Stratford’s Little Shop of Horrors is must see theatre

I went to see The Little Shop of Horrors at the Stratford Festival with some trepidation on Friday afternoon. I have seen some simply horrible productions of the play and wasn’t sure I could endure another.

Well, that all changed after the first musical number of this no-expenses spared production.

Great leads and supporting cast, great musical numbers, great sets and costumes, and a wise-cracking Audrey II man-eating plant combine to make The Little Shop of Horrors must-see theatre this season.

And, if you’re wondering, it’s kid friendly. I plan on returning with my granddaughters at some point this summer.

You should go!

Check out this YouTube video Preview:

Rick Young, July 20, 2019.

Rocky: The Musical is an enduring story

If theatre-goers can put aside whatever feelings they may have about what has been transpiring south of the border since November 2016, and then suspend their disbelief about the tarnished American Dream, Rocky: The Musical, now playing at the Huron Country Playhouse until August 3, is perfect summer theatre.

Based on the iconic 1976 Academy Award-winning movie Rocky (now in its seventh incarnation) written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, the play is making its Canadian premiere at the Drayton Entertainment theatres.

Indeed, the play encourages you to leave behind Trump’s divisive America and take a time-trip back to 1976 Philadelphia with its garish costumes, stark urban sets, music, seedy boxing gyms, and even seedier characters.

Unless you have been completely cut off from North American pop culture for the past 43 years, the play’s plot is all too familiar and does not require much description here. It’s a classic rags-to-riches story caught up in the so-called American Dream.

The play’s antagonist, Rocky Balboa portrayed by Alex Kelly, is a down and out Philadelphia boxer, frequenting Micky’s Gym and living in a one-room dishevelled apartment. He makes his living collecting money for a menacing local loan-shark.

When we first see him onstage, he is engaged in what he later refers to as a “ham and eggs” boxing match against an equally uninspiring opponent. Emerging as the victor, he earns $60 for his efforts and heads for his locker seeking an after-match cigarette.

From this point on we are introduced to the play’s remaining major supporting characters including Mickey, his crusty Manager, portrayed convincingly by Lee MacDougall, Adrian, his shy and fragile girlfriend, portrayed deliciously by Drayton Entertainment favourite Jayme Armstrong (last seen as Millie in this year’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Paulie, Adrian’s overprotective alcoholic brother played by another Drayton favourite Aaron Walpole, who brings an abrasive, but sensitive interpretation to the role.

Christopher James, making his Drayton debut, is perfect as the arrogant and condescending Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed.

The three Pet Store girls, played by Daphne Moens, Marianne McCord and Jacquelyn French, add an ideal amount of comic relief throughout the play.

Again, most patrons will know that, as a result of a series of serendipitous events, the underdog Rocky gets the opportunity to box Apollo Creed for the Championship on January 1, 1976, the year of America’s Bi-Centennial.

While he prepares to go the distance in the bout, Rocky’s relationship with Adrian turns romantic and he sorts out his ambiguous relationships with Mickey and Paulie.

To be sure, the play’s culminating boxing match between Rocky and Apollo is what everything has been leading to – and Director Alex Mustakas pulls out all the stops for the finale.

The match takes place on a full-sized boxing ring and selected audience members are escorted on to the stage to watch the match in bleacher-style seats. The boxers enter the stage from the back of the theatre with flashing lights and much fanfare, giving the audience the impression it is witnessing a real boxing match.

The match itself is brilliantly choreographed, a joint effort between Fight Director Joe Bostick and Mustakas, with cheering and ring announcer and Round Girls.

The audience feels the boxers’ exhaustion and pain as the bout marches on to the pivotal 15th Round when Balboa and Creed collapse into each other’s arms. A split decision is announced, and Creed is announced the winner.

Rocky has gone the distance, won $150,000 and got his girl.

Alex Kelly deserves many kudos for his performance. In lesser hands, Rocky could have been a walking, grunting cliché. Kelly brings the necessary swagger, Stallone-like guttural voice and sensitivity to the role.

Jayme Armstrong’s Adrian emerges as a strong stand-by-your man woman who comes out of her self-imposed shell during the play.

The chemistry between Kelly and Armstrong on stage is electric and their vocal duets are moving.

Strains of the Rocky Theme and Glass Tiger’s Eye of the Tiger are heard throughout the play, while its musical numbers propel the story along quite adequately. Music Director Michael Lerner and the pit band capture the essence of the play’s themes and characters.

