was a little disappointed by the length of time it took to actually get the concert underway.  A scheduled start time of 7:30 did indeed bring the musicians to the stage, but so too a few opening remarks from Music Niagara's founding Artistic Director Atis Bankas, a welcome from the concert sponsors, a concert introduction by James Tupman and further welcoming remarks by the conductor.  All told, it was almost 20 minutes before we even got to stand for our national anthem.

Now I know all artistic pursuits reliant on sponsorship from many levels of government and corporations want to acknowledge them in person as well as in the programme, and make sure everyone is fully informed before the concert begins, but this time it just seemed to be verbal overload before we actually got to the music.  I am not criticizing the content or the necessity of it, but I think a little more brevity or at the very least spreading it out over the evening a bit better might have been a better option.

As for the size of the audience, I was glad to see a very good turnout for the concert - not a full house by any means but it is a larger venue to fill and there was another event just down the road at Jackson Triggs to contend with.

This, however, brings up a concern I have written about before and will touch on again here - the aging population of concert-goers for events such as this.  Music Niagara is not alone in this regard; indeed all classical and similar events are struggling with some measure of declining attendance as their core audience simply dies off.  I don't claim to have the answers to how to solve the problem, but clearly all arts organizations have to pay heed to the changing attitudes of the music-loving public and tailor their approach to better serve it.

I worry there will come a time when an organization such as Music Niagara and many others face a crisis of declining attendance.  It is certainly not immediate and no need to push the panic button now, but it might be wise to devise a game plan sooner rather than later as to how to successfully address the aging population of concert-goers and attract more of those younger individuals who increasingly expect to be entertained online for free through such channels as YouTube.

For now, though, it is wonderful to see so many welcome the 20th season of Music Niagara at many venues in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Music Niagara is a jewel of the Region, offering a wide variety of musical styles to suit most tastes, so if you have never been, what's holding you back?  Try it, you might just like it!

Coming up today, for example, a concert entitled Great Romantics will feature Norbert Heller and Alexander Dobson along with Artistic Director Atis Bankas performing music by Dietrich, Brahms and Schumann.  The concert begins at 3 pm in the Market Room of the Court House in the centre of town.

A good introduction to some of the music and artists featured during the festival can be had at the regular Sunday in the Park concerts at Simcoe Park in the centre of town.  The events are held in the bandshell and are free of charge.  Just bring a lawn chair and pack a picnic lunch if you wish and enjoy the music.  Tomorrow's noon-hour concert features The Retro Ramblers, a barbershop quartet performing classics from the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Tomorrow afternoon at 3 pianist Victoria Kogan performs next in the Great Romantics series, along with the Gould String Quartet.  The concert, at lovely St. Mark's Church, will feature a programme of music by Liszt, Wagner and Schumann.

Tickets for all Music Niagara concerts and events are available online by going to www.musicniagara.org or by calling the Shaw Festival box office at 905-468-2172.  You can also access the entire lineup online at www.musicniagara.org.

Music Niagara offers some of the best, affordable high-quality summer entertainment in a picturesque setting in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  For many it remains a gem yet to be discovered.  Why not take some time this year to introduce yourself to the joys of live classical music at a very attractive price?

Music Niagara continues until August 11th.

Enjoy your weekend!

July 14th, 2018.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Foster Festival kicks off new season with a Greatest Hit

Late last month the Foster Festival launched their third season at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines with what's being called a Norm Foster Greatest Hit.  It would be hard to narrow down any of Foster's classic plays as such, but after seeing the current production of Wrong For Each Other yesterday afternoon, I'd have to agree it is right up there with the best of them.

Foster's plays allow us to look in the mirror and see ourselves, or at least much wittier versions of ourselves.  Norm has this unique gift of being able to distill life experiences both good and bad into a two-hour play most anyone would enjoy, which is precisely why he is the darling of the summer theatre circuit throughout the country.  You would be hard pressed to find a summer theatre season anywhere without at least one Foster play on the bill.  Essentially, staging a Norm Foster play in the summer is guaranteed win night for most theatre companies.

In fact, the Showboat Festival Theatre in Port Colborne is producing Screwball Comedy starting next week, for example.  You might recall, that play premiered last season at the Foster Festival.  And that's the wonderful thing about having a festival dedicated to producing Foster's plays and hosting his premieres:  we act as an incubation theatre of sorts, eventually feeding the rest of the country another new Foster classic they can bet the proverbial farm on.

