louise pitre, thom allison, justin bott, adam brazier, sara farb
amanda leblanc, david lopez, jeigh madjus, erica peck, eliza jane scott
As I sat in the Bathurst Street Theatre on Monday April 26th watching an array of stars from the Toronto musical theatre community perform in Acting Up Stage’s annual fundraiser, this year entitled Man in the Mirror, I was struck with the overwhelming feeling that somewhere out there Michael Jackson was smiling.
Each year, Acting Up Stage’s producer Mitchell Marcus puts together an evening of song inspired by the catalogue of a contemporary music artist and, with the incredible musical genius of Musical Director extraordinaire, Reza Jacobs, the songs are re-imagined, arranged and sung in creative and dynamic new ways by ten of Toronto’s most acclaimed musical theatre vocalists. This year Man in the Mirror played homage to the music of Michael Jackson, a choice that may have raised some reservations from the sceptical among you. Michael Jackson, after all, was an extraordinarily gifted and unique performer, a true legend whose music was tailored specifically to showcase his greatness. It is a testament to the eleven artists I saw Monday evening and especially to the ingenuity of Reza Jacobs that they were able to strike the perfect balance between honouring Michael Jackson, staying true to the essence of each of his songs while also revelling in each singer’s own individuality.
Adam Brazier kick started the evening with a rendition of “Keep the Faith,” which suited his lovely, smooth voice very well. He has very powerful belting capacity, which immediately intensifies the energy in the room which makes for a perfect opening number. His performance later in the evening of a particularly clever combination of “Pretty Young Thing (P.Y.T)” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” was true Brazier belting bliss.
I felt very fortunate to see David Lopez perform for the first time this evening and he is utterly divine. He sang a jazz rendition of “Remember the Time” accompanied by a cello, which showed off his deep, sensual, rich vocals perfectly. He is a wonderfully laid back performer who infuses his songs with emotion and is immediately captivating. I hope to have the opportunity to hear him sing again soon. Justin Bott wowed the crowd with “Billie Jean” by recording his own beatbox and backup vocals live and layered on top of one another on a recording device, similar to the way American real-life Yale glee club star Sam Tsui makes his youtube videos. It was a definite highlight of the evening. Erica Peck also showed off her belting chops with “Thriller.”
Amanda LeBlanc and Sara Farb provided their always beautiful two part backup harmonies to most of the songs of the evening, which gave a strong element of texture to each of the numbers, along with the addition of a larger chorus for the show-stopping numbers. LeBlanc and Farb’s voices are wonderful complements to one another with LeBlanc’s genuine warmth blending perfectly with Farb’s intensity. Their duet of “Beat It” proved without a doubt that they should be singing together far more than once a year. In their solo pieces, Sara Farb was charming in bringing some of her signature angst to “Blame It On the Boogie” and it was delightful to watch her let the music sweep the angst away. I also am not sure how it is possible, but I’m certain that her already formidable belt has intensified since the last time I heard her sing. Amanda LeBlanc sang “Rock With You” as a gorgeous ballad with magic shining in her eyes. She is truly a treat to watch.
The First Act of this show was definitely stolen by ten year old Ezra Tennen who gave a perfectly earnest performance of “Ben” and sang a charming duet of “The Girl Is Mine” with Reza Jacobs. Tennen has beautiful and impressive voice; I think Justin Beiber had better look out. The Second Act was stolen by Jeigh Madjus’ “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” which could not have been more perfect, especially since it gave him the opportunity to do the moonwalk. His rendition of “Stranger in Moscow” also showed off his gorgeously smooth voice, incredible falsetto and his unmistakeable star power. Jeigh Madjus simultaneously blows audiences away and melts their hearts with even the quickest glimpse of his radiant sheepish grin.
Eliza Jane Scott transfixed me as always with her stunning powers of storytelling singing “Human Nature” which suited her bright voice beautifully and she showed off her rock star powers at the end with incredible belting prowess. She also sang a beautiful folk version of “We Are The World,” accompanying herself on the acoustic guitar, which quickly turned into a rousing sing-along. Always brilliant and hilariously quirky, Louise Pitre gave true star turns with “I Want You Back” and “Bad” both of which, of course, brought down the house. Which brings me to Thom Allison. What can be said about his gorgeous voice that hasn’t already been said? He is such an earnest performer whose love for performing always shines so brightly in the most infectious of ways because he sings straight from his soul. He sang “Got to Be There” first which showed off his voice as cool, smooth and creamy as a chocolate milkshake as though having his voice soar through the theatre was the most effortless thing for him in the whole world. Fittingly, it was Allison who closed out the evening with an incredibly dreamy rendition of “Man in the Mirror.” To bring an entire evening of show-stoppers to a close, this song was the ultimate of ultimates, Thom Allison’s performance was unbelievable and left the entire theatre breathless.
It is also impossible to speak of this show without commending the incredible band (Jamie Drake (drums), Devon Henderson (bass) and Erik Patterson (guitar) who rocked out with panache throughout the entire evening and of course, Reza Jacobs who plays the keyboard like nobody’s business. The one thing that strikes me as odd each year with this fundraising show is that with class-act upon class-act, at the end of the evening the audience is applauding and screaming wildly and yet there is never an encore. I understand that busy schedules are difficult to accommodate, and that every year at least one performer (incredibly) flies in on his/her day off from somewhere else in the country just for the opportunity of being in this show for one night (this year it was Thom Allison coming from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Calgary and Jeigh Madjus from Peter Pan in Halifax), but it would be ideal for there to be one big ensemble number to greet the fervently applauding fans at the very end of the night. It wouldn’t have to be complicated, and could even be sung in unison, with perhaps some additional harmonies from Sara Farb and Amanda LeBlanc.
It is discouraging how few opportunities there are for Toronto’s musical theatre stars to perform with one another in this city, and so I am excruciatingly grateful to Mitchell Marcus and Acting Up Stage Theatre for continuously providing support and opportunities for our community to grow and thrive amid a disheartening situation. This company is the future of musical theatre in Toronto and, thankfully, it won’t stop until we have enough.