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.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Events in the Arts this weekend

I know it has been awhile since I wrote in this space and or that I apologize.  Hey, it's been a busy time and with my work involving lots of extended hours including the very early morning hours for several months now, I have not had much energy or even ambition to post regularly.  But with a week's vacation starting now, perhaps we can make a fresh start with a short entry here on a couple events happening in the arts this weekend I received information on.

I always love attending events at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University, and their Department of Music always has a busy season of great performances to choose from.  Tonight, for example the Viva Voce! Choral Series returns with the second concert of the current season and it promises to be a great one.

The Avanti Chamber Singers, who serve as Ensemble-in-Residence for the Department of Music, are now under the direction of conductor Rachel Rensink-Hoff following the retirement of long-time conductor Harris Loewen about a year or so ago.  Rensink-Hoff is also Director of Choral Activities and Assistant Director of Music Education at Brock.

Tonight at 7:30 the choir performs at St. Thomas Anglican Church on Ontario Street in downtown St. Catharines, along with special guest artists The Walker String Quartet.  The choir always programs interesting and sometimes challenging choral music alongside what might be considered more "accessible" fare and regularly shows they are up to the musical tasks at hand.

This evening, for example, the choir will perform Ola Gjeilo's Dark Night of the Soul, Eric Whitacre's Hebrew Love Songs and Telemann's Laudate Jehovam.  But that's not all.  Also on the programme are works by Lassus, Pearsall, Hassler and contemporary composers such as Hawley, Butler, Quick and Tomlinson.  Many of these will deal with the subject of love, since Valentine's Day was just this past week.

Intrigued?  You should be.  Tickets are $20 in advance for adults, and $15 for seniors and students.  They are only $5 with the eyeGo programme.  You can purchase in advance at Thorold Music, Booksmart or even online.  If you want to pick them up at the door tonight they will be $25 for adults and $20 for seniors and students.

Also this weekend, an out-of-town concert might catch your interest as Black History Month continues for the month of February.  The Midland Cultural Centre's second feature for this special month brings the award-winning UK show "Call Mr. Robeson.  A Life, with Songs" to town for the only Ontario date on the current tour.

The show features UK actor, baritone and writer Tayo Aluko as ground-breaking actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.  The play, coming on the heels of the first Black History Month offering in Midland, "Sugar and Gold:  Stories of the Underground Railroad", explores Robeson's remarkable life achievements both onstage and off.  He was perhaps best-known, of course, as the man who sang "Ol' Man River" in Jerome Kern's landmark musical "Showboat", but perhaps he is less well-known today for his early activism as a forerunner of the civil rights movement.

The play includes the famous song, of course, along with other famous Robeson numbers as well as speeches, and a recreation of his testimony to the Senate House Un-American Activities Committee.  Yet Robeson, for all his pioneering efforts early in the 20th century, is largely overlooked today save for his musical talents.  That's a shame, really.

Aluko, born in Nigeria, now lives in the UK and holds Robeson in very high esteem.  In fact, this one-man show is not his only foray into bringing the great singer and activist to life.  He also presents a lecture/concert called "Paul Robeson - The Giant, in a Nutshell" for example.

The new show, coming to Midland's Cultural Centre tomorrow evening, was also presented at New York's Carnegie Hall back in 2012 to wide acclaim.

"Call Mr. Robeson" plays tomorrow night at 8; the doors open at 7:30.  Tickets can be ordered online or by calling 1-705-527-4420.  You should also be able to pick them up at the door as well.

So there you go:  two diverse events in two diverse parts of Ontario that might pique your musical interest this weekend.


February 17th, 2018.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The continuing transformation of downtown St. Catharines

So this past week Sir Elton John paid us a visit in our humble city to play to a sold-out crowd at the Meridian Centre, and suffice it to say, downtown was alive with the sound of Elton's music.  With those musical memories still fresh in our collective minds, I thought it would be an opportune time to revisit the continuing revitalization of downtown St. Catharines.

