Sunday, July 28, 2019

Billy Elliot The Musical soars at Stratford

Earlier this month my far better half and I made our first of several day trips of the season to Stratford, a place that has become something of a second home to us over the years.  The reason for the latest outing was to catch the big musical on the Stratford Festival thrust stage this year, Billy Elliot The Musical.

Billy Elliot is a fictionalized story based in a hardscrabble town in northern England where the main occupation for generations has been mining.  But with the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the early 80s and her famous clash with the miners' unions, the fuse is lit on a powder-keg of emotions experienced by the rank and file as they come to grips with the likely end of their livelihood in the mines.  What else is there to do than work in the mines, after all?

The book and lyrics are by Lee Hall and music is by Elton John and although you won't leave the theatre humming a single tune from the show, the music is an integral part of the overall package and perfectly tells the story of a young lad fighting to find a better life for himself in such difficult circumstances.

Billy Elliot is the 11-year-old son of miner Jackie, coming to grips with losing his wife, likely losing his livelihood, and still managing to put food on the table and raise his young son.  He is also coping with a mother living with them who is slowly succumbing to dementia.

As gritty and difficult a story line as this is, Stratford wisely decided to take a chance on a far more contemporary musical than we are used to seeing at the Festival, likely for no other reason than the fact their most bankable choreographer/director Donna Feore was set to direct the show.  Her credits are lengthy at Stratford and elsewhere so if anyone has the golden touch at Stratford these days, much like the late Brian MacDonald did back in the 80s, Feore does.

Her casting choices are inspired and they have to be, because although Billy Elliot is indeed a musical it relies less on spectacular dance sequences and more on well-rounded characters to carry the story line from beginning to end.  Oh there are dance numbers to be sure, but nothing like we're used to seeing in past triumphs such as The Music Man.

The title role goes to young BC native Nolan Dubuc, who apparently saw the show as a young child and never forgot it.  He is now 11 and soars literally and figuratively in this production.  His dream ballet sequence with Colton Curtis as the older Billy is breathtaking, setting the course for Billy's dream to finally come true.

Young Nolan carries the show in more ways than one, as he appears in almost every scene, dancing, speaking, singing.  The show truly revolves around him and he shows repeatedly he is up to the task.  This will be an actor to watch for years to come.

Surrounding young Billy are exceptional performances including Stratford veteran Dan Chameroy as Billy's beleaguered dad Jackie, struggling to come to grips with so much and now he has to come to grips with his young son wanting to go to ballet school.  How is that possible, he wonders.

It comes through the inspiration of Blythe Wilson as Mrs. Wilkinson, the local ballet teacher who takes Billy under her wing when she realizes he could have real talent.  It turns out Billy gives her an outlet to live out her own dreams of ballet greatness in spite of a rocky marriage and a dead-end teaching position in a town with little or no future.

She encourages dad Jackie to send Billy to the Royal Ballet School and although he initially scoffs at the idea, he eventually sees the opportunity as something he can do for his son to give him a better life.

Other notable performances include Emerson Gamble as Billy's best friend Michael who is gay and loves cross dressing.  His dance number with Billy is funny and touching at the same time.  If only everyone could get along and be as accepting as these two are.  At the other end of the spectrum is Billy's older brother George, played by Steve Ross.  He is a hard nosed union man and cannot see his younger brother being, as he put it, a "poof" dancing on stage in the ballet.

The ensemble work is tremendous in this production, especially in numbers such as Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, where cast members dance while wearing oversize heads of several hated world leaders including Thatcher and shall I say, one enigmatic Canadian Prime Minister from that particular era as well.

All in all, Billy Elliot The Musical doesn't disappoint from beginning to end.  Although the songs may escape you once you leave the theatre, the feelings of hope and admiration for a young dynamo chasing his dream will not.

Billy Elliot The Musical runs at the Festival Theatre until November 3rd and rates a solid 4 out of 4 stars.

For tickets, call the Stratford box office at 1-800-567-1600 or go to

Have a great weekend!

July 28th, 2019.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Foster Festival ramps up the fun with Hilda's Yard

The second production of the current season for the Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines is now underway, and it packs plenty of laughs.

Norm Foster wrote Hilda's Yard a few years ago but it is vintage Foster:  clever plot line, great writing and simple sets to make summer theatre staging relatively easy.  It's a nice counterbalance to the more introverted and somewhat sombre tone of the season opener, The Writer last month.

