Schultz and Francks Step Back in Time and Honour Danny Kaye

albert schultz and don francks

I had an endearing experience on Sunday at the Canwest Cabaret Festival as I sat in the Michael Young Theatre in anticipation for Albert Schultz and Don Francks’ Tribute to Danny Kaye Cabaret (with musicians Colleen Allen, Steve Hunter and Paul Young). Many of my fellow audience members remarked with surprise how young I was to be spending my Sunday evening with the music of Danny Kaye, a performer who made his film debut in 1935, appeared in Lady in the Dark in 1941, and whose film career spanned the 1940s and 50s, while his televised Variety Show, The Danny Kaye Show, played from 1963 to 1967. Obviously, this was all quite before my time, and although I was familiar with Kaye’s name and his association to Broadway, I had never had the opportunity to familiarize myself with his music or his unique talents as a brilliant comedian. Thus, this Cabaret seemed like just such an opportunity for me, and besides… who knew Albert Schultz could sing!?!?
Well, as it turns out, Albert Schultz, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts’ Artistic Director, who has played roles in Soulpepper productions of Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, The Odd Couple and Glengarry Glen Ross among many others, has a beautiful and captivating singing voice. The evening began with Schultz and Francks singing the extremely charming “Civilization,” which Danny Kaye made famous with the Andrews sisters. They then launched into a hilarious scene from Kaye’s 1956 film The Court Jester hinged on the line, “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!” I knew, of course, that Albert Schultz was a brilliant actor, but I had not realized that he also had such a flair for the comedic. At one point he read a quote by Noel Coward, and launched seamlessly into an impeccable Coward impression, which was followed swiftly by a brief moment where he suddenly evoked the spirit of Burt Lahr. There was so much dynamism and energy radiating from the stage, the audience couldn’t help feeding off the excitement.
Don Francks is absolutely brilliant as he performs patter songs, such as Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” in which thousand of words, intricately woven in brilliant rhyme and rhythm, fly past the ear as though they are being rocketed into space. His voice is also perfectly suited to Jazz and he is able to scat brilliantly, which he showed off in his rendition of “For Me and My Gal,” made famous in 1942 by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. He was joined by David Cox, a beautifully joyful tap dancer, who gave a mesmerizing performance. Francks then sang “Triplets” from The Bandwagon (1939), a trio that Kaye used to (hilariously) sing as a solo piece, and here Francks proved that his comic timing is just as shrewd as Schultz’s. He then turned on a dime and gave this breathtaking, heart-tugging, utterly simple and sweet rendition of “Molly Malone” which was sung in such perfect earnestness that it hung in the air long after Francks had finished singing.
It is obvious that these songs belong to a distant, some may say a “more innocent” time, and I have heard many who grew up with this music, the great performers such as Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and films such as The Court Jester lament that they “don’t make ‘em like they used to.” I honestly believe that if those who were born subsequent to this “Golden Age” of film, music and television, would only familiarize themselves with all that preceded rock n’ roll with an open mind and heart, they would find that most of it is incredibly moving, brilliantly constructed and performed, and utterly timeless. For this reason, I think it is so important for artists like Don Francks and Albert Schultz to perform these sort of tribute Cabarets, because while they appeal strongly to the demographic of people who already have an ardent appreciation for these artists, they also helps to introduce this music to a younger generation, which I think is an incredible gift. Albert Schultz finished off the evening by transforming into an eight year boy from Brooklyn (hilarious, and with about eight feet of sheet music to contend with!) and then he brought the house down by successfully reciting over twenty tongue twisters in rapid, but meticulous, succession, all of which made Dr. Seuss look like an amateur.
I love Soulpepper Theatre and the Young Centre for the Performing Arts because I think it is so incredible and so important for there to be a place where artists are in charge of the creation of their art and where collaboration, mentorship and the nurturing of love of arts in our community are as much a part of the mandate as striving for excellence on the stage. It is also incredible that the Young Centre for the Performing Arts houses a classical repertory theatre like Soulpepper, yet also can be home to a Cabaret Festival that fosters and promotes over sixty diverse Torontonian artists, and helps to merge the gaps that are sometimes found between the “legitimate” stage and the rest of the “riffraff.” I find this incredibly inspiring, because as it becomes increasingly precarious to be an artist in this country, we need to band together and support one another in whatever way we can.
It is also inspiring that despite such precariousness, the Toronto Theatre Community continues to give generously to charities such as UNICEF. As Danny Kaye was the first UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Albert Schultz graciously donated 50% from both performances of A Tribute to Danny Kaye to UNICEF. It always warms my heart so much when the creation of brilliant theatre uses its artistry and its influence to help make the world a better place. Certainly that was a theme that cozily blanketed the Young Centre for the duration of the Canwest Cabaret Festival.

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