Saturday, April 14, 2018

Bunch in Niagara, in style!

I'm digressing from music & arts reporting again this weekend, but as the saying goes, "if music be the food of love, play on!"  So play on we will, and apologies to esteemed Eating Niagara writer Tiffany Mayer for treading on her tasty territory just a little bit this weekend.

In spite of what my far better half would have you believe, I enjoy good food, artfully presented in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere that shows a lot of care and attention to detail.  So I have been doing a little poking around Niagara the last few months trying out some new and new-to-me venues that have caught my interest, many of which Tiffany has written about in her regular columns.

This weekend I'll look at three small, intimate establishments that are off the beaten track, locally owned and operated, and who pride themselves on creating a memorable brunch experience.  These are not the traditional eggs & bacon mom & pop places with large portions for a small amount of money.  That's not the crowd they are going after.  They are aimed at people looking for something more, something a cut above the average breakfast place.

Niagara, of course, has no shortage of great lunch and dinner destinations, many tied to the burgeoning wine industry.  But I've always found brunch to often be the forgotten child, as it were, save for the large big-ticket brunch offerings at some of Niagara's finer hotels.

No more, I am happy to report.  In the past couple of months we've visited two small brunch havens in St. Catharines and one in Vineland, all three relatively new and all three successfully carving out their own little niche in a growing marketplace.  I'm also happy to report they are all very, very good.

First up, just a short walk from our house in central St. Catharines is "a peculiar little bistro called:  mirepoix...breakfast, lunch, mostly brunch" as their simple website proclaims.  It's located at 64 Court Street, just across from the Midtown Plaza on Welland Avenue.  I visited this particular location in former incarnations as a purveyor of Montreal smoked meat sandwiches and an Indian restaurant, both good in their own right but somehow not able to survive all that long.

Mirepoix is operated by Maddy, formerly of the famed Bleu Turtle Breakfast Bistro on St. Paul Street West, and Chef Warren, who state their goal is to "reclaim fancy breakfast in St. Catharines."  They do that with a bright, airy yet cozy location with simple seating and an open kitchen.  The menu, which changes regularly, is posted on a huge blackboard on one wall.  Items are all made fresh, in-house, local, seasonal and organic, whenever possible.  Yes, there are options for those who prefer to eat vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free.

The menu at present includes avocado toast with smoked salmon, lobster eggs benedict, pork belly eggs benedict, steak and eggs, omelettes, burgers and more.  I have eaten there twice so far, the first time enjoying the apple pie french toast, served with local apples, maple syrup and oats.  The second visit saw me opt for the vegetable skillet, made up of roasted potatoes and veggies in a cast-iron skillet served piping hot to your table.

Prices are all around the $15 range and the servings, while not huge, are more than ample.  Service was efficient in spite of a full house while we visited, and reservations are highly recommended.

Mirepoix, which the website states refers to the "starting point to many a rad recipe", is open from 8 am to 2 pm Wednesday to Sunday.  For reservations call 289-968-8772.

Next up is the Revalee Brunch Cafe on Victoria Avenue in Vineland.  We drove by one Sunday afternoon just after they closed at 3, and one look at the menu posted in the window convinced us to get an earlier start the next weekend.  The bright, modern yet small cafe is tucked away in the corner unit of a modern plaza complex fronting a townhouse development about midway between Regional Road 81 and the QEW.  You'll find it at a set of lights, on the west side of Victoria Avenue.

The Revalee website states they want the food "to be forward-looking, modern takes on classic dishes...familiar and innovative all at once."  The simple menu features a common price for all dishes, with one side presenting "omni" dishes while the other presents vegan dishes.  No matter which side of the menu you prefer, the food is beautifully presented and abundant.

The omni menu ranges from the so-called Revalee Classic, scrambled eggs with double-smoked bacon to huevos rancheros, smoked trout, a Scandinavian brunch featuring pickled herring along with a host of other ingredients, and The Full Monte for the larger appetites.  I chose the French toast, thick challah bread laden with spiced pears, granola, creme fraiche and mulled spice wine.

The vegan menu includes rosti, vegan french toast, vegan rancheros, carrot "gravlax" and Holy Sproat! among other offerings.  The latter blends micros with curried beat hummus, hemp hearts, seeds, radish and a host of other items.  My wife opted for the rosti, featuring a potato, carrot and onion latke with beet hummus, cucumber, mint and tomato fattoush and tahini cashew creme.

Revalee is paired with a delivery business called Box Lunch Brigade, specializing in healthy and inventive box lunches delivered to your home, place of business or school.  The cafe is open seven days a week from 8 am to 3 pm, and reservations are recommended during peak times.  Call 905-562-4101.

Finally, back in St. Catharines we come to the most intriguing of all, the Yellow Pear Kitchen, which I had the pleasure of visiting just this morning, in fact.  Billed on their website as the restaurant that Niagara built, it is run by Jason and Nicole Sawatsky, the people behind the familiar Yellow Pear Food Truck you see around town at summertime events.  The menu changes often and reflects, as they put it, "our love for what we do through the best products Ontario has to offer."

