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Tomson Highway performs Kisageetin: A Cabaret.

3 out of 4 stars

Kisageetin: A Cabaret

  • Written by Tomson Highway
  • Featuring Tomson Highway, Patricia Cano and Christopher Plock
  • At the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto

The last time I had an opportunity to interview Tomson Highway, by phone in 2008, he was down in Buenos Aires where, he told me, he was getting a sex-change operation. That's just Highway's loopy sense of humour. It turns out the First Nations playwright-composer wasn't switching genders in South America, but soaking up inspiration.

Kisageetin, his delightful new cabaret playing at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre, includes a mock-sultry tango about a "swarthy" Argentine lover who woos his inamorata by bringing her bowls of spaghetti. Sung with lusty gusto by the show's engaging vocalist, Patricia Cano - after removing the rose clenched between her teeth, of course - it's the comical highlight of the program.

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The 58-year-old Highway, revered for his landmark plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, has turned his hand to songwriting in the last decade. To judge from the evidence here, he's a master of the playful pastiche. Kisageetin's 12 tunes range from that tango to swooning romantic ballads à la Cole Porter to jocular French Canadian-style folk songs. The saucy Hey, Good-Lookin' riffs on the Hank Williams country classic, but adopts the boogie-woogie rhythms of Fats Waller. The elegant ballad Love I Know is Here evokes the Broadway-era Kurt Weill, while its follow-up, The Window - a melodramatic tale of tainted love - recalls the gritty Weill, who wrote with Bertolt Brecht.

Some of the lyrics are in Highway's native Cree (translated here with surtitles) and one number is in French. "Kisageetin" is a Cree word meaning "I love you," and Highway originally wrote these songs as a birthday gift to his life partner, Raymond Lalonde. They're also meant to represent a series of letters read/sung by the postmistress (Cano) of a small town in northern Ontario. The cabaret doesn't make too much of that dramatic conceit, however. It's essentially a loose, lively recital, with Cano's singing backed by Highway on piano and Toronto jazz musician Christopher Plock on saxophones.

Cano, Highway's regular collaborator for his cabaret shows, is the perfect interpreter of his brash songwriting style. She's got a Broadway belter's voice and the stage presence to match it. With a sparkling personality, she gamely tackles the tongue-twisting lyrics of Highway's rapid-fire comedy numbers (the best of these being a ditty called I Shot Him in the Head), while bringing a breathy sweetness to his gentler compositions.

The classically trained Highway plays his Steinway in a cheerfully flashy style - the man is addicted to glissandos. His wit extends to his wardrobe. He appears wearing a jacket with absurdly long tails like some cartoon concert pianist. Plock, in contrast, is reserved. Recruited for the Toronto run of Kisageetin, which Highway and Cano first performed last summer in Cano's hometown of Sudbury, he seemed to hang back for much of Thursday night's opening performance. It wasn't until the end of the two-part program that he stepped to the fore, serving up a sweet solo on the tender penultimate ballad, Have I Told You, and letting loose with some wailing improvisations on the final song, The Robins of Dawn.

Although there are lovely moments, Highway's musical trifles don't have the power and richness of his plays or his novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen. What they do share with his other work is giddy humour and warmth of spirit, which bathes the audience and turns the cabaret into one big Highway love-in.

Kisageetin comes bearing, in the words of one of its songs, "peace and love and great mirth." Running this weekend in downtown Toronto, part of which has been turned into a police state for the G8/G20 summit, it's a much-needed antidote to all the tension. World leaders would be well advised to step over to the Berkeley Street Theatre and chill out with Highway & Co. before making any major decisions.

Kisageetin: A Cabaret continues through Sunday.

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