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.

Saying goodbye to the youth of Ireland in the lyrical, hopeful, entertaining Many Young Men of Twenty

Foreground: James Phelan, Tina McCulloch, Emmet Leahy and William Laxamana. Background: Martin McGuane. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. Photo by Gregory Breen.

 

The Toronto Irish Players take us to a time of desperate hope and dreams, leaving and staying behind, with its lyrical, hopeful and entertaining production of John B. Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty, directed by Gregory Breen and Tim O’Connell, with musical direction by Donna O’Regan and Dan Schaumann—and running at Alumnae Theatre, where it played to a packed house last night.

It’s Southern Ireland in 1961, as we enter a village pub that serves as a microcosm for the comings and goings of local residents—and a point of departure and return for the wave of young people being sent off to England to find work in order to help support their struggling families back home. Opening with vocalists Gemma Healey-Murphy and Orlaith Ní Chaoinleáin, accompanied by Dan Schaumann on acoustic guitar, then performing a cappella, we’re transported to a time and place with evocative music, sung in both English and Irish.

The intimidating Seelie (Donna O’Regan, in an imperious, dominating turn as the boss) owns and runs the pub with her whiskey-loving brother Tom (Martin McGuane, in a complex combination of childish obstinance and adult frustration). Peg (a wistful, but fierce performance from Aoibhinn Finnegan), a young unwed single mother with a talent for making up songs on the spot—including the catchy titular tune—waits tables, plays peacemaker and nurses a broken, distrusting heart.

The large cast of characters that parade through the pub is impressive, entertaining and revealing. There’s Danger Mullaly (a thoroughly entertaining, poignant Thomas O’Neill), the local scoundrel about town; adept at getting others to spot him a pint of porter gold as he peddles miniature holy pictures, he’s a lovable scallywag with his own tale of woe. Then there’s local farm family the Dins, led by patriarch and matriarch Daheen Timineen and Maynan (played with Irish Gothic severity and resolve by James Phelan and Tina McCulloch), sending a new pair of young adult children off to England. Kevin (Emmet Leahy, as the stand-up, protective elder of the two) and Dinny (William Laxamana, as the soft-spoken, anxious younger lad) have a foreman older brother waiting for them with jobs at a London factory. And as he awaits their train departure, Kevin takes a shine to Peg and promises to write.

A year later, the Din boys return for a visit—and one of them has brought a British wife to meet the family: Dot (played with vivacious flare by Sofie Jarvis). Their parents are preparing to send another pair off; this time, daughters Maggie and Mary (shy and anxious twins Healey-Murphy and Emma Darmody). Also bursting onto the scene are local fortune teller Kitty Curley (Anne Harper, with a larger-than-life jocularity and penchant for the mysterious), with her melodeon player colleague Davy in tow (Schaumann); and local member of Irish Parliament J.J. Houlihan (David Eden, in a pompous, entitled politician turn), who’s just procured a plum position for his underqualified son Johnny (Liam Keenan, quiet and unassuming). And there’s the new schoolteacher Maurice Brown (played with affable, awkward charm by Aaron Walsh), one of the few among the younger generation to stay behind—and who also has his eye on Peg.

Weaving lively and wistful songs with snatches of daily life, we’re in a world that has one foot in the past and the other in the future, as generations-old farming families continue to find themselves forced to give over to ever-changing modern times, sending their children off into the strange world and temptations of the big city in a bid to survive. Hopes and dreams of future prosperity blend with the heart of, and longing for, home; with brave faces and humourous antics masking the pain and heartache beneath.

many young men 20 cast & crew
Cast & crew. Set design by Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy. Costume design by Bernadette Hunt. Lighting design by Karlos Griffith. 

Melancholy and hopeful, spirited and wistful, Many Young Men of Twenty takes us to a period of youthful immigration—coming in waves that stretched well before the 1960s and onward into today—where young people must grow up quickly as they leave home for new countries to make a new life for themselves, often while tasked with supporting their families back home. Brave, heartbroken and anxious—yet hopeful, aspiring and determined. And universal in its portrayal of the choices and sacrifices that are made in the face of a changing world.