First of all, full disclosure here:  I did not attend the concert.  I suspect I was one of the few who didn't, although the Meridian Centre only houses 6,000 fans for a concert such as this.  Nothing against Sir Elton; he seems like a heck of a guy and hey, who can argue his massive string of hits dating back about 3 decades now.

But for me, staying up past about 8:30 on a weeknight now with the early hours I keep is an effort in futility, frankly.  And besides, even though I respect his consummate talents as both composer and performer, I just didn't grow up with Elton as part of my youthful soundtrack.  My mind was elsewhere, and don't ask where.

I know I am in the minority here, but I didn't feel the need to spend enormous sums of money to see an artist - as good as he obviously is - who didn't influence me during my formative years.  But no knock against the guy; heck he's married to a Canadian so who can argue with that, eh?

Okay, with that out of the way, let's get to the gist of my argument here.

Anyone who balked at spending the money needed to build the Meridian Centre in downtown St. Catharines, finally utilizing a gaping hole in our city core known as the lower-level parking lot, must be feeling a little sheepish now.  Granted, it is ironic that on nights like this we could actually have used the extra spaces the old lower-level lot would have provided, but hey, no Elton John concert means no extra crowds downtown.

Yes I know, people of a certain generation lament the lack of reasons to come downtown anymore, even to this day.  But like anything else in life, change has to take place and that includes how we utilize our downtown core.

Just think back about 10 years ago and imagine what transpired Wednesday night happening then.  Not bloody likely, right?  Oh we might have gotten an Elton John tribute show up at Brock Centre for the Arts, but that was about it.  This was the real deal, and right in our own majestic playpen downtown.

Nice to see, isn't it?

Granted, we can't have acts of that calibre every night or even every month here.  But look who has performed at the Meridian Centre since it opened just a couple of years ago:  City & Light, David Seinfeld, and of course, the Tragically Hip before we got the news of Gordon's terminal cancer diagnosis.  Oh and throw in the Scott Tournament of Hearts, the Niagara Ice Dogs, the regular Brock sports teams events and on and on it goes.

See what's happened here?  It is the proverbial "If we build it they will come" scenario coming true in downtown St. Catharines.  And it's not just the Meridian Centre that is generating the crowds.  The new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and adjacent Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts do their considerable part in bringing people downtown on a regular basis as well.

Consider the fact the Niagara Symphony is filling the 800-odd seats on a regular basis in Partridge Hall when they often couldn't fill all of the 500 available seats up the hill at Brock Centre for the Arts.  Or the fact The Film House, the first real movie theatre in downtown St. Catharines in years regularly programs more challenging material and fills the joint on a regular basis.

Once again, build it and they will come.

Consider also the fact many new and trendy eating establishments have opened their doors downtown to join long-standing stalwarts such as The Sunset, Blue Mermaid and Wellington Court.  A check on the St. Catharines Downtown Association website reveals over 70 eateries of various types are open and ready to serve you downtown throughout the year, ranging from simple to simply elegant and beyond.

Would they all be here if we hadn't invested in our downtown?  Don't be silly.

They can only survive if people come downtown to patronize them, and even with the reconstruction of St. Paul Street outside the PAC over the past year, those business in the immediate vicinity managed to weather the storm and apparently keep their loyal clientele.  In short, they are developing staying power in our downtown.  Imagine that!

There was a time you would drive along St. Paul Street and just not stop at all unless you hit a stoplight.  One-way traffic has a way of promoting that.  But with two-way traffic now the norm in much of the downtown and plenty of reasons to stop and get out of your vehicle, we are becoming a destination once again.

True, the days of walking downtown shoulder-to-shoulder with like-minded souls to shop at Coy Bros., Levitt's or even Wally Wemnants may be gone, but look what has replaced them:  nice boutique shops, great eating places, and events on a regular basis you actually want to attend.  Add in the essential services any downtown worthy of the name should provide and you can see things are indeed looking up for our city core.

