I went on and on about the awesomeness of The Global Cabaret Festival last year, so I’m not going to say it again. What I will say is that this year was even better with only a  few mild disappointments in a wonderful weekend of 9 shows in 2 days from October 12th to 14th.

The biggest of those disappointments was that the eccentric,  poetic cabaret featuring Mike Ross’s original compositions and a host of Soulpepper company members- this year was Spoon River Cabaret, based on the poems of Edgar Lee Masters- was Yet Again put in the tiniest possible theatre and thus beyond impossible to get in to,  resulting in my utter disappointment.

But what I did manage to see was, for the most part, great and, in some cases, spectacular. Here’s the breakdown (in chronological order):

Oliver! A Cabaret
The press release for this one said that it would turn the Baillie Theatre into “a Dickensian Pub”, which it absolutely did not,  so it was basically a concert version of the iconic musical Oliver! Now, I call it iconic because it’s one of those old and beloved musicals, but I would never call Oliver! great. It has a few good songs (“As Long as He Needs Me” being my favourite) and a good sense of fun, but it’s not something I would ever think “hey, this music is so awesome that we should put on a show where we just stand and sing it”. Luckily, musical director John Millard recruited some excellent talent and had so much fun with it that the whole thing was an hour of happy (including a singalong at the end!). The highlight was, predictably,  Brent Carver’s impishly corrupt Fagan- mostly because there could be 500 people on stage and Brent Carver will still always be the one who seems to be having the most fun- and I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed Aline Morales’ softer take on some of the showier songs I normally would have assigned to vocal powerhouse Patricia O’Callaghan. Suba Sankaran’s Artful Dodger annoyed me, which was somehow inevitable, but at least in Oliver! her boundless and showy energy seemed well cast. Oliver! also made the best use of The Young Centre City Choir that I saw at the festival, led by the great Alex Samaras who, both as choir leader and a soloist, proved an MVP of the Oliver! cabaret despite being generally under-credited. It wasn’t the immersive oldschool adventure I’d hoped for, but Oliver! was just too much fun to be grumpy about.

Jean Stilwell & Patti Loach

Jean Stilwell & Patti Loach, What Was I Saying?
I liked Jean Stilwell and Patti Loach- particularly Patti- but I’m not sure I can say I really loved their cabaret. It was set up to be narrative but didn’t follow a coherent path or theme. It was chatty but over-scripted and the songs didn’t always fit in right. By simple nature of being the pianist, the likable spit-fire Patti took too much of a backseat (only taking the lead on one song and a few of the stories) to the less engaging Jean, who forgot her lyrics so often that it ceased to be an ironic nod to the cabaret’s title and became more a nuisance. Jean’s voice is also just unsuited to a cabaret. It’s technically beautiful but an opera voice on pop or musical theatre songs sounds very strange and is simply too powerful for an intimate cabaret setting (and who decided it was a good idea to mic the operatic soprano?!). But despite their rough edges and clear misfires, I found Jean and Patti charming. Their friendship is sweet and their contrasting lives are intriguing when examined side by side. The highlight was any time Patti spoke, because she’s just so darned adorable- like Kristin Chenoweth before she started capitalizing on her cuteness and became obnoxious- and I particularly loved when her beloved husband made an appearance to play the trumpet and have meet-cute stories told about him. Candor on the cabaret stage is a priceless quality and Jean and Patti approached their set with a cards-on-the-table, love-us-or-don’t attitude that I really appreciated. I just wanted to love them more than I did.

Judith Lander
In the company of your average human,  I seem like a real musical theatre nerd. But then I talk to a real musical theatre nerd and I haven’t the slightest clue what they’re talking about once we’ve already covered the original casts of Rent and Wicked. This is what it felt like to be at Judith Lander’s cabaret. I felt like I was in the presence of someone major, someone with historical relevance to the medium, someone who broke ground. But I had no idea who she was so her cabaret felt more underwhelming than it might otherwise have. Judith has the sort of voice that sounds like it was once legendary and is now a bit worn out- at times it’s strong and animated,  at others it’s a little spent. She told stories about the good old days (there’s one about the great Stephen Schwartz that blew my mind) and sang songs she used to perform on stages much larger than this one (her take on Jaques Brel was her strongest) and the whole thing had the feel of a dusty Tony award. I never saw Judith Lander when she was younger, but, watching her cabaret,  it felt as though I could close my eyes and dream up a time when she shined as brightly as I imagine she might have. It made me sad to know that that time was not now.