Hilda's Yard is set in 1956 when life was somewhat simpler and certainly appeared more cut and dry. Of course, it only appeared that way in our memory banks.  It was fraught with problems just as our present times are, just different problems.  In the opening scene, for example, Sam Fluck, the patriarch of the household is feeling rather optimistic about life in general and decides it is time to finally invest in that new-fangled technology known as television.  Not colour of course, that is still some time off.

This new-found optimism comes from the realization he and his wife Hilda are now becoming empty nesters, with both son Gary and daughter Janey now moved out to start lives on their own.  Or so mom and dad thought...

The setting for the play is the backyard deck at Sam & Hilda's home where the family was raised and for some unknown reason they never got around to installing a gate to make entry & exit from the backyard easier.  Or maybe it was matter, the resulting fence climbing of most characters in the play creates comic effect that doesn't wear thin as the play wears on.

Both Gary and Janey at different times make that leap of faith over the fence and back into the backyard of their childhoods, ready to move back home with the senior Flucks again until their lives create better luck.

Gary is having trouble finding steady work again and well, being a more impulsive sort he is regularly short on cash.  So he's indebted to his bookie and with payment overdue Gary decides it is time to return to his parents home to avoid the inevitable.

Janey on the other hand is several months into marriage and she has discovered things are not quite what they are supposed to be.  Matrimonial bliss has largely eluded her thus far and rather than stick it out as her parents have done she wonders if she should leave the marriage sooner rather than later.

Sam offers advice to Janey that while keeping with the times, produces groans from the modern-day audience realizing things are different now.  Later in the play Sam clearly shows his embarrassment in his earlier advice to his daughter and makes amends with much sounder advice.

While Sam and Hilda are dealing with their two children returning, guests arrive over the fence.  First over is Bobbi Jakes, a trombone player in a band and Gary's new main squeeze for the past two weeks.  Next over is Beverly Woytowich the bookie, in pursuit of Gary's cash.

Hilda is busy cooking dinner and sees no other alternative than to act as a mediator of sorts by inviting one and all inside to gather around the dinner table, knowing food is a universal method of bringing people together.

This rather unlikely scenario sets us up for lots of laughter and great lines uttered by the entire cast, but most especially by Sam Fluck, played in this production by Norm Foster himself.  One can't help but imagine Foster writing the part for himself to begin with as the dry humour displayed by Sam is so typical of what you would expect from Foster.

Hilda is played by Foster Festival Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and she is the proverbial glue that holds the family together.  Whether dealing with the absurd family issues she is now presented with or simply talking to her imaginary neighbour out in the audience somewhere while hanging the laundry on the line Vanstone imbues the character with a down-to-earth attitude that wins everyone over from the very beginning.

Together Norm and Patricia, who last worked together in the very first Foster Festival production On A First Name Basis in 2016 create magic you can't help but admire.

The supporting cast is just as good.  Daniel Briere's Gary is full of impetuous innocence of his situation; Erin MacKinnon's Janey is confused about the state of her marriage, made even more so when the bookie Beverley takes a shine to her.  The two of them actually interact as you would expect siblings to react to each other.

Amaka Umeh's Bobbi is cool and smart; perhaps too smart for lover Gary, but maybe that's exactly what he needs to counteract his general goofiness.  And as the more worldly bookie Beverly Woytovich is perhaps not quite as hard nosed as he would like you to believe.  He ends up being the great unifier in the end and not the nasty person everyone expected him to be.  Darren Keay plays the role with a suave manner that makes Janey's attraction to him believable.

Director Jim Mezon, returning after last year's Wrong For Each Other knows the knack of directing a Foster play by letting the dialogue speak for itself rather than forcing the laughs by other means.  He directs with a sure hand and good pacing.

Overall you can't find a better way to spend a couple of hours or so inside during this heat than by warming up to the characters that inhabit Hilda's Yard.  It runs until July 26th in the recital hall at the FirstOntario PAC and should be on your must-see list this summer.

For tickets, call the box office at 905-688-0722 or toll free at 1-855-515-0722, or online at

Have a great weekend!

July 21st, 2019.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Summer music festival season is here!

This is my favourite time of the year, I think.  The weather is nice, people are more relaxed and for those of us who like visiting smaller Ontario towns to take in some classical music concerts, the season is now upon us.