We are not done yet, and I am sure our learned politicians at City Hall are very well aware of that fact.  They still have work to do on bringing a long-awaited Civic Square to the core (check out examples in downtown Guelph and Stratford for inspiration, ladies and gentlemen of Council) and completing the transformation of one-way to two-way traffic on some of the remaining streets among other things on their to-do list.

But considering where we were say 20 years ago when everyone got excited about a proposal to recreate the old Welland Canal where the lower-level lot was to where we are now, I think most would agree the investments in our downtown are finally paying off.

Want more proof?  I hosted friends in town during the annual Niagara Wine Festival who moved away several years ago and they were awe-struck at the transformation here.  Sometimes it takes the eyes of someone who had not been here a long while to see what we cannot see ourselves.

Hey, we're a happening place at the moment, and the likes of Sir Elton and his ilk are not alone in noticing the fact.  If I can borrow a favourite phrase from my esteemed colleague Doug Herod here, we're a groovy kinda place again.

Feels kinda nice, doesn't it?

Enjoy your weekend!

November 18th, 2017.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Lest we forget...

Today is the day we remember and honour those who served so bravely during wartime, defending the freedoms we enjoy to this day, yet seemingly take for granted at times.  That is why Remembrance Day is so very important; we are reminded of the freedom we enjoy and have a wonderful opportunity to say thanks to service men, women and animals who went before us, as well as those who still walk amongst us today.

So it was on this sunny but cold day I joined what seemed like hundreds of others at the Cenotaph at Memorial Park on St. Paul Street West to mark the 11th hour of the 11th month when peace was achieved so many years ago.  I was heartened by the number of people who attended and especially so the number of young people who were there.  Some may worry the importance of the day will eventually be lost on the younger generation; from what I see each year at the services we should have nothing to worry about.  They seem to know how important this day is, too, and for that we can all be grateful.

So too those who seemingly are too busy the rest of the year to notice the proliferation of poppies for sale around the city; they also seem to grasp the importance of the day and pause to reflect at 11 am.  It is a small sacrifice to make for those who sacrificed so much for us years ago.

I always become reflective on this day, thinking of my father who was stationed in England during the Second World War, serving in the navy.  When he passed away years ago and I was going through his belongings I finally found his discharge papers.  It was the first I had known of his service beyond the little he said when he was alive.  He, like so many others, chose not to talk in great detail about the whole affair, as clearly it was too painful to do so for many.

I also thought today in musical terms about Remembrance Day.  I just finished listening to a treasured CD reissue from earlier this year of Dame Vera Lynn's classic 1961 MGM re-recordings of her popular songs, lavishly arranged for orchestra by Geoff Love.  The CD, entitled Yours:  The MGM Years, is on Sepia Records and readily available through my website at or email me directly at

The world of classical music did not escape the ravages of war over the years either.  French composer Maurice Ravel famously spent time during the First World War driving an ambulance, for example.  And another composer died in France during the conflict, cutting short a promising career as a brilliant composer.

George Butterworth was born in London, England in July of 1885 and in his early years as a composer became close friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams, even helping to reconstruct the elder composer's full score to A London Symphony from assembled orchestral parts.  Butterworth also wrote the program notes for the work's premiere in 1914, and Vaughan Williams later dedicated his work to Butterworth's memory.

It was during the First World War that George Butterworth found a sense of purpose found lacking in his life up until that point, quickly rising to the rank of lieutenant in the Duke of Cornwall's Durham Light Infantry.  He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for his defence of a strategically important trench network; the network was later named after him.  Despite his heroics on the battlefield he was killed at Pozieres, France in August of 1916 while leading a raid during the Battle of the Somme.

These are but two examples of the world of the arts clashing and ultimately intermingling with the grim reality of the real world during wartime.  Many more stories are out there waiting to be discovered.

In short, let us never forget the bravery and valour of those who defended our country and our allies in time of war.  Even today so many years later, we owe them all a huge debt of gratitude, payable with our solemn promise to not repeat the errors of the past.  On this day and every day throughout the year, we remember them and owe them so very much.

