A sneak peek at Heather Babcock’s debut novel Filthy Sugar

Heather Babcock photo by Astrid Monge. Filthy Sugar cover design by Val Fullard.

 

Two years ago, I had the honour and pleasure of getting a sneak peek at Heather Babcock’s debut novel Filthy Sugar after she approached me to give it a read and write a review blurb. Published by Inanna Publications, it’s set to be released on May 26—and was to have its official launch in Toronto at Queen Books the same day; but since brick and mortar book stores have had to move online, and with events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, authors and book sellers are now relying on virtual shout-outs and online book sales.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Filthy Sugar (and think it would make a great movie); and hope that Babcock will get to celebrate the launch of the book with colleagues and loved ones soon. Here’s my review blurb:

Filthy Sugar takes us to the mid-1930s, from the struggles of a working-class slum, to the hustle and excitement on and off the burlesque stage. Here, we follow redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle’s rise and fall from fame in a journey of self-discovery that reveals desires and reserves of strength she never knew she possessed. Erotic, compelling and full of richly textured characters, Heather Babcock’s storytelling is equal parts moxie and poetry—tinted with the heartbroken nostalgia of memory and lost dreams; and sparkling with striking, evocative imagery. More than a backstage pass into this world, Filthy Sugar shines a light on the challenges faced by working-class women. Dancing as fast as they can in order to survive, they must navigate the unapologetic misogyny and hypocritical social codes that govern their bodies and behaviour as they pursue their hopes, dreams and desires. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

You can pre-order Filthy Sugar online at your favourite book store website (I’m a big fan of indie book stores like Queen Books and Glad Day Bookshop) or on Amazon.ca

It will be some time before we’ll be able to attend readings and book launches in person again; in the meantime, you can get your own sneak peek at Filthy Sugar with Babcock’s excerpt reading on YouTube:

And if you’re a fan of 1920s and 1930s film and pop culture, check out Babcock’s blog Meet Me at the Soda Fountain.

Toronto Fringe: Burlesque macabredy delights in the erotic queer vampire tale Carmilla

Heath V. Salazar & Stella Kulagowski. Photo by Sly Feiticeira.

 

Pointed Cap Playhouse takes Toronto Fringe audiences to a Victorian world of frightening yet titillating portents and strange, alluring creatures in Adam Steel’s burlesque adaptation of Carmilla; running at The Painted Lady. Co-created by Sly Feiticeira, Stella Kulagowski and Adam Steel, and directed by Kay Brattan, this version of the vampire was inspired by Joseph Sheridan La Fanu’s book, which pre-dated the Bram Stoker classic by 26 years. Here, the vampire is attractive, seductive and rife with eroticism—think Frank Langella’s or Gary Oldman’s Dracula, or the beautiful creatures from Interview with the Vampire.

Carmilla opens on the English country home of Dominic Sheridan (Shawn Lall), where he lives with his lovely, well-mannered flaxen-haired daughter Laura (Stella Kulagowski) and prim governess Mlle. De La Fontaine (Amanda McKnight). Laura’s hopes and excitement over the impending visit of new friend Bertha (McKnight) are dashed when they learn that Bertha has succumbed to a mysterious illness and died. A carriage accident near their home brings an equally mysterious woman (Sly Feiticeira) to their door, searching for a place to sequester her injured daughter as she continues on an important mission. Sheridan takes the daughter in, an unconscious figure wrapped in a cloak.

Bertha’s grief-stricken father General Spielsdorf (Sebastien Marziali) travels to Romania in search of answers for his daughter’s death, posting regular updates to Sheridan. Meanwhile, Laura becomes fast friends with their young guest, a strikingly beautiful, pale young woman with raven hair named Carmilla (Heath V. Salazar). When their friendship evolves into something more, and Laura starts dressing and behaving in an uncharacteristic way, Sheridan becomes concerned for his daughter’s health. And when the General returns with some troubling information about the nature of the deadly ailment, suspicions about Carmilla are confirmed.

Part burlesque, part melodrama, part macabredy—with a dash of erotic fairy tale—Carmilla is a sexy, fun romp of a queer vampire tale, presented with style, sass and seductiveness. Featuring evocative, fun and sensual choreography by Kulagowski, Salazar and Marziali, it’s a rousing burlesque delight. If you’re a burlesque virgin, no worries—Mlle. De La Fontaine will reveal all when it comes to burlesque audience etiquette.

