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.

Melanie Doane Rocks Out in Canwest Cabaret

melanie doane

Melanie Doane may be a self-described “practical Nova Scotian girl” but, make no mistake; she is also a rock star. I was extremely excited to see Doane perform with musicians Mike Borkosky and Creighton Doane in the Canwest Cabaret Festival at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts and while I knew that I was in for a treat on this, the day after Halloween, this cabaret even managed to exceed my already high expectations.
She began with one of my favourite of her songs, “Goliath,” which I evoke frequently to fill me with a sense of empowerment as I seek to conquer the giants in my own life. With all the technology available in the music industry, sometimes songs that have been recorded tend to lose a bit of their intensity and luster when they are performed live; however, Melanie Doane packed double the amount of punch and power into “Goliath” on Sunday afternoon so that it sounded (if possible) even better than the recording on her album Adam’s Rib. Kapow. She then launched into her beautiful “Waiting for the Tide,” which she sings with incredible emotional passion. This song in particular shows off Doane’s beautiful voice and how seamlessly she can switch from her powerful belt to the lovely upper registers of her voice, which soar out with clarity and vibrancy.
Melanie Doane is sensationally multitalented. I spent most of the concert utterly engaged, yet strikingly bewildered by her gorgeous voice and the continual switching of instruments from guitars to fiddles to the piano, all of which she played with zeal, precision and gusto. She is also an incredible songwriter. Her songs are all accessible and memorable with music that has the ability to sweep an audience away and lyrics that are continually poetic and insightful. There is a line in “Still Desire You” where she says, “you don’t know lingerie from laundry, you don’t know things that turn me on, you don’t know Pepsi ads from poetry, you don’t sing me any love songs” which I think nicely sums up her creative way with words that speak with such humanity and are easy to connect to. I also urge you all to listen to her song “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (co-written with Kevin Fox from Halifax) and to really listen to the lyrics because this song is very cleverly crafted to conceal its intended meaning. She even tricked the producers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Cunning!
Her newest album A Thousand Nights (2008) was conceived after the birth of her two young children, as an album that parents could put on to soothe and lull their children to sleep that would be enjoyable and appropriate for both the children and their parents. It is an incredible album with some stunningly gorgeous renditions of popular songs like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird” and “Song of Bernadette” and a haunting version of Tom Waits’ “Martha”, which is sung as a duet with her husband Ted Dykstra. She wrote the song “Every Little Thing” and played it at the cabaret, accompanying herself on the piano. It is one of the most sweet, sincere and absolutely touching songs I have ever heard about motherhood and the worries and desire women have to be perfect for their children. The line, “maybe keep your raincoat on” conjures such vivid images of childhood for me and the subtle hint of doubt in her use of the word “maybe” has such gentleness in her desire to protect her little one from the rain.
Then, of course, there is the fiddle. Melanie Doane plays this instrument with such vigor and power, it is truly incredible and utterly joyful to behold. “Mel’s Rock Pile” is one of the most fascinating things to watch. I swear it made my heart leap from my chest and fly about the room. It’s not enough to just hear this on her album; it has got to be seen to be truly appreciated in all its glory. It will leave your mouth agape in wonder.
I’m not sure if this is an experience unique to growing up in Nova Scotia, but I remember vividly sitting in the car on the way to Junior High rocking out to “Adam’s Rib” as it played on the radio. It is rare for a song that so stimulates one to start dancing to also have lyrics that are equally as compelling. Yet, that is the signature genius of Melanie Doane. Her encore, an older song called “Salt Water” brought tears to my eyes as I found myself longing too for Nova Scotia the sea-bound coast. We have such incredibly talented singer/songwriter/rock stars in this country, and Juno Award winner Melanie Doane is certainly a prime example. I felt proud and fortunate to sit in the Michael Young Theatre on Sunday afternoon and to experience her music live for the first time. It is an experience I look forward to duplicating in the very near future.
If you have not already purchased Doane’s albums, of which there are several, but particularly Adam’s Rib (1998), You Are What You Love (2003) and A Thousand Nights (2008), I would strongly urge you to download them all right now from iTunes, or to visit this website for more information on how to buy the CD in a non-digital format. I guarantee, this is the sort of music that one listens to for a lifetime and then passes on to her children.