Lest we forget...

Take care and have a peaceful weekend.

November 11th, 2017.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

November in the Arts in Niagara

Now that cooler, grey November days are upon us, many choose to start hibernating for the season and ignore the great outdoors.  If you number yourself amongst that crowd, take heart, as better days are to come.

But until then, you can always venture out to catch some great music and theatre right in your own backyard, so let's take a look at a few of the events coming up in the next week that might pique your interest.

Starting right now, in fact...

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra is celebrating their 70th anniversary season this year and the festivities are well underway with several concerts already in the books.  This weekend in fact, the NSO is presenting their Masterworks 2 concert, subtitled Wish List.  The first performance was last evening at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines; the second will be this afternoon at 2:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall at the PAC.

Principal Guest Conductor Aisslinn Nosky, until last year a member of the famed Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in Toronto, returns to the podium with violin at the ready to perform and conduct the ever-popular Vivaldi Four Seasons.  Also on the programme is the equally popular Symphony No. 7 by Beethoven, long one of my favourite Beethoven symphonies.  I was listening to a classic recording just a few days ago conducted by the venerable Sir Thomas Beecham and the rousing finale still stirs my senses after many listenings.

Sure, the forces onstage at the PAC will be a little more modest than the Big Band Beecham recordings from the 50s, but the performance will certainly be worth catching if you can.  I say if you can as the performance this afternoon is officially sold out, so at this point I would suggest staking out the box office closer to the performance time to try and snag a ticket or two that might go unclaimed.  Hey, it happens...

Speaking of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, they have another busy week of their own on tap, beginning at 4 this afternoon when Cree storyteller, playwright, novelist, pianist and Order of Canada recipient Tomson Highway presents his Words and Music in collaboration with The Festival of Readers.  This is all part of the current Celebration of Nations season at the PAC.  The performance takes place in Partridge Hall.

Meantime, Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot makes a rare local appearance this Wednesday evening at 8 in Partridge Hall, singing many of the classic songs that have made him justly famous and a worthy inductee into both the Canadian and American Songwriters Halls of Fame.

Thursday and Friday evenings at Robertson Hall award-winning journalist and broadcaster Alanna Mitchell will be presenting Sea Sick.  The evenings will feature Mitchell discussing her 13 journeys to the bottom of the ocean in only three years.  Initially afraid of water when she started, she is now more concerned about the future of the ocean and will outline her concerns during the presentations each evening at 8 pm.

For more information and tickets to these and other PAC presentations, go to or call the box office at 905-688-0722.

Still with the PAC, the weekly RBC Foundation Music@Noon recitals continue Tuesdays at noon in the Cairns Recital Hall, and they are absolutely free to attend.  Comprised primarily of performances by faculty and students at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts next door, the recitals usually run about 45 minutes or so in length, so you can easily catch one over your lunch hour if you so choose.

This Tuesday, the Momentum Choir will be performing, conducted by Mendelt Hoekstra.

The popular Encore! Professional Concert Series presented by the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts returns to Partridge Hall Friday evening at 7:30 with a performance by The Walker Quartet with faculty pianist Karin Di Bella.  The Walker Quartet is now into its second season as the Department of Music's resident quartet, and together with Di Bella they will perform both the Schumann and Shostakovich quintets.

In the Cairns Recital Hall this Saturday evening at 7:30, Guitar Extravaganza III takes place.  This will be Remembrance Day, don't forget.  The Guitar Extravaganza concerts have quickly become well-attended crowd-pleasers since the PAC opened in the fall of 2015 and this year's edition promises to be just as popular.  If you like guitar music, this will be the place to be.