Carmilla continues at The Painted Lady, with performances tonight (July 12) at 7pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 1pm. Last night’s show was sold out, and it’s an intimate venue, so advance booking is a very good plan.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

 

The irrepressible Marie Dressler’s life, love & career in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, entertaining Queen Marie

Naomi Peltz, Katherine Cappallacci, Siena Dolinski & Seira Saeki. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company closes its 100th anniversary season—with heart, moxie and rip roaring good fun— with Queen Marie, a musical by Shirley Barrie, directed by Rosemary Doyle, with music direction by Paul Comeau and choreography by Adam Martino.

Queen Marie is a biographical musical about Canadian-born 1930s Hollywood star actress/comedienne Marie Dressler. Director Doyle takes us to the vaudeville stage, complete with proscenium arch, a live band on one side and stall seating on the other. Using minimal set pieces, projected images up centre present show posters and images of various locations as we travel through Dressler’s storied life and career.

queen marie little marie
Catherine Ratusny & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Born Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, we witness Dressler being bitten by the acting bug at the age of five (Tess Keery), performing in tableaux realized by her mother (Catherine Ratusny, who also plays Dressler in her 40s). At 14, she lies about her age (Gabriella Kosmidis), saying she’s 18, and gets a job with the Nevada Travelling Stock Company and changes her name to Marie Dressler; launching her career and landing in the U.S.

From tableaux, to theatre, to vaudeville to the silver screen, Dressler’s career is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs as she weathers the highs and lows of the business, embracing her ‘big girl’ brand with self-deprecation and good humour—and giving her all, and then some, to any part put upon her.

Shifting from theatre to movies, Dressler gets a break, working with fellow Canadian Mack Sennet (Adam Bonney); she goes on to work at MGM with Irving Thalberg (Conor Ling) and Louis B. Mayer (Rick Jones). Performing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, Dressler packs movie houses with her comedic antics, and poignant, gutsy dramatic performances—receiving a Best Actress Oscar at the age of 60 (Leslie Rennie) for her performance in Min and Bill in 1930, and a nomination for Emma in 1932. A top box office draw in America at the time, she becomes the first female actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

Embracing romance along the way, she meets and beings an affair with the charming Jim Dalton (Rick Jones), a married man with a wife in Boston who is smitten with Dressler, and woos her with gentlemanly manners and oysters. While happy to live the unorthodox life of an actor, Dressler longs for the stability and respectability of marriage, and she gets her wish; they later divorce after a series of unpleasant revelations regarding her shrinking bank account. Well into middle age, Dressler becomes smitten with Claire (Nina Tischhauser), a young nurse turned actress who she meets at an Oscar party. The two move in together and set up a cozy domestic and professional partnership, with Dressler acting as Claire’s acting mentor; but the relationship takes Claire away from her own dreams and aspirations—and Claire is faced with a hard decision.

Betrayed and cheated throughout her life—both personally and professionally—it is noteworthy that Dressler finds her primary source of support with her close network of women: her friend, astrologer Nella Webb (Siena Dolinski and Nance Gibson, playing Nella at different ages); her no-nonsense, fastidious maid/assistant Mamie Steele (Fallon Bowman and Indira Layne, playing Mamie at different ages); feisty cub reporter/fan turned screenwriter/Hollywood casting advocate Frances (Katherine Cappellacci); and her companion in later life, the tender, loyal caregiver Claire (Nina Tischhauser, who also plays Dressler in her 20s).

queen marie boy
Jessica Bowmer, James Phelan & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

It’s an ambitious production, imaginatively staged with a cast of 25 enthusiastic multitasking actors that includes 21 women, 10 of whom play Marie at various ages and stages of her hard-working, determined, never dull life. Paula Wilkie plays Dressler in the final scenes; despite a serious cancer diagnosis, Dressler eschews her new role as bed-ridden patient, opting to work on three MGM films in six months before dying at the age of 65. Shouts to all the Marie Dresslers (not previously mentioned: Michele Dodick, Katrina Koenig, Stella Kulagowski & Naomi Peltz) for their energy and panache! Other stand-outs include Ling’s snobbish Brit actor Dan Daley and hilarious turn as a petulant Hollywood film director; Jessica Bowmer’s adorably precocious Boy, who hawks newspapers, peanuts and oysters, and gets into scrapes with his competition; Tischhauser as Dressler’s supportive but conflicted lover Claire; and Rick Jones does a mean tap dance bit.