A Cart Full of Brilliance

patti loach and patricia zentilli
 
I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations, but I truly believe that the moment that you see Patricia Zentilli perform onstage, regardless of everything, you will fall in absolute love with her. That is exactly what I watched happen in the Tank House Theatre as Zentilli performed her cabaret The Shopping Cart of Love with pianist extraordinaire, Patti Loach as part of the Canwest Cabaret Festival, which has taken over the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Sunday November 1st (60 concerts in 5 venues. All tickets $20.00 each).
 
A highly accomplished musical theatre performer and a consummate actor of both stage and screen, the cabaret genre suits Patricia Zentilli with particular perfection because she not only sings everything with unaffected passion straight from her soul, but she also has a delightfully warm personality and the stories that weave her songs together are the perfect mixture of blithe humor and human heart. The Shopping Cart of Love began with Dar Williams’ “The Babysitter’s Here”, a song in which Zentilli effortlessly becomes the most endearing, innocent and exuberant of eight year olds singing warmly about the teenager that she idolizes. This song is a beautiful testament to the big, unconditional love of a child and the way they empathize with such an earnest desire for all that is wrong to be righted happily ever after. She then sang a beautiful rendition of “Ben,” the Don Black and Walter Scharf song made famous by a very young Michael Jackson, which she dedicated to her best friend, Tamara, who became a kindred spirit for the young Peruvian hat and poncho-wearing Zentilli.
 
Zentilli then burst out with Jason Robert Brown’s “Climbing Uphill” from The Last Five Years, and brought down the house with her ‘belting as high as she can.’ This is the third of Kathy’s songs that I have heard Zentilli sing and I am resolute in my opinion that, having played the role at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Toronto audiences need to be given the opportunity to see her incredible performance in its entirety. She is the quintessential Kathy down to even the most delicate nuance. She then showed off how gracefully her voice soars when songs turn jazzy in her rendition of “the Bear, the Tiger and the Hamster” from Closer Than Ever by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire.
 
What I really enjoy about Patricia Zentilli and Patti Loach cabarets is that Loach and Zentilli always find these unknown little gems of songs to sing that are rarely performed by artists in Toronto. From Craig Carnelia’s “Just a Housewife” and Rosabella and Dina Gregory’s “India, China,” two songs that compel you to listen to the lyrics and to really reflect on your lifestyle and your preconceptions, while still being beautifully poetic and utterly captivating, to the marathon “Shopping Cart of Love” which is a chick flick encapsulated brilliantly into a single number by Christine Lavin, Loach and Zentilli always introduce their audience to new songwriters as they sit on the edge of what is hot, quirky and beautiful.
 
Patricia Zentilli and Patti Loach are a brilliant combination of talent and charm, and when they make music together, at times accompanied with the gorgeous trumpet playing of John Loach, the music propels them and buoys them up almost to the point of flying away. The amount of love and passion on the Tank House stage could fill every shopping cart at the grocery store, no doubt. They finished the show with a hauntingly emotional rendition of Jim Cuddy’s “Pull Me Through” which tugged at the heartstrings and swept through the room, wrapping the audience up tightly in its beauty. The next time you want something warm, something sweet, and something that will make you feel both jubilant and joyful, I would strongly recommend that you put a Cabaret by Patricia Zentilli and Patti Loach in your shopping cart of life. If you simply can’t wait, you should pick up a copy of their CD Pull Me Through, which is available in the atrium of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts ($20.00) for the duration of the Canwest Cabaret Festival, and it is also available online at iTunes.
 
Get ready to fall in love.