Once again this season the Foster Festival is premiering two new plays after Wrong for Each Other closes after tomorrow night's performance:  the second show opening July 18th is Come Down From Up River, and Renovations For Six closes out the annual festival with the opening on August 8th.  Both of those productions will be directed by Foster Festival Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone.

This first show, however, is directed by Shaw Festival veteran Jim Mezon, who has given us many thought-provoking productions in Niagara-on-the-Lake over the years.  Of Foster, Jim writes in his Director's Notes, he "writes us.  He writes who we are, what we want and need, what we fear, what angers us, what confuses us, what gives us joy...and he does this without cynicism."

There is a common thread in all of Foster's plays, of course, and that is an overriding sense of decency.  They may come off as jerks, stuck up or just plain unlikeable in the beginning, but their sense of decency shines through before the two hours is up and you can't help but see yourself - and others you know - in many of those characters.

All of which brings us to Wrong For Each Other.  The play, dating from several years ago, stars Daniel Briere as Rudy Sorenson and Julia Porter as Norah Case.  Rudy and Norah, we soon discover, where married years ago, divorced four years ago, and have not seen each other since.  Until now, when Rudy, it turns out, more or less stalks his ex-wife and sets up a "chance" meeting in a restaurant in order to see his former love once again.

I know, especially in this day and age any suggestion of stalking is looked upon as something more than a little creepy, but Rudy, we discover, is not acting out of malice but rather out of that genuine desire I think we all have to come to grips with the end of a relationship we are not quite ready to let go of yet.

While in that big-city restaurant at lunch-time, Rudy and Norah decide to put the past aside and share lunch together.  Alas, Rudy just can't avoid probing the things that went right and wrong in their relationship, and that makes Norah just a little uncomfortable.

Truth be told, Rudy in the flashback scenes when he first meets and tries to woo Norah, comes across as such an awkward round peg in a square hole sort of guy we are left to wonder what Norah actually saw in him in the first place.  But love, as they say, is blind, and who can explain love anyway?  Not I, for sure!

Norah and Rudy do fall in love, marry, and try to have a child together.  The loss of that child brings more than heartbreak to the relationship, it brings depression upon Norah, and tests the strength of the marriage when Rudy ends up having a fling outside of matrimony.  Ultimately, they divorce and that should be the end of it.

But not as far as Rudy is concerned.  He still carries the torch for his former love, and for most of the play the compliment is not returned.  But at the end?  I won't give that away...

Director Mezon has done a fine job of keeping things simple and focusing on the characters themselves, so set changes are kept to a minimum.  He allows both Briere and Porter the freedom to delve into their respective characters and find the real people who loved and lost not that long ago.

Julia Porter and Daniel Briere are both making their debut with the Foster Festival in this play and their work together is quite good.  Hopefully we'll see them again in future seasons.

In spite of the subject matter in Wrong for Each Other, there are plenty of laughs to go around and Norm Foster is in rare form here.  He never allows the subject matter to become too maudlin and the audience looking for the exits.

Wrong for Each Other continues with evening performances tonight and tomorrow night at the PAC, and then preparations will be underway to stage the second play of the season, Come Down From Up River opening July 18th.

For tickets for this and all Foster Festival performances, go to www.fosterfestival.com or call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Theatre box office at 905-688-0722.

See you at the theatre!

July 12th, 2018.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Summer Music is all around us!

Now that we're into the month of July, most of the summer music festivals in Ontario are either in full swing or just about to get underway.  I thought this weekend we'll take a look at some of the best being offered in the coming weeks.

First and foremost, our local home-grown music festival, Music Niagara officially kicks off tonight at  the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Centre just off Highway 55 on your way into the Old Town.  This is the 20th season for the little festival that could, the brainchild of long-time artistic director Atis Bankas, and runs through to August 11th at various locations in and around Niagara.

Tonight's Gala Opening concert features an opening reception at 6:30 followed by a performance at 7:30 featuring the renowned Hannaford Street Silver Band, certainly this country's premiere brass ensemble, playing light classics, jazz and traditional favourites.  Tomorrow the annual Sunday in the Park series kicks off at Simcoe Park in the heart of Old Town, with a concert entitled Where Have all the Folk Songs Gone? starting at 12 noon.  The event is free and you're encouraged to bring a picnic lunch and lawn chairs and enjoy the music.

There are plenty of concerts coming up over the next month or so, ranging from classical to jazz to even some bluegrass.  Artists range from the Clarion Quartet, Isabel Bayrakdarian, the Gould String Quartet, pianist Andre Laplante and violinist Juliette Kang, among others.  There are also opera performances planned, including Mozart's Don Giovanni on Monday evening at 7:30, and the Elmer Iseler Singers present a 40th Anniversary concert next Thursday evening.

