by Lynn on December 21, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

 At the Harbourfront Centre Theatre

Conceived, developed and co-directed by David Buchbinder

Written by Marjorie Chan

Co-directed by Leah Cherniak

Set and costumes by Victoria Wallace

Lighting designer Simon Rossiter

Choreography by Monica Dottor

Cast and musicians: David Buchbinder

Aviva Chernick

Jacob Gorzhaltsan

Cara Krisman

Derek Kwan

Kaisha Lee

Michael Occhipinti

Cynthia Qin

Louis Simäo

Mitch Smolkin

Jeremiah Sparks

The Ward Cabaret is a labour of love and art by musician/composer David Buchbinder who conceived, developed and co-directed it. It was workshopped at Luminato last year and now it’s the finished product at Harbourfront Centre Theatre for a short run.

The text is written by Marjorie Chan and tells some of the stories of the area of the city called the Ward where City Hall and environs now stand. Chinese men working on the railway arrived at the turn of the last century. Their wives did not accompany them. Jewish people escaping the pogroms in Russia; Italians coming for a better life; people of colour all arrived in Toronto for a better life and lived and worked in the Ward. They each brought their culture, stories, arts, music and memories. They mainly worked at the Eaton’s Factory making clothes. There is a wonderful segment describing how Jewish grandmothers and Italian women sold bootleg whiskey. So some the area was a crime-laden slum. To others it was simply home.

The area was teaming with all sorts of nationalities of immigrants who played, fought and lived in tight quarters. And mainly they sang. The music and songs depict their lives, histories, cultures, and traditions. Buchbinder has been meticulous in finding the music of the various cultures who lived there. There are songs in Yiddish (“Das Goldene Land”); songs of slavery (“I’m Coming Home to Canada”); songs in Italian (“Avanti Popolo”); songs in Cantonese (“Meeting at West River”), Hebrew (“Tikanto Shabbos”); and also jazz, blues, songs of celebration, of the factory, gospel songs, and songs of hope for the future. Jeremiah Sparks brings a soulful gentleness to everything he sings and says. Derek Kwan is compelling when representing his various Chinese characters and singing his various songs with intensity. Kaisha Lee takes us to the deep heart of every song she sings. The whole cast sings with enthusiasm and joy. Sometimes the singers also read letters a character might have written or speak dialogue. Often the singing was more effective than acting or reading.

I thought the production tended to be a bit fussy with the band upstage and the singers wandering around downstage. Why are two directors needed to direct this? The piece needs focus of movement and direction and it needs more simplicity.  Activity always seemed to be going on—less is best. Also I always wonder why EVERYBODY has to be amplified—from the band to the cast in small shows like this. Too often the result sometimes comes out in a confusing screech.

But you can’t deny David Buchbinder’s commitment in getting this show on and to celebrate this pulsing centre of Toronto’s early days.  The stories are compelling; the music is illuminating and you figure that everybody on that stage might have had a relative who arrived from somewhere else to Toronto to live in the Ward as a start.

DB Works Presents:

Began: Dec. 12, 2019.

Saw it: Dec. 18, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 22, 2019

Running Time: 2 hours.

Box Office: 416-973-4000.

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