THE TORONTO STAR
(On her performance as Tzeitel in “Fiddler on the Roof”)
Stage West’s Fiddler on the Roof is chicken soup for the theatregoer
George Masswohl as Tevye in Stage West’s Fiddler on the Roof, on until April 20.
Fiddler on the Roof
By Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Max Reimer. Until April 20 at Stage West Dinner Theatre, 5400 Dixie Rd., Mississauga. 905-238-0042 or www.stagewest.com
Fiddler on the Roof begins with a rousing chorus trumpeting the joys of “Tradition” and the production that opened Thursday night at Stage West in Mississauga delivers exactly that.
It’s a foolproof musical in many ways and this version, directed by Max Reimer, doesn’t stray from what one has come to expect from the classic tale of the Jewish milkman Tevye, his wife and his five daughters in Czarist Russia in 1905. This Fiddler is clean, simple and heartwarming, with a strong cast that elevates it slightly beyond the expected and reminds the audience why the musical has endured for almost 50 years.
At its heart is Tevye, a hardworking, pious man who watches as his three daughters break with Jewish “tradition” and appeal for permission to follow their hearts and marry men of their choosing. Tevye is arguably one of the great male roles in the musical theatre canon and George Masswohl plays the character to perfection, balancing the gruff, stubborn side of Tevye with the lovable man who ultimately lets his heart rule his head.
Where others often struggle to find the balance in Tevye, resulting in a character who is either too overbearing or too much of a pushover, Masswohl is simultaneously frightening and incredibly sweet. When he disowns daughter Hodel for marrying a Russian, his anger is palpable, but the audience is also allowed to feel the pain and heartache of a man torn between his spiritual beliefs and love for his daughter.
Masswohl’s rich baritone voice works perfectly for Tevye, with songs such as “If I Were a Rich Man” striking all the right notes while remaining humourous and heartfelt.
As his wife Golde, Denise Oucharek is a perfect partner, blessed with the comic timing needed to spar with Tevye and a vocal quality that blends perfectly with Masswohl on duets such as “Do You Love Me?”
In fact, the entire cast is strong, with rich vocals complemented by a live five-piece band led by Anthony Bastianon and an onstage “Fiddler” played by Jake Wagner.
As Tevye’s daughters, Gabi Epstein (Tzeitel), Amy Wallis (Hodel) and Nicole Norsworthy (Chava) play off each other with youthful exuberance, their voices blending gorgeously on “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Each girl brings a spirit to her character that is distinctive and which helps the audience become invested in the journeys of Tevye’s family members.
There are some surprising moments from the supporting cast as well, including a spectacular duet between Masswohl and Sandy Winsby’s Lazar Wolf on “To Life,” and a hilariously staged scene with Epstein’s Grandma Tzeitel and Brenley Charkow’s Fruma Sarah.
The two women appear in Tevye’s dream as a catalyst for convincing Golde to allow Tzeitel to marry the poor tailor Motel instead of the rich Lazar, and while the costuming and choreography come off a bit like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the humour provided by the women lightens the mood and injects some life into the familiar story.
At its core, Fiddler is a story about the importance of history, culture, family and love. Despite its age, the story and the music have remained timeless. At a time when most musicals are aiming for bigger, bolder and brasher, it’s nice to see that good storytelling, beautiful music and comforting familiarity can still delight an audience.
Like a cup of chicken noodle soup, Stage West’s version delivers exactly what one should expect from this particular musical.
(On her performance in “I Love You Because”)
NNNN (out of 5)
In a few short years, Angelwalk Theatre has carved out a nice little niche for itself mounting fine productions of smart, imaginative off-Broadway musicals.
They succeed once again with I Love You Because, an adorable show about a bunch of cynical 20-something New Yorkers looking for love in the caffeine- and alcohol-fuelled city.
Austin (Jeff Madden) is a buttoned-down greeting card writer who’s just caught his girlfriend in bed with another guy, so his brother Jeff (Jay Davis) convinces him to date other women. Enter Marcy (Elena Juatco), a spontaneous photographer who’s recovering from her own dating disaster, helped by her bestie, Diana (Gabi Epstein).
At first Austin and Marcy detest each other – this is, after all, a (very loose) update of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice – while Jeff and Diana hit it off doing the friends-with-benefits thing. But before you can say Sex And The City, the plot takes a few twists.
There’s lots to enjoy in Joshua Salzman’s music and Ryan Cunningham’s lyrics, particularly actuary Diana’s patter song about how long it takes to recover from a broken heart (complete with whiteboard illustration), Marcy’s touching act-one finale about not being ready for love, and several lively ensemble numbers in the second half.
Director/choreographer Darcy Evans stages the show effectively, making nice use of Scott Penner’s two-tiered set, which, with a simple turn of an Ikea-like table, alternates between café and bar (Michael DeRose and Cara Leslie double as bartenders and baristas, and chime in charmingly throughout.)
Evans can’t quite fix a few of the book’s problems, like the weird fact that the poetry-writing Austin is a Republican or that we’re watching a New York-set musical where every character is straight.
