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?
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:
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.
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.
Allison Wither & Laura Piccinin. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.
Silver Lining Productions brings its Toronto Fringe 2019 breakout musical theatre hit Every Silver Lining to the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Written by Laura Piccinin and Allison Wither, and directed by Jennifer Stewart, with music direction by Aaron Eyre, Every Silver Lining takes us on a journey of love, friendship, grief and a celebration of life as a family and a group of high school students navigate the loss of a son, brother and friend to cancer. The songs are both profoundly insightful, revealing and catchy—resonating deep in the heart—performed with impressive vocal chops and great sensitivity.
Seventeen-year-old Andrew (Daniel Karp) has leukemia and is looking forward to his last round of chemo. Hiding his illness from even his closest friends, he just wants to get back to school, hang out with his friends and live as normal a life as possible. He and his teen sister Clara (Allison Wither) are good buds, but since his diagnosis, she’s been feeling invisible at home, drowning in the extreme life-changing routine and tension-filled atmosphere; and even having to put some of her own life on hold while she drives Andrew to appointments and keeps him company during chemo sessions. Their mother Judy (Alison J Palmer) is fearful and hovering, and getting on Andrew’s nerves; and dad Kevin (Luke Marty) is caught in the middle, acting as peacemaker between his wife and son while the family lives with the stress and uncertainty of Andrew’s prognosis.
At school, Clara’s BFF Emily (Laura Piccinin) gently prods and advises her on how to get to know the cute new guy Ben (Alex Furber). Clara’s not sure she’s up for it, but finds herself drawn to Ben; and Andrew is happy to be back with his gamer friends Jeremy (Joel Cumber), Bev (Jada Rifkin) and Sam (Ben Skipper). This period of apparent normalcy is short-lived as Andrew comes down with a critical infection, and his chances for further treatment are gone.
Andrew’s friends are stunned to learn of his death—especially as they hadn’t known he was ill—and find themselves facing the death of a loved one their own age for the first time. They’re well-supported by their arts and science teacher Ms. Vella (Starr Domingue), who gives them space to share their thoughts and feelings. Dealing with so many feelings—about Andrew, dealing with school work and tests, blossoming feelings of attraction—and experiencing the various stages of grief is painful and confusing. But, ultimately, the friends pull together to support each other, remember Andrew and celebrate his life.
Delivered with heart and impressive vocal chops—and nicely supported by musicians Aaron Eyre (piano), Erika Nielsen (cello) and Alex Panneton (percussion)—the cast takes us from laughter to tears; performing beautifully composed songs featuring moving and catchy melodies, resonant counter melodies, and soaring harmonies. Karp gives the outgoing Daniel a combination of brave face and resilient resistance; struggling, even fighting, for normalcy when his life has been turned upside down in the face of an unknown outcome. Wither’s performance as the introverted, irreverent Clara is a nuanced portrait of a teen working through complex, challenging times; the sometimes tough, give no fucks exterior belies her inner conflict and fear of losing her brother. She loves her brother, but she hates what the disease is doing to him and their family; and feels guilty for doing so. Palmer and Marty’s grounded, present performances as parents Judy and Kevin run the gamut from hope to despair; Palmer’s loving helicopter mom and Marty’s supportive middleman dad are doing the best they can while facing the unthinkable loss of a child.
Furber gives an adorkably lovable performance as the cute, somewhat nerdy Ben; there are some lovely moments with Wither as Ben and Clara get to know each other and explore their growing attraction. Piccinin and Cumber add some great, and much needed, comic relief as the effervescent extrovert Emily and the goofy, fun-loving Jeremy. Piccinin gives Emily a warm, protective, enveloping hug vibe, while Cumber’s Jeremy is more sensitive than at first glance, using gentle humour to support his friends through their grief. Rifkin gives a poignant performance as the socially awkward Bev; and Skipper does a nice job revealing Sam’s anger about Andrew’s death, and toward Andrew himself, as Sam deals with his grief. Domingue is lovely, engaging and supportive as Ms. Vella; and makes for an understanding, approachable oncologist.
