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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty

Just because you find that life’s not fair it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change.

My interest in seeing the musical Matilda was mainly that the music was written by Tim Minchin, a comedian-musician whose songs often promote reason, science, and humanism. And also cheese.

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The show has also received a number of awards, though, and a great review in the Globe and Mail, so I was pleased when my sister and brother-in-law agreed to go see it with me while Jean was off canoeing.

The play opens with a chorus of children whose doting, self-esteem-boosting parents lead them to be believe they are special little princes and princesses. “It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-millions these days / Specialness seems de rigueur.” By contrast, Matilda really is remarkable—a genius. Her thick parents don’t know what to make of her love of books and stories; they can barely stand to have her around.

In her big number, Matilda’s mother explains that “People don’t like smarty-pants / What go round claiming / That they know stuff / We don’t know / Content, has never been less important… You’ve just got to be loud.” (This is truly a musical of our time.)

School should be an oasis for such a child, but Matilda’s school is run by the authoritarian Miss Trunchbull. Played by a large man (Dan Chameroy), she cuts a ridiculous-looking figure, but is a terrifying adversary nonetheless—a bully who brooks no dissent, who cares little about fainess (once she decides you’re guilty, you’re guilty), and who favours cruel punishments.

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Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey. Photo by Joan Marcus, from http://www.mirvish.com

Besides the town librarian (delightfully played by Keisha T. Fraser), the only one on Matilda’s side is her teacher, Miss Honey, who calls herself pathetic for not being more effective at standing up to Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents. Matilda, endowed with a sense of justice as deep as her intelligence, realizes that this is a battle she must fight for herself. (With a little help from her schoolmates.)

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me
Nobody but me is gonna change my story
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

Three young girls alternate the role of Matilda in the Toronto production. We got Hannah Levinson, who was dang amazing, delivering each line with such clarity and perfect timing that you never doubted her sharp, mature mind. She also had a lovely singing voice.

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Hannah Levinson as Matilda. Photo by Joan Marcus, from http://www.mirvish.com

With intermission, the play runs just over 2.5 hours. It moves along well, with none of the numbers seeming to drag—proving that Tim Minchin can write songs advocating intelligence, self-determination, justice, and education, without expletives in them. Much like the rest of his oeuvre, Matilda is often thought-provoking and moving—but still kind of fun!

Trailer for Matilda the Musical in Toronto


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Ottawa getaway

Ahead of the long weekend, we took a long weekend, booking the Friday and Monday off and heading up to Ottawa. We had no major ambitions for our visit; it’s just a nice place to go relax. And the weather cooperated—it was a bit warm (hence me wearing nothing but dresses in the photos), but overall can’t complain about a sunny summer weekend.

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The Rideau canal area of Ottawa

We booked in at the Les Suites Hotel, very conveniently located downtown. The rooms are a bit older, but you certainly get a lot of space: a full kitchen, a living room with TV, along with the expected bedroom and bathroom. We took advantage of having a fridge by buying food from the Market to bring home (in a cooler).

Apart from that, the only thing we booked ahead were dinner reservations. Friday we ate at Beckta for the first time. It has a fancy dining room with prix fixe dinners, but we decided to eat in the slightly more casual wine bar. We still got excellent service and delicious food.

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These PEI oysters left us wanting more. We had them with an Ontario sparkling made specially for Beckta.

Jean tried the soup of the day, which was celeriac with coconut.

Celeriac and Coconut Soup

It was good, but not quite as good as my appetizer of Peking-style glazed pork belly in sesame crepe with cucumber and scallion relish.

Pork Belly Crepes

As mains, I had the risotto with shrimp, peas, and mushrooms, while Jean went with the Tagliatelle pasta with confit chicken, black olive pesto, and arugula. We switched to glasses of red wine with those.

Then with dessert, we each got a glass of sweet wine. Jean had a Tokaji, while I had a cabernet ice wine.

Strawberry and Sorbet

Strawberries and chocolate with sorbet

Maple Meringue

Which were almost as good as the maple semifreddo

Saturday we ambled around the uptown in the morning.

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One of the sights we took in

We stopped for lunch at Murray Street, where we had more oysters (this time with cider), and a lovely charcuterie plate of two cheeses, smoked ducks, and two styles of pate.

