Sunday, June 30, 2019

Foster Festival kicks off the season with a winner

The fourth season of The Foster Festival is now underway in the Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines and unlike past seasons, the first show of the season is not full of uproarious laughter at every turn.

That's not to say The Writer, Norm Foster's 60th play receiving its World Premiere performance at the Festival isn't funny.  Quite the contrary.  But while past productions show why Foster is a master of the humorous side of the human condition, The Writer takes us in the other direction and provides a sometimes gut-wrenching experience many of us have dealt with in our own lives and finds shafts of light and gentle humour throughout.

In other words, your sides won't ache from laughter but your heart will ache instead.

Before I get into the play itself, I want to set the scene on a personal level, and this is something we'll all end up doing when watching the play.

Earlier this month my sister Kelli and I took a sunny Saturday and drove down to Toronto where our entire family history is buried in three separate cemeteries.  It had occurred to me some time ago we had not properly documented where people are and specific dates of their respective passings.  I called it the 'Family Plot Tour' and it wasn't the least bit morbid.  We laughed at the thought of past memories in most cases when remembering many family members and celebrated lives well lived.  It was a bonding exercise for my sister and I and we'll always treasure this day we shared together.

Family members included our parents, of course, as Mom passed away 19 years ago and Dad ten years ago.  With Mom it was very sudden but with Dad it was a slower decline not unlike that experienced by the elder Wellner, Donald, in Foster's play.  My father's mother died in 1981 after several years of decline and increasing dementia.

Dad had his basic faculties almost up until the end but the gradual decline with his mother struck me particularly hard as I visited her in the nursing home and she had no idea who I was.  I could not go back; the pain was too great for me.  And strangely upon reflection now, there was no preparation for this experience beforehand.

That's why The Writer is such an important play for everyone to see.  It gives us insight into what many of us will experience as family members we love and cherish decline in their later years.  For me, I could have really used this play back in 1981!

The writer in the title is indeed Donald Wellner, a Pulitzer-prize-winning author of A Kind Heart, a play that made his career many years ago.  He hasn't had another hit since and still clings to the hope his next play will be it.  Alas, he just can't seem to get started typing anything substantial on his trusty old Underwood typewriter.  By the end of the play and through eight scenes, he's managed only ten pages of his next great success.

His son Blake, who is 42 when the play begins is himself a writer, but 'only a travel writer' his father almost sneers.  Blake acts as a go-between as his father is now estranged from his wife and daughter, living in a dingy apartment with little furniture save for little more than a desk, a chair and his Underwood typewriter.

It seems the elder Wellner had been paying the rent for an actress he had known for many years and his wife, upon discovering the fact, throws him out accusing him of infidelity in their marriage.  The daughter sides with Mom, so Donald is left to his own devices until Blake tries to intervene.  Trouble is, mother and daughter now won't have anything to do with Donald, in spite of the fact he remains confident they will overcome this 'speed bump' in their relationship soon enough.

It never happens.

Through the eight scenes of The Writer, Foster guides us through the difficult eight years that transpire in the play, during which time father Donald starts to lose his memory and gradually succumb to dementia.  He eventually moves into a nursing home but that is about the only improvement in his lonely existence.

Son Blake is at his side throughout, visiting on regular intervals in spite of his busy schedule and work that frequently requires him to be away.  He sees the decline and knows he can't do much about it other than manage it as best he can.

In the final heartbreaking scene, the elder Wellner remembers his estranged daughter well yet son Blake, sitting right beside him, is unknown to him.  It is a scene many can identify with, myself included, and it isn't easy to handle.  And yes, for me the memories of 1981 came flooding back at that moment.

The two actors in The Writer are amazing.  Jamie Williams, who last appeared at the Festival in Foster's Here on the Flight Path provides the anchor the elder Wellner needs in his life at this point and does so with great patience and tact.  Donald Wellner is played by Shaw Festival stalwart Guy Bannerman and shines brightly in his Foster Festival debut.

Bannerman has always been a great supporting actor at Shaw but here he needs to carry the show along with Williams.  He clearly relishes the opportunity to drive the action of the play and Guy simply does not disappoint.

