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An Arabian night in Huron County with Aladdin the Panto

24 Aug
Jamie McKnight, Tim Porter and Company in Aladdin The Panto, 2016 Season

Jamie McKnight, Tim Porter and Company in Aladdin The Panto, 2016 Season

By Guest Diva Courtney Henry

GRAND BEND – An enchanted tale of magic and romance, good overcoming evil, and some harem pants. That is what I expected walking into Huron Country Playhouse II on the opening night of Aladdin the Panto. I also was looking forward to comedy, music and dancing of the highest calibre. I was not disappointed.

The classic tale of Aladdin is one of intrigue and magic. A poor young boy named Aladdin is enlisted by an evil sorcerer to retrieve a lamp from a cave. He does so. His life is changed forever after unleashing a powerful and funny genie. He meets the princess of his dreams and learns that wealth and power are not the most important things in life; love and kindness are.

If you have never had the opportunity to take in this traditional form of British theatre known as the pantomime the short explanation is that pantos were traditionally performed during the Christmas season as a family friendly outing. They incorporate song, dance, comedy, audience participation, and mildly suggestive innuendo (for the parents, I presume). I have had a dear love for panto since my mother videotaped a production of Ross Petty’s Cinderella with Karen Kane and I watched and re-watched it as a young child. I have since had the fun of seeing three live pantos with my children, an opportunity not to be missed. It’s a lovely thing to watch a child immersed in a live theatre production and yelling out direction to the characters.

I was very excited to take in this panto and enjoy a night of fun.

The production, directed and choreographed by David Connolly, opened and I found myself whisked into a fairy tale world of Arabian nights and magical mysticism. As the music built black-lit puppets danced across the stage and used the talent of the younger performers quite well. There is a special thing I like about these pantos at Drayton: they have a young children’s chorus who dance and perform numbers with skill and youthful joy. This chorus was well utilized in dancing the puppets along, keeping my interest in the group numbers.

From the moment our villain Abanazza (played by Justin Bott) stepped onto the stage to open a scene I was enthralled. He was everything you want in a panto villain; engaging yet slightly creepy, funny yet evil, and he walked triumphantly off stage to boos and hisses (a great sign of prowess for a panto villain). At intermission I asked the young boy sitting next us what his favourite part was so far and he answered “the part with Pokemon Go!” Our dear villainous Abanazza made sure to inform us that the box office was a Pokestop, a big highlight for my young seat mate!

As the story unfolded I found myself laughing, singing along with Jasmine (Michelle Bouey), Aladdin (Jamie Mcknight), Genie of the Ring (Sarah Higgins), and shouting out boos, hurrahs and directions at appropriate moments. The children around me (and most adults) took absolute delight in hollering at the characters as they arrived on stage or needed assistance in finding something. I loved a point near the end where our audience liaison Wishy Washy (Tim Porter formerly of Doodle Bop fame), picked three children from the audience for an interview and sing along.

In every panto I have seen there is a dame, and this one was no exception. The Dame is the comedic role of audaciousness and shameless sexuality and is almost always played by a man. In this case, it is Widow Twanky (Aiden DeSalaiz), who plays Aladdin’s mum. She brought in quite a bit of humour, some incredible wardrobe, and a lot of fun, especially when set opposite the all powerful Genie of the Lamp (Michael De Rose) who found her feminine wiles enticing and exciting.

If you are looking for a fun, family friendly, musical kind of outing, Aladdin will suit you to a T. I left smiling, and intend to bring my young son to enjoy this impressive performance before it comes to an end Sept. 3.

Tickets, $44 regular, $36 preview, $26 youth under 20, are available by calling the box office at 1-855-372-9866 or visiting online

Michelle Bouey and Jamie McKnight in Aladdin The Panto, 2016 Season

Michelle Bouey and Jamie McKnight in Aladdin The Panto, 2016 Season


Review: The Last Donnelly Standing is a one-man emotional rollercoaster

9 Aug

Gil Garratt as Robert Donnelly in The Last Donnelly Standing at the Blyth Festival. Photo by Terry Manzo.

By Guest Diva Marilyn Swartz

BLYTH – At the Aug. 5 opening of The Last Donnelly Standing at Blyth Festival, Gil Garratt, who primarily played Robert Donnelly, came riding up to the theatre on a horse.  Such a dramatic entrance fit the bill of this thought-provoking and highly emotional play that gave a different perspective than the regular stories I was often told or read about the Donnellys.

