Cruisin’ Classics is perfect summer theatre

It’s 2018. Picture a 1950s drive-in diner that’s seen better days, with a For Sale by Owner sign on its boarded-up windows, and half of its neon lights out or inoperable. Throw in a couple of diner booths, resplendent in red and white leather and chrome trim and you have the set for Cruisin’ Classics, now playing at the Huron Country Playhouse until July 7.

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Onto this set appears The Man in the Diner (presumably Chuck the name on the drive-in’s facade), an older gentleman who starts talking about how school is out and how he hopes the kids who patronize his establishment will return. He says that he opened the diner in 1955, the same year his daughter was born. The one that married a musician — not even a real musician, a drummer — and left the diner behind. He tells the audience that he is waiting for a real estate agent to discuss the sale of the diner.

While cleaning up the diner’s facade, The Man in the Diner (played convincingly by Paul Lewis) begins reminiscing about what things were like back in the 1950s and early 1960s when Chuck’s was a-rocking.

Bursting onto the stage at that point is the production’s six talented featured vocalists with a collection of songs related to the theme of School’s Out, including Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock, At The Hop by Danny and the Juniors, and Brian Hyland’s Sealed With A Kiss.

It’s just the beginning of a whirlwind two hours of continuous music and nostalgia featuring poodle skirts, ponytails, rolled-up jeans, jiving and posturing.

The Man in the Diner plays the role of the narrator guiding the audience through the times, talking about the trials and tribulations of the kids who frequented his diner, while introducing the ten themes around which the numerous tunes are grouped.

The stellar six piece band, dressed in matching gold satin suits, is driven by drummer Ken Post who propels the production forward aided by the likes of Robert Martin, an accomplished reeds player who plays every sax solo you remember from this period’s music. Rounding out the band is guitarist Eric Mahar who provides some tasty licks, Rich Levesque on bass, Rob Asseltine on piano, and Rob Christian on keyboards. Madeline Champagne and Lloyd Lawrence provide background vocals.

But it’s the show’s six featured vocalists — Kyra Mastro, Connor Meek, Brooklyn Roebuck, Meghan Shanley, Joshua Warren and O’neil Watson — who are front and centre throughout the show that really bring the music alive.

Dressed in an apparent bottomless drawer of period costumes, the six young singers gyrate, dance and posture their way through the show’s fifty songs (yes you read that right, fifty), bringing each one to life.

Especially notable is Watson’s rendition of Sam Cooke’s You Send Me and Little Richard’s Good Golly Miss Molly. Roy Orbison’s Crying gets a great workout by Shanley and Warren. But, perhaps, the tunes in which all six vocalists are featured stand above the rest.

By show’s end, The Man in the Diner has decided to keep his drive-in open for another generation of kids, and the cast closes the show with a rousing rendition of Neil Sedaka’s Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.

To be sure, Cruisin’ Classics is everything one looks for in Summer theatre. It’s fun, not too challenging to the old noggin, nostalgic and brimming with talented singers and musicians.

Make sure you cruise down to see it before it moves on.

Rick Young, June 29, 2018

Kings & Queens of Country: Pure Enjoyment from Start to Finish

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You don’t have to be a country music fan to enjoy Kings & Queens of Country, now playing at Huron Country Playhouse II until June 30.

Indeed, the onstage performers and non-stop music is so irresistable, you will find yourself singing along and clapping your hands to such classic favourites as Roger Miller’s King of the Road and Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man.

To be sure, this is not the genre known as New Country with its bare mid-drift tops and bare-chested Cowboys, it’s the classic stuff heard at the Grand Ole Opry and on TV shows like Hee Haw.

Conceived and directed by Drayton Entertainment Artistic Director, Alex Mustakas, Kings and Queens is pure joy. Speaking to Mustakas during the Intermission, he told me and Joe Belanger from the London Free Press that the play has had a large emotional impact on its Company, some of whom have been drawn to tears by audience reception.

And it’s easy to understand why.  For people of a certain age and background, Kings and Queens is the soundtrack to their lives.

