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'The Guide to Being Fabulous' by Sandra Caldwell

Part of (her words) Festival now onstage at Toronto's Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District

Dahlia Katz

Dave Rabjohn

It was certainly a wild ride. Sandra Caldwell’s upbringing, formative years and professional career in theatre was tragic, singular and finally successful.

‘The Guide to Being Fabulous’, part of Soulpepper’s (her words) Festival, is a living autobiography written and performed by Caldwell. The strength of this production comes from the unique, easy-going banter and a strong song list mainly from James Dower with lyrics from Caldwell herself.

As a gifted trans woman, Ms. Caldwell has a unique perspective. Her courageous self portrait has gone through several revisions over the years – each edition becoming more candid than the last. From her notes, she suggests that early attempts found that “a whole lot of the truth was missing.” This production is now a full-frontal assault with the truth.

Raised in an impoverished broken home, she decided to break away and was attracted to the seamier parts of downtown Washington D.C. Her mentors were pickpockets and prostitutes – going down these paths resulted in numerous run ins with the law and frequent incarcerations (not your typical high school experience.) The song ‘Avoidance Tango’ was a clever metaphor for “all things street” complete with the requisite rose made from money.

Caught up in the last days of burlesque, Ms. Caldwell realized some talent and muted success. ‘Striptease’ was a strong number where the supporting actors, Tiffany Deriveau and Miss Niki Nikita elegantly and humorously share their skills with the new kid.

Finding supporters of various integrity, she ends up in Europe partying with Mick Jagger and David Bowie. After deportation (she was usually light with appropriate documents) she found legitimate success in Montreal, New York and Toronto. Her private life and professional career continued on the rise. Her on stage calm belying the unvarnished narrative uniquely draws in the audience. Long arms and long fingers gesticulate with easy going strength.

‘It Goes Here’ is an example of her rich voice and a singing ability to tell a story. A short laugh often prefaces or punctuates a particular retort which almost comforts the audience even in the midst of a harrowing tale.
A clever audience plan augments the traditional stadium seating. Space between the first row and the stage front allowed for about ten cabaret style tables complete with table lights that react to the performance. The intimacy and atmosphere fully animated the story of her performance career.

Anahita Dehbonehie’s set design allowed for plenty of movement and dancing and oozed the nightclub/disco scene – such a large part of her career. Frank Donato’s projections were visually striking, but also moving depicting her own career and the important people in her life.

A splendid four-piece band kept up with Ms. Caldwell’s manic energy. Audiences are always energized when recognizing performers having their own good time. Michael Shand, the bandleader, is a perfect example as he smiled and laughed – didn’t even have to buy a ticket!

This deeply personal story runs the gamut of reckless tragedy and final triumph. Ms. Caldwell has the right to feel sorry for herself, but she never takes this path. She relates her story with dignity, self reflection and humour. That is perhaps the true guide to being fabulous.

‘The Guide to Being Fabulous’ by Sandra Caldwell
Performers: Sandra Caldwell, Tiffany Deriveau, Miss Niki Nikita
Director: Weyni Mengesha
Set Designer: Anahita Dehbonehie
Costumes: Ming Wong
Music director: Michael Shand
Video Designer: Frank Donato

Performance runs through: November 12, 2023.

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