Most children growing up in Southern Ontario have heard the story of the Black Donnellys. A rough, tough, farm family with a stagecoach sideline, who were murdered by a gang of vigilantes from the nearby village of Lucan. This massacre took place late at night in February of 1880. A large group of men broke into the home, butchering the inhabitants and setting the home on fire. A young neighbour boy who was spending the night escaped to tell the tale. The murderous mob continued on to another Donnelly farm and shot one of his brothers who had answered the door. This is a tale Huron County has never forgotten.

If you are hoping to see a play that makes sense of the Donnelly story, or even perhaps for a play that romanticizes the horrors of that late February evening, you won’t find it in Blyth. Through Gil’s emotionally riveting solo performance of a multi-character play, the audience follows the emotional roller coaster of Robert Donnelly’s life, before, during and after the massacre of his family. Robert was one of the middle sons, and he is portrayed as a straight-thinking man with a fiery temper and a gift for making money. The play’s climax is not the massacre as many in the audience would likely expect, instead it explored the odd draw that Lucan held for Robert even after the massacre of his family. Instead of moving away after the murders like his surviving siblings, he seemed determined to make the town face him, waving and smiling to the families of those who murdered his kin.

A great illustration is used throughout the play and is introduced by Robert’s brother Patrick (also played by Gil). Patrick explains an Irish custom of young boys going into the woods in the early spring to kill wrens and the odd custom of bringing them back on sticks. The young boys receive treats and money to bury the wrens, which in turn is supposed to bring in the robins and spring. Patrick closes on this riveting and disturbing tradition by pointing out that Robert could never bury the wren. This theme seems carried on through to the end and the audience is left feeling badly for Robert as a man who could not forget or forgive the past.

Written by Paul Thompson and Gil Garratt with co-creator Beth Kates, and directed by Paul Thomson, Gil carries it off with style, including his riding to the theatre on a horse before the play begins.

A special mention should also be made of the unusual but effective projected visual effects, as it helped Gil cast a dreamlike, and at times nightmarish, atmosphere.

A nice treat was to experience Blyth Theatre’s commitment to the local economy, which was evident during the intermission and afterwards, as local seasonal foods were prepared by Central Huron’s Bon Vivant Catering. At the bar, Lucan’s Black Donnelly Ales & Lagers could be purchased alongside Blyth’s Cowbell craft beer and various wines from Huron East’s Maelstrom Wineries. It was truly a night to remember, which is good because we could all use a reminder to bury the wren from time to time.

The Last Donnelly Standing plays in repertoire at Blyth Festival until Sept. 2. Tickets (Adults: $31 regular, $35 preferred; youth: $15. All orders subject to $6 handling charge) are available by calling the box office at 519-523-9300 or toll free at 1-877-862-5984 or online.

Review: If Truth Be Told the most important play so far this summer

3 Aug

Anita La Selva and Catherine Fitch in If Truth Be Told, playing at the Blyth Festival until Sept. 3.

By Diva Heather Boa

BLYTH – If Truth Be Told, a most important play about censorship of literature in Ontario high school curriculum during the ‘70s and ‘80s, found a balance in exploring the issue and examining the impact on community when it premiered on the Blyth Festival stage this past Friday night.

The play, written by Beverley Cooper, is about successful Canadian writer Peg Dunlop’s (Catherine Fitch) return to her home community to care for her sick mother while trying to work on her next book. She doesn’t want to be distracted from writing but gives in to the relentlessly enthusiastic Argentinian high school English teacher Carmella (Anita LaSelva), and agrees to speak to a classroom of students because they are reading one of her books in their class. The housekeeper Maysie Piggott’s (Rebecca Auerbach) complains about the book’s content to church elder and school trustee Harry Briggs (J.D. Nicholsen), who sets the wheels in motion to have the book removed from the curriculum and others reviewed at the same time. Meanwhile, Maysie’s daughter, Jennifer (Meghan Chalmers) reads one of the controversial books and raises a slew of other questions, as only a teenager can.

Then there’s the second layer: what happens when community of people with near daily interactions and dependencies become divided by debate? For any of us who live in smalltown Ontario, this is a very relevant question.

