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Mike Ross

I’m halfway through the 7th (and final?) Global Cabaret Festival weekend down at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Here are the highlights so far:

UPDATE: Read Part 2 HERE.

Best Show (so far)
The American Pie Songbook
I know, I’m the most predictable person in the world, but the songbook show music directed by Mike Ross is Always the best thing at the Global Cabaret (I’m only halfway through my schedule for the weekend but I’m pretty sure this, the second show I saw, will remain in the top spot). Ross’ taste in subjects and collaborators and the innovation and sense of fun he brings to putting the show together always make for a performance that’s both fantastically entertaining and musically astounding. Attempting to decipher the cryptic references in Don McLean’s tour of 21st century music history, Ross and his cohorts (more on them in a moment) interpret Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and a whole host of other people who may or may not be referenced in the song that forms the show’s grand finale. Open to debate from the cast and even a little from the audience, this show’s only flaw is that everyone’s having too much fun to keep it paced tightly enough to come in on time, resulting in a few cut songs and a hilariously dramatic opening night performance that ran 20 minutes overtime and pushed back the rest of the night’s performances.

Most Inspiring
Webster’s Opera Corner
Have you ever just sat and listened to someone who really loves something tell you about the thing that they love? It’s an incredible experience that we rarely let ourselves have. Apparently, Soulpepper founding member William Webster loves opera. Like, really loves opera, the way that I love Shakespeare and my best friend loves baseball and my brother loves politics and my mother loves Guys & Dolls. William Webster loves opera in that way where he knows everything there is to know about it, the first story he tells about his love of opera takes place when he’s 5 years old, and he cries when he hears the music begin. It’s a beautiful love and the coworkers he clearly rambles at about said love on a regular basis have crafted the perfect forum for him to share that love. Structured around six performances from a superb assemblage of singers who are far better actors than most opera singers I’ve encountered, Webster’s Opera Corner is essentially just William Webster telling the audience why he loves each piece of music he selected. It’s a muddled hour and Webster chose way more material than he has time to talk about to his satisfaction but there are few things I love more than having someone tell me why they love something. Considering my years-long quest to really fall in love with opera, and the fact that the performance of act three of La Boheme that accompanies this cabaret is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in some time, I could have listened to Webster ramble for hours and hours more.

Most Beautiful
(re)Birth: EE Cummings in Song
At one point an underwater projection is confined to three poster boards then expanded to a tarp then unleashed to encompass the entire theatre. At one point a melancholy love story is played out in shadow with the characters appearing corporeal only as they cross into the afterlife. At one point the whole world appears to be lit by tiny green stars. This adaptation of EE Cummings poetry with compositions by, you guessed it, Mike Ross showcases the beautiful singing voices of actors not principally known for their singing voices (Gregory Prest’s solo is achingly pretty while Raquel Duffy’s show-closing number is perfectly restrained and vulnerable), puts an average of 3 different musical instruments in the hands of each of its ten cast members, makes extraordinary use of space (kudos to production designer Ken MacKenzie) and tests the limits of tonal interpretation all while showing off the sheer pleasantness of a Mike Ross composition. I still can’t quite get over the beautiful simplicity of Brendan Wall’s dreamy rendition of my favourite song in the show- “Love is More than Love”.

Best Ensemble
The American Pie Songbook
Mike Ross could totally do this on his own; he’s musically versatile enough and his name carries so much clout at the festival that it’s mentioned at least three times at shows he’s not even in (at Webster’s Opera Corner he was mentioned no fewer than seven times while just sitting in the back of the room eating pasta). The fact that he appears to have absolutely no interest in doing this on his own is one of the best things about him. Year after year, Ross collects a hugely talented group of collaborators for his cabaret and deploys them in increasingly interesting ways. Here he features the great Denzal Sinclaire, his old friend John Connolly (who tells a great story about being on the brink of quitting band in grade ten until Ross showed up as a student teacher), and two of the best and the brightest from the current Soulpepper Academy (of which Ross is an alumni). Both singer Hailey Gillis (whom I’ll talk more about in a minute) and singer/drummer/guitarist Frank Cox-O’Connell were on my short list of academy members to watch even before I saw them in their best showcase yet in this cabaret (Cox-O’Connell, in particular, becomes more intriguing every time I see him). The relaxed, debate-ready tone of this show and the on-the-spot re-writing that comes from a runtime about 20 minutes longer than they’re allowed showcases the chemistry, passion and intelligence of this crew while the musical scope of “American Pie” really shows off what they can do.

Best Band
The Hank Williams Songbook
John Millard on banjo is always a sight to see but his tribute to Hank Williams was a bit too straightforward for my taste. What made it awesome was his killer band who appeared to be having a grand ole time playing an assortment of surprising instruments from the accordion (Tiina Kiik) to tuba (Colin Couch) with absolutely killer guitarist Nichol Robertson.

Best Featured Musician
Nick Tateishi with Denzal Sinclaire
This 21-year-old guitar player comes as close as anyone possibly could to stealing a show titled “Denzal Sinclaire” from Denzal Sinclaire. His solos are casually brilliant, his not-quite-dancing-let’s-call-it-“grooving” is wildly entertaining (there’s a lanky wave quality paired with lots of knee bends and something resembling a shimmy?), he’s self-deprecating about the (very) few backup vocals he does but he regularly mouths along with the lyrics, he has amazing hair, and just about everything about him is endlessly cool, especially how crazy good he is at the guitar.