The sheer number of songs the talented and versatile Company plays prevents any listing of them. Let’s just say, if you’re a fan of classic country you won’t come away disappointed.

The play’s 9-person Company,  Al Braatz, Kevin Dempsey, Earl Filsinger, Tyler Check, Chelsey Duplak, Kelly Holiff, Michael Cox, J. Sean Elliot and Steve Thomas, channels all the biggest stars from Johnny Cash to Glen Campbell to  Patsy Cline to Hank Snow to Dolly Parton and everyone in between.

Close your eyes and you will swear the Real McCoy is onstage.

Full Disclosure: Neither I nor my partner Val Cavalini is a big country music fan, classic or new, so we didn’t know what to expect from Kings & Queens of Country.

We were pleasantly surprised and drove home to London singing the tunes we had heard that evening.

You will, too.

Rick Young, June 15, 2018.

 

Happy Birthday The Voices of Broadway Show Choir!

Perfection and fun.

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These are the two words that immediately came to my mind after last night’s Our First Five Years concert by London’s Voices of Broadway Show Choir at a packed Wolf Performing Arts Centre.

Narrated by Jim Swan, the concert took the audience on a guided tour of the 35 member choir’s first years of life. And, oh, what a five years it has been.

Under the leadership of its animated Artistic/Musical Director, Julie Pietrangelo, VOB concerts have become must-see events on people’s Calendars.

Five years ago, I wrote the following in a Review of VOB’s very first show, Broadway Blitz in January 2014:

“Indeed, if its inaugural concert is any indication, Londoners will be hearing and seeing a lot more of The Voices of Broadway Show Choir and its Artistic Director in the months to come.”

Well, Londoners have indeed heard a lot more of VOB and its Artistic Director. According to the program for Our First 5 Years, the choir has logged 2,628,000 minutes of music over the past five years. That’s a lot of music!

Our First 5 Years began with a most fitting number — A Musical, a number which literally outlined why musicals are so popular with audiences.

This was followed by Broadway Blockbusters, a medley of tunes like One, and Do You Hear The People Sing. Next came Newsies, featuring the founding members of VOB who are still with the group.

A flag bearer accompanied the choir on Anthem from the musical Chess. Tansy Dinn was the soloist.

Two whimsical tunes from Mary Poppins followed. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious gave audience members a chance to join in as the lyrics were projected on a back-screen.

The choir absolutely killed Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody from the musical We Will Rock You. Samantha Brocksom was a fantastic soloist and choir member Mel Atkins presented a most ambitious dance solo during the number.

Act 1 closed out with numbers from the musicals American Idiot, The Book of Mormon and Grease. Hello from The Book of Mormon included an in joke which re-appeared throughout the rest of the night.

Act 2 opened with a medley of tunes from crowd favourite Hair, complete with period props and wigs. Songwriter/songstress Carole King got the spotlight with a medley of hits from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

The Men of the Voices of Broadway were featured in the always popular Always Look On The Bright Side from Spamalot.

Soloist Janice Oldham elicited ample audience participation for You Can’t Stop The Beat from Hairspray. A medley of Motown hits followed in Motown: The Musical.

A number of VOB soloists were featured in a stirring medley of tunes from the Broadway smash hit, Hamilton.

Welcome to The Rock from Come From Away did Canada proud.

Coffee (In a Cardboard Cup) from 70, Girls, 70 closed out the program.

In keeping with VOB’s devotion to audience participation, choir members walked off the Wolf Performance Hall stage and thanked audience members for coming and engaging them in conversation.

In short, it was a great evening of Broadway choral music — exactly what people have come to expect of VOB.

Here’s to the next 5 years.

Reviewed by Rick Young, June 9, 2018

KSS 25th Anniversary Concert — Sublime!

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Saturday, June 2, 2018 was a very special night for award-winning local community choir, The Karen Schuessler Singers.

It was the choir’s 25th Silver Anniversary Concert — and all the stops were pulled out to make the evening’s program memorable for both performers and audience.

Delighting London audiences since their debut in 1993, KSS has become known for its widely varied, accessible and innovative programming, and this night was exemplary of these traits.