Kudos to Set Designer Brian Dudkiewicz and Costume Designer Adrienne Pink for transporting the audience back to 1976.

In the end, Rocky: The Musical is about hope, second chances, love and redemption. In these days of political divisiveness and cynicism, it is a welcome 2 hours of escapist entertainment.

Highly recommended!

Catch it before it’s gone!

Rick Young, July 19, 2019

Kathy Smith, a driving force in London’s seniors community

Over her 73 years, Kathy Smith has worn many hats.

She has been a counterculture hippie, a member of an all-female rock band, a Yorkville social activist, a wife and mother, a single working mother, a self-proclaimed Late Blooming Boomer, a freelance public relations and marketing specialist, an adult educator, and, for a time, the Director of Training and Development for Big V Pharmacies of Ontario.

These days, Kathy spends her time advocating for aging Canadians and organizing activities for London’s Creative Age communities, helping a diverse network of neighbourhoods, municipalities, institutions and nonprofit organizations secure resources to start, grow and sustain creative aging programs, events and activities.

“Many people have drawn very defined lines between work, voluntary activities, hobbies and leisure pursuits. I don’t seem to have those fixed boundaries. Sometimes I do community work for no pay and sometimes I get paid.  I might travel for leisure, but I also get paid as a tour guide. I offer art classes free of charge but I sometimes research, develop and teach courses and charge a fee for service. Along the way I navigate and negotiate depending on the circumstances,” says Kathy.

Kathy remembers her childhood Hamilton Road East London working class neighbourhood as a multicultural melting pot in which classmates and friends were from different races, ethnicities and religious backgrounds.

“Most of us were poor but I didn’t really realize how poor we were until I met new friends from other neighbourhoods. When I started to compare our circumstances, I was absolutely stunned by their family life, wealth and opportunities. I often felt marginalized. I felt like a nobody when I desperately wanted to be accepted – a somebody.”

This feeling of being marginalized led to Kathy’s early involvement with the creative arts.

“I think I got involved with the creative arts not only to express my inner life but as my way out of a messed up family and social circumstances,” says Kathy. “I think those tough formative years made me resilient, creative, enterprising and accepting of others.”

The 1960s mantra was “Tune in, turn on and drop out” and that’s just what teenaged Kathy did.

“Right after my 16th birthday, I quit school and walked away as fast as I could,” she recalls.

“I got a job as a go-go dancer for a local London radio station and a TV show that featured area bands. In 1965, I was asked to audition for a Toronto TV Show and an all female band. My bag was packed with my survival essentials and years of hurt feelings. There was no turning back. I was rebelling against my parents and the social values of the time. I vowed I would never ever return to conservative, narrow minded and uptight London Ontario…the town that forgot how to have fun.”

She didn’t get hired for the Toronto TV Show, but she did end up in the all-female band called The Living Dolls in which she played keyboards and learned some drums and bass guitar.

Kathy lived close to Yorkville in the Annex Neighbourhood. In 1969 Jane Jacobs and the Annex Ratepayers Association were busy trying to protect the historical neighbourhood from developers. Kathy remembers it as an amazing and diverse neighbourhood with artists, musicians, academics, the nouveau riche and old family money, too.

In 1966, Kathy came back to London to see her hometown boyfriend, Grant Smith. Grant ended up moving to Toronto where he was offered an opportunity to join a band called The Power which became known as Grant Smith and The Power, an 8 piece R&B group.

“Grant’s group had a hit record, so I quit my band and we ended up traveling through many American towns and cities that were experiencing great unrest with race riots and protests. It was exciting and kind of dangerous,” recalls Kathy.  “We got married in 1968. I became a mom in 1972. Everything changed for me when I got pregnant and had my son.”

Following her divorce, Kathy returned to London in 1979. The move forced her to start all over again. 

“As a high-school drop out and single mom, my employment opportunities were very limited. I didn’t really join the ‘normal’ mainstream workforce until I was 30 years old. While most boomers experienced a career or financial peak in their 40s and 50s, I didn’t have my career peak until I was in my 60s. When my friends were planning to retire, I was just getting fired up – a second wind, if you will,” Kathy recalls.

Partially by chance and partially by choice, she became part of the gig economy with three main clients, mailing direct mail flyers, organizing small special events, producing newsletters, fundraising or anything promoting local businesses or organizations.