There are far too many for me to list here of course, but this week I'll look at two tried-and-true music festivals and one new upstart that gets underway next weekend.  If you're in Ontario, there's a music festival not far away and certainly worth driving to!

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, just about 20 minutes away from our door here in Niagara the 21st season of Music Niagara kicks off this afternoon at St. Mark's Anglican Church in the heart of the Old Town.  The 4pm concert features Countermeasure, an a cappella group made up of some of Canada's top young vocal talent.

St. Mark's is a great concert venue and used quite often by Music Niagara as well as Bravo Festival of the Arts, but there are other locations in use this summer including The Hayloft at the Oast House Brewery on Highway 55, where tomorrow evening they'll play host to From Vienna to Broadway.  The cabaret-style show features soprano Inga Filipova along with pianist Victoria Kogan and the Gould String Quartet.  Music will be by Gershwin, Strauss, Kander, Kreisler and many others.

There are lots of great concerts on the Music Niagara programme this season running through to August 10th, with highlights including a Last Night of the Proms concert on July 22nd and the Elmer Iseler Singers on July 24th.

For more information go to or call the Shaw Festival box office for tickets at 905-468-2172/1-800-511-7429.

Meantime the 40th season of the Elora Festival got underway Friday night in the Gambrel Barn just outside of the town of Elora, a short drive northwest of Guelph.  The Opening Night Gala featured The Elora Singers, the State Choir LATVIJA and a number of featured soloists, all conducted by the new Artistic Director of the Festival, Mark Vuorinen.

For three weekends the world literally comes to Elora with performances featuring The Elora Singers in Singers Unplugged 3.0 tonight at both 6 and 8 pm, and the Singers will perform again Thursday evening in a concert entitled Path of Miracles.

Other artists include the Lemon Bucket Orchestra on the 19th, the amazing Cheng2 Duo on the 20th and Unforgettable:  The Nat King Cole Story featuring The Elora Singers on the 20th.

The final weekend will feature the Festival of the Sound Ensemble with The Elora Singers at 4 pm on the 27th and a concert featuring Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies fame at the Gambrel Barn at 7:30 pm.  This last concert is a late change necessitated by the sudden cancellation of superstar singer Measha Brueggergosman, who last month was hospitalized and will be undergoing heart bypass surgery.  Measha is an amazing talent and we wish her well for a speedy recovery, but thanks to Steven Page for filling in at the last moment.  Spencer Burton will open the show.

Elora is one my favourite places to visit in the summer months and indeed into the fall as well, so if you have not yet been you owe it to yourself to pay a visit this year.  For tickets and information go to or call 1-519-846-0331.

Finally, we have a new kid on the musical block and the debut of the Collingwood Summer Music Festival is less than a week away.  This really is a no-brainer and I have no idea why Collingwood has not hosted a music festival before now.

We've spent many a weekend on the shores of Georgian Bay enjoying the town, the restaurants and the B&Bs scattered around the area, and hope to do the same again soon.

How can you not love a town with an LCBO overlooking the water, a first-rate kitchen store on the main street and a local branch of The New Classical FM from Toronto now in town?  Really, this is an amazing place to visit any time of year but especially when the snow melts and the gardens explode with colour.

So the inaugural festival kicks off July 18th with the main venue being New Life Church at 28 Tracey Lane in Collingwood, and the opening concert features A Choral Extravaganza! @ New Life Church.  The Elmer Iseler Singers will be performing along with soloists Mayumi Seiler on violin, Daniel Wnukowski on piano and the ChoralWorks Choir along with the Collingwood Festival Orchestra.  The concert has an early start at 6:30 pm by the way, and should be a great evening in town.

July 19th cellist Rachel Mercer headlines a recital of Beethoven chamber music along with violinist Mayumi Seiler and pianist Serouj Kradjian, also at New Life Church.  The opening weekend wraps up with Quartetto Gelato Saturday night at 7 and on Sunday morning there will be a fundraising brunch at the Gustav Chophouse & Bar featuring the Power Play Duo from 11 am to 2 pm.