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The evening’s program kicked off with a simply marvelous rendition of John Rutter’s Gloria I, followed by an arrangement of legendary Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers’ Fogarty’s Cove arranged by Ron Small.

Karen Schuessler, the choir’s namesake and conductor, joked that the Rogers tune was one that the group had intended to include in an earlier concert, but due to time constraints, it was not performed.

“We should do a whole concert of songs we never got around to doing,” she quipped.

The stirring spiritual Deep River, arranged by Brian Ratcliffe was next, followed by audience favourite Battle of Jericho, arranged by Moses Hogan.

An older piece, Dirait-on, was introduced by conductor Schuessler as being 500 years old but just as interesting today. It was.

One of the most successful shows KSS has ever mounted was 2018’s Tribute to ABBA. The choir performed the catchy tune Super Trouper, complete with a driving disco beat provided by the evening’s percussionists , Greg Mainprize and Rob Larose.

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Another traditional tune, Wondrous Love, arranged by Paul Halley, closed out the first part of the program before Intermission.

Part II opened with Ralph Vaughn Williams’ O Clap Your Hands, followed By Eriks Estenvaid’s Stars, and then Hans Leo Hassler’s Cantate Domino.

Reaching into the its earlier production of the Road to Freedom, the KSS Singers stirred the house with a rendition of Kevin White’s Song of the Children arranged by Brian Ratcliffe.

Conductor Schuessler pointed out to the audience that one of next season’s concerts is Sondheim & Schonberg, featuring Sondheim’s greatest hits and music from Schonberg’s Les Mis! The choir then performed Master of the House from Les Miserables.

The evening ended off with crowd favourite, The Long and Winding Road, from the choir’s homage to The Beatles’ songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Karen Schuessler PicAfter a much deserved standing ovation, it was off to the church’s basement for a reception where audience members could view memorabilia from the group’s first 25 years and mingle with the members of the KSS choir.

It was a fine evening for performer and audience member alike.

Rick Young, June 3, 2018

 

 

Review: Chuckee Zehr Performs Janis Joplin, May 4, 2018, Aeolian Hall

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Ever have that feeling that you have been transported back in a time to a magical moment that gives you goosebumps all up and down your body?

Well, it happened to me last night at London’s historic Aeolian Hall at a performance by Blues singer, Chuckee Zehr, during her cover of Janis Joplin’s Cry Baby. Performing on the hall’s grand piano, unaccompanied by her stellar three piece band, Zehr wrenched every little bit of hurt and sorrow possible out of the Joplin standard.

Not only did her rendition bring me to tears and bring the audience to its feet in applause, it also transported me back to London’s Wonderland Gardens, a long-gone popular concert hall, where my Janis Joplin cover band, The Comic Opera, used to routinely open for touring acts like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Mashmakan in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Playing a full catalogue of Joplin tunes including Cry Baby, the band featured the talented vocals of  a very young Cherrill Yates from St. Thomas, who would go on to become half of the wildly successful disco duo, The Raes in the mid-1970s.

It also transported me back to Toronto’s now demolished CNE Stadium where I saw Janis Joplin perform in May 1970 as part of the infamous Festival Express tour (http://heritagetoronto.org/the-festival-express/). Here’s her set list for the concert (https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/janis-joplin/1970/cne-stadium-toronto-on-canada-13d20539.html).

The Comic Opera 1969, Yates, McCann, Young, Eade and Moorhouse 004

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But, last night wasn’t 1969, it was May 4, 2018 and Zehr and her band managed to keep the Sold Out full house crowd of baby boomers and millennials clapping, dancing and singing along with crowd favourites like Me and Bobbie McGee and Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz and many other Joplin covers for close to two and half hours.

Interspersed with the Joplin covers, the band played tunes by Etta James, The Tedischi Trucks Band and some very tasty original tunes including the soulful Bad, Bad Feeling.

