Each time that I see Michael O’Hara perform I am struck by an overwhelming sensation that I have somehow been teleported back to a time when Judy Garland and Dean Martin had their own Variety Shows, when Sammy Davis Jr. and Groucho Marx smoked their cigars inside and Bob Dylan had yet to go electric. This was very much the case at O’Hara’s latest Evening of Song, Something Very Strange, last Saturday evening at the Annex Live.
Michael O’Hara is a natural born performer whose own stage presence and deportment harkens back to the days of razzle dazzle that John Kander and Fred Ebb captured so brilliantly in their canon of music. It was especially appropriate then for our strange evening to begin with the charismatic O’Hara’s rendition of “Willkommen” from Cabaret, which melded very quickly into a big brassy ode to Barbra Streisand with “Don’t Rain on my Parade” from Funny Girl and then quickly into an equally dynamic performance of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy. While it’s not especially out of the ordinary to see male musical theatre performers appropriating these eleven o’clock showstoppers traditionally performed by the most iconic female Broadway divas of all time into their own Cabaret acts, O’Hara infuses them with a rare cocktail of masculinity and elegance, which does suggest a certain affinity with performers such as Dean Martin or Sammy Davis Jr., but also contains clear elements borrowed from Merman, Streisand, Minnelli and Garland mixed up in there as well.
All the Cabaret greats have gotten the opportunity to sing the new material of the illustrious composers of their time and Michael O’Hara is no exception. He performed a terrific new song written by Canadian musical legend Nancy White called “She Got the Inside” about the perils of losing all one’s possessions in an especially messy divorce. This contemporary tune, with references to the iPad and Blackberries, reminded me of something an early Cole Porter could have written, wry and witty with a snappy tune and an array of intricately rhymed lyrics.
What I think is most strange about Michael O’Hara is that for a performer of musical theatre, and for someone who is as passionate about (at least a specific era of) Broadway and Cabaret culture and minutiae, he has surprisingly eclectic musical tastes. It is also always stunning for people when they are first introduced to O’Hara to find that not only is he a smooth performer in his own right, but he is also among the best celebrity impersonators working within the Toronto theatre community. It is dazzling to watch him suddenly morph into someone else, matching their vocal timbres and, in many ways, their physicality, with seamless ease. So, it was in this way that as soon as O’Hara picked up his guitar we were suddenly in the presence of Elvis Presley singing “Little Sister.” Later on he regaled us with a country music medley that included Hank Williams and Dwight Yoakam. Once you have seen O’Hara perform a few times it becomes quickly apparent that he is able to sing in any genre and to capture all the flavour and the nuances of it, not only in general, but also in the details of individuals within each genre, to absolute perfection.
O’Hara’s ability to mimic also comes in frequent handy during his banter with the audience, which feels very New York or Las Vegas, a continuous breaking down of the fourth wall and engaging directly with his adoring public. He is an engaging storyteller with swift comic timing and his ability to assume the voices of the people he is referring to, especially those of notoriety, gives his stories a nice added texture.
The challenge, I think, for Michael O’Hara at the moment is that his shows cater to a very specific demographic, the students and alumnus of Wexford Collegiate for the Arts, the school that he and many of his perpetual guests graduated from. This community is an incredibly supportive one, which is fantastic, and O’Hara’s shows are always filled nearly beyond capacity, but, at the same time, he has not yet found a way to truly amass an audience of his own independent from his former school. Also, with such an insular audience, there are times when the performers run the risk of relying too heavily on inside references that can be alienating for the out of the loop audience members.
Some of O’Hara’s guests were particularly incredible. Bryan Hindle sang a smooth and gorgeous rendition of “I’ll Be Here” from The Wild Party, which was so dreamy and soulful you could have heard a pin drop in the crowded restaurant. Theresa Tova sang “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” in Yiddish with O’Hara, which was breathtakingly gorgeous and then, in signature Jewish beltress style, Tova sang a powerful and jazzy Yiddish version of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” which made me realize that what Christmas really needs is more Yiddish carols. Warren Bain and Matt Bernard, as Bain and Bernard, are a Vaudevillian comedy duo, who I don’t think have quite cemented their dynamic yet. However, they performed a “Baby It’s Cold Outside” sketch which was utterly charming and reminded me of something that the Muppets would have done, so certainly these boys are well on their way to uncovering their niche. Surely what Toronto’s theatre community needs is more Vaudevillians!
The chandelier crashing moments of the evening were listening to O’Hara’s gorgeous belting of the title song from “Kiss of a Spider Woman,” which was rapturous for those of us with soft spots for long, soaring open notes. He showed off his dexterity, articulation and unbelievable swiftness with a cheeky performance of “I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major General.” Yet, it was the encore during which O’Hara seemed to transcend even himself, in a seemingly simple but gorgeously sincere, rendition of “Memory” with soft intensity and then almost operatic, his lovely bright voice swathing the whole room in goose bumps, at the end. It really is O’Hara’s thousand dollar number, and I don’t want to hear that song sung again out of the fear that it will somehow lessen the memory of it for me.
Michael O’Hara is outstandingly multitalented and he should be performing in smoky nightclubs and on Variety Hours all over this town because he really is bringing the sixties back and when they get here, it’s going to marvelous.