With shouts to the design team: Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy (set), Bernadette Hunt (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound), and the small army worked behind the scenes, for their fine, evocative work on creating this time and place.

Many Young Men of Twenty continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until February 29; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888.

Melanie Peterson’s “Christmas Breaks My Heart” a gentle, melodic nod to holiday heartache

Melanie Peterson, live at Free Times Cafe for last night’s “Christmas Breaks My Heart” launch.

 

It was standing room only at Free Times Café last night, as Melanie Peterson celebrated the launch of her new holiday single “Christmas Breaks My Heart”, featuring the talents of fellow Toronto-based singer/songwriter guests Matt Gerber and Angela Saini.

The evening opened with the whimsically playful sounds of Matt Gerber, whose delightful tunes borrow from folk, barber shop and pop—from songs for kids for all ages, to sweet and nostalgic romantic musings. Gerber had us singing along with his acoustic set, accompanying himself on guitar and ukulele, punctuated by kazoo and some impressive harmonica chops. Give Gerber a listen, and check out upcoming dates, on his website.

Shining with positivity and poignant at times, Angela Saini both moved and entertained with genuine, heartfelt, and sometimes cheeky, observations of life, love and self-image in a pop-inspired acoustic set. And I dare you to not smile, sing along and tap your feet to her upbeat, energetic sounds. Keep up with Saini’s music, merch and gig dates on her website.

Main attraction Melanie Peterson more than lived up to her “Mary Poppins with a broken heart” reputation, treating us to a selection of folk-infused songs from her earliest recordings to her new release in an acoustic guitar set accompanied by Peter Collins on bass. The lyrics and vocals are melancholy, but hopeful, resilient and determined through heartbreak; and full of gratitude and joy in love. Combining cheer with heartache—sometimes with hilarious results (the tequila song)—Peterson’s sounds get real with the warmth and gentleness of a good long-time friend; all delivered with her signature sweet, lilting vocals.

“Christmas Breaks My Heart” offers a rarely heard take on the holiday season—not always a joyful time for some—acknowledging the loss, grief and wistful nostalgia of missing that someone special by your side. Check out the lyric video; and wrap your ears around Peterson’s catalogue and videos.

Next up for Peterson: Live at Sauce on the Danforth on Sat, Dec 28 from 4:00-7:00 pm.

Here are some snaps I took at the show last night.

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FireWorks Festival: Real-life fame, fortune & fall in the entertaining, heart-felt Belle Darling Klondike Queen

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Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Alumnae Theatre Company (ATC) opens its annual FireWorks Festival of new works with Natalie Frijia’s Belle Darling Klondike Queen, directed by Lori Delorme, with music direction by Anita Beaty—running upstairs in the Studio. Part cabaret, part vaudeville, all heart—this highly entertaining and engaging piece of musical storytelling takes us on vaudeville star Klondike Kate’s (born Kathleen Rockwell) real-life journey of fame, fortune and fall, all set against the backdrop of fading days of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Put on your boots, leave your pick and sing along at the Portland Alaska Yukon Society’s 1931 Sourdough Reunion, featuring headliner—none other than the famous star of vaudeville stage—Klondike Kate (Lindsay Sutherland Boal)! Alumnae Theatre’s Studio Theatre has been transformed into a vaudeville music hall for this real-life tale of the highs and lows of Kate’s storied career in Canada’s North, and dreams of becoming a nation-wide vaudeville impressaria across the U.S.

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Sarah Kaufmann, Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh, Roxhanne Norman & Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Accompanied by a fine ensemble of multi-talented, multi-tasking actors (Sarah Kaufmann, Roxhanne Norman and Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh), with piano player Calvin Laveck tickling the ivories, Kate takes us on a whirlwind musical and storytelling tour of her life—from wayward Victorian Catholic schoolgirl (Kathleen), to vaudeville chorus girl (Kitty), to headliner Belle Darling Klondike Queen (Kate), and a near miss as Pantages theatre partner and impressaria.