Director Patricia Vanstone directs with great sensitivity, while sets, lighting and costumes never get in the way of the story; all work together to provide a simple yet elegant backdrop for the two actors who bring The Writer to life in truly magical ways.

The Writer is simply one of Norm Foster's best efforts.  Whether it gets the exposure in the future it deserves will depend on choices made on the summer theatre circuit in the years to come.  But clearly The Foster Festival is providing a wonderful forum for Norm Foster to stretch his considerable talents and as he puts it himself, step outside of his comfort zone.

Catch The Writer if you can.  It continues until July 5th at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and will be well worth your time.  You won't be disappointed.

For tickets call the PAC box office at 905-688-0722.

Have a great holiday weekend!

June 30th, 2019.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Brigadoon a melodic antidote to today's tumult

There is for many, myself included, an unbridled fondness for musicals of the so-called "Golden Age".  The era of musicals such as Carousel, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and so on.  The stark reality is, as much as we might hate to admit it, they are often too dated for today's audiences as originally written.

There has been in recent years a movement towards "updating" in some form these classic musicals to appeal to a more modern audience and quite often, it seems to work to an extent.  More hits than misses, if you will.

Lerner & Loewe's first collaboration, Brigadoon, is getting the update treatment this year at the Shaw Festival, courtesy Canadian actor and director Brian Hill, who himself trod the boards at the Shaw Festival as part of the acting ensemble for three seasons earlier in his career.

Brigadoon, which premiered on Broadway in 1947 still deals in escapism pure and simple, but the time-period has been revised in Hill's fresh take to offer escapism from the horrors of the Second World War.  For the most part, it makes sense and works quite well.

However, there are still questions that need answers we don't get in this Brigadoon update, such as why and how the romantic attraction between George Krissa's Tommy Albright and Alexis Gordon's Fiona MacLaren even happens in the first place.

No matter; love conquers all, even in the Scottish Highlands in in the 1700s.

For the uninitiated, Tommy and his comic sidekick Jeff Douglas, played with great skill by Mike Nadajewski, are on a postwar hunting trip in those same Scottish Highlands and find themselves lost, tired and pretty much out of options.

Yet out of the Scottish mist on this very day, as it does every 100 years on this particular day, the mythical Scottish town of Brigadoon materializes right before their eyes.  As does lovely Fiona, of course.  Tommy is smitten.  Jeff is skeptical.

Tommy and Fiona almost immediately fall for each other (hey, it is a musical, after all) resulting in a lovely version of the musical's signature tune, Almost Like Being in Love, while Jeff settles for a more prosaic (read physical) hook up with Meg, played by Kristi Frank.

Wouldn't you know on this very night Fiona's younger sister Jean is to be married to Charlie Dalrymple, played by Madelyn Kriese and Matt Nethersole respectively.  Fiona invites Tommy and Jeff to the wedding.  This was before the time of wedding planners, of course.

Trouble is, Jean's former boyfriend Harry, played by Travis Seetoo is none too happy with the scenario on every level and his displeasure results in the chase scene that offers a dramatic departure from the romance of the wedding itself.

All the while, back in New York City a bride awaits Tommy "picking out flatware as he enjoys his Highland fling" as Jeff aptly puts it.  What to do, what to do?  Tommy ponders staying in the mythical Brigadoon with his new found love Fiona forever rather than return to New York to get ready for his impending marriage to his fiancee.

I like the update overall, although it can't quite overcome the age of the musical totally.  Director Glynis Leyshon making a welcome return to Shaw brings a 21st century perspective to a 20th century musical with the clever use of projections on the stage, designed by Corwin Ferguson.  These result in several 'oohs' from the audience.

Music Director Paul Sportelli does a nice job in the pit with a small orchestra and a collection of voices that altogether sounds larger than it actually is.  Linda Garneau's choreography is certainly a match for the athleticism of the story and designer Sue LePage gives us tartans everywhere.

So does Brigadoon deliver?  If you want an escape from the modern scourge of social media, populist  premiers and presidents and the rantings about "fake news", this will do it admirably.  Will you come away singing every song from the show?  No you won't.  But don't let that deter you; Brigadoon is a melodic antidote for what collectively ails us at the moment, if only for a couple of hours or so.