Waleed Abdulhamid

Leonard Cohen Songbook
This was probably the coolest cabaret of the weekend,  full of original interpretation and musical surprises that lifted up the work of an already cool composer. Leonard Cohen’s is a songbook that’s perfect for the Global Cabaret because it doesn’t have original versions as iconic as those of say, The Beatles. Leonard Cohen’s own voice is terrible,  so even without any invention at all,  this cabaret was going to be full of beauty I hadn’t heard before. This was also my first experience with Waleed Abdulhamid’s work, and you can bet I’m seeking out his cabaret next year and putting it at the top of my list (well, at least in the top 3). The Young Centre resident artists I admire the most are the ones who aren’t afraid of interpretation and Waleed might be the most daring among them. He’s got a zen sort of cool about him but his arrangements were all intricate and thoughtful as though he poured effort into them. He also enlisted the most interesting group of artists to perform with him- people I’d never heard of playing instruments I’d never seen, with singing voices that soared and haunted. Waleed’s approach to Cohen was to make like he’s taking him on a tour around the world,  stopping in various musical traditions from east to west and re-imagining each song through a different cultural filter. While a lesser music director might have limited their scope to their own style, Waleed embraced a world of musical tradition, even going so far from his own style as to include a bluegrass arrangement (courtesy of guest John Millard). Being the musical muggle that I am, the only Cohen song I know by heart is the one everyone knows by heart, “Hallelujah”, which closed the show with a simple and effecting vocal from one of Waleed’s guests whose name tragically doesn’t appear in the admittedly incomprehensive press release. But now I feel like I know Cohen better than I thought I could have, because I’ve seen him everywhere in every way through the beautifully insightful eyes of Waleed Abdulhamid.

Albert Schultz & Friends, Young at Heart
I didn’t actually go to this cabaret- I snuck in for 10-15 minutes of it before stealing away to take in the show I’ll tell you about next- but I just wanted to mention Young at Heart because it’s truly lovely and just so representative of the entire weekend in my mind. Not only is Young at Heart the perfect combination of comedy,  storytelling, and song, but, through it, Albert Schultz masters what I think all great cabaret performers do- the art of being one’s self. This is Albert Schultz’s show, on Albert Schultz’s turf, it’s Albert Schultz’s responsibility that this whole weekend go off without a hitch or it’s Albert Schultz who will look like a fool. And you know what Albert Schultz does with all that pressure? He hits the stage and does funny cartoon cat voices. If I hadn’t been so determined to see mostly new things that I could write about without repeating my coverage from last year (oops!), I wouldn’t have missed Young at Heart for the world. I love that one of the most important people in all of Canadian theatre does funny cartoon cat voices and sings “Rainbow Connection” with his friends. It’s a personality-driven,  heartfelt hour full of fun for the sake of fun and an unabashed love for music and all it represents- it’s The Global Cabaret at its most fundamental.

Heather Bambrick: Broadsway
Broadsway was traditional cabaret style executed fantastically. You take someone with a big voice and bigger personality- often a woman,  in this case two women- add in some fun stories and confessional comedy, make’em sing and away you go! In Heather Bambrick’s case, she recruited her friend Julie Michels to be the sardonic alto to her fizzy soprano and added delightfully snippy pianist Diane Leah to keep them in line (which she did hilariously). The result was “Broads”way, a show that towed the line but took a self-aware approach to its inescapable mouthy-middleaged-ladies-ness, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This show was one of the funniest and had some of the best vocals of the weekend, and while I couldn’t say exactly what the magical ingredient was, it was easily the most surefire recipe.

Michael Hughes

Michael Hughes, Mickey & Judy
I’ve already seen Mickey & Judy. I’ve already covered Mickey & Judy. I’ve already nominated it for an award and interviewed its creator/star/inspiration Michael Hughes. I had other things to see at The Global Cabaret Festival, but I saw Mickey & Judy again anyway. And even though, the second time around,  it didn’t have the surprises and freshness of my first Mickey & Judy experience (at last year’s Fringe Festival), it was still one of the best things I saw all festival (only second to Brent Carver). I cried, I sang, I laughed so much it seemed like it might become a permanent condition, and that’s all I can really think to say apart from the fact that I really like the new pianist, Doug Price. Unless they’re actually built into the cabaret like Diane Leah or Patti Loach, I don’t usually notice the pianist at all, but for Mickey & Judy it’s fun to watch other people’s reactions to some of Michael’s more nutty revelations, and since it’s hard to see the rest of the audience in the dark, Doug became pretty amusing. After touring the show for a few months, he’s likely seen it a couple hundred times but at The Global Cabaret he laughed and sighed (seemingly organically) as though it were the first time he was hearing every story, and just happened to be sitting behind a piano at the time. That seems like a weird detail to focus in on but I liked the camaraderie it established in what is ostensibly a solo show, and it spoke to how fresh Michael has managed to keep Mickey & Judy after over a year with it (or maybe Doug’s just super supportive, or has a really terrible memory). Long story short- if you Still haven’t seen Mickey & Judy, a) what’s wrong with you? And b) now would be the time. Or if you Have see it- see it again; it most definitely stands up.