She taught adult night courses in Promotions and Public Relations through Fanshawe College’s Part Time and Continuing Education Department. She was a popular facilitator and her courses filled up quickly as a result of her ability to come up with creative ideas, interesting topics and course plans.

“My continuing education experience led me to my one and only ‘real job’ with Big V Pharmacies of Ontario as Director of Training and Development.  I created a 26 part Management Training Program using the case study method. It took me and a co-worker 3 years to do the research, develop the content, test the pilot programs and implement throughout Ontario.  Big V won the very first Chamber of Commerce London Business Achievement Award and we were runner up for the provincial award. That was an exciting time to be involved with corporate or management training,” she recalls.

Despite her success, Kathy walked away from the Big V position after 36 months, citing burnout and her dislike of leaving her son, Kristan, alone while she was on the road.

“During my self-imposed sabbatical, I felt a strong urge to paint – canvases, walls or anything I could get my hands on. A short and planned break turned into a 10 year endeavour and I somehow found creative ways to make a modest living along the way. I didn’t make a lot of money, but I could focus on my son and we were happy.”

In 2007, Kathy got involved with the Creative Age movement after attending an online seminar presented by Dr. Gene Cohen. Cohen demonstrated that participation in activities that foster creative engagement and skills mastery in a social environment has positive psychological, physical and emotional health benefits for older adults. It gave Kathy a new focus in life.

“After mid-life, I tell people they can look forward to Creative Age and not old age. It is a positive approach or mindset to the reality that we all get older. In my work I focus on creativity in the broader sense and I do make more personal time to fulfill my own urges for creative self expression in everything I do. My colleague, Pat Spadafora the former director of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research, said it best: ‘We are freeing ourselves of limiting beliefs about aging and embracing the reality that individuals continue to grow, learn, and contribute to their communities throughout the life journey.’”

Unquestionably, Kathy has been the driving force behind London’s Creative Age movement and community activities.

In 2009, she organized a unique year long creative aging program for residents and day program participants at the Dearness Home. She also volunteered her time to help the City of London receive its first Age Friendly Community designation from the World Health Organization.  

From 2010 to 2013, she developed and organized a research project to identify late career transitions and income earning opportunities for older workers.

“We knew that 75 would eventually become the new 65,” she says. “Many will continue to delay retirement or not retire at all.”

From 2013 through to 2017, she worked with volunteers to provide creative aging programs and events for adults 55+ in various neighbourhoods through the London Public Library branches.

During that time, she also developed community awareness campaigns including, social media and presentations and events targeted to arts, health and housing organizations in London and area.

“The key to developing community capacity for creative aging programs is to train volunteers, artist instructors and adult educators to work with a new generation of older adults. Through the London Arts Council, we developed a training program for 12 London Artists in Residence and had them offer programs to long term care facilities, hospitals, retirement homes and seniors centres. I still work with municipalities and communities to develop creative networks and programs for older adults. The next Creative Aging Training Programs will be offered in Thames Centre this summer. Professionals from Middlesex County will be invited.”

Kathy’s accomplishments have not gone unrecognized. She has been named to the City of London Mayor’s Honour Roll, received the London Council for Adult Education’s Adult Educator’s Award, and in 2016 she was recognized by the Ontario Minister Responsible for Seniors and the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario for her volunteer contributions to raise awareness to promote cross-sector initiatives for seniors in the London region.  

Somehow, throughout all of this community activity, she has still found time to pursue her own artistic muse and explore her own curiosities.

“I have many interests and creative pursuits. I still paint, play music, write, perform and teach.  It’s all creative.  A few years ago, we started a group called The Rhythm Sisters and performed concerts at the London Music Club and Wolf Performance Hall for a year or more. We keep saying we’ll have a reunion, but I don’t think it will happen. It’s a whole lot of work and it’s expensive to develop a one hour show,” she says.

What does the future hold for Kathy Smith?

“My focus will be shifting to creative housing options and aging at home services. I will continue to help organizations secure the resources they need, both financial and human, to do community development projects. I have more requests to do public speaking and professional development presentations. For the next five years, it will be my goal to connect and empower older adults to work together to develop innovative and affordable solutions to address their needs in housing and home support programs. When my son returns from Europe, I will probably assist him with his plan to start his new business and then I’ll probably just work for him in some very limited capacity.”

Mentoring and coaching other women is an area of particular interest to Kathy.

