Review: Dark Night Cabaret: Tales from a Suitcase (Acting Up Stage Company)

Laura Caswell’s musical theatre tunes and personal stories shine with honesty at Toronto’s Dark Night Cabaret

When Camilla Scott is now better known for hawking cosmetics in living rooms than performing, it is safe to say that there is no musical theatre star power in this country. It’s a shame because the spritely Laura Caswell would surely be one of Canada’s better-known performers. With a 1940s sensibility and a pippy, nearly clipped style, this is a girl who should be at least a few Dora Awards in.

Instead she is one of the performers for Acting Up Stage Company’s Dark Night Cabaret, running on the Mondays at the Berkeley Street Theatre when Caroline, or Change has its night off.

The cabaret is called Tales from a Suitcase and Caswell trips in with a suitcase, all curls and cutie pie nervousness. Caswell could, and should, play a mid-career Judy Garland. I half-expected her to tap dance with the luggage.

With the help of pianist Greg Gibson and her own sister Andrea Caswell, Caswell packed the hour tight with emotionally charged songs that required more explanation than some were given. I wanted to know more about each piece – it all sounded like musical theatre to me, but I didn’t recognize most of the songs.

I have to say that the emotional content of the music chosen didn’t quite match the rest of the show. The segues and intros were seemingly rehearsed quips and stories but they didn’t do much to serve the much greater emotional range Caswell brought to her singing. My date Catharine for the night, agreed.

Toward the end, Caswell felt way less rehearsed and more off the cuff. Catharine said that she felt that we were seeing the real person behind the performance, which was ultimately so much more interesting than any of the rehearsed shtick that started the evening. We cared less about the suitcase and wanted more of her.

We both loved how she followed the career of songwriter Amanda McBroom. Her passion seemed genuine and less rehearsed. Sadly, the song that followed, “Wheels,” worked for me only on a comedic level. I’m likely just too jaded for a coming of age song that begins with the heroine as a little girl and ending up homeless. I think I’m alone on this one though because when she announced the song, a guy behind let out an excited yelp.

The power of honesty and improv was extraordinarily evident when she invited her singer/songwriter sister on stage. Her sister’s set felt loose, free, and real, and because of this her songs struck that emotional balance between humour and heartfelt that a good cabaret desperately needs. A mash up that included “The Sun Will Come Out” nearly worked and their voices together toward the end in “Homeward Bound” hit the right note.

Caswell has such a fun sensibility and knowledge of contemporary musical scores that you just want to give her a drink and a mic, put her on a gay cruise and let her everyone fall in love with her. Hopefully Canada gets to have her for a little while longer.