Brent Carver

Brent Carver
Brent Carver is incandescent. That words gets thrown around as a substitute for “really awesome” a fair amount, but I honestly mean that Brent Carver seems to have a magical glow from within. He’s a legendary Canadian performer and in his cabaret of  simple, eclectic numbers ranging from a dizzying “Take This Waltz” to raucous “Love Potion No.9” to a haunting voice-and-cello-only rendition of the hymn “All Through the Night”, he proves how he earned his legendary status. Carver’s stirring vocal performance easily won the whole festival, though his easy charm and equal devotion to poignancy and fun made the cabaret particularly memorable. But what I mean by incandescent isn’t something that one only picks up when watching a cabaret literally entitled Brent Carver. It’s something you see when he walks in a room, or joins in for a harmony line during the Oliver! Cabaret, when he excitedly sits on the edge of the stage to deliver a song, saying “I’ve always wanted to do this”, or introduces his pianist/music director by saying” “Thank you, I love you”. He has a sweetness to him, an unironic sincerity and joy, a sense of gratitude and wonder and appreciation for this life he’s earned. Brent Carver is an inspiring human being even more than he is an inspiring vocalist and performer in general. He’s who we would all strive to be if the world were a better place.

Mike Ross

Elvis Songbook
Out of everything I could have seen at this year’s Global Cabaret Festival,  I was looking most forward to this one. It’s not that I’m all that into Elvis, it’s that I’m really into Mike Ross. I’m a huge fan of Mike Ross all year round, but The Global Cabaret Festival, man, they could rename the thing Mike Ross Weekend and I don’t think they’d get too many complaints.  He burst onto the stage wearing the most ridiculous mashup of ugly clothes and almost tackled the mic stand to the ground, kicking off the show with a raucous “Little Less Conversation”. From there, the man most people came to see took his place behind the piano to sing backup to everyone else, of course (after explaining that he came with the plan of raiding Soulpepper’s costume closet for Elvis clothes and ended up with the admittedly stinky combination of terrible he was currently wearing). But they were all his arrangements, and he plays piano with the showmanship of Jerry Lee Lewis so it wasn’t that terrible to see him leave centre stage. Don Francks brought the swagger,  Brent Carver brought even more fun, and a couple of classic tunes were slowed into beautiful ballads sung by Amanda LeBlanc and yet another singer sadly not listed in the press release (she did “Heartbreak Hotel” with a killer bass player and no other accompaniment). As the large ensemble (complete with standout trumpet player) made their way through some of the most famous songs on the planet, the audience went a little nuts in the most amusing of ways. Soulpepper legends Nancy Palk and Fiona Reid were in the audience, dancing like dorks, hooting and hollering at their friends on the stage- it was nothing short of adorable. And then Mike stopped the action to tell a story about him and his “friend Albert”- meaning Schultz,  people, the poohbah of this whole affair (and Nancy and Fiona hooted louder). Apparently the plan was to have Albert show up on stage in a full Elvis getup,  until they couldn’t find one that would fit him. “Because he’s too thin” Mike protested; then Albert took the stage in his regular clothes and said “ladies and gentlemen, the late Mike Ross”. Ha! Albert then sang “My Way” with his usual speak-sing bravado and big note comical belt. I know you’re expecting me to say this, but there’s just something so cool about watching Albert Schultz perform “My Way” at The Global Cabaret Festival. He was onstage with some people whose careers he had a huge hand in making,  and being cheered on by decades-old colleagues, literally standing in a building that he got built at an event that he dreamed up and made happen. I mean, come on, people, when the great Mike Ross gave Albert that song to close the show, he knew what he was doing.

If I’d been able to make it down to the Distillery on Sunday, I might have been able to catch some of the 12(!) shows I didn’t get to see. But even with just nine, and a few misses along the way,  2012 was a great year at the Global Cabaret.