Charc Plate
In the afternoon we visited the National Gallery.

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Outdoor exhibit

Queen Bee!

Indoor exhibit

For our dinner at Signatures, we were joined by friends who live in Ottawa, which was really nice. Signatures has only prix fixe menus, of three, five, or eight courses. We went with three, but chose different items.

Foie Gras Torchon at Signatures

Jean had the mousse de foie de canard

And I the escargots au pastis et tomates.

Something at Signatures

Then I ordered the cabbage-wrapped trout with dill chips

while it was Jean’s turn for risotto with mushroom and peas. I believe the dessert was the same for both, and can’t recall what that was. (Not because it wasn’t good, though.)

Sunday was even warmer, but we still did the walking around thing in the morning, heading down Bank Street and over toward the Museum of Nature, which we visited after a lunch of Thai food. They had a feature dinosaur exhibit (the Museum of Nature did, that is—not the Thai restaurant).

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Our final Ottawa dinner was at Sidedoor, which has more of a “small plattes” approach. We were in a seafood-y mood, ordering halibut crispy fish taco, tuna sashimi with yuzu, and coconut poached halibut along with jasmine rice and Chinese greens.

Fried Halibut Taco

Lovely fish tacos at Sidedoor

Everything was quite delicious. The only sour note was that our waiter, who had started really well, seemed to lose interest in us at some point, not really checking back once our initial items arrived or asking if we wanted dessert. (I had to volunteer that I did—they have really amazing donuts here!) Odd, as it wasn’t especially busy or anything. Maybe someone had just told him the Brexit news?


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So you think you can dance

The email from the KW Symphony on February 18:

Thank you for purchasing tickets to the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony‘s Dancin’ Through the Decades. To enhance the overall concert experience, we have added a dance floor for these concerts. The dance floor will be located between the first row and the orchestra musicians. Since this floor is on one of the moveable lifts, it will be 14 inches lower than where the seating starts, in the first row, and should not obstruct the view of any patrons.

That seemed neat, but logistically problematic.

“We’re not going to go there in our dance shoes,” said Jean, pointing out the snowy climes.

But our early spring meant that we could, in fact, go there in our dance shoes without wrecking the soles.

However, it remained that our seats were right in the middle of the row, meaning we couldn’t get out to the dance floor without disrupting half of the people in said row. (And it was a pretty well-attended show.) Plus, we definitely didn’t want to be the first ones on the floor.

We stayed put during the swingin’ “In the Mood,” as did everyone else—much to conductor Matt Catinghub’s chagrin. But then a few brave souls made their way onto the floor.

“What is this one?“ my husband whispered as they launched into the new tune. And by that he meant what dance beat is it, not what song title. (Which is just as well, as now I can’t remember the song title.)

“Slow fox,” I answered.

Well, slow fox is like dance cat nip to my husband—he just can’t resist. We proceeded to disturb everyone in half the row and made it down the dance floor.

But, that’s about all the disturbing we did, because then we just stayed on the floor for the whole show.

For ballroom / Latin dance aficionados, the first half, with music of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, was especially appealing. Along with a number of slow foxes, we got to tango (I think), waltz to “Unforgettable” (I know), jive to “Twist and Shout”, and cha-cha to “La Bamba.”

I have never danced to such beautiful sound. The Symphony are terrific, of course; the Centre has some of the best acoustics on the continent; and the guest singer (Anita Hall), drummer (Steve Moretti), and saxophone players were also fantastic—and very energetic! (Matt Caringhub also did some keyboards.)

If you do a Where’s Waldo on this tweeted photo, you might be able to spot us

At intermission we drank a lot of water—and received compliments on our dancing from passing strangers, which was nice! (Maybe we can dance.)

The second half was 70s, 80s, 90s, and current. Disco like “Night Fever” is basically a samba, and I actually know the steps (yes, there are steps) to YMCA.

Of course, everyone knows the chorus part of this dance

Then we got some “Hotel California,” “Don’t Stop Believin”, “Africa”, “Vogue”, “Rock Lobster” (featuring KWS Assistant Conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser on vocals), and “Happy” by Pharell Williams. So a lot of really fun songs—but also a lesson in why no one does partner dancing anymore, since that just doesn’t work as well to those beats.