Kate has no use for being a “lady” in the traditional Victorian sense of the word, and sets off on an adventure of her own making—breaking gender barriers and the rules as she goes. Taking us back to the “good ‘ol days” with song, story and satire, the God’s honest truth is that these meanderings of nostalgia can’t erase the personal and financial risk, danger and heartbreak of those who tried their luck—and put their strength and resolve to the test—searching for gold in those freezing cold Northern mountains. All for fame and fortune.

Sutherland Boal gives a powerhouse performance as the ambitious, fearless Klondike Kate—a role that amply showcases her considerable vocal chops as she belts out rousing music hall tunes and caresses melancholy ballads. Sassy, classy, gutsy and irreverent, Kate turns away from what’s expected of her as a “good Victorian lady” to carve out her own path and live on her own terms. And beneath the seasoned showmanship and razzmatazz of Kate’s vaudeville persona, Sutherland Boal digs deep to reveal the broken-hearted woman who reached for it all only to find her ultimate dream of business partnership taken away. Disappointed, but not discouraged, she soldiers on—the show must go on, after all.

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Sarah Kaufmann. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

She is well-supported by a stand-out ensemble; changing character on a dime in this fast-paced, alternately slapstick and poignant trip through music hall shenanigans both on and off the stage. Kaufmann is adorably Puck-like in her comic turns as the crafty entrepreneur Sophie, and a lusty young sourdough (a Yukon resident) on the make. Norman performs with a playful glint in her eye—and has an outstanding set of pipes herself—in her saucy turn as Kate’s pal and vaudeville partner Gertie; and the charming and irresistible, but false, Alexander Pantages. And Keesmaat-Walsh brings hilarity and swagger as Kate’s gruff boss Arizona Charlie and an awkward strong woman act, among others.

It’s a real-life adventure of fame, fortune and fall—told with song, story and heart. But you don’t have to believe me; check out the trailer (scroll down on the show page).

Belle Darling Klondike Queen continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 10; get advance tickets online or by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1), or pick up in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 9 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week: Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett (Nov 13-17); and Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

 

Living with ghosts of crimes past in the haunting, darkly funny, immersive The Good Thief

David Mackett. Photo by Allison Bjerkseth.

 

Fly on the Wall Theatre presents Conor McPherson’s The Good Thief, directed by Rod Ceballos and running at the Dora Keogh Irish Pub (141 Danforth Ave., Toronto, east of Broadview). Featuring an outstanding performance from David Mackett, this haunting, darkly funny, immersive piece of solo storytelling goes to Heaven and Hell and back again before it lands solidly in Purgatory. Part personal anecdote, part confessional, a low-level thief recounts numerous past sins, brief glimpses at redemption and the ghosts that haunt him to this day.

Order a pint, pull up a chair and hear The Narrator (David Mackett), a low-level criminal specializing in thievery and intimidation, tell his tale of life, love, criminal misadventure, narrow misses, crazy good luck and heartbreaking tragedy as a standard scare job goes sideways—and he ends up on the run with the target’s wife and young daughter. Suspecting that he’s been double-crossed by his powerful boss Joe Murphy—now the boyfriend of his ex Greta—and betrayed by his partners in crime, he finds himself being pursued for kidnapping. Trying to keep himself, Mrs. Mitchell and Neve out of harm’s way, he finds sanctuary in the country with the help of his buddy Jeff, the three have a moment of respite. Until all Hell breaks loose again.

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David Mackett. Photo by Allison Bjerkseth.

Mackett gives a compelling, entertaining and poignant performance throughout, playing all the notes between black and white of this deeply flawed, irreverent but sympathetic character. Haunted, torn, conflicted and resourceful, our scrappy thug of a Narrator is a charming rogue of a fellow; recognizing his flaws, he’s candid—sometimes brutally so—circumspect and self-aware. Trying to do the right thing, even as he’s committing a crime, and thwarted by forces beyond his control, he’s faced with the double-sided coin of good luck and bad luck as he savours rare moments of beauty and tranquility, and mourns the senseless moments of violence and loss.

As The Narrator looks back on his life, and his part in these events, he finds he must eventually face up to what he’s done—for better or worse—and find a way to live with the ghosts and regrets, and try to make up for it somehow.  And, to varying degrees, the same could be said of us all.

