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Fred's Views

The Theater, The Theater ...

(Lyric from song in White Christmas)

Last night the "older" members of our family attended a dinner theater. Over the last few years, we've attended some theatrical events. For example, we have attended many of the presentations of the "Peninsula Players" who were first located in Smithville but more recently have presented their performances in Grimsby (Ontario). They are, as you might expect, strictly amateurs, but they put on a good show. Most of the time they present comedy farces that seem to be largely from the 1950s, an era when most people had to leave their homes to get entertainment. Live theater probably isn't everyone's cup of tea since it does not always have the high production values we see in the movies or on television. But there is nothing quite like being there in the same room as the actors.

As productions go, those of the Peninsula Players do show rough edges from time to time. The sets are sparse and the actors sometimes flub their lines and occasionally someone over acts, but all in all, it's a good show and well worth the nominal admission charge. I've never failed to be entertained. The cost of one of their tickets is much less than the cost of a movie ticket, and I can honestly say that it has been my misfortune to view some movies that, despite their multi-million dollar costs, were far less entertaining than these simple plays.

Last month my wife and I and another couple took in My Fair Lady at Stratford (Ontario) in the Festival Theater. I think it's the first time I've been in the Festival Theater since I went on a high school excursion not long after the festival started. (We have attended a few presentations in recent years at Stratford, but they were in one or more of the other theaters used by the Festival.) It was a totally captivating performance staring Cynthia Dale, Colm Feore and James Blendick. Many in the cast were seasoned actors with credits not only in Canadian TV and film but also some big name American fare. I'm obviously not "critic" material since I can't recall a single flaw in the performance. I was especially intrigued with the scene changes. Since the Festival Theater is a "Theater in the Round", big sets are out of the question. It was, however, amazing to see how small, subtle changes effectively transformed the stage to a different setting.

Although it's still best known for its presentations of Shakespeare's works, the Stratford Festival has and is presenting more and more variety. In addition to other "serious" works, the Festival presents other Broadway musicals as well as those of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Okay, the tickets were not cheap. I could have bought a complete season of Star Trek, the Next Generation on DVD for one pair of tickets (and have change left over). So, my pocket book wouldn't allow me to take in more than one show a year, but it is still money well spent. All in all, a delightful day.

In addition to the show, we started off the day with lunch at a downtown eatery in Stratford. This one (Something with "George" in the name) was elegant without being pretentious. We had an enjoyable lunch (although my soup was a little cool) and at quite a reasonable price. We ended the day with another meal, this time at the Country Kitchen in Ancaster. It, too, was a good meal, reasonably priced. All in all a great day.

So, anyway, last night ...

This dinner theater was held at the Brant Bible Church in Burlington. They apparently put on five shows (Friday-Saturday-Sunday one week, Friday-Saturday the next) as well as a "Preview". The shows sell out within hours of the tickets going on sale. The show is held in the main sanctuary which means that the pews have to be removed and replaced with tables. There are eight people at a table and I guess that there are about 25 tables in the room, so that's an audience of about 200 people.

When you drive up to the building, you have the option of parking your car yourself or taking advantage of their free valet parking. Then there's the complimentary coat check. That's followed by a delightful glass of blueberry punch. Already I'm feeling good! The only rough spot is waiting to actually get to your seats. There's a bit of a bottleneck as your tickets are checked and you are shown to your table. (One of the reasons for the bottle neck is that there is only a half-hour window between when the doors open and the when the meal is served.)

At the table, there is a glass of cranberry-raspberry and another of water. Unfortunately, the water was highly chlorinated, but that certainly wasn't their fault. We started off with a salad, relish tray and a delicious roll. After a bit of a wait (I think we were among the first to be served the salad and among the last to get our main meal), the entr´e; of chicken breast with orange sauce, rice medley and carrots was excellent (the chicken was very tender). We were served our choice of coffee and tea and, unusual for this type of meal, we even got seconds (or thirds) on the beverages. Then the show began.

We had seats to one side and I had the misfortune of having my back to the stage (someone has to). I turned my chair around but had to be a little careful because half of the "choir" were seated next to the wall and had to walk past me to go on stage. In a sense it is a play within a play "interrupted" with music. The basic plot is about a somewhat down and out family. The mother has newly remarried, the dad has been "down-sized" and has had to resort to playing Santa Claus to pay the bills. There are two kids and a grandpa - the comic relief. The daughter has "found Jesus" and is trying to share her experience with the other members of the family. The son isn't sure of his place with a new dad.

The daughter has a video about the birth of Jesus that she wants to view (and share with the family). When she views it, a second area of stage is activated and the birth of Jesus is enacted with a voice over reading a modern translation of the Biblical passages. This is also, usually, the cue for a musical number. The presentation continues alternating between the "present-day" family and the Bible story of the first Christmas. When the dad leaves for work, there is a cute video presentation of his journey. He gets rear-ended, stops off at Tim Horton's for a coffee and then a variety store for a newspaper. I couldn't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure the guy driving the other car, serving the coffee, and washing his shoes with a mop at the store was the church's pastor - a bit of an in-joke. Still, the video was humorous and well-done.

As was the entire presentation. The plot may be a little hokey (but that's not unusual for many musical comedies), but the overall effect was enthralling. The actors were more than adequate, the singing, including several solos, was inspiring and the 8-piece orchestra was extremely professional. I think back at the Christmas concerts we used to give in our small rural church. I recall how I tried to set up a microphone so the voices of the little kids would carry to the back of the room - it didn't work out very well - and then I think about this presentation. This was slick, polished and thoroughly professional. The ending - a little too pat - still brought a tear to my eye. I look forward to next year's presentation.

But we're not quite finished. To cap off the evening, we had a dessert of a giant slab of Black Forest cake and more tea or coffee. Although I usually hate to wait for dessert, I soon forgot all about it when the show began. I could have left without missing the dessert, but I didn't. One of the advantages of serving the dessert at the very end is that there was less of a crowd when you were ready to leave. Some finished before you and were gone while others were lingering over a second cup of coffee. It turned out to be an excellent idea.

I should point out that my nephew was the "percussionist" in the band and that he earns his living, at least partially, through music.

The "Theater" is alive and well in Canada. Whether you choose to spend a small fortune to attend a professional presentation in Stratford, or at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake (which I must confess I haven't been to yet) or The Lion King or another professional show in Toronto; or prefer to spend less for great dinner theater at some of the professional places around or professional presentations by amateurs such as mentioned above; or even spend a mere pittance to see local amateurs it is money well spent - and time well spent. Make a New Year's resolution: This year you'll get off your duff and take in a show or two or three or more. You won't regret it.

Copyright © 2002 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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