But hey, it was a really fun night, and I’m so glad the symphony offered the dance floor setup. It was totally worth the sore muscles the next day!

(As for the television show So You Think You Can Dance, I find their new gimmick of featuring dancers age 8 to 13 completely mystifying and utterly uninteresting. I do not plan to watch.)


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Heart and mind: Brooklyn and The Big Short

Bit late to point this out now, but Brooklyn would be a terrific movie to see on Valentine’s Day. It tells the story of Ellis Lacy (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates from Ireland to New York City in the 1950s. At first she is crippled by homesickness, but then she meets a boy… And takes courses in bookkeeping. And generally comes to appreciate her new country.

A death in the family brings her back to Ireland for a visit. She sees her birth place in a new light. Turns out there are boys here, too. Should her “visit” be extended?

Official trailer for Brooklyn (YouTube)

Brooklyn is a gorgeous movie. Both Jean and I were struck by the lighting, of all things (and it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for that). And Ronan is excellent in the lead role, saying a lot with sometimes few lines. The plot is fairly simple; there are no explosions, special effects, car chases. It’s just the story of a bright young woman growing up and having to figure out what her heart wants.

It’s remarkably riveting to join in her journey.


So while that would have been an excellently romantic choice yesterday, since we’d already seen it a few weeks ago, we instead went to see The Big Short. Ying to Brooklyn‘s yang.

The Big Short looks at the few years before and up to the American housing stock market crash  of 2008, and specifically at the few in the financial market who saw it coming. The film has an interesting mix of protagonists (all male; that’s the industry, and the movie is based on fact): an autistic savant (Christian Bale) who works at a major investment firm; a group of cynical hedge fund managers, led by Marc Baum (Steve Carrell) who operate at arm’s length from a big bank; and two smart young guys who invest for themselves, with the assistance of a retired banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

They all choose to short the system; that is, to invest in a way that bets against the conventional wisdom that the housing market is solid and could not possibly fail. And they all take a lot of grief for that position.

Understanding this movie means digging into the arcania of mortgage bonds and such. The films does this is an interesting way by literally stopping the story and cutting to someone such as Selena Gomez, to explain the concepts to us directly, using metaphors.

Official trailer for The Big Short (YouTube)

Jean found the film kind of depressing. I didn’t, because it was so interesting, and often funny. But I did feel conflicted about it. Not quite as much as when watching Margin Call, a movie that focuses on financial advisors at that moment that they realize the housing market and the bonds they are built are about to come crashing down, and they hurry to sell as much as they can, as fast they can, by lying to thousands of investors.

This movie’s mavericks aren’t quite as evil as that. For a time, they also are victimized by the fraudulent system that gives high ratings to what are actually high-risk bonds. They are hardly fans of the fraud, greed, and corruption that created this crisis—particularly Marc Baum and group, who hope this will lead to criminal convictions and banking reform. And while they are aware that this crash will cause a lot of economic hardship. it’s not clear how they could possibly have stopped it.

But it’s still a little uncomfortable that they instead profited, quite handsomely, from the crash. As a viewer,  you sort of want the crash to happen, to prove them right and the unpleasant, smug, venal financial experts wrong. But you also know that the crash means a lot of ordinary, innocent people are going to get hurt.

Brooklyn is good for your feels. The Big Short makes you think.


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Rebel music: Tanya Tagaq and the KW Symphony

I wasn’t prepared for Tanya Tagaq.

Oh, I had my concert tickets, which is good, because both her shows were complete sellouts. And I knew she was an Inuit singer who had her own take on traditional throat singing. I remembered her winning the Polaris prize in 2014.

But I hadn’t listened to any of her music in advance.

And thank goodness for that! Because you can only hear Tanya Tagaq for the very first time once in your life, and what better way than seeing her live, from just a few feet away? (We were in the second row.)

The problem is, I have no idea how to describe her sound and performance to you. I’ve never heard anyone else do anything like what she does. As we were revelling in her show afterward, Jean made an attempt: “It’s like she took you on a journey through a whole lifetime of dreams.”

This is traditional throat singing:

The adorable 11-year-old Inuit girls throat-singing at Justin Trudeau’s swearing-in ceremony

Tagaq does use this technique, but—in own words—in a completely punk way. She plays with pitch, vocal styling, breathing, making no literal sense but clearly conveying emotion. And she puts her whole body into it, swaying, gesturing, sinking to the floor. It’s just mesmerizing.


