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NORTH OF THE BORDER

MILLENNIUM IN TORONTO

Toronto is taking the traditional route to celebrate the premiere of the year 2000. It will offer events that have proven popular year after year plus a spectacular light show at the stroke of midnight. First Night is the family-oriented and alcohol-free focus of this year's special events, and buttons are already on sale. The usual offerings for adults and children are planned, but this year all the action will be concentrated at Harborfront instead of throughout the city. Call (416) 395-7350 or visit www.city.toronto.co.ca.

As midnight approaches, Roundhouse Park near the SkyDome will host The Millennium Lights Celebration. Crowds can gather to listen to top musical acts on the mainstage, and as the year turns, the lake will light up with cutting-edge fireworks, lights and lasers orchestrated to specially commissioned music. Call (416) 395-7350.

Opportunities abound for those who prefer high culture to usher in the next millennium. Roy Thomson Hall will host The Millennium Opera Gala featuring, among others, Canadian greats Ben Heppner and Richard Margison. Call (416) 872-4255.

At the Jean Mallett Theater, Toronto Operetta Theater will stage Johann Strauss' "The Gypsy Baron" Dec. 27 to Jan. 8, with a special Dec. 31 package that includes a pre-performance reception and post performance dancing. The event is close to sold out. Call (416) 366-7723.

The Gibson House in North York will celebrate Hogmanay (Scottish New Year) with various programs Dec. 27 to 31. The stroke of midnight will come a bit early at this venue, with family programs beginning at noon and 2:30 p.m. New Year's Eve Day. Call (416) 395-7432.

Downtown the 1850s MacKenzie House also will offer Hogmanay festivities Dec. 29-30. Clubs, restaurants and hotels all over Toronto are offering special New Year's packages, but this is one time when the city tends to sell out. One of the best places to book accommodations at the last minute is through Tourism Toronto. Call (800)363-2500.

NEW AT THE THEATER<,

Several productions are vying to entertain families this holiday season. The National Ballet of Canada enchants with its version of "The Nutcracker" through Dec. 30, offering lower prices, including a family pack of four tickets for $150. This paint-box-pretty production of the classic ballet, set in the Russian countryside rather than the traditional German living room, debuted in 1995 and seems to improve with age. Two dancers dressed as bears steal the show in Act I -- one in red satin toe shows, and the other on roller blades. There's also a whimsical horse composed of dancers front and rear that looks so real one suspects it's just had a bale of hay. Call (416) 345-9595.

At the Elgin Theater a zany version of "Cinderella" has extended its run through Jan. 9. The format is called "English pantomime," and the audience is encouraged to participate, booing the villains and cheering on the good guys. This works to a point, but, unfortunately the piece is a bit too long for the really little ones. The children understood the broad jokes, and adults caught most of the puns and double entendres, which the orchestra underscored with drum rolls. Some of the jabs, however, were Toronto-centric and might not appeal to visitors to the city. Call (416) 872-5555.

The hilarious one-man show "The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron?" starring Robert Dubac has extended its run to Jan. 1 in the New Yorker Theater. Call (416) 872-1111. "Forever Swing" will stay on through Dec. 31 in the Winter Garden Theater. Call (416) 872-5555.

Visitors to the city who can make entertainment decisions on the day of the performance stand a good chance of getting half-price tickets to any of these four shows by going to TO TIX, located in the Eaton Center. Call (416) 536-6468 daily after 12 noon to see which shows are available.

The Sam Mendes production of "Oliver!" at the Princess of Wales Theater has also been extended to Jan. 15. Half-price chances for this one are nearly nil, since Mirvish almost never sells tickets this way. Still, This old-fashioned musical is the season's best bet for high-satisfaction family entertainment. What's best about it? The music, the music, the music. The dancing's not bad either, and the large number of talented children in the cast will make young ones in the audience start practicing for their music lessons. Call (800) 461-3333.

MUSEUMS OFFER NEW THINGS

The Art Gallery of Ontario's big winter show is "Krieghoff: Images of Canada," a specially ticketed exhibit of over 150 paintings and prints running through March 5. It will then move on to four other museums across Canada. Critical opinions vary about the work of Cornelius Krieghoff, a 19th century French Canadian. Some find his renderings too idealistic, while others feel his art preserves images of French Canada in the first half of the 19th century.

The AGO makes no secret of this critical disparity and tries to help viewers decide for themselves. American visitors may see a bit of Currier & Ives in Krieghoff, and older children will enjoy examining the small details in the works. The show also offers an interactive play space for little ones. Call (416) 979-6648.

The Market Gallery, an admission-free space on the second floor of St. Lawrence Market, hosts "The Young Century: Daily Life in Toronto 1901-1914" through March 5. Call (416) 392-7604.

North of the city, the Frederick Varley Art Gallery of Markham bases its permanent collection on the work on Varley, one of the "Group of Seven," Canada's most important artistic group of the 20th century. Many find Varley and his group to be late-comers to impressionist painting, but his works are worth a look in this pleasant, two-year-old museum space. Call (905) 477-9511. Visitors to the Varley Gallery should plan to spend a couple of hours for shopping and snacking along Markham's quaint little Main Street. It's always well dressed for the holidays.

Also on Main Street is the Kathleen Gormley McKay Art Center, housed in an older home where Varley spent the end of his life. It's now a cozy space where local artists sell their work. Most days the artists who are showing appear to chat, and visitors may find free coffee and cookies to sweeten their holiday visit. Call (905) 946-1733.

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