Best Vocalist
Hailey Gillis in The American Pie Songbook
Keep in mind that I have yet to see Patricia O’Callaghan, Sophie Milman or the Broadsway gals, but it’s hard to imagine anyone delivering more stirring, versatile and just plain beautiful vocals than this Soulpepper Academy member showcased in the best cabaret of the festival (so far, but, let’s be realistic, nothing’s likely to beat it). Her Janis Joplin number was so good that I snuck into the second performance of American Pie for the last 15 minutes just to see it again.

Best Banter
Derek Boyes & William Webster (with an assist from Albert Schultz) in Webster’s Opera Corner
William Webster gets carried away. He’s excitable and emotional and has so much to say about opera that, in order to keep this very-tightly-packed show moving along, Soulpepper’s resident nice guy Derek Boyes was enlisted to keep his old friend on track. He’s amusingly strict about it but the decades-old camaraderie on display is endlessly charming as he and Webster haggle over the passing seconds. This show is one of those “Soulpepper family” moments where the love in the room is infectious.

Best Non-Musical Performance
Stéphanie Brochard and Sébastien Ventura in The Soldier’s Tale
The Soldier’s Tale doesn’t have the same enthralling energy as most of the cabarets at the festival. It’s a gentle, narrated story set to Stravinsky music played beautifully onstage by seven excellent classical musicians with only some projected illustrations to look at. The final act of the story, however, is brought to life in a wonderful pas de deux by Brochard and Ventura. The Soldier’s Tale would benefit from a more constant presence from the graceful and emotive pair.

Best Storytelling
Sharron Matthews: Prince & Me
Grandly theatrical, hammy and dramatic as a performer, cabaret diva Sharron Matthews is at her best when she’s relatable. What’s cool about her newest show is that she accomplishes the latter without surrendering any of the former. Prince & Me is the hour-long account of Sharron’s life-long love of Prince, his music, his style, and his uncompromising sense of self. I was born in 1989 so the musical obsessions that defined my early life are of a sillier sort (Backstreet’s Back, Alright!) and I know very little about Prince, the artist formerly known as Prince, or that weird symbol non-name guy who later became just Prince again. But I more than recognized the so-excited-you-might-pass-out enthusiasm and this-song-can-get-me-through-anything devotion that comes brimming out of the childlike Matthews in her tribute to a man she’s loved far longer than her beloved husband George (whose lack of Prince fandom is a major point of contention). This wasn’t my favourite Matthews show, and it takes awhile to really tune into her point, but Prince & Me captures a highly specific and impossible-to-replicate kind of love that’s beautiful to see.

Best Re-Imagined Tune
TIE- Denzal Sinclaire’s “I Got Rhythm” & “Blue Moon”
Super groovy, completely fresh, yet still recognizable, these highlights of Sinclaire’s totally excellent show were awesome surprises and some of the biggest earworms of the festival so far. “I Got Rhythm” bodes well for Sinclaire’s appearance in The Gershwin Songbook.

Best Mash-up
“Chelsea Hotel No. 2” & “Piece of My Heart” from The American Pie Songbook
Frank Cox-O’Connell and Hailey Gillis pair perfectly for this makeshift duet of Janis Joplin at her most iconic and Leonard Cohen remembering the affair he had with McLean’s “girl who sang the blues”. The two styles mash up seamlessly and the two performers are captivating. Cox-O’Connell is understated, funny and sad with a mournfully pretty voice while the superb Gillis uses varying amounts of breath support to suggest Janis at her most powerful vs. Janis as she exists merely in memory. Brilliant.

Best Stomping
Raquel Duffy in (re)Birth: EE Cummings in Song
This is going to sound weird but have you ever seen (and heard) Raquel Duffy stomp? She’s pretty much the best stomper in the world. The devised theatre projects at Soulpepper- (re)Birth, Spoon River, Alligator Pie– have a tendency to involve stomping, and they’ve all starred Raquel Duffy (theoretically cast for her awesomeness beyond her stomping ability). Whether it’s to emphasize brutal hardship, declare a defiant sense of fun, or just to establish a strong beat, a good stomp is a powerful thing denoting intensity, passion and rhythm. No one stomps like Raquel Duffy.

Best Audience
Webster’s Opera Corner
I’ll admit that my cynical side finds a lot of the Global Cabaret audiences fairly annoying. They’ll applaud anything, they sing along at inappropriate times, occasionally they feel entitled to comment when they are absolutely not entitled to comment (one guy at American Pie Songbook had the audacity to call out “you having fun there, buddy?” when Mike Ross dwelled on a joke that went over his head) so I feel the need to comment on the fantasticness of the crowd at Saturday’s performance of Webster’s Opera Corner. They laughed at the right times, they shut up the rest of the time, and the only person who felt the need to call out from the audience was Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz who had a funny story to tell and is allowed to do whatever the hell he wants because he is Albert Schultz. The personal nature of Webster’s show and Webster’s personal importance within the company likely accounts for the high percentage of Soulpepper/Cab Fest artists in the audience, including Schultz, Oliver Dennis, Mike Ross (in a rare off-stage moment) and Patricia O’Callaghan who adorably cried her eyes out during the performance of La Boheme’s third act.