The Good Thief continues at the Dora Keogh until October 29; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate venue, so advance booking or early arrival recommended; box office opens a half hour before show time.

Interview: Melanie Peterson heading into the studio to record We Got This

Saskatoon-born, Toronto-based singer songwriter Melanie Peterson has been called “Mary Poppins with a broken heart”; writing and singing about life, love and friendship, her crystal-clear, emotive vocals and evocative lyrics combine bright positivity with a deep sense of longing and loss. Peterson will be heading into the studio to record her next album We Got This in September, and I asked her about the direction of this record. Here’s what she had to say about this upcoming project.

Hey, Melanie—Thanks for taking the time for some questions about your upcoming project We Got This! This will be your 6th full album? What was the inspiration for We Got This?

This will be my third full album. We Got This was inspired by a song I wrote in Edmonton after playing a wonderful music club there called The Blackbird. I had gotten to Edmonton thanks to the VIA Rail Artist On Board Program, where artists have the opportunity to play their way to the west coast and back; and had two days to myself before the train came through again, and I could continue playing my way to Vancouver. I decided to use my time well, and set myself the goal of writing a complete song in two days, one that I would perform at my show in Vancouver. I usually write about an hour every day, so a complete song in two days was something new to me. But I was in a city where I knew no one, it was mid-winter and I had this lovely hotel room all to myself, so I decided to write all day, both days, and ended up writing “We Got This”, which is now the title track to the new album.

The response I got to the song when I debuted it in Vancouver was very encouraging. I was playing in a noisy coffee house, with chatter and grinding expresso machines going on off every few minutes—but as soon as I began the song, the room got quiet and I knew then I had a special song on my hands. It wasn’t long before the idea of a new album, with “We Got This” as the title track, came to mind and I set about writing the album.

And what can you tell us about the overall tone, thematically or stylistically, for this one?

This is the first album I’ve written with an overall theme in mind. The theme being the journey from romantic devastation, to true and lasting love, with a few twists and turns along the way.

You’ve set up an Indiegogo campaign to help fund this album and you’ve got some great perks on offer! How’s the fundraising going and what tempting donor rewards are you offering?

The fundraising is going well. I’m at 15% funded and it is only week two, so I feel encouraged. One tempting donor reward is the “You Play on the Album” reward for those who have always dreamed of being on an album. They get the chance to come into the studio and sing, play an instrument, play the shaker or join in on a clap track, whatever they feel they’d most enjoy doing. There is also the “Ready for Your Close-up” reward for those who’d like to be featured in one of the music videos I intend to shoot for the album singles.

And the “Teach Me” reward, which involves four lessons with me, via Skype or Facetime if you are out of town, and in person if you are in town; I am offering song writing, guitar and/or singing lessons. I’ve been teaching for many years and am good at getting students who have wanted to be creative, but have put it off, to begin and really take themselves seriously as guitar players, singers and/or songwriters. And everyone who donates gets a signed copy of the album, their name in the credits and more, depending on what reward they choose.

Do you have an ETA on the album launch?

If all goes as planned, the album should launch in March 2020.

Anything else you want to shout out?

If anyone wants to hear my previous two albums, they can stream them on Spotify, and follow me there to be among the first to hear the new album. I’m also on Apple Music. And if they want to see pictures of this new album journey, follow me on Instagram and Twitter; my handle is @MissWatermeloni. And I’ll be playing the 2pm slot at the Bala Cranberry Festival on Saturday, October 19, if anyone wants to take in the festival and hear me play live with my trio.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word? Cookie

What’s your least favourite word? Nipple

What turns you on? Love

What turns you off? Violence

What sound or noise do you love? Bubbles in a bubble bath

What sound or noise do you hate? Honking horns

What is your favourite curse word? Fuck

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue? Lawyer

What profession would you not like to do? Doctor

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Did you bring your guitar?

Thanks, Melanie!

Melanie Peterson will be heading into the studio next month to record We Got This. Check out the Indiegogo campaign and consider making a donation; there’s a lot of sweet perks on offer, plus you’ll be helping a local Toronto artist do what she does best.