Yellow Pear Kitchen is located at 526 Lake Street in a strip plaza, flanked on one side by a pizza joint and on the other by The Frosted Cupcake.  But it can be a little difficult to pinpoint, as the red sign out front still promotes a long-gone Korean restaurant proclaiming hot pot in their native language.  The sign, if nothing else, is a conversation starter for sure.  Thankfully, Yellow Pear is emblazoned on the large window out front so you know you're at the right place.

Upon entering you are struck by the clean, modern lines and cozy ambience, augmented by a built-in gas fireplace in the centre of the room.  The cafe only seats 28 so you simply have to make a reservation at most times.  I got lucky this morning, wandering in unannounced about 10:30 when a stool at the small counter became available.

Nicole was my server this morning and was amazing, even asking if the music was too loud at one point, since I was closest to the stereo system.  I don't ever recall anyone asking me that before!

On the walls you'll find an intriguing collection of art, presumably by local artists, and all of it is priced and for sale if you are interested.

The menu changes very frequently so it is not really useful to list items here, although the eggs benny is pretty much a mainstay on the menu.  I opted for the buttermilk waffle, heaped with sliced peaches, bananas and strawberries, drizzled with maple syrup.  A single apple-sage breakfast sausage adorned the plate on the side.

Of the three, Yellow Pear is slightly more expensive than the rest, but still very reasonable.  The quality and ambience is exceptional, and the servings are very ample.  As with all three restaurants, vegan options are handled easily should you choose that option.

The Yellow Pear also recently won a Diner's Choice Award for Best Overall Restaurant in Toronto/Ontario and Niagara from Opentable diners.  Pretty impressive considering the number of new and interesting dining establishments there are out there.  You can read more and even book a table through Opentable.com.

Hours are 9:30 am to 2 pm, and Yellow Pear is only open Friday to Monday, but it is well worth the visit almost any weekend.  Just make sure to call ahead to make a reservation so you're not disappointed.  The number is 289-213-4240.

So in addition to great dining options in Niagara, we can now most assuredly included wonderful brunches as well.  All three places are destinations in their own right, and certainly able to satisfy even the most discriminating palate.

Bon appetite!

April 14th, 2018.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Season winds down for Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts

Since I was on vacation the past week I took a walk down to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre for the weekly Tuesday RBC Foundation Music@Noon student recital in the Cairns Recital Hall.  It is a weekly event during the school year, with the final one of the season scheduled for this Tuesday, April 3rd featuring piano & guitar students.

Last Tuesday's recital was primarily devoted to voice students in the Department of Music, but several instrumentalists were also featured.  Voice students included Awura-Adwoa Bonsu, mezzo-soprano, Emily Stockwell, soprano and William Sadler, tenor.  Instrumentalists included Gavin Oresta on guitar, and Divya Iyer, Ruth Jones and Nayla Nicole Whipple on piano.

The students are from the studios of Deborah Linton (voice), Timothy Phelan (guitar) and Erika Reiman (piano).  All have achieved a remarkable level of achievement already in their chosen studies, and will only get better as time and experience increases.  How many will ultimately pursue professional careers is certainly open to conjecture, but based on last week's recital more than a few have promising musical careers in their collective futures.

The standouts for me included pianist Michele Braun, playing the Brahms Intermezzo in E major, Op. 116, No. 4 and soprano Emily Stockwell, who performed two vocal selections, Silent Noon by Vaughan Williams and Brahms' Immer lieser wird mein Schlummer, Op. 105 No. 2.  Stockwell especially displayed a radiant voice with lovely tone, plus a nice stage presence.

To be sure, all of the students are exceptional but as is always the case with these recitals some are more advanced than others.  But that is not to discourage those still in the earlier stages of their studies.

Once again the Cairns Recital Hall was well-filled for the performance, including a number of students from Sir Winston Churchill School, who got to engage in a Q&A with performers outside of the actual performance.

As mentioned the final student recital takes place at noon tomorrow, so if you don't have plans over the lunch hour why not head to the PAC for an hour?  Best part of all, the recitals are totally free of charge.

Elsewhere with the Department of Music as the season winds down, there is a student solo recital this evening at 7:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall featuring pianist Luis Molina, once again with free admission.  Tomorrow evening a must-attend concert will feature The University Wind Ensemble directed by Zoltan Kalman in the larger Partridge Hall.

Kalman, who is Principle Clarinet with the Niagara Symphony and also on the faculty at the Department of Music brings together both high school and university students as well as members of the Niagara musical community for a varied programme from the wind band repertoire.  It can get a little noisy sometimes, but that's part of the fun!  Tickets are just $12 and available from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office.

Meantime the University String Orchestra performs at the Cairns Recital Hall Wednesday evening at 7:30 with George Cleland conducting.  This is the Department of Music's newest ensemble, featuring university students and community members.  They perform standard repertory as well as more obscure gems waiting to be rediscovered.  Once again, tickets are only $12 and available from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office.