Soulpepper Academy’s Clowning Around

I was so impressed with the Soulpepper Academy’s ee cummings rebirth in song at the Canwest Cabaret Festival that I quickly followed Young Centre for the Performing Arts’ Artistic Director, Albert Schultz’s, advice and got a ticket for their Clown Cabaret later Friday evening. Under the guidance of Theatre Columbus’ Leah Cherniak, the Soulpepper Academy artists had created their own performance piece comprised of ten unique, dynamic, clowns in various incarnations and using a variety of different clowning techniques and styles to elicit the perfect mixture of laughter and pathos.
Beginning with some Michael Jackson choreography and an exuberant race to cover the chalkboard set pieces with as many words, both charming and crude, as could be crammed into the space as possible, these clowns were immediately engaging and bursting with energy. The Cabaret was broken up into smaller sketches in which each member of the Soulpepper Academy was featured in at least one. It became clear, through the constant reappearance of certain performers, that there were those who had consummate command of the clown tradition.
Raquel Duffy, as an uncouth clown who continually attempts to seduce her audience as her insecurity and awkward stage fright keeps luring her to surpass all boundaries of propriety, became one of the stars of the evening. She began in a sketch with Gregory Prest in which both attempted to sing Billy Rose and Lee David’s “Tonight You Belong To Me” (1926), a song made famous by Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin in the 1979 film The Jerk, yet Duffy and Prest’s clowns become baffled when their sheet music is missing its last few notes and their song comes to a grinding halt. Prest was particularly hilarious in his grumbling clown whose vocal lilt was reminiscent to that of Stuart Larkin from MADtv.
Ins Choi and Karen Rae then burst onstage with a tricycle and proceeded to hilariously recreate the classic “I’m flying, Jack” moment from James Cameron’s 1997 epic film Titanic. Matthew Kabwe brought the house down with his extremely endearing sweeping clown with a penchant for classical music. Kabwe gives a beautifully, simple, heartfelt performance as the sweeping clown who gets swept into performing the lip-synched version of Gioachino Rossini’s “Largo al factotum,” (more commonly known as the “Figaro… Figaro…. FIG-AH-RO” song, sung frequently by animated characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)) despite the fact that this clown does not know all the words. Kabwe has brilliant comic timing and slays the audience with a glance as his tongue becomes increasingly tangled in such a long, Italian tongue twister.
Duffy is then joined by Brendan Wall as two musician clowns, Duffy with a flute and Wall with a cello, both vying for a single chair. After a well choreographed bit of the anticipated slapstick, the audience is treated to a magical moment as Duffy and Wall share the chair and their instruments and together, each playing one half of the two instruments, they reach an incredibly impressive compromise. Gregory Prest returns with that infamous magician of indeterminable accent as he tries with utter incompetence to hide a red chili pepper beneath a plastic cup, hoping to trick the audience so that he will not have to eat the pepper. The tables turn magnificently as Prest accidentally burns his eyes from the pepper and launches into a wild and fantastic tirade of eye gauging jokes with theatrical references from Oedipus to Helen Keller and Chekhov, Williams, Shakespeare and even Cats. This is truly comedy gold. Laughter is mixed beautifully with pathos for Tatjana Cornij’s heart wrenching accordion-playing clown, whose ultimate triumph is mirrored nicely in the audience’s sense of satisfaction.
I was particularly impressed by the ingenuity of these sketches and these clowns and I found myself acutely aware of the fine line at play and the tension between laughter and compassion. Clowning is so much about the sense of discovery. The clown has such joy, anguish, fear, or all three, as he or she discovers some new aspect of the world, and the audience is able to share in these emotions as they are lured to see the world through the eyes of the most innocent (and in some cases the most mischievous). At its very best, the clowns’ eyes show a mixture of joy and melancholy as though one can not exist without the other to keep the balance. Such nuance is not wasted on balloon animals. These Cabaret clowns prove that they can evoke both laughter and tears.
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