“As more women are reaching their middle years, they are thinking about late career changes or making other plans for the second half of their lives. I am often asked to provide presentations about my experiences and ideas. As a creative ager I explore, engage and connect and I plan to remain engaged as long as I am needed or as long as I am able to contribute something needed or valued.”

“Career, work, social, civic engagement and leisure have always been rolled into one thing. I just can’t see ever wanting to give anything up just yet.  When it comes to creative aging, I consider myself my own case study,” says Kathy.

“Everyday life still amazes me!”

You can contact Kathy for more information about London’s Creative Age communities and activities through her website:

Artist Kevin Bice says art not just for ‘elite’

Kevin Bice always knew he was going to be an artist.

“I had been so immersed in art that it seemed a foregone conclusion that I would end up in the arts somehow.  That I ended up as a teacher was surprising given my natural shyness,” says the 72-year-old London born and raised artist and former teacher.

Kevin’s father, Dr. Clare Bice, was a nationally well-known artist, illustrator and writer of children’s books and art gallery director.  In 1940 he was appointed at the first curator of the new London Art Gallery, a post he held for over 30 years.

Kevin says he was constantly surrounded by the arts in various forms, including some very well known artists like A.Y. Jackson, who were always around for gatherings or dinners. 

“I grew up regarding a career and a life in the arts as a natural, almost ordinary outcome rather than the ‘elite’ activity that some see it as,” says Kevin.

As a student at London Central Secondary School, Kevin was busy with school shows, the yearbook and student newspapers – in all cases, as an artist or designer.  He says it was a good personal experience since “I was painfully shy as a kid and theatre allowed me to connect with others and to express myself publicly.” 

When Kevin arrived at Western University as an English major, he got involved in the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. 

“I didn’t see myself on stage, so I designed the poster and worked on publicity.  However, over the next three years, I did end up on stage in the chorus and then backstage as the producer of two shows,” Kevin recalls.

Kevin’s high school art teaching career began in Sault Ste. Marie where he was asked to initiate an art department in his fiancé’s school when her principal learned he had a second teachable in visual art.

“This was all the more extraordinary since I had one university art course under my belt when I left Western, but I had never taken art in high school,” jokes Kevin. “When I returned to London in 1976, I was asked if I would start an art program at my old high school, London Central S.S.”

Kevin taught art at five London high schools including Montcalm, Central, Lucas, Saunders and Oakridge.  He says that teaching art, especially from no real formal background in art education, was extremely important to his career as an artist.

“Struggling to find ways of drawing the creative spirit out of students helped me to find my own directions. I was also heavily involved in theatre and performance at all the schools I taught in. I am particularly proud of the large original school shows that I produced and helped write at Montcalm and of the Arts Festivals I organized at Lucas and Central,” says Kevin.

Kevin describes his artistic style as “whatever comes out.”

“My work is mostly representational.  I have been strongly influenced first and foremost by my father,” Kevin says.  “Other influences are the European Impressionist painters, the Group of Seven and other Canadian “plein air” painters like William Blair Bruce, Bonnard for colour and subject matter, Andrew Wyeth for composition, Rauschenburg for experiment and subject, Henri Matisse, Edward Steichen and Henri Cartier Bresson photographers, Winslow Homer and especially John Singer Sargent.”

“When I paint outdoors, I first look for a comfortable place to be.  After that, I get immersed in the play of light on the subject for about two hours of very concentrated time,” says Kevin.  “In the studio, the process involves a lot of ‘fiddling around’.  I spend a lot of time just wandering through my large collection of art books.  I have a number of ‘idea books’ where I keep idea fragments, tiny sketches, clippings – anything that can stimulate an idea for a work. Once I begin a larger studio work, I try to have two or sometimes three works on the go at the same time.  I also try never to finish a work without having something else in progress.  Beginning, at the start of the day, with a blank canvas is really difficult.”

One of the collaborations he is most proud of is the 2008 The River Project. 

“I was one of 19 artists who wanted to create a book and an exhibition that would encourage London citizens and others from out-of-town to look at and celebrate the Thames within the boundaries of the city.  Accordingly, after a year or so of sketching, painting and meeting, we published a book which was entirely paid for by grants and donations.  That allowed us to print 2600 copies of the book which we then gave free to a number of non-profit local groups to use as a fund-raiser.”

Kevin also co-founded the annual London Artists’ Studio Tour with Lorraine Roy 26 years ago.  The tour brings thousands of people, some who might not normally go to art shows, into artists’ homes and studios.  Over 220 London artists have been involved in the tour.

