The name “Gabi Epstein” has become synonymous with the recent revitalization of Toronto’s Cabaret culture by the musical theatre youth of the city, young performers fresh from post secondary education and training, bursting with energy, optimism and a fierce determination to forge their own unique careers even if it means producing (and sometimes writing) their own work. This musical theatre renaissance is epitomized in the success of Mitchell Marcus’ fiercely ambitious, independent company for contemporary musicals, Acting Up Stage, along with musical powerhouse Jenni Burke’s tireless crusade to bring recognition and performance space to emerging artists. This has been integral to laying the groundwork for Toronto’s own indigenous musical theatre community to flourish in the creation of work for and by Toronto artists separate and undaunted by the Mirvish monolith, proving that it no longer holds the monopoly on musical theatre in our city.
A performer who is continually reinventing herself, Epstein has been seen at Cabaret venues across Toronto including the Bread and Circus, the Berkeley Street Theatre, Statler’s Piano Lounge, The Pantages, the Rex, The Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts and the Trane Studio. No two of her live performances are ever the same, but each one is rooted in her charming sense of humour, often poking fun at herself, and her big, bright, brassy voice that bursts forth with distinct joie de vivre and unapologetic assurance and buoyancy. Indeed, Gabi Epstein has a way of asserting her own place in Canada’s musical theatre history, staking her claim, without egoism or vanity. There is something inspiring in Epstein’s unfaltering dedication and her passion for forging out her own theatrical destiny and refusing to limit her dreams to the small box ideology that tends to trap so many Canadian artists who battle a sense of national inferiority that Epstein appears to be blithely devoid of. By aligning herself however subtly with the biggest legends of the American musical theatre, such as Barbra Streisand and Kristin Chenoweth, Epstein is setting a precedent for all Canadian musical theatre performers that such stardom, success and grandness can and should be possible here.
All this has culminated with her debut album Show Off, which was released in late 2010 and produced by award winning Canadian jazz musician John Alcorn. She begins with a song that reflects exactly this philosophy, “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” (Dory and Andre Previn) previously recorded by Streisand, in which she asserts with the smooth, rich, coyly enticing voice of an ingénue that the “world can’t ignore her” because she has a “song that longs to be played” and thus, in song, Epstein affirms her longevity in the cabaret genre, suggesting that this album, this song, this moment in time, is just the beginning for her and prophesizes greater and grander things to come. Her second song pushes this concept even further, with Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison’s “Show Off” made famous in The Drowsy Chaperone by Sutton Foster, which becomes joyfully and self-referentially ironic within this context. My only criticism of Epstein’s tour de musical theatre force, wherein high belting, opera and scatting are executed with ease, is that she neglected to do the encore.
Epstein’s softer soprano voice is lovely and full in her sensitive rendition of Torontonian composer Zachary Florence’s song “I Would Have Wanted,” a song with gorgeous musical arc and deep and quite esoteric lyrics that conjure resonant images and emotions. John Alcorn’s jazzy influence is most apparent in her unique renditions of Stephen Schwartz’s “Corner of the Sky,” (from Pippin) in which her voice, appropriately, freely soars, and “I Am Changing” from Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s Dreamgirls, a soulful and reflective self affirmation. She also gives a sultry, hauntingly slow rendition of “Unusual Way” from Maury Yeston’s Nine, where she milks all her most blissful notes to stunning effect, while infusing each line with powerful emotion.
One of the most important things to consider in the creation of a musical theatre and/or jazz compilation album is what makes this particular one distinct to the artist who has produced it. Show Off not only features re-imagined renditions of well known musical theatre songs, but it also has a few tracks that are entirely unique to Epstein such as Murray Grand’s “I’d Rather Cha Cha Than Eat,” which harkens back to the New York Cabaret scene of the 1950s or 60s, a heartfelt rendition of Jann Arden’s “Good Mother,” and, my favourite, a vividly theatrical, blues rendition of “Cruella DeVil” from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, which shows off Epstein’s playfulness and delightful charm. The album ends with sweetness and nostalgia in “Laila Laila,” a Jewish lullaby.
Show Off is backed by the intense musical prowess of Mark Kieswetter on piano, Artie Roth on bass and Davide Direnzo on drums and percussion, but it is Epstein’s voice that always takes dramatic center stage. As she sings as the album winds to a close, in the words of Tom Petty, she “won’t back down” and it is clear that Gabi Epstein is in it to win it and with such a promising debut, it looks like she just might.
Show Off is available for purchase via Indiepool and available on Itunes.