She’s the Queen! The life, love and rollercoaster career of the irrepressible star Marie Dressler in the delightful, entertaining Queen Marie.

Queen Marie continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until April 28. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with PWYC matinees on Sunday at 2:00 pm.

The run includes a final Post-Show Talkback on Sunday April 22. Check out the fun trailer:

 

shirley barrie

 

Just before I sat down to write this review, I read in an Alumnae Theatre Twitter post that playwright Shirley Barrie had passed away; I’ve since learned that she’d been living with cancer and died on Sunday. I’m not sure if she was able to see this current production of Queen Marie, but Doyle, cast and crew did her proud. Thoughts go out to Shirley’s loved ones.

StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret: Sexy, powerful and boldly staged with a sharp ensemble

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Toshi Murohashi, Jean-Paul Parker & Rachel Hart in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Berlin in the early 1930s: a city teaming with life, creativity and possibility. The Kit Kat Klub: a seedy palace of edgy, playful and raunchy entertainment. And a political storm is brewing that will change everything.

StageWorks Toronto opened its fifth musical, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood), at the George Ignatieff Theatre last night.

Directed by Michael Yaneff, with Music Director Tom Kerr and Choreographer Camille Dziewurski, this production of Cabaret plays all the conflicting dimensions of this story: love and lust, fame and mediocrity, hope and despair. It is both funny and moving, going from entertaining to disturbing – but even the brighter moments have a dark edge.

An excellent, energetic cast does the playful raunch with gusto – and all the while, we know these characters are literally singing and dancing, and sexing, for their lives. The lighter, entertaining atmosphere of the first act grows increasingly foreboding as darkness descends in the second act when the Nazi Party gets a grip on Germany – and this place of song, dance and camaraderie becomes a place of tears, desperation and betrayal. This production goes big on the seedy lust and malevolent politics in its staging, so be prepared for some nudity, sexy times and discomfiting moments.

Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret - photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography
Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Jean-Paul Parker shines as the Emcee, going from playfully saucy in “Wilkommen” and naughty in “Two Ladies” to darkly edgy in “The Money Song” and drunkenly despairing in “I Don’t Care Much.” Shai Tannyan’s Sally Bowles is a vivacious and sensuous British girl gone wild in her search for fame and fortune on her own terms, her flippant attitude covering a fragile heart. From her sexy crooning at the Kit Kat, to her more introspective moments in the driven but vulnerable “Maybe this Time” and the spiralling desperation of “Cabaret,” Tannyan finds the diva entertainer and the lost girl in Sally. As Cliff Bradshaw, Hugh Ritchie doesn’t get as many opportunities to sing as he did as the Balladeer in StageWorks’ Assassins, but he gives a strong performance as the wide-eyed, passionate and somewhat naïve young novelist who comes to Berlin longing for adventure and excitement, and experience – be careful what you wish for.

Deva Neely and Buck Delaney have lovely chemistry as landlady Fraulein Schneider and her fruit seller tenant Herr Schultz, making an adorable couple with “It Couldn’t Please Me More;” and when their relationship goes off the rails, Neely gives a heartbreaking performance with “What Would You Do?” And really nice work from Eric Synnott as the affable, mysterious and crisp Ernst Ludwig, and Melly Magrath as the cheeky and opportunistic Fraulein Kost.

With shouts to the sexy fun talents of the Kit Kat Boys and Girls: Michael Manning (who stepped in to cover another part last night – thoughts go out to Paul Silvestri and his family) and Danik McAfee (who, as the Soldier, also gives an eerily beautiful, foreshadowing performance of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”), Emily Brown, Kathleen Doerkson, Karen Frank, Rachel Hart, Toshie Murohashi and Émilie O’Brien; and Lawrence Stevenson as their stern and lascivious boss, Kit Kat owner Max.

And shouts as well to set/costume designer Michelle Tracey and the orchestra.

StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret is sexy, powerful and boldly staged – featuring a sharp ensemble.

Cabaret runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 26; you can purchase tix in advance online. And you can follow StageWorks Toronto on Facebook and Twitter.

Toronto Fringe opens today!