Tanya Tagaq’s Animism album on Spotify

And how does that work with the symphony? Well, first they prepared us to hear some unusual sounds by presenting the works of two Canadian composers (both in attendance, both women), along with a version of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that was so rockin’ it rivaled The Who’s take on the same.

They then let Tanya Tagaq do her thing on her own, totally improvised.

Next was a work by another Canadian composer, Rodney Sharman, (“I texted with him today,” said Tagaq. “He seems nice.”), and she improvised over that soundtrack.

Finally, Tagaq and orchestra came together on a chamber music piece written for her, called “Cercle du Nord III”. Ms. Tagaq said that the fuller sound provided by the larger symphony (vs. original string quartet) gave the piece another dimension.

(Her personality is quite charming, by the way. For example, she was taken aback at having to come back and acknowledge the rapturous applause she was receiving. She was unsure to do, she said. What does she normally do? “I go out for dinner,” she answered. She then told us, mock sternly: “OK, I’m leaving now. Don’t make me come back out again!”)

A few years ago, Edwin Outwater, Musical Director of the KWS and this concert’s conductor, gave a Ted Talk in which he argued that rock / pop music wasn’t the music of rebels anymore. That classical music was.

I think he has a point. Much as I still love rock music, there isn’t much danger or innovation in it anymore, is there? What is more choreographed, corporate, and scripted than a big, modern rock show? Who can improvise when everyone has to play to same click track?

Whereas tonight’s Tanya Tagaq concert could be a whole different experience than last night’s.

And this is following on two other KW Symphony shows we saw recently, in which they:

  1. Completely reconceived German opera Die Fleidermaus with local references, a hilarious narration absent in the original, and even a special guest spot for a former mayor.
  2. Along with the Art of Time, presented the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper not just orchestrated, but truly rearranged such that every song was both familiar and strange (though wonderfully so, in my opinion).

As rock retreats to safety, the traditional symphony is taking it to the edge. Don’t let the strings and horns fool you: today, this is punk.


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Songs of 2015

That I can rather easily put together a list of recent songs that I liked is certainly a change from my usual of being steeped in the music of the past. I can, of course, attribute much of this to one Adam Mitchell Lambert, my current celebrity crush, who also happens to be quite generous about recommending the work of his fellow musicians.

It’s also been bolstered by increased use of streaming services, along with Google Music’s habit of making entire albums of new music free or 0.99 to download. (This week: The new Pentatonix Deluxe Edition, free to own! I’m quite liking it so far.) Music radio, on the other hand, continues to have no influence on me, as I never listen to it.

Two songs, one title

Ghost Town – Adam Lambert

Ghosttown – Madonna

We all knew Adam Lambert’s “Ghost Town” was going to be here, so might as well get it out of the way. A catchy song that is musically and lyrically off-beat enough to stand up to multiple (and I do mean multiple) listenings. But it’s only recently I actually listened to other “Ghosttown” song—the one by Madonna. It’s quite good as well! And completely different.

Hello – Adele

Hello – Hedley

Saying you don’t like Adele is like saying you don’t like The Beatles: It doesn’t make you as cool as you think, and you’re just lying to yourself anyway. What I find amazing is that it seemed after only one listen, I knew all the lyrics already. How is that even possible?

And also, no one much comments on the slightly disturbing aspects of what Adele is doing in this song, eh?

As for Hedley: Hello! This is rock! Hedley is current and successful and they make rock music not pop music and that’s a reason to love them right there. Always like Jason Hoggard’s voice, too.

The Idols

carly-rae-jepsen-names-new-album-emotionOne category, two non-winning yet ultimately successful alumni from American or Canadian Idol, so let’s add another: Carly Rae Jepsen.

Carly Rae made many “Best of” lists this year, and I agree; her new album is terrific. But there is a certain mystification that it hasn’t sold better. (Could it be inept management? The CD is often out of stock at Amazon, which just seems odd.)

At any rate, the single, “Run Away with Me” is just incredibly infectious.

And although I seem to be the only one, I just adore the blatant come-on of “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” – Do you know what I mean? You know what I mean. If you just give me a chance, you’ll see what I see.