Profoundly poignant and inspiring—and full of spirit, hope and love—in the end, Every Silver Lining is about recognizing and being open to the love and support of family and friends during times of fear, loss and grief; and sharing, remembering and celebrating the life of the departed loved one as part of the acknowledgment of, and working through, the stages of the mourning process.
Every Silver Lining continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase.
Steven Conway & Pearle Harbour. Lighting design by Logan Raju Cracknell. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Pearle Harbour pops onto the Factory Theatre Mainspace stage for Next Stage Theatre Festival with her timely, funny and moving pre-apocalyptic multimedia drag cabaret Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop!Written by Justin Miller and directed by Rebecca Ballarin, with music direction and live accompaniment by Steven Conway, and video design by Adam Miller, Pearle brings her wartime tragicomedienne song stylings and storytelling to explore our deepest fears.
Climate change is at a crisis point, the Doomsday Clock is at two minutes to midnight, and Australia’s on fire—but keep calm and laugh, sing, and even scream and cry, along with Pearle as she treats audiences to some music gems by the likes of David Bowie, Judy Garland, Tom Waits and more, including a different special guest artist appearance with every performance. Examining our deepest existential fears, the storytelling and song stylings switch between funny and poignant, with Pearle living up to her reputation as a wartime tragicomedienne and including some gentle, consensual audience participation.
The 1950s Bert the Turtle PSA bit on how to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear blast (duck and cover) got a bit too close to home this morning when that Emergency Alert went out to folks across Southern Ontario around 7:30AM. The vague warning, directed to folks living withing 10km of the Pickering nuclear power plant, turned out to be sent in error, but loads of questions remain as I write this.
There’s some truly frightening stuff happening out in the world right now—but, ultimately, Pearle’s message is one of awareness, engagement, hope and love. Let’s do better. Let’s reach out to each other. Let’s turn back that clock.
You have three more chances to catch Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop! in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase. The house was packed yesterday, so early arrival or advance booking strongly recommended.
Carlin was in her mid-teens and I was in my early 20s when we first met, both students at Theatre Aquarius Summer Theatre School in Hamilton, Ontario during the mid-80s—and I remember being struck by her focus, maturity and talent. An old, creative soul, she was already writing songs that were melodic, poignant and catchy; revealing a deep sense of empathy for and sharp observation of the human condition. We bonded over growing up in Burlington (aka “Borington”), a shared irreverent sense of humour, and a mutual love of music and theatre.
Carlin and I reconnected a couple of years ago, through our mutual friend Lizzie Violet. She’d been living in Toronto, writing, recording and performing her songs, a singer/songwriter working as a barista to pay the rent. Her creative spirit had branched out to include making amazingly detailed crocheted creations: figures from horror, sci-fi and fantasy, which she sold, along with more traditional crocheted fashions, via Unravelled Crochet. I had the pleasure of interviewing her about her crochet work at the beginning of this year.
Throughout her illness, Carlin kept on making things: hats, scarves and mittens—many of which she made especially for or gave to friends. It kept her busy while she was in hospital, keeping the cabin fever at bay while she stayed positive and hopeful that she’d soon be able to return to her new apartment and a job she loved at Birds and Beans Coffee. I will always cherish the green and grey striped hat she gave me.
An extremely talented, kind and generous soul, Carlin had an open heart, a creative mind, and a twinkle in her eye with an arch of a brow that accompanied a mischievous grin. Cancer took Carlin from us—gone way too soon, she was so loved and will be profoundly missed. I picture her on a tropical beach, riding a unicorn named Hope.
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.
Kaleb Alexander & Mazin Elsadig. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.
Obsidian Theatre takes us to the edge of the world in an urban Black neighbourhood in America with its provocative, mind-blowing production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Jay Northcott, and running at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Disturbing, thought-provoking and razor-sharp, it’s a 21st century Waiting for Godot, infused with the hope and resilience of The Book of Exodus, as two young Black men hang out on a street corner, making plans to better their situation and get to the Promised Land.