These days, Kevin and his wife Daphne do a great deal of travelling and he uses at least part of each trip for sketching and gathering painting ideas.  He has been asked to be the tour leader on a guided South African art tour.  He is also occasionally asked to do workshops and talks on the artistic process.

“I have two fundamental beliefs: That the arts are vital to the health of an individual and a community, and that creativity is part of the definition of being human,” says Kevin.  “The Creative Spirit is not confined to an elite group. Art is not a frill.”

To be sure, London is blessed to have creative individuals like Kevin Bice.

Rick Young, July 2019

This article appears in the July/August issue of Aging Well Celebrating The Young At Heart magazine.

Daina Janitis reviews Newsies

This Review is going to cut right to the chase. Here’s my concluding paragraph: GO!!!

  • If you are a fan of musical theatre at its finest – GO!
  • If you love dancing and gymnastics choreographed by a genius- GO!
  • If you want to see some of Canada’s best theatrical talent assembled under brilliant direction – GO!
  • If you are a news junkie or a politics buff or a labour union member or a raving neoliberal – GO!

I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve not been a lifelong musical theatre fan. I considered it a pastiche of opera and “real” drama- a little bit bread-and-circusy for entertainment-seekers with limited attention spans. After escorting school music trips to American Big Cities (note the Trumpian capitalization) I became hooked. “Wicked”. ‘Million Dollar Quartet”. Tired Broadway reruns of “South Pacific” and “Phantom of the Opera”- I loved them all. But few productions have ever matched the energy, imagination, and professionalism of “Newsies” in a theatre barely an hour’s drive from London (with top ticket prices at $48.00).

When you go- not IF- the company’s bio’s are there for you to read in the intermission. The historical background may not be as accessible. The story reads like a dream by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In 1899, the major US newspapers (published by Pulitzer and Hearst) were distributed to homes by wagon in the morning – but in the afternoon, newsboys were essential for sales. The lads bought “papes” at 50 cents for a hundred, and sold them at 1 cent each- a profit of a half-cent per paper. The Spanish-American War helped to boost paper sales and publishers raised prices to 60 cents per hundred. After the war, the two major publishers refused to lower that price. Most of the newsboys were orphans, homeless, or eking out a bit of extra cash for parents who had been let go from their jobs.

On July 8, 1899, a group of newsboys declared a strike against the Pulitzer and Hearst papers. Fellow Newsies followed in solidarity. On July 24th a city-wide rally attracted 7000 boys from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other boroughs. They agreed to curb violent tactics of protest – and eventually a compromise was reached – papers at 60 cents per hundred, but the publishers would buy back any paper that could not be hawked that day.

The spunky newsboys of this Drayton production are singing, dancing phenomena. Even when “Crutchie” is carried off to The Refuge (a homeless children’s shelter that might have elicited gasps from today’s audience through similarity to border incarceration centres in the US), the production makes no cheap and obvious parallels. The production could easily pander to political jibes and audience prejudices- but it does no such thing.

Worthy of special mention are several people in the team. Mark Kimelman is choreographer with an exhilarating task. His newsboys dance with athletic grace and balletic precision, often singing as they do pirouettes, leaps, and flips. Mark has London ties- a psychology degree from Western and stripes earned on Broadway, choreographing for Katy Perry, the New York City Ballet, Phish,  Kurt Browning, Neil Young and Vogue magazine (don’t ask…I don’t know)

The only female featured on stage is Julia McLellan as Katherine Pullman, a feisty, witty, intelligent cub reporter who portrays a newswoman supportive to the newsboys’ cause. Although all media mention her starring in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway- she steals the stage in every appearance of “Newsies” with dance moves, a glorious singing voice, and natural dramatic presence.

The set designer deserves credit for a stage that uses all four dimensions, highlighting the dancers’ facility with levels and the tenement wall that remains an effective backdrop to the action happening on stage. Bravo for that!

I should single out Kale Penny for his multi-faceted role as Jack Kelly,  Gregory Pember for Crutchie, Daniel Greenberg and his “little brother” Thomas Winiker, but why? My words of praise are empty until you get caught up in the energy and expertise of this production.

I mean it – GO!

Daina Janitis, for The Beat Magazine, June 30, 2019.

Newsies is playing at Huron Country Playhouse Mainstage until July 13.

Check out tickets at