The Ward Cabaret‘s music and performance is filled with humanity and passion
When I heard about The Ward Cabaret playing at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, I knew I had to see it. A show that uses dynamic live music in the telling of a slice of Toronto’s history is right up my alley.
This isn’t a musical in the traditional sense. Songs don’t take the place of monologues to move the action forward. But they are certainly a vital part of telling the story. In fact, the press release doesn’t even call it a musical, it says, “This theatre-music event propels audiences into the extraordinary sounds and stories of The Ward.”
The Ward was an area in Toronto (loosely bordered by College and Queen, University and Yonge Streets) from the 1840s to WWII that was home to waves of Jewish, Chinese, African-American and Italian immigrants, among others.
Going in, I expected something like a cabaret with vignettes between numbers. That’s not what this was. The music in the piece felt like it was for the characters, not the audience, and that was perfect. It gave the music more meaning; it was what connected these people. Watching them share their music is was what brought The Ward to life.
Yes, we get snippets of facts and stories about the history of The Ward. There are names and dates put forward. But ultimately, that’s not what The Ward Cabaret is for. That’s what things like the book that inspired it – The Ward (Coach House Press) edited by John Lorinc, Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg, and Tatum Taylor- is for.
Walking away from the performance, more than anything, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of adoration and awe at the music. It was spectacular. The music and performances were filled with such humanity and passion, and some with such sorrow, others such joy. Much as one assumes the neighbourhood was itself. Which I think was the point. Bring back the music of the churches, the streets, the speakeasies and beyond. Bring us a tiny slice of that sound. And it sounds beautiful.
The thing is, the music wouldn’t mean anything without the context of the script. The stories of the people – the narrative that provided the frame and spotlight – are needed to showcase the music. We need the characters to become invested in the joys and sorrows of the music. They are why it didn’t matter whether we understood the language of the lyrics – we still followed the intent.
It was clear music was a priority for everyone. All the members of the production are incredible musicians and singers, and it was awe-inspiring to watch. While it was all fantastic, three pieces particularly stood out.
Early in the production, Jeremiah Sparks sings an incredible acapella version of ‘I’m Coming Home to Canada’ (also known as Song of the Free). It’s a song about a man escaping slavery in the United States by fleeing to Canada. It was an incredibly emotional piece. Not just because of the spectacular beauty of Sparks’ voice, but also because of the hope inherent in the song. The idea that this man was coming to a land of freedom and opportunity when instead, he was coming to one so filled with barriers and hardships based on the colour of his skin. It was a stark and important juxtaposition.
The next musical moment that had me marvelling was in the second act. Derek Kwan sings a beautiful soft Cantonese song – ‘Autumn Remembrances’ – accompanied by only a few instruments. After a while, more instruments join in and creating a jazzy fusion with the original Cantonese music. Kaisha Lee joins him on vocals and soon, the music shifts again, this time fully to blues. Kwan stops singing, and Lee treats us to a wonderful rendition of St Louis Blues. The melding of the two styles is artfully done and a beautiful metaphor for the different cultures coming together in The Ward.
But for me, the most breathtaking musical piece of them all was the second last of the night. A gospel number – ‘I Open My Mouth to the Lord.’ All the musicians and actors/singers came forward to form a choir conducted by Jeremy Sparks. The group performed with passion and joy and Kaisha Lee took on a fantastic solo in the piece. When it ended, I realized I’d been holding my breath. I gulped in some air and found myself saying “oh f*ck” out loud to nobody in particular. It was incredible.
It’s safe to say that this show wouldn’t exist without David Buchbinder, who conceived the idea, is the artistic director and producer of the entire project. He is at the helm of actors and musicians, development and performance. But there are so many pieces at play, and every part is vital.
Marjorie Chan’s writing frames things in just the way they need to be. It never feels heavy-handed. It hints at what is happening but doesn’t get bogged down in details. It lets the music shine. It trusts the audience to think for themselves, to follow along, to figure out the narrative that is in there without having to be super overt.
Leah Cherniak’s co-direction pulled the details together. The pacing felt right on track. I also really appreciated the subtlety of the ‘jobs’ given to actors not in the spotlight, doing something, but nothing distracting. It always amazes me how distracting an actor doing nothing on stage can be. Cherniak kept our attention right where it was meant to be.
My main quibble with the show is a design issue. The design uses fog to give things a misty feel. Unfortunately, sometimes fog machines trigger my allergies, so I spent the first part of the show doing a lot of sniffling and coughing. From an admittedly biased point of view, I feel like the show would not have lost much by removing the fog machine. I also can’t imagine having to sing on a stage filled with that – although clearly, these performers power through because they all sound amazing.
You have until Sunday, December 22nd, to see the show. The theatre is set up in a way that there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Treat yourself to a break from the hustle and bustle of the season and check it out.
- The Ward Cabaret is playing until December 22, 2019 at Harbourfront Theatre (Harbourfront Centre, 231 Queens Quay W)
- Shows run Tuesday to Sunday at 8pm, with a matinee performance on Sundays at 2pm
- Regular price tickets range from $30 – $60 and Student tickets from $27.50 – $51. Arts Worker tickets are available for $25.
- Harbourfront Centre box office at 416-973-4000 or in-person, or on the website
Photo of David Buchbinder, Derek Kwan, Aviva Chernick, Cara Krisman, Kaisha Lee by Ed Hanley