And speaking of horny women

Selena Gomez all grew up this year with the slinky “Good for You” and its yowza video. Leave this dress a mess on the floor, indeed.

Selena Gomez – Good for You official video

tove-lo-talking-bodyAnd then we had Tove Lo, following up “Habits” with “Talking Body”.

And if you’re talking body, you’ve got a perfect one, so put it on me.
Swear it won’t take you long. (!)
If you love me right, we fuck for life… On and on and on

Why so subtle, Tove?

Little Big Town’s singer so wanted this guy, she developed a “Girl Crush” on his girlfriend. Pretty good for a country song.

The Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack was hella better than the movie (not that’s it’s much of a bar), a nice collection of smooth, sexy songs. My tops from it are Beyonce’s “Haunted” and Ellie Goulding’s big hit, “Love Me Like You Do”.

And while it’s more quirky and lively than the above, one can’t miss Janelle Monae’s repeated request for her baby to “bend over” and “Let me see you do the yoga” in the wonderful “Yoga”.

Janelle Monáe, Jidenna – Yoga

What does this say about me?

That I like so many, uh, passionate songs? Not going there, but did feel that Alessia Cara was describing me in her big introvert anthem, “Here”, about how horrible it is to be at a party with a bunch of people you don’t really know.

French kiss

Bilingualism can be handy, because some French artists are great. And to widen their appeal, some of them sing in English also.

When on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah described France’s Christine and the Queens as “weird. But good. Good weird!” That’s about right. They are actually good; can’t help it if they’re tilted.

Christine and the Queens – Tilted

(Also check out “Paradis Perdus”, a take on “Heartless”.)

Quebec’s Coeur de Pirate also put out a really good album this year, with more English than French songs. I like several (such as “Carry on”), and I guess “Crier tout bas” is the single.

And le groupe Swing released a new album this year as well, with “La Folie” having some success in French Canada.

Who rule the world? [Girls, girls]

taylor-swift_mNot sure if you’ve noticed yet, but this a very female-dominated list. And until Adele came along, no one was more dominant than Taylor Swift, whose 2014 1989 I finally acquired this year, partly on the strength of the 2015 single, “Style”.

I also like Ryan Adams’ take on this album. (Here’s his version of “Style”, for example.) Although the original is still better.

But a few other guys not named Adam also put out some interesting music.

I know nothing at all about Lost Frequencies and their song “Are You With Me”, except that I adored from the first time I heard and still do, every time since.

Lost Frequencies – Are You With Me

Also great fun was Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”. Watch me, baby, don’t stop! And Duran Duran (remember them?) put out a rather good album called Paper Gods. The single (I’m just learning) is “Pressure Off”. (I also liked “Sunset Garage”.)

And Zhu’s “Faded” highlighted his unusual voice.

And speaking of unusual voices

Elle King was one of those cheap albums I acquired this year. Her voice has been described as Joplin-esque. “Ex’s and Oh’s” was her big song. Also check out “America’s Sweetheart”.

Remixes!

Aka how to get The Who on this list, as a rather excellent Lovelife Remix of “Love Reign O’er Me’ came out this year.

And to bring this full circle, I also enjoyed many remixes and mashups of Adam’s “Ghost Town”. In the “remixed live” category, Queen + Adam Lambert gave it a rock edge. In the non-live category, tt was nicely combined with Bieber’s “What Do You Mean”: What do Ghosts Mean? and even more successfully with “Prayer in C” by Robin Shulz and Lilly Wood & The Prick: Prayer in Ghost Town. But my favorite was the “Ghost Body” mashup of Talking Body with Ghost Town, with Tove’s blatant come-on met with Adam’s “Meh. My heart is a ghost town.”

Tove Lo vs. Adam Lambert – Ghost Body (Mixed Mashup)

(By the way, Tove and Adam do actually sing a duet called “Rumors” on his album.)

