Review: Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert (Le Ministère, 4521 St. Laurent Blvd.), House of Laureen Presents Mx. Queerdo MTL (Café Cleopâtre, 1230 St. Laurent Blvd.) and Fairy Fails (Montreal Improv, 3697 St. Laurent Blvd.)
During the course of her tribute show Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert, Melanie Gall confesses that she makes more money as a Fringe performer than as an opera singer. That’s definitely the Fringe’s gain and the concert hall’s loss. For Gall’s singing is phenomenal and not, with due respect to the scores of hard-working, talented Fringe artists, the kind of quality we’re used to getting in tiny venues at around ten bucks a pop.
As it happens, Gall has toured all over the world, including at such internationally-renowned venues as The Lincoln Centre and Carnegie Hall, performing the music of, among others, Sophie Tucker, Deanna Durbin and Irving Berlin. She’s also, she tells us during one of her many giddy flights of banter, a specialist in lost knitting songs from World Wars I and II (“Yes, I’m single,” she quips).
As the title of her current show suggests, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel never performed together – they never, as far as we know, actually met. And, given this is a one-woman show, we don’t get representations of them side by side, just alternating turns at the mic for each one. A simple enough formula, and maybe a “Fringier” show would have found a more theatrically imaginative way of bending reality towards the impossible. That’s clearly not Gall’s style, however, and she prefers to let the music speak for itself without any stage trickery.
Despite her name, she doesn’t share any Gallic background with her two subjects – she’s an Anglophone from Alberta. But her français takes flight when she belts out numbers like Amsterdam, La Vie en Rose, Le Moribond, and, of course, Je ne regrette rien. They’re not impersonations: there’s a hint of Brel’s snarling romanticism and that anguished Piaf tremolo, but Gall swells each rendition magnificently with the grandeur of her operatic delivery.
Against this, and somewhat incongruously, her personality is very much in the girl-next-door scale. Whether giving us biographical snippets of Brel and Piaf, or regaling us with anecdotes from her globetrotting career, she treats the audience as though we’re her pals meeting her for a round of drinks. It’s the kind of sincerity that’s often faked and calculated to get the audience onside. But I’ve rarely seen a performer being so much themselves on stage as is Gall, and the effect is enormously winning and infectious.
Another musical cabaret-style show happening in the Fringe, but one which couldn’t be more of a contrast is House of Laureen Presents: Mx. Queerdo MTL.
Let’s break down that unwieldy title down for the uninitiated:
House of Laureen, now Café Cleopatra’s resident drag troupe, first burst onto the scene during the Fringe’s 2015 edition, when Stephen Harper was still a thing: the evening of outrageously camp but politically-charged cabaret was cheekily named after the PM’s wife. Since then, House of Laureen have become Fringe favourites, with shows like 2016’s Backdoor Queens (which also played at Centaur’s Wildside Festival) and last year’s Apocalipsync.
This time around they’re running a pageant to discover the most bizarre drag act Montreal has to offer, hence the Mx. Queerdo MTL part of the title. Taking place over the course of the festival, the competition consists of several heats, each featuring four drag queens who take turns to perform a particularly outlandish lipsync number.
Each heat is themed (Filthy Trash, Glitterati, Living Nightmare, etc), and the ladies of House of Laureen—Uma Gahd, Anaconda Lasabrosa and Selma Gahd—pass their considered judgment and test the contestants on their winning personalities.
The night I caught it (the theme: Campy Kitsch) saw the statuesque Bambi Dextrous doing Norma Desmond (from Sunset Boulevard); Matante Alex stripping off to portray a sweetly innocent (though not really) Cupid; a bearded Demon LaSlave summoning up the Horned One while pissing off the judges and delighting the audience with her Diva-ish upstaging; and Heaven Genderfck strutting around as a cow, swinging a set of udders while being flanked by two nervous chickens. This last truly surreal act was, for me, the cream of the crop, yet the judges’ response was curiously curdled: she was put out to pasture in fourth place.
It's a raucous and, if you require it, boozy night of entertainment that takes place over the throb of Montreal’s oldest surviving strip joint downstairs. As always with House of Laureen, it’s all a bit haphazard in its execution: RuPaul is unlikely to be coming to them for tips on pacing and production values. That, of course, is part of its charm. Yet the acts, for all their playfulness, are accomplished and wonderfully creative drag performers, while the judges are enjoyably snippy. “How are we going to elevate this?” Uma Gahd repeatedly asks through a gap-toothed grimace.
The grand finale takes place tonight, thus clearing the ladies' schedules so they can join the Fringe hopefuls on Sunday night for that other display of weird and wonderful pageantry, the Frankie Awards.
One House of Laureen regular not seated at the judges’ table was the sweetly diminutive Dot Dot Dot. Her alter-ego, Ander Gates, was otherwise engaged presenting his first solo show, Fairy Fails, in which he plays Meander, a loveable little Tinkerbell whose wings just won’t work.
It’s an appealing and compact little story structured like a children’s show, with Gates also playing a television expert on the science of fairy flight, a floating cloud and a wicked witch with evil designs on Meander’s wings. There’s just one gross-out moment of cheerful House of Laureen-ish vulgarity, which involves the ingredients that wind up in the witch’s cauldron.
Gates draws on his skills as a drag queen, and also brings plenty of fresh ideas for physical comedy. It’s an energetic show that’s often amusingly ragged around the edges. Sometimes, though, it feels as though Gates’s clowning skills need sharpening to make those clumsy costume changes and dropped cues feel comically calculated rather than under-rehearsed.
But Gates’s stage presence is so adorably vulnerable that you root not only for Meander as he forlornly flaps his wings, but for the performer himself, who is taking his first steps on a career as a clown. (He’s one of the organizers the Montreal Clown Festival, which happens in the fall.) If, despite some delightful moments, Fairy Fails doesn’t quite take flight overall, we can all make a wish that next time, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Beckett, he fails better.
Editor's note: Maisonneuve will be publishing several reviews from Montreal's arts festivals this summer.
Jim Burke is a freelance arts journalist who writes about theatre and dance for the Montreal Gazette. Originally from Manchester, England, he has written for several UK publications such as City Life Magazine, Manchester Evening News, Plays and Players and Metro. A playwright himself, he has written scripts for BBC Radio and for the stage in England, Montreal and Germany.
For more information about these shows and about the Montreal Fringe in general, visit montrealfringe.ca