20150701_104248Hey all –

It’s my first day back from my June hiatus and the first day of Toronto Fringe – all happening on Canada Day!

Here’s what I’ll be seeing at Toronto Fringe 2015 (July 1-12):

Morro & Jasp Do Puberty
Perceptions of Love in the Pursuit of Happiness
Peter ‘n Chris present: Here Lies Chris
Bout
The McComedy Show
Twelfe Night
A Lesson in Gabby
Gavin Crawford: Friend “Like” Me
Adventures of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl
Merry Wives of Windsor
pool (no water)
Ninety
Exposure
Meet Cute
In Case We Disappear
Rukmini’s Gold
Hanger
A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare
Becoming Burlesque
Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit
To all the productions that have been in touch inviting me to your shows, I’ll try to squeeze more in if I can. All the best with your shows – please keep me on your mailing lists and keep in touch.
Happy Canada Day and Happy Fringing, all! What are you seeing this year?

Interview with writer/poet/cabaret mistress Lizzie Violet

img_1052Lizzie Violet is a Toronto-based writer, editor, poet, blogger, cabaret organizer/host and horror aficionado. She is a huge fan of zombies. She’s also an awesome person and a great friend.

Lizzie hosts Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir (LVCN), which features music, poetry/spoken word, vaudeville and burlesque performers, as well as open mic artists, at The Central. She recently launched Lizzie Violet’s Poetry Open Mic at Amsterdam Bicycle Club, and has ongoing shared organizing and hosting duties for The Beautiful and the Damned poetry and music cabaret at The Central. All this in addition to performing at a variety of other poetry/arts events throughout the City – including WordSpell and Songwriters Circle of Jerks at Free Times Café – and writing (poetry/spoken word, fiction, blogging, music video story and playwriting). I interviewed Lizzie via email about her various projects – and got a peek at what the New Year will bring.

LWMC: So, wow, you’re a very busy gal and I was having a bit of a challenge coming up with what to ask – given your multidisciplined work – so let me first ask about LVCN. You launched it almost a year ago at the former Q Space before moving it to The Central in the fall, and it’s developed quite a following. Tell us a bit about the format and what made you want to launch a cabaret format show.

LV: I certainly do have my fingers in a lot of pies and even with everything I was involved in, I decided to scratch an itch I had for many years. I’ve been obsessed since I was a child, with Vaudeville its history and that entire era (Edwardian/Flappers/1920s). When others find it to be just entertainment, I see the complete beauty in this wonderful art form of performance.

Currently, I only have three features and a true Vaudeville show has anywhere from 12 or more acts per night. Keeping in mind they have an intermission. My dream is to do a full Vaudeville show with a Lizzie Violet twist. There is a lot of preparation that comes with this type of show and I am working to bring that dream to fruition.

LWMC: What’s in store for LVCN in 2014?

LV: In 2013, LVCN grew very quickly into a wonderful night of entertainment. 2014 is about making it bigger and taking it on the road. I absolutely adore our current home at The Central and plan to remain there, but I also want to start taking the event around to other venues in Toronto and eventually other cities in Southern Ontario.

LWMC: This past summer, you wrote the music video script for Toronto band I Hate Todd’s debut single “Zombie Love,” then worked crew for the video shoot. (And I had a blast working crew with you guys that weekend.) Tell us about that experience. What was it like combining your love of writing, zombies and music?

LV: It’s like sitting at a table with all my favourite people, eating all my favourite foods, watching all my favourite movies and laughing till your belly hurts. The whole process from beginning to end, though long hours, was a total blast and I can’t wait to do it again. On top of it all, I got to work with my favourite band and spend three very long and fun filled days with my favourite zombies and friends (both old and new).

LWMC: Your work was published in several poetry/art magazines/collections in 2013 alone, including Carousel, Big Art Book 2, NorthWord and Nest. What can you tell us about the importance of getting published on paper, as opposed to digitally online?

LV: Even in this day and age of digital, publishers and anyone giving out grants to the literary arts, want you published on good ole paper. Plus, there is something about being able to pick up a physical book or magazine and see your words in ink. It’s euphoric. Plus, it’s easier for my Mom to put on her fridge.

LWMC: 🙂 You’ve also been working on a TV pilot script and a stage play. What inspired you to write these? What have been the challenges and delights as you tell stories in these very different formats?

