Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Ladykillers kills it for the Shaw Festival

Our second show of the season at The Shaw Festival this season was the comedy The Ladykillers at the Festival Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Tim Carroll.

The play is by Irish writer and director Graham Linehan, who adapted the play from the movie screenplay by William Rose.  The original British film dates from 1955 and starred Alec Guinness; it was remade in 2004 with Tom Hanks in the starring role.

Linehan adapted the film for the stage in 2011 and it premiered in London later that year.  This Shaw Festival production is the North American premiere, and we can thank former Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell for, as Carroll writes in the Director's Notes, "putting me on to it."  Seems Maxwell saw Carroll's 4-man production of the Roman and Biblical epic Ben Hur a few years ago and decided at that moment the new guy really ought to stage The Ladykillers at Shaw at some point.

That point is this season and not a moment too soon.  After an uneven season last year a riotous fill-the-Festival Theatre comedy was in order, and The Ladykillers fits the bill nicely.  It is taken at a faster pace than the original film was, but even now I think it could move along at a somewhat brisker pace than Carroll sets for it.

The premise of The Ladykillers revolves around a group of thugs who plan to rob a train and decide to rent an upstairs flat in an old house right next to the train station in order to carry out their nefarious scheme.  Problem is, the landlady is more than a little bit of a busybody and causes no end of trouble for the group of men masquerading as classical musicians who need a quiet rehearsal space in which to practice.

As Professor Marcus, the orchestrater of the mayhem, Damien Atkins steps into the Alec Guinness role and truly makes it his own.  A formidable presence on stage due to his height, he shows brilliant comic timing to wring every last laugh out of the script.  His comic foil of course is the veteran actor Chick Reid as the landlady Mrs. Wilberforce, who just seems to unintentionally throw a wrench into the plans at every turn.  The ongoing gag of Reid accidentally stepping on Atkins' long flowing scarf never grows old in this production.

The band of so-called musicians represent some of the best comic talent on the Shaw roster this season, including Martin Happer as the ex-boxer One Round, Andrew Laurie as Harry, Ric Reid as Major Courtney and Steven Sutcliffe doing a delicious turn as Louis, the only real criminal in the bunch.

Together they allow the magic to unfold and make the play truly and enjoyable comedic experience.  Each and every one has quirks in their respective characterization that makes for regular laughs; not often uproarious mind you, but on a regular basis throughout the play so it never seems to lag.

Honourable mention goes to supporting cast members Kristopher Bowman as Constable MacDonald, Fiona Byrne as Mrs. Tromleyton and Claire Jullien as Mrs. Goodenough; the latter two joining Mrs.Wilberforce for an impromptu "recital" by the non-musical musicians that presents one of the comic highlights of the play.

Judith Bowden's set design is a marvel:  it depicts both the inside and the outside of the somewhat rickety old English residence, shaking and lights flickering every time a train rumbles by next door.  The house revolves on the stage from the inside to outside scenes as needed, which takes some time but never really seems to detract from the action.

The house also allows for action on both levels, as Mrs. Wilberforce can be seen in the main floor rooms while the would-be robbers are plotting their heist in the upstairs flat.  All in all, full marks to both Bowden and lighting designer Kevin Lamotte for making the set design work so well.

Will this be the biggest show of the season?  Probably not.  But I doubt you'll find anyone leaving the theatre disappointed with their choice.  It's fun from start to finish and for that reason alone you should book your tickets before it's too late.

The Ladykillers runs at the Festival Theatre until October 12th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

For tickets, call the Shaw box office at 905-468-2153, 1-800-511-7429 or go to www.shawfest.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 18th, 2019.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Season finale for The Foster Festival is a winner

While growing up my mother would often say in utter frustration "If I could live my life over...".  It was usually after my brother or I or both did some boneheaded thing around the house and this was her way of registering displeasure in a somewhat diplomatic way.

It's a tantalizing proposition, isn't it?

Many a married couple might have uttered a variance on this phrase at some point in their married lives as well.  It's nothing to be ashamed of, really.  We all seem to experience it in one form or another.

This is the basis on which the latest Norm Foster musical and final World Premiere of the current Foster Festival season is built.  What if we could go back and do it all again.  Would we?

In Beside Myself, the first musical for The Foster Festival but not Norm Foster's first, we meet Paula and Sam, married for 35 years and frankly, tired of the whole thing.  They are separating and splitting the spoils of their marriage which, as painful as it is, leads them to a better ending than what they could of imagined.

Sam discovers a "wishing stick" in the box he is rummaging through, a wedding gift from years ago that prompts him to deride the item as a pretty cheesy offering.  Almost absent-mindedly he wishes they could go back and change the past, specifically when they met at university.

Almost like magic, they notice everyone on their street has a classic vehicle in the driveway, and things at the house seem somehow "different".  It suddenly dawns on Sam and Paula they have indeed gone back in time to before they actually own their home.  So here is their chance.  They head straight to the university campus and find the younger versions of themselves and acting as "student liaisons" try to thwart the budding romance between the younger Sam and Paula.

While doing so they discover far more about themselves than they realize, and in the process come to the conclusion things are not really all that bad after all.