To be sure, Chuckee Zehr is a versatile multi-talented, charismatic entertainer who had the Aeolian audience mesmerized for the duration of the concert. At one point towards the end of the evening, a large crowd of dancers, mostly female, found its way to the front of the stage gyrating and singing along with the diminutive singer.

The band closed the night with a stirring rendition of perhaps Joplin’s best known song, Piece of My Heart, before a standing ovation crowd.

The concert was the first in the Aeolian’s new “Lives Through” series.

If this first concert was any indication of what the rest of the series will be like, this reviewer can’t wait for them to arrive.

Rick Young, May 5, 2018

 

 

London’s Mayoralty Race, May 2018: A Review of How We Got to This Point.

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May 1, the first day prospective candidates could file their paperwork for a kick at the can in October’s municipal election, has come and gone.

At this point, six declared candidates for Mayor have joined the fray: Paul Cheng, Sean O’Connell, Stephen Orser, Paul Paolatto, Tanya Park, and Jonas White. Incumbent Mayor Matt Brown will not be standing for re-election.

It’s worth reviewing how we got to this point.

To be sure, the 2018 election will be dramatically different from its 2014 counterpart. In 2014 there were no less than 15 people vying for the Mayor’s chair. There was also a full slate of fresh-faced rookie candidates challenging London’s old guard for ward seats.

As the campaign developed a so-called “progressive” coalition coaelesced around mayoralty candidate Matt Brown (a local big L Liberal) who promised to bring fresh ideas and return dignity to city council, which had been tarnished by misdeeds of former Mayor Joe Fontana and his cronies.

On election night the results were pretty predictable. Brown won a clear majority of the votes cast (57.75 per cent) and his progressive coalition pushed aside Joe Swan, Bud Pohill and other old guard councillors.

The future looked bright. Anything seemed possible. Dignity had been restored to city politics.

Big policies like the London Plan and BRT were introduced with much fanfare and it looked like the new council was planning on a long stay in office.

And, then it happened.

In June 2016, it was disclosed that Brown had carried on an extra-marital affair with Councillor Maureen Cassidy, then his Deputy Mayor.

Suddenly, almost overnight the shine seemed to come off the new council, and although they would probably deny it, the council’s momentum slowed and its honeymoon with London voters was over.

After Brown and Cassidy returned to council after self-imposed suspensions, council turned its attention to implementing what it perceived as its mandate to put shovels in the ground for a new mass transit system. After an earlier LRT proposal was rejected due to staggering costs, council settled on the less expensive, but no less controversial, BRT alternative under the Shift banner.

However, things didn’t proceed quite as anticipated. Poor communications between city staff, council and the public lead the emergence of an anti-BRT group calling itself Downshift, composed mainly of Richmond Row merchants fearful that their businesses would be adversely affected by the construction of the proposed BRT route.

A rather raucous public meeting at Budweiser Gardens revealed that there was a good deal of anti-BRT sentiment and opposition among London taxpayers.

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Potential mayoralty candidates Paul Cheng and Paul Paolatto expressed their displeasure with the project vowing to scrap it altogether or come up with a better alternative.

Suddenly, BRT didn’t seem like such a done-deal despite the provincial Liberal government ponying up hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for the project in 2018.

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Then in April 2018, Brown announced that he was not running for re-election, probably realizing he had little chance of winning.

BRT enthusiasts must have been devastated. Their tireless champion was not going to be there after October to help push through the project.

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Councillor Tanya Park, who had earlier announced she would not be running because she had accomplished everything she had set out to do, and who had mounted an unsuccessful campaign to be the Ontario NDP candidate in London North, stepped into the breach announcing her candidacy for Mayor, saying she would continue to promote the project as Mayor.

After the three major mayoralty candidates filed their papers, they fired off their initial salvos with Cheng proclaiming his familiar refrain: Let’s open London for Business; Paolatto surprisingly, but predictably, expressing his support for London’s developers; and Park letting it be known she is running on a platform of job creation and leadership on issues such a fighting sexual harassment.

Something tells me that we will see even more Londoners throwing their hats into the race for Mayor in the months to come. The deadline for filing the paperwork is July 27.

Rick Young, May 3, 2018