Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Abominable Showman, June 10, 2012

Life is a cabaret, old chum
Bugs takes in Cabaret in London’s West End, then previews the upcoming Montreal production of the famed musical as he uncovers similar themes within his own political family, back in colonial Africa…
By Richard Burnett
I knew I was in deep trouble when my travel buddy Vinnie and I were several shots into a bottle of absinthe hanging out with a couple friends in London for my birthday back in 2007, in a nightclub that looked like the alien bar in the original Star Wars movie. 
London – or Londonistan, as I like to call it, since British jihadists were terrorizing the city at the time – is still the pulse of Europe, though I couldn’t find mine when we stumbled from Detroit, the absinthe bar, to the Shadow Lounge on Old Compton Street in Soho, an expensive disco where Graham Norton and Rupert Everett like to hang out with the beautiful people. 
I felt like I was the star of a musical, like Cabaret, which we saw the previous night at the Lyric Theatre – the oldest theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in the West End, having opened in December 1888. 
Sarah Bernhardt, Tallulah Bankhead, Leslie Howard, Noël Coward, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and John Malkovich have all performed on this glorious stage. 

On this night it was the turn of British actress Kim Medcalf to dazzle.
“Life is a cabaret old chum,” Medcalf sang in the role still owned by Liza. 
Except this production outclassed the original, from the fabulous nudity to the closing gas-chamber death scene in a Nazi concentration camp. 
“The most stunningly fresh and imaginative revival of a classic musical that I have ever seen,” The Independent newspaper raved. 

Music Theatre's Cabaret

So I am interested to see the upcoming Montreal production of Cabaret – based on a book written by Christopher Isherwood, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb – performed by the 18-month-old theatre company Music Theatre Montreal, a federally registered not-for-profit stepping stone organization for young theatre professionals.
“Our theatre company provides a platform for emerging artists to showcase their works, especially since Montreal lacks English musical theatre,” says Cabaret director and Halifax native Jonathan Keijser, who is wise beyond his 22 years. “Cabaret was an easy choice because the musical has substance and is entertaining at the same time. What’s so great about this show and its message is it goes beyond one generation and a terrible time in our history. It’s still current today.”

Adds Keijser, “Like most people I first saw the movie with Liza, but I first worked on a Cabaret production as a technical director in Halifax. We have a small Montreal cast and a 15-piece orchestra but everyone is very strong, at the peak of developing their careers. And the great thing about the script is I’ve taken parts of all three revisions, combined them together and hopefully made a version people will enjoy.”

Meanwhile, in London, my father’s hometown still bears the scars of WWII, a time when my British grandfather was a firefighter in London during the Blitz. My father grew from being a nine-year-old boy to a 16-year-old teen over the course of the war. One legendary true story had him and his best boyhood chum Ray carry home an unexploded German incendiary bomb. Miraculously, my grandfather – coming home from his firefighter shift – stopped them from pulling the pin from the bomb that my dad and Ray had curiously dismantled in the back yard.
After the war my father served in the British military in Germany from 1947 to 1949 as part of a Sexton tank crew.
(r) Felix Laventure in Port Louis, Mauritius, c. 1949, 
sitting to the right is Hillary Blood, sucking on a pipe

A world away, in the southern African island nation of Mauritius, my mom’s father, Felix Laventure (or “Monpère” as we all called him), was the mayor of the capital city of Port Louis. 
“As our civilization agonizes through anarchy,” Monpère stated in a February 1950 speech to various dignitaries on the occasion of Port Louis’s 100th anniversary, “what will remain of human liberty?”
Bugs, bro and Ma in
the bustling town named
after the old Laventure
family plantation in the Southern
African island nation of Mauritius
Following my über-gay birthday weekend in London, I flew to Mauritius with my mother to revisit her homeland, which reminded me of other former British colonies like Jamaica and Barbados in the West Indies. 
“You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius,” Mark Twain once famously remarked. (He also said of Montreal that one couldn’t throw a rock without breaking a church window.) 
Modern-day Mauritius is also one of just two African nations (the other being South Africa) to have a Gay Pride parade. Just this past June 2, over 350 brave persons courageously marched in an exuberant Pride parade – complete with drag queens and palm trees – in the streets of Beau Bassin. 
When I was there last I tracked down the parade organizers at the Collectif arc-en-ciel. 
“There is an underground network,” parade organizer Nicholas Ritter told me. “Most gays here are married and live double lives.”
Indeed, there are no gay bars in Mauritius (“You’d go at your own risk,” Nicholas explains). In fact, there are just a couple that I know of in all of Africa, and they’re in Cape Town. But today, young gay Mauritians are standing up.
It reminded me of a NYC job with Human Rights Watch that I interviewed for some years ago, and think I lost because I said, “I believe we must protect our sources, but there also comes a time when individuals must also stand up.”
In fact, over 50 years ago, my grandfather was so loved by the people the British appointed him as a government minister (better to have him on their side, they reasoned). 
Mauritius Gay Pride 2012 (via Facebook)
But Monpère – who got his law degree from Cambridge University – was a political Robin Hood: After hosting a Commonwealth conference about farming co-ops, he introduced a law in parliament that would expropriate land from the plantation owners in Mauritius to create farming co-ops for the poor.
The British establishment and landowners freaked out and just wanted Monpère to go away. So he was offered a Washington, D.C. ambassador posting through back channels by his island nemesis, Mauritius Governor-General Sir Hilary Blood. When my grandfather refused the ambassadorship, the family was forced into exile, which is how we eventually ended up in Montreal.
My mother’s life would have been radically different had she gone to Washington instead of Montreal. So I am grateful my grandfather refused the DC ambassadorship, otherwise I would not be here today to write this column. 
Decades later, when Monpère passed away, Mauritius had a minute of silence in Parliament in his honour, and today a bustling town called Laventure stands on the old Laventure sugar plantation.
My trip to London and Mauritius – from Cabaret to the Blitz, from Sir Hilary Blood to Monpère defying his British political masters, to young gay Mauritians organizing their fledgling Gay Pride march in Beau Bassin this June, the same month most Pride parades are held worldwide in honour of Stonewall – reminded me that in the end we must all stand up and be counted for. After all, what else is there to do?
Do not miss Cabaret at Montreal’s beautifully-renovated D.B. Clarke Theatre (1455 de Maisonneuve), from June 22 to 30. Shows at 8:00 p.m. Additional weekend matinees at 3:00 p.m. Click here for more info or to purchase tickets ($15 - $25).
Liza Minelli headlines Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place des Arts during the Montreal International Jazz Festival, July 5 at 7:30 p.m. Click here for more info or to purchase tickets ($80 - $104).
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