LV: Both the TV pilot and the play have been inspired by real life and the people in it. The most recent project is the play. A really dear friend of mine Nelson Sobral wrote a song called “Arsenic & Turmeric,” and something about this song grabbed at me and this story formed in my head. I wrote the first draft of the play in one evening. I haven’t been this excited about writing something in a long time. At this moment, I have finished the second draft and am hoping to do a reading in the spring.

The TV series is based loosely on the antics of my single life. My dating life has been like a bad sitcom, so I figured, why not turn it into a TV script. It will be true dark comedy. I have changed names to protect the not so innocent.

My current challenges right now are finding the time to sit and be able to write. The bug has bitten me in the ass again, I’ve been writing like I’m on a mission. This all started right before Yule.

LWMC: Writing is a very solitary pursuit, while performing as cabaret host and feature poet is very public. What’s it like being in front of a live audience with your work after spending so much time crafting it in solitude? Does the prospect of performance influence your writing – and, if so, how?

LV: When writing poetry and spoken word, I keep the page and performance pieces separate in my writing process. Though everything can be read to an audience, I have only been performing pieces that I specifically have written to perform. Oddly, those are the pieces that have been published in print.

LWMC: What else is coming up for you in 2014? (See January events here.)

LV: I have a few features coming up. The next one is January 22nd for the Queer Snow Ball, and a few more that will be happening over the next few months. Currently, I am putting a lot of my energy into the Cabaret and Poetry Open mic. I’m hoping to build on the Cabaret and at some point in the near future have a full Vaudeville show.

Other than performing, finish the play and a full season of the TV series and get them produced.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share?

LV: Well, firstly, a great big thank you for interviewing me. You truly are an inspiration to me. I’m looking forward to 2014. There is a lot of amazing stuff happening and I can’t wait to find out what else is waiting around the corner for me.

LWMC: Thanks, Lizzie!

The January edition of Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir is tomorrow night (Sun, Jan 12) at The Central with featured artists Brock Hessel, David Bateman, and Cap & Kev (who are both also in the band I Hate Todd) 7 p.m. open mic sign-up. PWYC – $5 suggested.

Upcoming music, theatre & spoken word awesomeness

It was some big fun, not to mention a great pleasure, as I worked the door at Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir (LVCN) last night, with feature artists Andrea Thompson, Frenchie Fatale and Hugh Wilson. It was LVCN’s first night at its new home at The Central – and the place was packed, with an incredibly engaged audience.

There’s still all kinds of awesome goodness coming up in T.O. this month, my friends. Here is just a small sample of what’s happening on the small stage and indie scene:

David Hustler & the Trustworthy EP release – Wed, Sept 11 @ Horseshoe Tavern @ 8:30 p.m. – $5 cover

Songwriters Circle of Jerks – Thurs, Sept 12 @ 8:30 p.m. @ Free Times Café, featuring Hugh Wilson and Nick Verona from Big Name Actors (among others), Nelson Sobral from Melting Pot and I Hate Todd, and David Hustler of David Hustler & The Trustworthy, with guest Meghan Morrison – PWYC

Eclectic – September Group Exhibit – opening Thurs, Sept 12 from 6-8 p.m. and running till Sept 29 @ Fran Hill Gallery

Jeff Cottrill’s tour fundraiser show Keep Calm & Get Rid of Jeff – Sun, Sept 15 @ 7:00 p.m. @ Black Swan, with a whole line-up of music & spoken word guests – $10 cover

Studio BLR punk rock production of A Streetcar Named Desire – The House Show – Sept 19 – Oct 5 @ 8:00 p.m. – show starts in Dragon Alley at the northwest corner of College/Dufferin

Alumnae Theatre production of The Underpants – Sept 20 – Oct 5 on the Alumnae Theatre main stage

Anglewalk Theatre production of tick, tick… BOOM! – Sept 21 – Oct 6 @ Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio

The Beautiful & the Damned – Thurs, Sept 26 @ 7:00 p.m. @ The Central, hosted by Duncan Armstrong, and featuring Heather Babcock, Brock Hessel & Nelson Sobral

Matt Gerber CD release – Sat, Sept 28 @ Tranzac, doors @ 7:00 p.m. – $15 cover

Look out for Big Name Actors and I Hate Todd as the play various dates and venues around the city.