Tuesday 19 April 2011

Schwartz's The Musical: Toronto option and much more

The Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, better known as Schwartz’s, has received its fair share of publicity over the years. In recent years it has been the subject of a documentary film and a book by journalist Bill Brownstein. When the highly regarded Centaur Theatre announced last year that it would be presenting a stage version of the Brownstein publication called Schwartz’s The Musical many people wondered whether this was an elaborate April Fool’s joke.

Founded in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, the restaurant has been at the same location ever since, on Bulevard Saint-Laurent. The locale is a single white-tiled room containing several rows of long narrow tables. Next door is a new takeout counter, with limited seating, which has helped reduce the lineups which frequently snake up the street. (photo above left, Felicia Shulman and Vito DeFilippo)

The musical features the outstanding comedy duo of Bowser & Blue, brought to life on stage with a full cast of larger-than-life characters who call Schwartz's "home," and some of the many customers who pass through its doors. Schwartz's: The Musical celebrates the eccentric side of Schwartz’s and the dreaded F-word: franchise!

Since its debut at the end of March, the musical has plated before repeated sellout crowds and had its run extended twice. As of this writing it is scheduled to continue until May 7. Directed by the Centaur’s Artistic and Executive Director Roy Surette, the multi-talented cast of actors and musicians comprising Chris Barillaro, Rick Blue, George Bowser, Jim Cahill, Vito DeFilippo, Bruce Dinsmore, Holly Gauthier-Frankel, Dominic Lorange, Stephanie Martin, Gordon Masten (who can also be seen these days I n the big screen movie Source Code as the conductor), and noted stage veteran Felicia Shulman play as many as 60 characters ranging from Toronto executives, to Schwartz’s owners, staff and loyal customers from over the years! (photo above, one of the funnier scenes from the show)

The fictitious story is set in 1998 when owner Madame Chartrand (Shulman) decides to sell the deli. In comes Martin. She portrays Amber, a gal who is sent from Toronto to Montreal by her boyfriend to check out its potential for franchising. The set is amazing, the script hilarious and the musical numbers quite impressive as well.

Could the musical be headed down Highway 401 to Toronto? Hy Diamond, a Montreal businessman who actually purchased Schwartz’s in 1998, believes this would be a natural. “I have been telling everyone who will listen that this show just has to go to Toronto,” he told me.

Surette confirmed that the question being asked to him most often these days is whether or not the show will indeed be seen in Toronto. “Well the script itself presents a real tongue in cheek rivalry between Montreal and Toronto,” he said. “I do intend to get on the phone with the folks from Mirvish Entertainment and make a pitch. I could definitely see them booking this for a limited run.”

There is a classic line in the musical when discussion turns to whether it would be a good idea to have a Schwartz’s Deli in Toronto, that with all of the ex-Montrealers in Canada’s largest city “it would give them a reason to live!”

Another great line comes when a character says , “You know its spring, when the Leafs are out,” a dig at Toronto’s hockey team.

Surette has only been with the Centaur for a few years, having arrived here from Western Canada. “Like any tourist to Montreal, I would come here and one of my first stops was Schwartz’s,” he says. “When Bowser and Blue approached me two years ago with the idea of creating such a musical I thought it was a great idea. The response, in terms of ticket sales and reviews, though, has exceeded my expectations.”

Diamond notes that for more than 80 years Schwartz’s has been attracting diners from around the world. The musical follows the book by Brownstein, for which a second updated version was recently introduced, and the film called Chez Schwartz. It played in theatres, on CBC, is still available as a DVD and can now be seen on Air Canada flights. “At Schwartz’s, it does not matter whom you are or where you are from,” he remarked. “Everyone is treated the same way. People know this as a proud Montreal Jewish institution.” (photo above, Hy Diamond and granddaughter Jennifer Wieskopf)

Recently, Diamond brought in his 27 year old granddaughter Jennifer Wieskopf to work by his side. A graduate of York University’s Shulich School of Business, with a Bachelor Degree in Business Administration, she has been focusing on marketing and promotions and as a liaison to the producers of the musical. “I have helped them a lot with props,” she said. “Stuff like pickle jars or waiter’s uniforms. We really wanted to make the set look as realistic as possible. We even had the cast here to eat, but kept it kind of secret so they could observe exactly how our staff function . A photo shoot was also organized.”

Interestingly, Wieskopf is kosher and as a result she cannot eat the mouth watering smoked meat. “I enjoy the pickles, the French fries and the black cherry cola,” she laughs.

My first memories of Schwartz’s go way back to when my dad was friends with Maurice Zbriger, a previous owner and noted musician at the time. He would host our entire family for dinner on a regular basis, reserving a special table in the rear of the restaurant.

Whenever my brother in law comes to town from Chicago, he insists upon this being one of his first stops.

There are always celebrity sightings. Manager Frank Silva can barely keep track of them. Former Premier Lucien Bouchard loves the place and his character is depicted in the musical, as are Joan Rivers and Leonard Cohen.

Taking in the show on the night I attended was Quebec Minister of Finance Raymond Bachand and his lovely wife. They were laughing the entire time and stood up with the rest of the audience at the end to contribute to a standing ovation for the cast.

For ticket information go to http://www.centaurtheatre.com/ or call 514-288-3161.

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