Secrets revealed & dreams denied in the ferociously funny, deeply poignant August: Osage County

The ensemble. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Life is very long.—T.S. Eliot

Soulpepper presents a ferociously funny, deeply poignant production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, running now at the Young Centre. Directed by Jackie Maxwell, assisted by Lindsay Bell, it’s a modern-day classic family tragicomedy; a microcosm of the disintegration of the American Dream. In the explosive aftermath of loss, a complex family dynamic of abuse, secrets and addiction is revealed—and the reeling survivors must choose what to do next as they pick their way out of the rubble.

When lauded American poet and infamous alcoholic Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros) goes missing, his entire clan rallies around pill-popping family matriarch Violet (Nancy Palk), now living with cancer. The introverted Ivy, their youngest daughter (Michelle Monteith), the only the only one who stayed in town, has a secret love. Whip-smart academic Barbara, the eldest (Maev Beaty) is concealing her separation from her husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard), a university prof having an affair with a student; and their 15-year-old daughter Jean (Leah Doz) is just trying to deal with it all as she smokes pot on the sly. And middle daughter, the flaky Karen (Raquel Duffy), seems to have found a new lease on life with a career as a real estate agent and her charming, entitled, sleazy fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen).

Rounding out the family portrait in the dark, hot and decrepit family home in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma is Violet’s filterless gossip of a sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton); artless, kind-hearted brother-in-law Charlie (Oliver Dennis); and fragile, depressed nephew Little Charles (Gregory Prest). Witnessing it all from the background is the Weston’s new housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Samantha Brown), a local Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly to keep home and hearth together amid the chaos of sickness, addiction and decay.

The family soon learns of Beverly’s whereabouts when town Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Jeff Meadows), Barbara’s high school sweetheart, arrives at the door with news that his body has been found—a suspected suicide, but officially ruled as a drowning. The initial dynamic of worried family support disintegrates into ugly revelation and recrimination as long hidden rot and resentment comes to light in the hellishly sweltering heat of the Plains in August; and Barbara attempts to take control of the situation. Left with Violet after an explosive post-funeral dinner, followed by several individual family skirmishes, Barbara begins to implode herself—and is forced to face a fresh hell and a decision of her own.

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Maev Beaty & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Palk and Beaty are riveting as the sharp-witted, brutally honest mother and daughter—the two alphas of the family menagerie. Palk’s Violet is the perfect combination of fury and pathos; an acerbic tongue, and a gift for manipulation and attention-seeking, it becomes apparent that Violet’s dark humour and grasping materialism are borne of a tortured, impoverished soul and an abusive family history. She is well-matched by Beaty’s Barbara; a whip-smart writer and academic who’s suppressed her own ambition in the shadow of her famous father, and in service of her husband’s career and her own family. Barbara’s confident, take-charge demeanour reveals the desperately lost life and broken heart that lie beneath. And where Violet lashes out with cruelty to overpower, Barbara aims for tough love.

Monteith is heartbreaking as the gentle, put-upon Ivy, who’s struggling to find her place and a bit of happiness. Duffy is hilarious as the quirky, exhausting Karen; a one-woman hurricane of changeable beliefs and lifestyles, ever reaching for the brass ring. Dennis is lovely as the kind, gentle Charlie—especially in exchanges with his painfully self-conscious, down-trodden son Little Charles (a sensitive, child-like performance from Prest). And Matamoros brings a brutally insightful, drunken eloquence to the poet Beverly.

Expressions of love and tenderness provide brief moments of respite from the cruelty and bitterness of these complex family relationships. And Brown’s pragmatic, matter-of-fact Johnna—listener, witness and left to deal with the aftermath of each event—is a stark reminder of the original Indigenous stewards of the land we now call America; colonized and evicted from their homeland. Now watching from the sidelines as the American Dream falls into ruin, as all survivors emerge from and persevere through the rubble.

August: Osage County continues at the Young Centre until June 23; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Soulpepper will be offering live ASL interpretation for this production on June 6 (7:30 PM) and June 8 (1:30 PM); $20 tickets are available for Deaf community members and their invited guests—click here for more info.