The way in which director Miles Potter presents this story is quintessential Blyth Festival: take a relevant rural story with broad appeal, add a strong cast that mixes veteran actors and newcomers, and put it on a stage stripped of almost anything else that distracts, subtracts or takes away.

Unfortunately, he should have stuck to the format and resisted the visuals like cursive writing plays or candid clips of video that played on the back wall.

The set, by Steve Lucas, is understated, with just a dining room table and chairs upholstered in red velvet, and a cleverly designed staircase that ends somewhere to the side of the stage where the audience can’t see but believes leads to the sickly mother’s bedroom.

If Truth Be Told plays in repertoire at the Blyth Festival until Sept. 3. Tickets (Adults: $31 regular, $35 preferred; youth: $15. All orders subject to $6 handling charge) are available by calling the box office at 519-523-9300 or toll free at 1-877-862-5984 or online.


Rebecca Auerbach, Meghan Chalmers and Catherine Fitch in If Truth Be Told at the Blyth Festival.


Anything Goes: A play that makes a big production of laughter

27 Jul
Jayme Armstrong and Company in Anything Goes, Drayton Entertainment, 2016 Season

Jayme Armstrong and Company in Anything Goes, Drayton Entertainment, 2016 Season.

By Diva Heather Boa

GRAND BEND – What’s not to love about Anything Goes, the musical that opened on Huron Country Playhouse’s main stage this past Sunday?

There’s incredible singing, live orchestra, fancy footwork, marvellous costumes and fine acting wrapped around the story of a young man who sneaks aboard a cruise ship to pursue the love of his life, a debutante who is being chaperoned by her mother on the voyage that will end with her wedding to another man.

The characters in this play with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and new book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman are zany and delightful, from energetic nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (played by Jayme Armstrong) to desperate romantic Billy Crocker (played by Patrick Cook), from stowaway blonde Erma Latour (played by Lee-Anne Galloway) to the incredibly politically incorrect Oriental duo (played by Neil Salinas and Ryota Kaneko). Even the villain Moonface Martin (played by Sheldon Davis) is quite loveable. Then there’s the dog; that poor fluffy creature whose misfortunes get no sympathy from the audience.

Most of the laughs are the cheap sort that fit comfortably into the weekend summer scene. There’s a beard made of dog fur – yes, from that poor dog, a sword that rises from its owner’s side as his sexual interest rises, a skeet shooting contest that gets overtaken by a machine run and other stuff unabashedly designed to draw laughter. It’s all silly and it’s all in good fun.

Paradoxically, this is serious stuff. Under the direction and choreography of Michael Lichtefeld, this production is tight; it’s a complicated mix of movement, timing, singing and live music that comes together beautifully.

The vocals of Jayme Armstrong and Keely Hutton, in particular, are quite stunning. But songs like Anything Goes and the finale It’s De-lovely, which involve the entire Company in a flurry of dance and spinning costumes and powerful voices, are absolutely magical.

Anything Goes runs until Aug. 6 on the main stage at Huron Country Playhouse. Tickets, $44 regular, $36 preview, $26 youth under 20, are available by calling the box office at 1-855-372-9866 or visiting online.

Keely Hutton and Patrick Cook in Anything Goes, Drayton Entertainment, 2016 Season

Keely Hutton and Patrick Cook in Anything Goes, Drayton Entertainment, 2016 Season.



Hilda’s Yard: Some stories are timeless

18 Jul
Patti Allan and Company in Hilda's Yard, 2016 Season

Patti Allan and Company in Hilda’s Yard, 2016 Season. Photographer: John Sharp.

By Diva Heather Boa

GRAND BEND – You know that type of book that’s really slow to start while the plot gets laid down and then suddenly you’re hooked, awake until way past your bedtime reading to see how it will all end?

That’s kind of like Hilda’s Yard, which opened at Huron Country Playhouse II on Friday night. It’s typical Norm Foster work, with over-the-top characters with gratuitous accents, a litany of jokes that could have been ended with a little drum roll (for example, there’s a drawn out discussion about the disadvantages of having the last name “Fluck”) and a setting that needs the dust blown off – in this case, it’s 1956 even though the play was published in 2012. Norm Foster fans should love this play.