Tickets can be ordered through the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office by calling 905-688-0722 or by going online to

Finally, a week today the first concert of the new season for Gallery Players of Niagara takes place Sunday afternoon at 2 at Silver Spire United Church in downtown St. Catharines.  The concert, entitled Concertos Inc., features several of the Gallery Players musicians in revolving solo roles, performing works by J.S. Bach, Giuliani, Quantz and James Rolfe.  Soloists include guitarist Timothy Phelan; Douglas Miller on flute; Julie Baumgartel, Anita Walsh and Rona Goldensher on violins; oboist James Mason; vocalist Laura Pudwell; Judith Davenport on viola and cellist Margaret Gay.

Gallery Players are based in Niagara-on-the-Lake but perform throughout the Region, and this new season promises to be their most ambitious yet.  To order tickets to the concert or better still the entire season, go to or call 905-468-1525.

So that should be more than enough to keep you occupied in the week ahead.

Have a great weekend!

November 5th, 2017.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Revisiting Stratford to see what's new and not-so-new this season

My far better half and I don't get to Stratford, Ontario as regularly as we once did, although we did manage two weekend getaways this year.  I wrote of the most recent visit two weeks ago when I reviewed the Stratford Festival's wonderful production of Guys and Dolls, which closes at the Festival Theatre November 5th.

But I promised at the time to write further about the changes we've seen this season and are on the horizon for the city, and there are several.

Perhaps it is the fact I don't get to Stratford as much as I used to when I regularly reviewed productions over the entire season - a perk I enjoyed in my previous career for about 32 years - but visiting the city now becomes more of an event anticipated by us both than it used to.  Visiting Stratford now has become, well, more special due to the increased infrequency of our visits.  And I say that with much reluctance as we both love immersing ourselves in the culture, dining and shopping experiences in abundance in the city.

We stay at the same B&B each year, Dusk to Dawn on Brunswick Street, which is perfectly situated to walk easily to all four theatres.  Hosts David and Tessa make you feel like royalty and the breakfast is exceptional.  Chrissy the dog, though not allowed in guest quarters, greets guests at the door upon arrival and is a treat.

My wife, who is vegan, is very particular where we eat while away, and now has three exceptional restaurants catering to her particular tastes without sacrificing mine.  There are others, of course, but the three she loves to visit are Stratford Thai Cuisine on Wellington Street in the heart of the city, and Fellini's and Mercer Beer Hall & Inn, both on Ontario Streets.  Though not entirely vegan, they have a wide variety of choices that can be easily adapted to a vegan lifestyle or are dedicated to it already.

For shopping, there is rarely time enough in the schedule to allow for enough browsing at Bradshaw's and Watson's Bazaar on Ontario Street, and several smaller shops in the city centre.  Watson's, incidentally, is still home to one resident cat, down from about three or four a few years ago, and I always come packed with kitty treats when I visit the store.

So those are the constants from year to year, more or less.  Each new season brings change, and this one is no different.  Let's look at a few of those now, as some will impact your next visit if you plan to go to Stratford in the future.

The first thing we noticed when strolling the city centre this past August was the reconfiguration of the venerable Market Square adjacent to City Hall.  For years the home of downtown angle parking and the city bus terminal, it was always a busy place.  Add in Ken's French Fries truck on the corner and the spot was usually teeming with people all day long.

Now the parking has been reduced and the centre section has been reconfigured to accommodate a true city square for public gatherings such as the Sunday Slow Food Market.  I like the look, especially when we visited in the summer when a giant bell collection was on display for use during the Stratford Summer Music performances in the space.

Not sure where Ken's French Fries has relocated to, but the bus terminal is now located outside the city core entirely, which is not too popular with the locals, I hear.

I am sure many have also grumbled about the lost parking spaces but really, there is still plenty of parking on most days in the city core, all of it unbelievably well-priced compared to other cities we have visited.  The Civic Square concept is one that is catching on in many cities and I hope soon it will take root again here in St. Catharines.

In the summer I also read with great interest the plans for the proposed Grand Trunk Community Hub.  Located at the Cooper site within the city, I am assuming the space would provide a larger and better-equipped community space available for use year-round.  Yet there is currently a lot of lobbying going on by local arts and cultural organizations for the inclusion of a dedicated Arts and Culture Centre within the hub, able to accommodate performances and events planned by the nearly 30 arts and cultural groups within the city.