The story line has several curves in it but that's the gist of it.  Overall it works, although I couldn't help but think the younger versions of themselves are far more patient than I would have been under similar circumstances and likely would have told the bogus liaisons to 'push off' and mind their own business.

In spite of that caveat you could not wish for a more balanced, splendid and perfect musical experience.  Norm has crafted a book full of humour, tender moments, and insightfulness as you rarely see today.

Lyrics are by both Foster and longtime musical collaborator Steve Thomas, who composed the music for the show himself.  All of the songs, while not likely to be sung outside of the theatre as you leave, have an immediately comfortable feel to them, making them 'just right' for the production.  There are catches, hooks and clever musical devices throughout the show, performed onstage by Thomas and his two colleagues in a partitioned-off section centre-stage.

As a result there is not a lot of room left for the four performers on the stage but director Patricia Vanstone has managed to make it all work in an economical and creative fashion.  The U-shaped space in which the performers work just feels right.

Vanstone also scored big time in her choice of actors for the four roles.  As the elder Sam and Paula, Jonathan Whittaker and Gabrielle Jones can be toxic, loving and ultimately understanding of each other's quirks over the course of the show.  Jones is especially effective as the more hard-driving Paula acting as a foil for the more relaxed, laid-back Sam.  It is also great to see her in a starring role and make the most of it.

The younger versions of themselves are played effectively by Griffin Hewitt as Young Sam and Breton Lalama as Young Paula.  Both are exceptionally adept at presenting more youthful versions of the elder protagonists, and even look like Sam and Paula likely would have when they met.  Even the height is the same.

All four actors have strong voices and sing the musical numbers with perfect diction and emphasis.  However I did struggle a bit to hear the elder Sam in the first few moments of the production on Wednesday afternoon.  But overall, they sing the material with conviction and make you believe they are living the story rather than just playing the part.

This is the final production of the current Foster Festival season and I can't imagine a more perfect end to a very strong 4th season.  The Festival has gone from strength to strength from one production to the next, not only this season but since the very beginning.

I've also noticed the audiences even for matinee performances have grown substantially as well over the four years, so the word is obviously getting out we have exceptional live theatre in downtown St. Catharines throughout the summer months.

Beside Myself continues at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre until August 17th and is a must-see of the first order.  For tickets and more information call the box office at 905-688-0722 or go to www.fosterfestival.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 11th, 2019.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

A tiny little gem nestled in the southern part of Niagara

This holiday weekend I want to take a few moments to let you know about a hidden gem in the southern tier of Niagara many people may not know about.  If you love movies and don't like the big multiplex movie houses, this place might just be for you.

I first discovered The Ridge Film House several years ago when it began life as the Boutique Theatre on Ridge Road in the heart of Ridgeway.  A flood in an upstairs apartment put an end to the first generation of the movie house as repairs had to be made, and the then-owner decided enough was enough.

So for a while moviegoers in Niagara's southern tier lost their little film house.  But not forever.  A new owner took over the business at 320 Ridge Road North and did extensive renovations to the interior, renaming it The Ridge Film House.

Now the theatre is open year-round offering a steady stream of carefully curated classic, independent, foreign, documentary and second run films.  You won't find the biggest and newest films available, but that's okay.  They serve an entirely different clientele and I love that.

There are two film rooms, each with 10X15 screens, leather seating and lots of character.  There's even a small cafe area in the lobby with table and chairs so you can meet your friends there before the show.

You do get trailers for upcoming movies here, but they don't take forever to see and actually, most of the trailers we saw were for films we'd actually like to see.  Nothing was blown up in those trailers so that was lovely!

I was down in Ridgeway on a Saturday afternoon last month and had a chance to get reacquainted with the theatre again, so I signed up for the monthly newsletter online in order to get the regular schedule of movies screened.  Last Sunday evening at 6:30 one of the movies screened caught my eye and so we drove through a nasty rain and hail storm to get down there for the show.

It's been years since I had seen Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1959 film North By Northwest, but since it is the 60th anniversary this year of the film's release and it was a Sunday evening, we thought "why not?".

Other than the iconic scene where Cary Grant is almost mown down in a cornfield by a crop duster, I really didn't remember much about the film all these years.  So for me it was almost like seeing it for the first time.

Yes, the film shows its age a little and yes, a 26-year-old blond falling for a 55-year-old man should raise a few eyebrows even now, but other than that the film holds up well.  It was also fun to see Edward Platt, later to be known as The Chief on the Get Smart TV series, as the lawyer in the early scenes of the movie.

I always liked Hitchcock's films but never got around to spending much time with them, but that might just change after seeing North By Northwest again.  It's a good film.

The experience at The Ridge Film House was exceptionally positive and we'll certainly return again.  It can get busy in those two little theatres so be prepared if that's the case.  On a summer Sunday evening, however, the theatre we were in was barely half full, so we had no trouble getting in at all.

The theatre is available for birthday parties, school functions, corporate events and more, and there are even memberships available.

Prices are very reasonable too:  adults $10, seniors $8 and children up to 13 years of age also $8.  For classic movies such as North By Northwest the prices are less and we were charged $8 each for that show.

They accept cash and debit only by the way, so no credit cards allowed.

For more information check them out at www.ridgefilmhouse.com.

Have a great weekend!

August 4th, 2019.