Brigadoon runs at the Festival Theatre until October 13th and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.

Have a great weekend!

June 23rd, 2019.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Attending Brock Convocation

On this Father's Day weekend I thought I'd take a bit of a detour from my usual arts beat to report on the past week's convocation ceremonies at Brock University.  There is an arts connection to it, so bear with me.  But there is also a very personal connection to the ceremonies this week, so let's start with that.

I've had a long standing relationship with Brock University although I've never been a student there.  I have toyed with attending as a senior student once I retire but we'll have to see if that actually happens in the future.  Most of my contact with Brock faculty, staff and students has been through my many years in the media, both at CKTB Radio and more recently, hosting an interview programme on Brock research on Brock Radio, CFBU-FM.

My nephew Rory Keith, who lived up in Kenora, Ontario, was accepted into the Sports Management programme at Brock and began studies 4 years ago.  Hard to believe it was that long ago we moved young Rory into the Lowenberger Residence down at Brock!

After the first year Rory and some friends moved off campus as many do and rented a house in the Merritton area, then for the last two years renting a home on Jacobson Avenue to be closer to the Brock bus route.  Ironically, while delivering mail during my first years at Canada Post I frequently delivered on both routes that included his houses, although he moved into the Jacobson address once I had moved to inside work at the depot.

This past Monday, I commented to my sister Kelli Saunders it is ironic too the reception tent was situated in the parking lot adjacent to Lowenberger where the journey all began four years ago.  Funny how things work out...

Brock Convocation ceremonies lasted the entire week, with one ceremony in the morning and another in the afternoon, all taking place in the Ian Beddis Gymnasium, part of the Walker Complex at Brock. At Brock they have this down to a science and everything worked like clockwork.

Rory was part of the graduating class Monday afternoon, and was conferred his Bachelor of Sport Management degree (with honours) along with many of his student colleagues.  It is an amazing achievement and needless to say, we are all incredibly proud of what Rory has accomplished.  He's already working full-time in his field right here in St. Catharines, so he'll be staying here for a while yet.

This is only the second time a member of our family graduated from University; his mother Kelli graduated from Guelph University in the late 80s, although neither she nor I have much recollection of that ceremony.  I have no idea why!

In spite of threatening weather on Monday everything went smoothly, and although I think the formal speeches might have been shortened a bit, overall the ceremony went surprisingly fast given the number of graduating students they had to get through.  The only snag came when the threatened rain finally materialized just as everyone was gathering outside for pictures and the reception.

No matter; everyone was pleased with the proceedings and spirits were high for obvious reasons!

Now on Friday, the final day of Spring Convocation, one of the notable members of the graduating class was Robin Guard, earning his third Brock degree and in the process breaking the record for the oldest-ever graduate at Brock - again!

Robin initially broke the record in June of 2017 at the age of 93.  This third time he graduates at the ripe old age of 95, although I'm told he was not in attendance on Friday for the ceremony.  It all began with a degree in English Literature in 2015, followed by his masters in History in 2017 and finally his Classics degree this past Friday.

Robin decided to enrol at Brock following the death of is wife from cancer, as a way of dealing with the grief.  It seemed to work as he forged many strong bonds with other mature students as well as the younger students, all of whom accepted him as one of their own and relied on him to offer a different perspective given his age.

This will be his final degree from Brock, apparently.  Now he says he wants to write his autobiography and I for one cannot wait to read it!

I first met Robin years ago as he was a regular customer with my online music business, A Web of Fine Music.  In later years I would often run in to him at Niagara Symphony concerts up at Brock and on one memorable occasion, he actually conducted the NSO.

Having successfully bid on the opportunity to conduct through the annual silent auction, it was simply great to see this young octogenarian in full tails conducting with the vigour of a man over half his age.  He is a treasure!

If anything, he'll be my inspiration should I choose to take up the challenge in retirement and enrol at Brock myself.

So on this Father's Day, remember you're never too old to learn, and never too young to inspire those around you, either.  Rory does that every day, and so does Robin.

Wish our Dad could have been there to enjoy it.  He would have been proudest of all...

Happy Father's Day!

June 16th, 2019.