The songs

  • Ghost Town – Adam Lambert
  • Ghosttown – Madonna
  • Hello – Adele
  • Hello – Hedley
  • Run Away with Me – Carly Rae Jepsen
  • I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance – Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Good for You – Selena Gomez –
  • Talking Body – Tove Lo
  • Girl Crush – Little Big Town
  • Haunted – Beyonce
  • Love Me Like You Do – Ellie Goulding
  • Yoga – Janelle Monae, Jidenna
  • Here – Alessia Cara
  • Style – Taylor Swift
  • Style – Ryan Adams
  • Tilted – Christine and the Queens
  • Paradis Perdus – Christine and the Queens
  • Carry on – Coeur de Pirate
  • Crier tout bas – Coeur de Pirate
  • La Folie – Swing
  • Lost Frequencies – Are You With Me
  • Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars
  • Pressure Off – Duran Duran
  • Sunset Garage – Duran Duran
  • Faded (Big Gigantic Remix) – Zhu
  • Ex’s & Oh’s – Elle King
  • America’s Sweetheart – Elle King
  • Love Reign O’er Me (Lovelife Remix) – The Who
  • Ghost Town – Queen + Adam Lambert
  • What do Ghosts Mean? – Adam Lambert and Justin Bieber
  • Prayer in Ghost Town – Adam Lambert, Robin Shulz, and Lilly & The Prick
  • Ghost Body (Mixed Mashup) – Adam Lambert and Tove Lo

YouTube playlist of everything

Spotify playlist of most things (email people, you have to look at this post in a browser to get the Spotify playlist. And to see the embedded YouTube videos, for that matter):

The albums

  1. The Original High – Adam Lambert
  2. E.M.O.T.I.O.N – Carly Rae Jepsen
  3. Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack – Various
  4. Swing. – (le groupe) Swing
  5. 1989 – Ryan Adams
  6. Paper Gods – Duran Duran
  7. Roses – Coeur de Pirate
  8. Pentatonix – Pentatonix


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My Internship in Canada (Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre)

My Internship in Canada is that rarest of things: a comedy about Canadian politics. The only other I can think of CBC’s adaptation of Terry Fallis’ fine novel The Best Laid Plans, which CBC rather made a hash of.

My Internship in Canada is more successful. It tells the story of independent MP (another rare thing!) from northern Quebec, Steve Guibord, who—in a parliament where the Conservatives have a very slim majority—finds himself with the deciding vote on whether Canada should join a war effort in the middle east.

My Internship in Canada (official trailer) – YouTube

Following all the drama with great excitement and interest is Guibord new Haitian assistant / intern, Souverain. Souverain proves of great help to Guibord, as he’s intelligent and very well-read on the subject of Canadian democracy. (His explanations to his fellow Haitians back home are also useful to any audience who might themselves not be so familiar with the intricacies of Canadian democracy.) He’s also not above sneaking around behind Guibord’s back, if it’s for the greater good.

Several women play important roles as well: his wife, who’s for the war; his daughter, who’s against it; a local reporter playing out the sometimes-tense relationship between media and politics; and the mayor of one of the main towns in his riding, who becomes increasingly (and hilariously) exasperated with Guibord’s last-minute cancellations.

Geography is also incredibly prominent. The riding is very large (“30 fois la grandeur de l’Haiti!”), and Guibord’s fear of flying make him entirely dependent on the highway system, targeted for protests by natives and truckers.

The laughs at the expense of a stuttering union spokesperson (get it?) are unfortunate, and I’m not entirely sure about the portrayal of the Haitians. Overall, though, this is a good-spirited, funny, and intelligent comedy.

In French with English subtitles.


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Jersey Boys

We saw Jersey Boys—the stage production, not the movieon Friday. (And yes, it was a little weird to be at a peppy musical when all that was going on in Paris. But it’s not as though staying home to watch the news live would have helped anyone.)

Jersey Boys

I didn’t know much about this musical going in. Just what it says on the poster: That it’s the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. And not being an especial big fan of The Four Seasons, I wouldn’t have been interested, except that members of my family, who saw it in Toronto, were quite impressed with it.

The local paper, however, had given this production a rather tepid review. Story is mundane, she said. Sound is uneven. One actor is underwhelming. Ushers are rude.

I guess we should be grateful this reviewer set our expectations so low, because we really liked it.

While it’s not exactly ground-breaking, how many other musicals are band origin stories? Meaning that, for once, it totally makes sense that the characters keep bursting into song: They are a singing group!

And their coming together, with the mob ties, and the singer with that astounding falsetto, who had a “handshake deal” with the songwriter—it’s not like any other band origin story I know of, so the arc wasn’t entirely predictable. I also enjoyed the structure of each of the four band members narrating one “season” of their career together. The most endearing of the bunch was definitely “silent” Nick, who occasionally broke out with the most astounding speeches.