The next round of concerts begins August 1st with a free concert in the Blue Mountain Village Square starting at 5 pm with the Diana & Chris Duo featuring All About The Blues.  That evening at 7 Diana & Chris are joined by other members of their Jazz Quintet at New Life Church performing jazz and blues favourites.  Chris is Chris Whiteley, by the way, and Diana Is Diana Braithwaite.  On August the 2nd at 7 music of Zimbabwe will be highlighted with Nhapitapi Zimbabwe the featured artists.  On the 3rd the Payadora Tango Ensemble will perform at New Life Church at 7 pm, followed by the Rolston String Quartet on the 9th at 7 pm.

A family concert featuring the World Premiere of The Hockey Sweater along with Carnival of the Animals will be featured on August 11th from 3 to 5 pm, with narrator R.H. Thomson, mime Trevor Copp, violinist Michael Schulte and the Incite Ensemble.

Those are the highlights from a fledgling festival that begins this coming Thursday evening in Collingwood.  It should be a promising start for a new festival and I'm looking forward to seeing what they have in store at some point this season!

For tickets and information, go to or call 1-705-445-2200/1-866-382-2200, which are the numbers for the Theatre Collingwood Box Office.

Have a great weekend!

July 14th, 2019.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Happy 25th Anniversary to Oh Canada Eh

I've written before about the talented folks down at Oh Canada Eh? dinner theatre down in Niagara Falls, and with their 25th Anniversary celebrations currently underway I thought another visit was in order.

Last weekend Sophie & I paired up with dear friends Joanne & Gino Deloisio to catch the latest version of their long-running salute to Canadian music.  We went on a Sunday night and the place was packed, so that tells you something about the staying power of this venerable institution.

It's hard to believe it was 1994 when an old colleague of mine, Jim Cooper got together with like-minded theatre souls to launch the dinner theatre on Lundy's Lane.  From those humble beginnings the tradition started, and today a tight-knit nucleus of young local talent takes to the small stage six days a week to entertain locals and tourists alike.

The current roster includes, depending on the performance, Rylan Allen, Chelsea DiFranco, Emily Draper, Aidan Eddy, Andrew Goff, Ian Harte, Dayna Harold, Morgan Hilliker, Connor Jesso, Nathanael Judah, Louisa O'Keane, Melissa Penner, Adrianna Polita, Alexandra Reed, Dexter Sonier, Brandon Stafford, Sue Thibert, Matthew Yipchuck and Ann-Marie Zammit.  Add to that several musicians as well as technical and front of house staff and you have a good-sized group to welcome you to the familiar log cabin.

One of the special elements of an Oh Canada Eh show is the performers are also your servers.  Doing double duty is no easy task, as evidenced by our server Ann-Marie, simultaneously singing in the finale while dealing with a recalcitrant credit card processing machine for the other family at our table.  These performers know their stuff and how to get the job done.

The dinner is the usual fare, which is served during breaks in the show and is always piping hot from the kitchen, with special dietary requirements filled with ease.  The service is family style which may not be to everyone's liking, but it certainly fits with the family-friendly nature of the show.

The show itself we had seen before, but the musical tribute to all things Canadian has been updated for the anniversary show with some newer cast members and costumes, choreography, set and about 30 minutes of new musical material.  The music covers the Canadian scene from basically before there ever was one to modern day, ranging from nostalgic gems such as the Indian Love Call from the movie Rose Marie all the way up to music by Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen.  A nice touch in the Moose Paper handed out after the show is a complete list of all the songs in the show, who popularized it and where the performer(s) hail from.

It's a much more traditional show than the 70s show we caught almost two years ago, so the production values are much more basic here.  But don't take that as a criticism of the show; it simply means you'll see less showy lighting effects and more Canadian music you grew up with.

The big news this season is the fact there is now a second Oh Canada Eh? dinner theatre up and running in Ottawa.  Opening just in time for the Canada Day long weekend, the new venue is run by some familiar Oh Canada Eh? faces:  J.F. Grenier and Meaghan Chapin along with Michelle Chapin.  Grenier & Meaghan first met years ago here in Niagara performing at Oh Canada Eh? and eventually married.  Moving to the nation's capital they decided to basically pick up the show and move another version of it there.  Early word is the new venue is quickly picking up a following in Ottawa as well.

Sophie & I have been fans of Oh Canada Eh? for a long time, and wish them well for at least another 25 years.  They provide great entertainment and solid value for Niagara locals and tourists alike no matter what show is on stage at the moment.

For tickets and more information, including how you can still take advantage of their current anniversary promotion, check out their website at or call them toll free at 1-800-467-2071.

Have a great weekend!

July 6th, 2019.