It’s Ragtime at the Shaw Festival Theatre [Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON]

Photo by David Cooper

I am a lover of live theatre. The first play I ever went to I was 12 and saw The Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages in Toronto. To say that it was fantastic is an understatement. I remember the grandeur of the theatre, climbing the staircase to the balcony and the state of awe and amazement I was in for the entire performance.

In the years to come I would frequent the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto (now the Sony Centre) to see Fiddler on the Roof and The Wizard of Oz and the St. Jacobs playhouse. Although familiar with both of these stories, I enjoy going to the theatre without any expectations and without knowing the story before-hand. I find that it makes the experience more genuine and then I truly can formulate an opinion based solely on the performance without any preconceptions.

Now, since moving to Niagara, I spend most of my time at the Shaw Festival Theatre. The venue is steps from Lake Ontario and is the largest of Shaw Fest’s four theatres in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake. Named after the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw, the Shaw festival’s mandate is to:

Produce and present the work of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and playwrights writing anywhere in the world during, or about, the era of Shaw’s lifetime.

Before this season, I have had the pleasure of seeing five plays at the Shaw including:

  • Born Yesterday by Garsin Kanin (seen in 2009)
  • The Devil’s Disciple by Bernard Shaw (seen in 2009)
  • An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde (seen in 2010)
  • The Women by Clare Boothe Luce (seen in 2010)
  • My Fair Lady based on Pygmalian by Bernard Shaw (seen in 2011)

Last week, and for my first show in 2012, I decided to see Ragtime. I’ve seen my fair share of musicals and can honestly saw that, although I have heard of Ragtime, I knew nothing about the story. I had read a few performance reviews and was looking forward to it, but no amount of reading could have prepared me for what I saw.

The Shaw was as glorious as ever – cool, calm and classy – when you enter the lobby you’re greeted by poshly dressed volunteers who scan your ticket and point you in the right direction. Once in the theatre, ushers will escort you to your seat where you can peruse your program and admire the beautiful wood surroundings and luxurious, velvety, red curtain on the stage.

I love the murmur of the crowd before the curtain rises. At the Shaw the demographic is quite mature and I’m sure that most hold season tickets. The Shaw is doing their part, however, to bring in a younger audience. They have your typical student discount but also a great opportunity for younger adults like myself to come at a reasonable cost. If you’re under 30 years old you will pay $30 for your seat and if under 40 years you will pay $40 for your seat – both of which aren’t orchestra but are quite good seats.

For Ragtime I was sitting what felt like front and center in row “O” – I very much enjoy this area as your sight-line is right into the middle of the stage. Fantastic!

The show started with one of the best first acts I’ve ever witnessed. The orchestra led the way but the singing in this set was superior to any other act in the play (although there were a couple close seconds). This opening act has all of the characters on the stage and sets the scene for America and the many perspectives the theatre-goer is about to experience.

For me, Alana Hibbert (Sarah) and Thom Allison (Coalhouse) take the cake as the most compelling players in this myriad of stories. There was more than one time that I wanted to jump to my feet and clap these two off the stage after their moving musical performances. I also very much enjoyed the characters and show put on by Patty Jamieson (Mother) and Jay Turvey (Tateh). Finally, worth mentioning, there is one point near the middle of the performance where Kiera Sangster (Cast) hits one of the most amazing musical notes for what seems like an eternity. Her voice so clear and so strong that my jaw hit the ground. I would see Ragtime a second time just to experience that one note.

After the show, and every Tuesday night, the audience is invited to stay for an additional 15 minutes for a Q&A session with 3 players from that night’s performance. Naturally, I was one of the 100 or so people (of 850+) that stuck around and was pleased that they encouraged us to move out of our seats and closer to the stage.

The three people we got to speak to were Neil Barclay (Conklin), Jenny L. Wright (Cast) and Sue LePage (Designer). I thought it quite a good idea to have one of the “”behind-the-scenes” players available as it added a dimension that I was not thinking about. They also lifted the curtain and turned on the lights so that you could see backstage from your seat (which made me want a full backstage tour).

People asked questions about props and preparation, about singing lessons and casting and some people took the opportunity to praise the performance. When all was said and done, although I was hoping to talk to one of the “star” players, I was pleased with the Q&A conversation. It was informative, friendly, and engaging. I was surprised that more people didn’t stay (although it was pretty late at night by that time).

To date, the best play I’ve seen is called Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival Theatre during their summer 2009 season. Ragtime was great fun, even if it isn’t my #1, and I would encourage people to take some time this summer to see it. In the words of Broadway World,

The show delivers a spectacular emotional roller-coaster ride balancing dazzling entertainment, with a serious story, and sparkling musical performances.

For information on the Shaw Festival and to see Ragtime for yourself, visit the Shaw Festival website.



  1. I would have loved to ask of the rumour is true if they have to destroy the sets of every production after last curtain because of copyright. Such a waste, but also understandable in some respect. I am LOVING your blog. And I don’t know if I thanked you for recommending we see Born Yesterday a few years ago… so good. I whole heartedly trust your referrals and recommendations. Keep them COMING!

  2. […] Ragtime at the Shaw Festival Ragtime made the list of my top 5 plays I have seen at the Shaw. In 2013 I am most looking forward to Guys and Dolls. […]

  3. […] other Ontario theatres, like the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Festival Theatre, Avon Theatre, Tom Patterson Theatre and Studio theatre all adopt what […]

  4. […] great Niagara-on-the-Lake landmark is named after Bernard Shaw of the world-renown Shaw Festival Theatre which is located directly across the street from the […]

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