The only part of the play that dragged, a bit, I found was the last part of the first act. Otherwise it moved along well, with a lot of humour. It reminded me of just how many Four Seasons songs I actually know. And as is essential, the actor playing Frankie did an excellent job with the falsetto singing.

It occurs to me that The Waterloo Region Record reviewer must not enjoy the music of The Four Seasons. That would indeed make this a painful experience, as the soundtrack is composed of nothing but (one a French rap version…).

So as long as you can tolerate a little “Sherry Baby”, “Walk Like a Man”, and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, this is a fun production.

Trailer for the Broadway production of Jersey Boys (YouTube)


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Station Eleven

Station Eleven cover

This summer’s vacation read was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It also happens to be the 2015 One Book, One Community selection for Waterloo region this year.

I was taken in by this novel pretty much from the get-go (the get-go being pre-vacation). It takes place in the not-so-distant future where a killer flu has wiped out 99% of humanity, with quite a few more dying in the resulting chaos as the world’s infrastructure crumbles in the absence of its caretakers—networks, fuel stations, the electrical grid…

Cheery, huh?

But it isn’t entirely depressing, as the novel moves back and forth through time, to the days of the epidemic, yes, but also before that, and up to 20 years afterward. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, figuring out how these characters were connected, finding out the origin of mysterious events in the future timeline.

Shakespeare plays a prominent role. The center point of the novel is a Toronto production of King Lear, an unorthodox production featuring children. We learn how the starring actor became famous and get to know his wives. We find that one of the children in the play, a survivor, years later joins a traveling Symphony who bring music and iambic pentameter to the various settlements. Travels that are not without peril.

The book, as one critic said, makes you wistful for our current world. To the post-epidemic young, electricity, running hot water, the Internet, and flying machines all seem unimaginable wonders. One of my favorite lines:

None of the older Symphony members knew much about science, which was frankly maddening given how much time these people had had to look things up on the Internet before the world ended.

I finished the novel on the drive home, and so as not to be rude, I brought Jean up to date via synopsis, then read the last third aloud to him. He got as caught up in it as I had. (Nevertheless, I would recommend reading the entire thing.)

Bonus: This is how Emily St. John Mandel edited Station Eleven.


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Let’s start at the very beginning

Last weekend we went to see Stratford’s production of The Sound of Music, with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who were visiting.

The Sound of Music trailer on YouTube

Critics are correct in their assessment that this is very women-positive production. It’s women-dominant, for one, what with all the nuns, five out of seven Von Trapp children being girls, and the Baroness character. And there is a whole lot of smarts among these ladies: Mother Superior dispensing sage advice, Maria giving the children exactly what they need (despite only faking her confidence), young Brigitta speaking truth to power, the Baroness’ business acumen.

Not bad for a play written by two dudes.

Donna Feore’s direction highlights all of this, and skilfully manoeuvres through the most problematic song of the production, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”. During the song, Liesl suppresses giggles at her suitor’s claim of greater wisdom, and delivers her own verse with a smirk, her goal of winning a kiss clearly in mind.

And apart from satisfying the inner feminist, the play was just plain enjoyable. The dance sequences were gorgeous, the singers and performers very gifted (with tiny Zoë Brown a particular delight), and the whole story moves along at a good pace. And it’s an engaging one; the increasing display of Nazi banners as the play progresses is honestly distressing.

Last weekend also happened to be our 23rd wedding anniversary. While Sound of Music didn’t initially seem, to me, an obvious selection for an anniversary (of course, we actually chose the outing more with our visitors in mind), it actually is a very romantic story of Maria and the Captain unexpectedly falling in love. It did the trick!

Having visitors also meant a couple opportunities to go out to dine. We had dinner at Pazzo, in Stratford. The food was very good—my roast duck main was a highlight, but the smoked trout starter wasn’t bad either—but it was crowded and pretty loud until the numbers of diners lowered. Sunday we took in lunch at Wilk’s Bar in Langdon Hall. No problems with volume or food quality here, even if the pace of service isn’t quite what it (presumably) would be in the dining hall.

Oysters from Wilk's Bar at Langdon Hall

Oysters from Wilk’s Bar at Langdon Hall