3 min

Homegrown funny girl

Gabi Epstein takes on the iconic Streisand musical

Local-girl-made-good Gabi Epstein. Credit: Simon Farla

September usually means Toronto International Film Festival, but in true Tdot fashion, everyone’s buzzing more about the stars than the films. 2013 saw yet another year of attending TIFF parties full of people who weren’t at the screening, visiting stars tying up traffic, and people hyperventilating over the possibility of running into someone famous. This is not the kind of star I’m hungry to see shine brightly this fall; good Canadian queer that I am, I prefer to support our own homegrown ones, which is a good thing because we’re about to get a major dose of stardom onstage. You could say she stands out from the TIFF pack like a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls.

Funny Girl is famous for cementing the legend of you-know-who, but this fall, the musical returns to Toronto with local-girl-made-good Gabi Epstein. This may be Epstein’s first starring role in Toronto, but Church Street regulars have long known the small woman with a huge voice; her singing is a staple many nights at Statlers, where she can quiet a room just by stepping up to the microphone. 

She’s toured internationally, worked for Disney and is a bona fide cabaret star from here to Stratford to New York . . . but is she scared to take on Streisand’s signature role? “It’s a dream come true because these are songs that are a part of me. I’ve played Fanny Brice before, but not in Funny Girl; because of that, I got to create my own version of who she was: awkward comedy combined with the vaudeville aspect. There’s so much pressure for this, not to mention a 25-piece orchestra. People love Funny Girl and they love Barbra Streisand, so we want to give them enough of what they know from the movie while not becoming an imitation. Finding that balance is daunting, and just a little terrifying, but exciting too!”

Funny Girl traces the life of Fanny Brice, a Jewish vaudevillian. Most of us know the movie, but seeing the stage show will give fans a chance to hear songs that were cut from the two-and-a-half-hour film, including “Who Are You Now?” and “Cornet Man.” 

Epstein joins a range of women (from Streisand to Debbie Gibson) who’ve played the show, but the last big Toronto production was in 1966, when it toured here straight from Broadway. Musical theatre in Toronto has changed in various ways since then: the new production of Cats is to be applauded for having an all-Canadian cast, but not for drastically reducing the orchestra to be nearly all synthesized. Funny Girl gives us both a full orchestra and a cast made up of Canadian musical theatre royalty, including Shawn Wright, Paula Wolfson, Jayne Lewis, Jenni Burke and Victor Young. 

Absent from the cast is Gabi’s brother, Jake Epstein. The Degrassi star just finished a run on Broadway in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and is in rehearsal for the new Carole King musical, Beautiful. Gabi shuts down any rumours of sibling rivalry immediately. “I cried five times during Spider-Man, and there’s a lot of love there; there always has been. We both grew up performing, and we love each other way too much for there ever to be competition. It helps that he’s a boy, so we’re never up against each other for a role. Our voices and styles are different: I come from singing, he came from acting, and we both kind of stumbled into musical theatre.”

Overnight stardom is a myth, a product of musicals like Funny Girl, but I guarantee that by taking a pass on TIFF’s manufactured hype and overstyled movie dilettantes and sitting down for a few hours to witness a glorious Canadian voice singing a beloved score, you will have a new star to fawn over. One who won’t block traffic in Yorkville but who will share a bevvie with you in the gaybourhood. 

To borrow from another golden-age musical, it seems to be Gabi’s turn, and she credits her gay male Church Street fan-base with honing her skills. “My aunt used to say, ‘You can’t just go out there and introduce every song with “The next song is . . . !”’” So she set about taking Toronto’s growing cabaret scene by storm. After building up a following by winning Church Street talent competitions and playing solo shows at venues like Statlers, The Flying Beaver and the Green Door Cabaret, she makes no bones about the mutual love affair. “They make me grow and come up with better and better ideas. They helped me learn the type of performer I wanted to be. Church Street is my audience — you’ll see me there before the show and after the show!”