But the cast and band, helmed by Lily Ling, make you forget all that with their energetic, full-throttle performances. The stand-out is Epstein, who invests her controlling Diana with so much empathy and inner life that she almost steals the show.
Toronto Star (on her performance in “To Life”)
Once upon a time Toronto had many cabaret shows, often original musical revues. But that was 20 or 30 years ago, and now you can’t come to the cabaret because it has become an endangered species. What happened? In many cases, real estate developers found more profitable uses for the space.
But now Avery Saltzman and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company are bringing us To Life, which is the kind of show we used to enjoy at cabarets.
Only now it is in a sit-down theatre — the Jane Mallett Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre. So instead of sitting at café tables and sipping drinks while you take in the show, you’re sitting in a theatre seat.
But this space — which will in future be the ongoing home of the Harold Green company — is a lot more intimate than the Bluma Appel Theatre across the lobby. And the show, which I saw at its final preview on Sunday afternoon prior to Tuesday’s official opening — is charming and entertaining as well as inventive.
Maybe some of the songs are a trifle too familiar (especially the ones from Fiddler on the Roof), and it’s too bad the costumes are rather boringly tasteful.
Still, the show offers many pleasures, not the least of which are the four nimble hands on two pianos belonging to Mark Camilleri and Jeffrey Huard. All this adds up to a welcome sign that the Harold Green theatre, which began slowly and has been growing for the past few years, is here to stay.
To Life — conceived by Avery Saltzman and Tim French — celebrates the Jewish talent that was so much a part of New York musical-comedy history. Or as a song from Spamalot puts the matter with chutzpah: “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”
The first half of the show is especially rewarding because it delves way back into the roots of its subject, in the very early years of the 20th century, when future headliners Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker were beginning to make names for themselves. At first they were working terrain close to home — on the heavily Jewish Lower East Side of New York, and in vaudeville.
That gives the light-on-his feet young Patrick Cook a chance to summon the ghost of Eddie Cantor doing his signature number “Makin’ Whoopie”. And a delightful rising star named Gabi Epstein (in fact the only Jewish member of the four-person cast) slips into Fanny Brice mode to turn “I’d Rather Be Blue” into a knockout.
Veteran Shawn Wright (whom you may have seen in Jersey Boys) summons up the legend of Al Jolson with “April Showers.”
And Charlotte Moore, the definitely gentile granddaughter of Dora Mavor Moore, gesticulates with the authority of a Yiddish trouper and does a splendid Sophie Tucker on “Some of Those Days.”
Indeed, it seems to me that “Some of Those Days” would be a more apt title for the whole show, capturing the nostalgic flavour of the program.
The second half of the show is somewhat more conventional, relying on Jewish material from Broadway shows of the more recent past, such as Fiddler, Funny Girl, The Grand Tour andTwo by Two. Highlights are two numbers that showcase the comic and vocal talents of Gabi Epstein — “Sadie, Sadie” from Funny Girl and “Miss Marmelstein” from I Can Get It For You Wholesale.
Both are Barbra Streisand showstoppers. But there is another song from Funny Girl that would have been perfect for Ms Epstein. It’s “I’m the Greatest Star,” the number in which Fanny Brice anticipates her leap from Second Avenue to the Ziegfeld Follies.
It baffles me how Saltzman and French could have opted not to include it, because more than any other number I have ever heard, that song brilliantly expresses how and why Jewish musical comedy talent broke out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of American entertainment.
To Life Continues to May 29.
I don’t do artist profiles often. In fact, this is only my third after nearly two years of writing for (Cult)ure. It’s not that I’m opposed to doing them, but when the requests do come in, I tend to be a little choosy. I want to take myself out of my comfortable music listening box and try something new. Sometimes it’s something brand new (like metal), and sometimes, as is the case with Gabi Epstein, it’s something I’m familiar with, but don’t indulge in a whole lot.
Epstein, a Toronto native, has put together a stuffing debut album that is just the right mix of jazz, lounge, and cabaret. Her vocals are strong, her delivery both heartfelt and sultry, and the choice ofsong selections makes this eleven-track debut the perfect type of background music for a dinner party, a romantic evening for two, or for solo chill-out time.
It’s difficult to pick out a single track, or even multiple tracks that stand out on Show Off. Yes, that sounds like a major cop-out on my part, but the material is so consistent from beginning to end that it sounds and feels like a seamless whole. It is interesting that the song “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” is the opening track. Lyrically speaking, it’s a song that I would expect to be an album closer, especially the way that Esptein belts out some of the final notes, yet it was curiously, and perhaps deliberately, bumped to the beginning as a way of grabbing the audience, telling them to listen up and pay attention for the remainder of the album: a brilliant tactic actually, when you stop to think about it.
A personal favourite of mine is her cover of Jann Arden’s “Good Mother.” As an ardent Arden fan, I have a particular soft spot for this song, and Gabi Epstein, in her own unique interpretation, gives it just as much meaning and soul as the original, without departing too far from its style. It’s a touching tribute, and comes with a lot of meaning for Epstein, who has said she was “picking the songs that ‘show off’ different aspects of her personality” for this album, and that “Good Mother” is a song she loves singing; it allows her to “sing about my family who I am extremely close with.” She also describes it as one of the greatest songs ever, an endorsement that I imagine would cause Jann to blush.