By the end of the first act, the play was just a nice little summer diversion; a story about aging empty nesters looking forward to nights in front of the new television set and perhaps a little hanky panky whenever it suited them, when their plans are derailed by their two children, who unexpectedly move back home. We’ve met all of the family in the backyard setting, including: the matriarch Hilda Fluck (played by Patti Allan), a pragmatic and strong-willed housewife who talks over the fence to her long-time friend Mrs. Lindstrom, who we never see; the reliable patriarch Sam Fluck (played by Brian Linds), whose modest dream of owning a television set causes him to take personal time from work; the sweet schemer son Gary Fluck (played by Alan Kliffer), who is still traumatized by the desk job he held during the war and can’t keep a job, even as a pizza delivery man; and the spoiled daughter Janey Fluck (played by Ella Simon), who has left her husband and wants to pursue a career in a travel agency. And thrown into the mix were Bobbi Jakes (played by Steffi DiDomenicantonio), who is Gary’s flamboyant girlfriend in a costume reminiscent of a stereotypical French artist, right down to the black beret; and Beverly Woytowich (played by Brad Austin), a philosophical bookie.

It’s no small feat that director Mark DuMez hasn’t sent these characters right over the top. After all, it’s encouraged by the playwright.

But somewhere into the second act, true to form of a play written by Canadian Norm Foster, it got real as all the strings laid out in the first act started to pull together. The play shifted from being a nice little comedy to being an exploration love, work ethics, mental illness and domestic violence. Suddenly, the nice little comedy earned respect from the audience, and it reached that place where you really and truly could have heard a pin drop. One particularly chauvinistic line from the family patriarch, Sam Fluck (played by Brian Linds) drew a collective reprimand from the audience. Not what you expect in a comedy. Within 30 seconds, he’d said something else that had people laughing and the show went on.

Even though the set is the 1950s, with costumes that include clothespin apron, saddle shoes, greaser jeans and bowling shirt and discussion about WWII and television sets, the family dynamics are timeless. Who of us with siblings hasn’t stuck our tongue out or tried to take a jab from time to time? What adult child hasn’t scored beer and sandwiches from the fridge? What parent hasn’t had a moment when he or she felt the children never grew up?

Hilda’s Yard runs until July 29. Tickets, $44 regular, $36 preview, $26 youth under 20, are available by calling the box office at 1-855-372-9866 or visiting online.







A place maybe even better than home: Colborne B & B

5 Jul

colborne1By Diva Heather Boa

GODERICH – Suzanne and John Anderson, the owners of Colborne Bed and Breakfast, make their job look easy.

But underneath their welcoming and easy-going style is a careful staging of every detail from the stock in their kitchen to the furnishings in the rooms to ensure that guests in their home have a memorable experience.

“We meet so many wonderful people from all over the planet,” said Suzanne, as she worked in the kitchen to prepare a lunch of baked eggs that swam in a pool of butter and cheese topped with fresh herbs, bacon from Metzger’s meat shop located 20 minutes down the road, artisan bread that was cooked in a wood oven, fresh salad greens grown in a hoop greenhouse on an organic farm, and baked apples dripping in maple syrup, yoghurt and a special granola mix made from a local baker who happens to live across the street.

colborne5colborne2colborne8colborne6“We try to serve local as best we can. Our guests deserve the best,” Suzanne said, as she dabbed the baked apples with yoghurt while a cameraman from a local film crew tracked her movements.
colborne9On the table were also croissants from neighbouring Cait’s Kitchen, chili sauce from her grandmother’s recipe, and jam from the local market (her own ran out mid-winter). To meet special dietary needs, there’s a butter replacement and a dairy-free cheddar-style shreds in one of the egg dishes.

John and Suzanne have been welcoming guests into their red brick home on Colborne Street, just off Goderich’s unique downtown Courthouse Square, since purchasing it in 2010. There are four spacious rooms, with hardwood floors, high ceilings, wide baseboards and ensuite washrooms. The decorations are warm, with clean lines and elegant simplicity.

There is also a lovely loft space that can be rented longer term and offers more privacy.

Some of the windows overlook a tranquil garden, with space for guests to escape with a book or a cup of tea. Everywhere, there’s somewhere to sit and relax, from couches in the shared living room with its rows of books and games to bistro seating in window nooks to stuffed leather or wingback chairs by fireplaces.