Before the action starts, we’re immersed in this microcosm of the modern-day Black experience in America—via Julia Kim’s effective, minimalist set design; Chris Malkowski’s lighting and Miquelon Rodriguez’s sound design. A lone streetlight, a fire hydrant and a wooden industrial spool on a stylized L-shaped street corner with an exaggerated curb. The edge of the world. A solitary figure in a hoodie sits, sleeping against the base of the streetlight, his back to us; a man appears, alternately pacing and sitting. The sounds of a classical music piece, ranging from tranquil to majestic, accompanied by the whoosh of passing traffic, as the light wanes and the streetlight glows to life. An object on the sidewalk, off to the right of the man—a lost sneaker, a rock?
Moses (Kaleb Alexander) awakens to see his friend Kitch (Mazin Elsadig). The dynamic between them creates an atmosphere of restlessness, wheels spinning and going nowhere, as they settle into an easy, familiar banter. And then, crackling with electric promise, Moses shares his hopes, dreams and plan to make something of himself and get out—out and away across the river to the Promised Land. Visions of champagne, caviar and top 10 lists dance in their heads as they speak of a better life to come, reveling in the possibilities that lie ahead.
Their reverie is continually interrupted by the abrupt, brief and jarring light and sound of a police cruiser; the cops constantly on patrol, looking for non-existent trouble and repeatedly harassing young Black men who are doing nothing wrong. Each time this occurs, Moses and Kitch assume the position: hands in the air, sometimes dropping to their knees. They’ve lost count as to how many friends have been killed. A stranger appears; the whitest white man you’ve ever seen (Alex McCooeye as Mister)—I’m talking 1950s suburban “golly gee” white. Carrying a picnic basket, he got lost on his way to his mother’s. Initially met with wary indifference, his Lord Bountiful offer of food is too good for the two friends to pass up; and like Mary Poppins and her bottomless carpet bag, he produces a veritable feast from his basket, including an apple pie.
Contrasted and complemented to the encounter with Mister, Moses and Kitch are set upon by the local beat cop (McCooeye as Officer), on patrol and looking for an excuse to hassle, or even shoot, a Black man—who he views as shiftless, lazy and stupid. “To serve and protect” only applies to people who look, act and speak like him. Left to themselves again, discouraged, weary and beaten down, Moses begins to question his original plan for exodus, and hatches a desperate alternate plan for himself and Kitch.
Stunning, compelling and electric performances from the cast in this uncomfortable, sometimes satirical, and instructive piece of theatre. Alexander gives a passionate, charismatic performance as Moses; living up to his namesake, Moses is a natural leader, inspiring those around him with the hope of better things to come—but not without self-doubt and internal conflict. Elsadig’s playfulness, warmth and swagger as Kitch perfectly complements Alexander’s Moses; Kitch is more than just a friend—he’s a confidante, a brother. While Moses tends to be more of a cerebral ideas man with a dream to manifest, Kitch is driven by more pragmatic, visceral concerns; but he’s nonetheless inspired and willing to follow his friend, based on love and trust.
McCooeye offers two fascinating and telling portraits of white male power. Mister is a patronizing, clueless entitled white man whose hospitable demeanour is peppered with microaggressions and judgements of Black culture—insidious, “polite” racism. The white person who claims to never even think about using “the n word’, but who calls out Black people for using the term—wondering, if they can use it, why can’t he? As Officer, he’s the picture of the racist asshole cop who relishes abusing his power; keeping Black people “in their place”, he’s the embodiment of the darker, shameless side of the white-dominated power structure. Moses and Kitch speak the language of streetwise urban Black youth; and internalized racism makes them question whether it would be better to adopt a more white manner and speech, and assimilate into the safety of the dominant culture.
From plantation to ghetto, Pass Over provides ample evidence that white-powered systemic racism is alive and well in 2019—and and it will make allies question the true nature of their allyship. The apple pie of the American Dream is held out under the noses of those who are perpetually barred, blocked and beaten away from that dream, then taken away before they have a chance to taste it. It’s an unforgettable, uncomfortable, at times shocking, look into the hopes, dreams and lived experiences of the Black community—which is as it should be in the case of discourse on deep-seated systemic racism in America and, by extension, Canada. Make no mistake, Canada is far from innocent in this regard. And with the growing emergence of a new alt-right, emboldened by extreme right-wing leadership around the world, this is definitely not just an urban street corner issue—nor does it only impact the Black community.
Pass Over continues at Buddies until November 10; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-975-8555.