I'll be attending the opening concert tonight, and will be reporting on the festival again over the course of the summer in this space.  For tickets and more information, go to www.musicniagara.org, or call the Shaw Festival box office at 905-468-2172.

The 31st season of the Brott Music Festival is underway in and around Hamilton and Burlington, and there are always plenty of events planned to suit most every taste.  Since 1988 Maestro Boris Brott has presented a varied programme featuring the National Academy Orchestra, made up of music students across the country and professional mentors coming together to make music of a very high calibre.

Coming up this week, an Opera's Greatest Hits evening is planned for July 12th at 7:30 at the First Ontario Concert Hall in downtown Hamilton, featuring arias, duets and ensembles from the world of grand and comic opera, by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi, Tchaikovsky to Britten and even some Sir Arthur Sullivan for good measure.  Soloists will be the 13 cast members of the upcoming opera production of Mozart's Magic Flute.

If you like Big Band Music, the 40s come back to life July 15th at 7 pm at Fieldcote Memorial Park and Museum in Ancaster with young conductor Martin MacDonald leading the orchestra along with local favourite, pianist Valerie Tryon as soloist on the ever-popular Warsaw Concerto.

The aforementioned production of Mozart's Magic Flute happens at First Ontario Concert Hall on July 19th at 7:30 pm in what is described as a Steampunk adaptation.  Mixing old and new, the opera is fully staged and sung in English, featuring some of the brightest opera stars around today.

And on August 2nd, Star Wars - The Force Awakens will fill the L.R. Wilson Hall on Main Street West in Hamilton, featuring music from many of the Star Wars films.  Audience members will also be able to compete in a "Name that Film/Character" trivia contest.  Many of the familiar characters will make appearances as well, and audience members are also encouraged to come in costume.

For more information on these and all Brott Music Festival concerts, go to www.brottmusic.com or call the box office at 905-525-7664.

As mentioned in this space last month, the 39th annual Elora Festival kicks off July 13th and runs to the 29th at many venues in the lovely little town of Elora, northwest of Guelph.  The Festival will partner with the Canadian Opera Company for the Opening Night Gala at the Gambrel Barn just on the outskirts of town, featuring The Elora Singers, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Festival Orchestra, along with soloists Isabel Bayrakdarian, Danika Loren, Andrew Haji and Samuel Chan.  The programme features a host of opera favourites from Carmen, The Pearl Fishers, Turandot and other opera classics.

Also coming up on July 14th Isabel Bayrakdarian teams up with pianist Robert Kortgaard for a programme of Spanish music with songs by Manuel de Falla and others.  The concert is at 1 pm in the afternoon at St. John's Church in the heart of town.  That evening at 7:30 another Canadian opera star, Ben Heppner joins the Toronto Mass Choir at the Gambrel Barn for a concert entitled Oh Happy Day! for some good old gospel music and other songs of praise.

A concert I am looking forward to attending in Elora is a performance by Canadian singer Louise Pitre with The Elora Singers on July 21st at the Gambrel Barn.  Accompanied by pianist Diane Leah, Pitre will present her newest show, Chasing Rainbows:  Louise Pitre sings the Songs of Judy Garland.  Louise is famous for her role in Mamma Mia of course, but has become known as Canada's first lady of musical theatre for a host of other performances as well, not the least of which is the classic presentation of the music of Edith Piaf.

For tickets and information on these and other Elora Festival performances, go to www.elorafestival.ca or call 519-846-0331.

Finally, Stratford Summer Music presents their latest season at many venues indoors and out throughout the city of Stratford again this season, beginning July 16th with an Opening Night Gala featuring Fireworks and Music at 9:30 pm.  There will also be the launch of the popular Play Me, I'm Yours Piano Project July 17th at 10 am.  People can play pianos available daily until 7 pm.

Stratford musical theatre star Bruce Dow performs in concert at 9 pm on Friday July 20th, and there is even something called Bach Walks scattered throughout the Festival this season, with the first Bach Walk scheduled for July 29th at 9 am.

Stratford Summer Music presents a huge number of performances each summer right through to late August, and this year promises to be bigger and better than ever.  For a complete listing of concerts and events, log on to www.stratfordsummermusic.ca for more information and to purchase tickets.

Enjoy a musical summer in Ontario!

July 7th, 2018.