The influence of “Cruella De Vil” at first may raise a few eyebrows, but this big, brassy, lounge version that Epstein pulls off makes this one sultry track, and allows her to show off her vocal chops at the same time. When I first saw the song on the track listing, I was a bit sceptical: a Disney cartoon song on what’s supposed to be a very contemporary jazz album? Doesn’t seem to work on paper, but you have to hear this song to believe it. It works. Perfectly.
Epstein’s musical influences are typical fot the jazz/cabaret world, but that does not mean she has all of those influences for the same reasons as everyone else. She has named everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Barbra Streisand as artistic influences. Unusually, she cites Canadian rocker Hawksley Workman as well, stating that Workman is “the closest thing to a musical theatre performer that the folk world can get,” and that his live performances have really taught her how to perform on stage as well. Epstein says that Fitzgerald was her first big jazz influence, while Streisand not only gave her an appreciation for cabaret, but the importance of selecting a strong opening number for an album, which obviously contributed to “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” showing up first on the CD (something that I imagine Streisand herself would do).
Any way you cut it, Show Off is an excellent showcase for a new voice in the jazz and cabaret worlds. Whether it’s musical theatre or on stage as a solo performer in her own right, Gabi Epstein is a fresh, much-welcomed voice to the genre as well as the music landscape as a whole. I’ll be enjoying and sharing this album with friends and family for some time to come.
The Toronto Star
★ ★ ★
This determined Toronto showgirl is going places. Her voice is a clear, honest sound of a Broadway ingenue. On her debut CD, Epstein uses her pipes to nice effect on 11 tracks arranged by local cabaret veteran John Alcorn. “You’re Gonna Hear from Me,” is a fresh breeze through the Dory and André Previn hit, we get a smooth “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin and an endearingly earnest “I am Changing” from Dreamgirls. The Drowsy ChaperoneThere are times I wished for more smoky bourbon and less golly-gee Kool-Aid, like when Epstein goes theatrical in “Cruella De Vil.” The band (pianist Mark Kieswetter, bassist Artie Roth, percussionist David Direnzo) is mighty fine, however. The gang launches the disc at Revival (783 College St.) on Nov. 7, with an hour of performance.
The Canadian Jewish News
Gabi Epstein is releasing her debut CD, Show Off, next month, and that’s exactly what she’s planning to do – show off her sultry voice to a wide audience.
Show Off, a cabaret CD filled with standards from the musical theatre repertoire, and sprinkled with pop and jazzy tunes, will be launched on Nov. 7 at Revival, 783 College St., Toronto, at 8 p.m.
After graduating from Montreal’s McGill University with a bachelor of music degree, Epstein, an actor and singer, took to the musical stage, and to cabaret rooms, making a name for herself as one of Toronto’s leading young solo cabaret performers. Epstein has performed at popular Toronto venues, including the Pantages Hotel, Trane Studio, and the Toronto Centre for the Arts, as well as at the historic Algonquin Hotel in New York City.
Show Off is produced by Canadian jazz singer John Alcorn and features Mark Kieswetter on piano, Artie Roth on bass, and Davide Direnzo on drums and percussion. Epstein’s favourite track on the CD is You’re Gonna Hear From Me, by André Previn, from the 1965 Natalie Wood movie, Inside Daisy Clover. Epstein was unfamiliar with the song before recording Show Off.
In addition to standards, Epstein also sings contemporary tunes on the CD, including the track I Would Have Wanted, written by her friend and colleague Zachary Florence.
“It became very apparent to me at an early age that other people were better writers than I was, and I was a better song stylist and reinterpret other people’s material a lot better than writing my own,” Epstein says.
“I especially love taking someone’s brand-new material and making it my own. The song that Zachary wrote, I actually sang on a demo CD of his, of his brand-new material.
“The title Show Off is tongue-in-cheek, and is meant to let people know that I am a serious artist, but I don’t need to be taken all that seriously,” insists Epstein.
“It’s fun and it’s me. I never wanted to do the pop route. I love performing live in stage musicals, and this is an extra layer of that. In addition to performing as other people, when I’m acting in a musical, this is me performing as myself… sort of a heightened version of myself.”
Epstein hopes that the release of Show Off will result in bookings of her live solo cabaret show both in Canada and the United States.
“One of the big influences of mine when wanting to do this record was the early albums of Barbra Streisand,” says Epstein. “She just had that great Jewish cabaret flare that I love. So, what we actually wanted to do was to do a contemporary version of one of the very early Streisand records.”
Epstein has a strong Jewish identity. “I kept my last name Epstein, because that is who I am and that is who I wanted to be through this album,” she says.
“There are a couple songs that show my Jewish side, like I Would Rather Cha Cha Than Eat, and the last song on the CD, Laila Laila, is a Hebrew lullaby a song I used to sing at Camp Gesher, that I thought would be a nice way to end the album.”
Epstein, who lives in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, is also a children’s vocal coach. She’s the daughter of author Kathy Kacer and lawyer Ian Epstein, and the sister of the actor, singer and musician Jake Epstein.