Finally, the Brock University Choirs wrap up their season Sunday afternoon at 2:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall featuring Brock's student choral ensembles (men's, women's and mixed choruses) under the direction of conductor Rachel Rensink-Hoff.  They perform a wide variety from the choral repertoire both well known and not so well known.  Tickets are $15 and again, available from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office.

I always enjoy attending the events scheduled by the Department of Music at Brock University's Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.  The talent is there and the price is extremely affordable.  And now that we have such a great performance venue right in the heart of St. Catharines, why not take advantage of the opportunity whenever you can?

Happy Easter!

April 2nd, 2018.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Going off-topic for a political rant

I'm late posting my weekend blog, and for that I apologize but time just kinda got away from me.  But I want to detour from my usual arts reporting and get something off my chest that has been simmering for some time now.

Reader warning:  I'm entering what I call the High Rant District here, and it's going to get political.

I have been active on social media for quite a number of years now, due in part because of my media background and the fact in those days it was basically required you be on social media.  But being a writer and broadcaster by trade for over 40 years, I bring a different approach than some to what constitutes a correct posting on social media.  Because I know it is still media to be consumed by the public, I am always careful to watch my language, be respectful and try to offer balanced views on anything I post.

It appears sometimes, these days I am in the minority.

Over the past several years the face of social media has changed and I find it to be a veritable Wild West of extremism, hateful and downright nasty viewpoints and character assassination on an almost regular basis.  None of these attributes do I subscribe to, nor will I ever.

The present climate, combined with the latest revelations about Facebook have prompted me to reconsider my associations with social media and adjust accordingly.  Last week I tightened my security settings to the highest level on all fronts and began a rigid schedule of changing passwords and such on a very regular basis.

No terrible events in regards to security breeches yet, thank heavens, but I wanted to be more careful than I have been in the past.  And ultimately, I am not ruling out exiting from social media altogether should the current climate escalate much further.

Now all of this was precipitated by a posting I made via Facebook a little over a week and a half ago regarding the announcement that Donald Tump Jr. and his wife Vanessa are apparently divorcing.  I captioned it with the simple line "Like father, like son..."

It was an observation on a newsworthy event.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Well, the fallout was fast and furious and I think most people who posted comments that were particularly nasty were missing the point entirely.  My post was not necessarily Trump-bashing, although I readily admit I am no fan of the current U.S. Chief Executive.  I was simply referring to the fact Trump Jr. was following in his father's footsteps, since Donald Sr.  is on what, his third marriage now?  Anyway, the damage was done and what followed was a litany of vitriol.

I find it interesting those on either side of the border who are supporters of Trump cannot see the forest for the trees.  You cannot offer criticism without them taking umbrage in the worst possible way and get nasty in the process.

Oh, the references to people "picking" on him, why should we worry about him anyways, and just look who we've elected on this side of the border - that's what we should be worried about!  You get the idea.

Look, politicians everywhere are public figures so in any case they will be loved by some and vilified by others.  That's politics and they know or at least should know what they signed up for.  But we've lost the ability to moderate our stances and observe a certain amount of decorum while posting in a public medium.

I have written about this on social media before:  there is an attitude now that "My guy is right and everyone else is wrong, and not only that, they are idiots.  There is no longer any middle ground.  There is no longer an ability to temper your views with a measure of balance; rather there is a firm desire to stifle opposing views and label them as not only incorrect but downright treasonous.

We're seeing this more and more on this side of the border now as well, and with a provincial election in Ontario looming this June, the vitriol is already ramping up in a big way.  Supporters of Ford Nation pitted against The Enemy.  They are right and anyone who doesn't agree with them are clearly wrong.

News flash:  no matter what side of the political fence you are on, your representative is going to do/say something stupid at some point whether you like it or not.  They will also do many good things as well.  All sides will.  That's how it works, and suggesting your particular candidate can do no wrong is disingenuous and you are sadly incorrect.

What happened to constructive political discussion anyways?  Have we all been reduced to nothing more than sheep following the leader all the while devoid of the ability to rationalize and think for ourselves?  I hope not, but I fear this might be the case.

No matter what side of the political fence you sit on, and no matter what side of the U.S./Canada border you live on, we all have to get along.  When all is said and done, we are still democracies and contrary opinions are to be welcomed and discussed openly and respectfully.

It's going to be a long election here in Ontario with the outcome still not assured by any of the three major parties, no matter what people say.  Lots can happen between now and June 7th, and lots undoubtedly will.  But one thing is certain:  there will be winners and there will be losers.

It might be wise to learn to accept either side of the equation with grace and equanimity before the results are announced in June.

As for me, I plan to avoid any political postings on social media for the foreseeable future, lest I hurt the feelings of one side or the other.  Too many supporters are too thin-skinned these days, and I don't need the stress and aggravation that comes with it.

If that doesn't work, I will simply exit social media altogether.

On that note, have a great rest of the week!

March 28th, 2018.


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.

Enjoy!

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.