Those groups, including Stratford Summer Music, Stratford Symphony Orchestra, Perth County Players, the Kiwanis Music Festival and a host of others, have formed collectively under the banner of the Stratford Arts & Culture Collective.  Co-chairs Ron Dodson and Chris Leberg say they are trying to create a more liveable city incorporating the arts and culture community to a greater degree.

Ideally, they would like to see the space include a new art gallery and perhaps even a 600-seat theatre space all members of the collective could make use of.  Sound familiar?  For years here in St. Catharines our local arts and culture groups lobbied hard for a dedicated space downtown and look what happened:  with forward-thinking city council members and the heft of all levels of government providing seed money, we now have both the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University and the adjacent FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

From humble beginnings great things can happen.  Not overnight but certainly over time, so I applaud members of SACC for pushing the envelope in Stratford and I wish you luck in the future.  Good things will happen when you present a clear vision and dedicate yourselves to seeing it through.

For more information on the SACC and the group's proposed Stratford Arts and Culture Centre, visit their website at

Finally, we cannot talk about events in Stratford without discussing the big news this year, the proposed replacement for the aging Tom Patterson Theatre.  The current theatre space, rented by the Stratford Festival from the city annually for over 40 years now, is well past its best-before date.  It includes the Kiwanis Community Centre and adjacent Stratford Lawn Bowling Club.

The Festival has secured a promise of $20-million in provincial government funding for the new theatre, and just this week announced Board Chair Dan Bernstein and his wife Claire Foerster are supporting the initiative with a whopping $10-million pledge.  Bernstein is Senior Strategist and Director of Bridgewater Associates in Westport, Connecticut, where they live.

Still, the Festival will have to launch a $100-million campaign to provide the capital for the new theatre and to establish a fund for future operations.  So if things go ahead as planned, expect to hear plenty about the fundraising initiative in the future.

The proposed new theatre will be designed by acclaimed Canadian architect Siamak Hariri and, according to a press release issued by the Festival, "envisions a theatre of warm stone wrapped in a glass curtain that both reflects and reveals the picturesque Avon River, which the theatre overlooks."  Warm stone?  Most of the stone I have encountered in my time is pretty cold, but hey, who am I to throw a damper on the fundraising party?

If the plan goes ahead, and it is still a big IF at this point, the old theatre would be torn down this winter and work would start immediately on the new venue, I'm told.  It would not be ready for next season, of course, to the new season would be scaled back just a bit to accommodate the reduced theatre space available.

Predictably, community groups are divided on the proposed new theatre, although most acknowledge the old one is due for replacement.  But many want to relocate the new theatre to a new space and leave the current community space for the community to use.  That would still necessitate considerable upkeep on the old structure and there have been no promises as to how that would be paid for, from what I can see.

The only logical choice is to build on the current spot and I am sure that is what will happen, but it would be nice to include a green space within the plan for the Stratford Lawn Bowling Club rather than move them out after all these years.

At two public meetings held at the Rotary Complex recently, it was learned the Festival could potentially purchase the land from the city rather than continue to rent.  That would save the Festival about $80-thousand a year in rental fees alone.  But there are still considerable costs to be incurred going forward on the project, so it is by no means a done deal yet, as I understand it.

Hey, the only constant is change.  I spent many an intermission in the summer months watching the lawn bowlers next door do their thing, and years earlier at the downtown Avon Theatre I recall going next door to Pounder Brothers Hardware for a browse during intermission at that theatre.  That changed and people survived, so hopefully the changes at the Patterson Theatre will result in positive change and few hurt feelings as well.

So, lots happening in Stratford this season.  I think I'll have to get back more often to keep up on what's happening in the future.  It could be an interesting off season to be sure.

Have a great weekend!

October 28th, 2017.