By Stephen Weir
Before we suggest that you buy a ticket and head down to the waterfront to take in the Harbourfront Theatre production of THE WARD CABARET, a short Toronto history lesson is in order.
Back in the 1840s there was the Ward. It was the city’s first ghetto; a small patch of downtown Toronto near College and Yonge. The district was owned by the Eaton family and was peopled with poorly-paid immigrants – White, Black and Yellow – who worked in their garment factories. The Ward was around until the late 1950’s when it was bulldozed by the city in an effort to clean up the city core.
The Ward is gone now but not forgotten. Recently a best-selling book was published about the place. And this weekend there is the musical singing the stories of the ghetto.
The Ward Cabaret opened last Saturday night and has three shows this weekend at the lakeside theatre. This is not just a musical that fuses Klezmer and Asian music (seriously) it is also a play that gives insight into how it came to be that Ward immigrants from the early days of Toronto came together and got along!
“The Ward Cabaret re-imagines the vibrant sounds of Toronto’s first “arrival city” says jazz composer David Buchbinder. He is also the producer of this 2-hour production. “The enclave (the Ward) was shared for over a century by Irish, African American, Italian, Jewish and Chinese migrants.
“It was a dense swath of the city that reform- minded officials came to see as a crime-ridden slum. However, the streets teemed with dynamic, colourful people on the make, elbows out, finding their way in a new world.”
The Ward Cabaret doesn’t have much of a spoken plot line, they let their instruments do the talking. What there is tells the stories of two black immigrants, two Jewish arrivals, a Chinese man and an Italian woman, trying to make a go of it in their new homeland. Starvation wages, substandard housing, out and out racism by established Canadians and our cursedly cold winters are the challenges they must overcome.
The story is sung and acted out by the cast of six. They are backed by Klezmer musicians, a church pianist and a Beijing Guzheng (Chinese zither) player.
If it wasn’t for two piano playing actors, Jeremiah Sparks and Kaisha Lee, we wouldn’t recommend getting that ticket what with braving the traffic, the nuclear priced parking and sitting in a very uncomfortable theatre. But believe me, not even a blizzard would stop me from heading downtown.
Jeremiah Sparks is an actor, a singer and composer. You have seen him in movies, TV and on stage. He was Mufasa in the Lion King, Louis Armstrong in the Satchemo Suit and Oliver at Ottawa’s National Art Centre.
He was born and raised in Preston, Nova Scotia, where he was a choir director and church organist for over 20 years.
His character falls in love with a white garment worker who in turn falls in love with him (as do we in the audience). He sings Negro spirituals, plays the grand piano and gives real meaning to the word soul. Think of the bum crunching seats as penance as you listen to Sparks sing the songs of the Deep South.
So too is Kaisha Lee, a heart fluttering singer and gifted performer. One musicologist says that anyone who has ever heard Kaisha Lee sing knows that her powerful voice, introspective lyrics and harmonious melodies are the “doors to her soul”.
Her early days were in Jamaica, but, she grew up in Toronto. Lee learned to play the piano at six and during her teen years, she found her voice as a member of several gospel choirs and a classical chorale. As a young woman, she took her love of gospel music and Negro spirituals on the road with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale. Lee is a recording artist, her new album, I Heart Reggae, has spun out several successful singles.
What is wrong with the musical? Well The Ward Story was way too long. Many of the longer songs were not sung in English – inspiring voices but the audience has no idea what the songs are about. Each of the actors sang in their native tongue – Yiddish, Italian and Cantonese.
Derek Kwan sang beautifully in Cantonese but his solos accompanied by the Zither, took a huge chunk of stage time. Klezmer styled music is an acquired taste. Many touching songs are performed but give me Lee and Sparks taking their turns on the piano to get me clapping.
The Ward Cabaret runs until Sunday December 22nd. Tickets start at $30.00.