Their home serves as a resting place for guests who have come to town for family events, local festivals, shopping or beach experiences. Or they’ve come for one of the experiential packages, like the Spa Getaway, offered during the off-season. Colborne Bed and Breakfast has partnered with Irene Duguay Spa Services to offer a full weekend of dining and relaxing, plus a shuttle trip to the spa for a bit of pampering.

On this particular day, it was cold and pouring rain but swaddled in a blanket with a warm compress on my face, soothing instrumental music in the background, and all sorts of exotic scents mingling in the small room, I was toasty and relaxed. I even managed to forget that I was being filmed by a cameraman as Irene efficiently explained what she was doing as she applied a deep cleanse, then steaming and masking, using Eminence organic skin care products. She moved with a certain calmness, as though there were a sleeping baby in the room that shouldn’t be wakened.

“I went to a show in Toronto and I just fell in love with the product,” Irene said. Every spring, she returns to Toronto for training on new techniques using the Eminence products.

massageWhile the mask worked its magic, Irene gently and methodically massaged my hands, arms, shoulders and feet, both of us content in the silence, broken only by interview questions from me or explanations of what she was doing from her.

As I lay there, I schemed on a girls’ spa getaway at Colborne Bed and Breakfast with my favourite friends for next winter. I’m sure it will be exactly what we need to celebrate our friendship amid hectic lives.

For more information on Colborne Bed and Breakfast, visit online or give them a call toll free 800-390-4612 or 519-524-7400.



Canadian Legends: Oh Canada – You Rock!

5 Jul
Neil Aitchison and Company in Canadian Legends, 2016 Season

Lee Siegel and Company in Canadian Legends, 2016. Photographer: Darlene O’Rourke.

By Diva Shari Parsons

GRAND BEND – A great way to have celebrated the Canada Day weekend was by attending the opening performance of director Alex Mustakas’ must see Canadian Legends at Huron Country Playhouse. It is a triple-threat production of music, dance and comedy celebrating the wide range of musical talent that this great nation of Canada has produced both in the past and continues to produce.

Neil Aitchison, as RCMP Const. Archibald Finkster, acted as the show’s witty and humorous MC against a backdrop of changing scenery from across this beautiful country. This was the first time that I had seen Neil perform and he was a natural comic who looked like he was thoroughly enjoying himself. I think that my favourite joke was the one about the rosebud tattoo – but you will have to attend the performance to hear it!

The production opened with a high energy song and dance routine to a melange of Tom Cochrane’s hit song Life is a Highway and Hank Snow’s I’ve Been Everywhere. “High energy” and “hit songs” were the theme of the entire production.

A packed house was kept busy tapping toes and clapping hands as we were brought on an historical musical journey, starting with Paul Anka’s Diana and ending with Paul’s song My Way made famous by legendary crooner, Frank Sinatra. In between, we were treated to Canadian musical hits from every decade, including rock ‘n’ roll, country, folk, classic rock, rap, hip-hop and down home East Coast by musical legends such as Neil Young, Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Celine Dion and Michael Bublé, just to name a few. We also heard music from bands such as Rush, The Guess Who, BTO, and The Tragically Hip.

The songs were performed by six multi-talented men and women, who not only gave fantastic vocal performances but also played instruments. My favourite singer was Stacey Kay whose powerful voice could give America’s Kelly Clarkson a good run for her money. All the singers did a wonderful job of sounding like the original artist being featured.

The accompanying “high impact” dance numbers were performed by four lithe and limber dancers choreographed by Gino Berti, who has worked on other Drayton Entertainment musical productions such as Twist and Shout, Hairspray, and Dance Legends. Dance numbers featured styles such as jive, waltz, ballet, country and western and hip-hop.

The singers and dancers had excellent musical accompaniment from a five-piece band under the direction of Brigham Phillips.

The costumes of both singers and dancers reflected the time period of the music being performed. I think that the gentlemen in the audience liked the sexy costume worn by Laura Mae Nason for her rendition of Shania Twain’s I Feel Like a Woman the best.

Both my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed this production, so much so that even though my hubby wasn’t feeling well, he didn’t want to leave until the end! Now that is a recommendation!

Canadian Legends is playing at the Huron Country Playhouse main stage until July 16.

Tickets, $44 regular, $36 preview, $26 youth under 20, are available by calling the box office at 1-855-372-9866 or visiting online.