3 min

Cool cabaret

Shows that make you forget about the snow and ice

Chris Tsujiuchi is Toronto's newest cabaret sensation. Credit: Jonathan Tan

Entertainment options in February are tricky. Not that I’m whining, but I hate clubbing in snow boots, and it’s too cold for ice skating. What exactly can one do to keep one’s social calendar busy while staying warm? Get to The Flying Beaver, my friends. A star is being born in our midst, and now is the time to catch him so that in a few years you can say you saw him when.

Chris Tsujiuchi used to pay the bills by playing behind folks like Sharron Matthews and Shawn Hitchins, but he stepped out on his own into Toronto’s cabaret scene in January 2012. “I wouldn’t call any of the shows I put together before then cabarets in the most traditional sense; they were more recitals than cabarets. I sang through my music-theatre repertoire binder to a captive audience a couple of times before I realized that simply wasn’t going to cut it.” He’s now selling out shows on his own and is on something of a hot streak. In the last year, he’s been a guest on Seth Rudetsky’s Sirius XM radio show, was the musical director of a production of Hair, put out a CD, modelled in a body-paint art exhibit, and performed at Nuit Blanche. If that doesn’t qualify him for diva status, I don’t know what will! This whirlwind of activity has resulted in a monthly night at Maggie Cassella’s Flying Beaver Pubaret.

Tsujiuchi is an exciting presence on Toronto’s cabaret scene; he’s definitely not the stereotyped idea of a blandly pretty, freshly scrubbed Broadway twink singing Cyndi Lauper covers. He sings “Gangnam Style” in flawless Korean, throws out a deliciously R&B-tinged cover of Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” spits out the tricky lyrics of “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from Kiss Me Kate, and dazzles audiences with mashups of everything from Spice Girls to Sondheim to Britney — and can throw in a tap-dance number to boot — somehow making it all work.

“For me, a cabaret is when you bridge the gap between a rock concert and a musical. Instead of playing a character, you’re playing yourself — a much bigger version of yourself. If people don’t enjoy themselves or if they are critical of what it is you are doing, you have nowhere to hide,” he says. That’s certainly not the case with Tsujiuchi; audiences have followed him all over the city. As is the case with the best entertainers, he always leaves them wanting more. The man even has his own theme song. Imagine Peter Allen or Liberace without the cheese, mix in a bit of Billy Joel (except more handsome and with way better hair), and you’re almost there.

He’s riding another welcome wave of popularity when it comes to cabaret. It’s not so much that everyone in town is doing a show as it is that everyone in town is doing a good show. Chris and I both agree on what makes a good cabaret: “It’s topical, it asks questions, it starts dialogues. Sometimes it’s fashionable. It’s always creative, and musicality is key.”

Gavin Crawford, Carla Collins, Dina Martina and many more have shows lined up for February at The Flying Beaver, which offers great value: stellar entertainment, dinner and drinks for way less than you’ll pay to see The Wizard of Oz at the Canon. This second-wave cabaret scene is especially welcome when you look at the sorry state of musical theatre in Toronto; it provides opportunities for performers to hone their craft and pay their bills and lends an air of fun to the nightlife scene. Statlers on Church hosts many vocalists (although Jeni Walls’ Monday night open-mic, SINGular Sensation, tends to draw the best of the bunch), and Roxxie Terrain has been holding it down with her jazz and standard stylings at Zipperz for a while now. They all have their own ways of putting together a show; some feature characters and some tug at the heartstrings, but either way we’re not starved for options. New York, Chicago, Montreal, Paris and London have had strong cabaret scenes for many years, and I believe Toronto is finally getting to a similar point.

For the uninitiated, what exactly can you expect? While no one should check out a cabaret night expecting Mirvish-level production values, artists like Tsujiuchi provide value for your dollar. “I do two shows a year at Buddies in Bad Times where I incorporate a full band: bass, guitar, keys, full drum kit, four backup singers, special guests,” Tsujiuchi says, noting that his shows are improv-based with lots of laughs. I can personally confirm you’ll bust a gut, and when February blahs get particularly gross, a dash of cabaret can make the snow and ice and never-ending darkness a lot more bearable. Save me a table down front.