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Behind the Scenes

Jeff Hyslop on Stage

Jeff Hyslop performed in a one-man show on stage in locations across Canada in the early 2000s.  Laurie Russell had the opportunity to travel to see a performance of Jeff's show.  This is her account...

Because we chose to go to the Alberta show (much closer to us than Ontario), we wound up at a fund-raiser at a 500-seat theatre in Sherwood Park, Alberta called "Festival Place." They have an annual show which they call "Black and White Goes Broadway." Every year they put on their fancy clothes and come out in force to support the arts in Strathcona County. It began with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, followed by a silent auction (people would go around and sign their bidding number onto a list of bids), then a live auction (complete with fast-talking auctioneer) and then finally culminate in "Jeff Hyslop Now!" The box office assured me that this was the same show he had been giving all over Canada and will be giving soon in Ontario.

Now cocktail parties aren't exactly my thing, especially with a bunch of people I don't know, so I felt distinctly uncomfortable sitting around watching people drink and nibble. I had gotten off on the wrong foot when we picked up our tickets by saying I wouldn't be bidding. The lady seemed downright shocked that I would come and not bid on anything in their auction. If I had it to do over again I would take a number just to make her happy. Evidently there were only a few people here were there purely to see Jeff Hyslop.

We sat through the live auction. My sister Pamela really enjoyed watching it but everything in the auction began with a bid of $500, so it was really out of our reach. The highest bid that night was $3100 for some Wayne Gretzky memorabilia. There were soapstone statuettes and paintings and a Persian rug and a Japanese rug. It was getting later and later, almost 9pm by now. I was worried that maybe Jeff was getting stiff waiting backstage! The people here were mostly corporate types, and they seemed to be bidding more as a charitable donation than to get the things auctioned -- with the exception of the Wayne Gretzky memorabilia, that is.

Finally the auctioneer began to introduce Jeff. He began by saying that the first time he saw Jeff Hyslop was in a television show where he played a mannequin with his friends Jodie, Muffy the Mouse, and the security guard whose name he couldn't remember.

Now everyone had been yelling out during the auction, so I called out to him, "SAM CRENSHAW!" from my box seat which was close to the stage, embarrassing my sister.

And then it was time. I have to admit I was somewhat nervous about seeing Jeff perform. After all, the last performance of his I had access too was from 1987 - 13 years ago! Maybe he would have changed so much it would be like watching a stranger.

Those fears evaporated as soon as Jeff came out on the stage. There was no set, just a black backdrop, black stage, and a grand piano with his accompanist David Warrack. Jeff was simply dressed in grays and blacks.  His first number was "Showtune" by Ray Jessel, a sometimes awkwardly rhymed anthem to the type of song Jeff would devote the evening to.

The show was something of a career retrospective, loosely tied together by a part serious, part comical, not really chronological narrative that Jeff gave between songs.  And the songs! From "Chorus Line," "Dancin' Man," "Anne of Green Gables," "Today's Special," "Phantom of the Opera," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Carousel," the list goes on.

What amazed me throughout the show was that Jeff has so many "voices" when he sings. There's the clear strong tenor that we heard for so many years on Today's Special -- the voice he used in songs like "Boxes" and "Learn" from "School." Then there was a deeper voice, in the lower baritone range, which I think of as his "Phantom" voice. He *never* sang that low on Today's Special, and it was amazing to hear this deep earthy sound, especially when he was singing "Music of the Night" and "September Song." Then there's the falsetto (heard on Today's Special in "Memories" in the last song he sang on the show) which he used to beautiful effect in "If I Loved You" and "I Don't Care Much." Sometimes he would use a mix of different voices in one song. I was floored by the variety of moods he was able to call up with a simple change of voice.

Jeff's hair is now completely white, but otherwise he looks quite the same as he did before. So from time to time, he would have a look on his face, or do something with his voice, or say something with an inflection which made me think to myself, "I know him!" It was the recognition factor that I was so afraid I wouldn't experience.

And his sense of humor, the comedic timing which was so apparent, especially in the last two years of Today's Special, was in good shape too.  The audience warmed to him quickly, and he had us all laughing in no time.

His extraordinary acting ability came through on each and every song. He not only sang each song, but performed them, as if in the context of the shows they were taken from.

A special highlight, for me, was his tribute to "Today's Special." When I watch this immensely talented man and see the depth of his abilities, I find it hard to believe that he spent so much time and put so much of himself into a children's show.  I wondered if he felt somewhat stereotyped by it, or whether, like so many other talented performers who've had a successful series, he felt pigeonholed by "Jeff the Mannequin." So it was wonderful when he began singing the theme song with complete ease and grace, not a touch of embarrassment or condescension. At the end, when he sang, "shout it loud and clear" I cried out "Today's Special!" with a few other knowing souls in the audience. But Jeff wasn't satisfied with that paltry response, so he sang the line again, "Today's Special, shout it loud and clear!" This time the audience cried out in a roar, "Today's Special!"  It was great!

Then we all got up and Jeff directed us in the first dance song from "Shoes" ("You put your one foot forward . . .") It was so much fun! I wished I had room to do the dance the way he did it in "Shoes," but with a chair a couple of inches behind me and the balcony rail in front of me, that wasn't quite possible. But Pamela and I sang along and tapped and spun. Best of all, so did the rest of the audience! Mostly consisting of people in their 40s to 60s, and dressed in semi-formal attire, the audience nonetheless tapped and twirled on Jeff's command, and rewarded him with an enthusiastic ovation afterwards.

We had seen a song listed in the program called "In the Twinkle," but I couldn't imagine what song that was. What a surprise to hear him begin to sing the song I've always referred to as "Night Sky," one of my absolute favorite solos from "Today's Special!" What a wonderful compliment to that beautiful song to sing it side by side with songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber! I had my hand over my mouth the whole time, I was so thrilled to hear the song again, and sung with such great gentleness and respect.

Jeff then said that because of the fact that families watched the show together, and because he and Nina Keogh and Bob Dermer and Nerene Virgin had become like a family themselves as they did the show, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of his career. As he said it, he had his hands over his heart, and a voice full of genuine sincerity.

For the rest of the audience, I believe the highlight of the first act was when he sang "Music of the Night." I've heard the song sung by many before, but Jeff makes it his own, singing it more slowly than anyone else dares to, drawing out the meaning of the words, acting it out as he sings. It made me wish I had seen him as the Phantom myself! Too bad there wasn't at least a Canadian cast album.

Throughout the evening Jeff danced, during songs and between songs, but he couldn't dance too vigorously because then he would have been too out of breath to sing. Still he delighted us with little steps here and there, some soft shoe tapping, and spectacularly high kicks which culminated in nearly vertical splits and had the audience cheering! No one dances quite like he does, he's got the lightness and grace that make him almost seem to float over the surface of the stage combined with impressive athleticism, a perfect cross between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.  Even when he wasn't actually dancing, but simply moving across the stage, as in "Dressing Them Up" from "Kiss of the Spider Woman," he had command of his body and the stage with which he created whatever mood he chose. It was something to see. When it came time for an encore he did a soft shoe without any musical accompaniment - to everyone's delight.

David Warrack played an easy light-fingered piano that matched Jeff's style beautifully. My husband spent most of the concert watching his fingers fly over the keys. Warrack also joined Jeff in an amazing duet, "Two of a Kind," in which we discovered that the piano man could sing as well. It was great the way their voices blended and created one lovely sound.

What with the auction running so long, it was nearly midnight when the show was over. In a way, we were fortunate to be at this fund raiser, because afterwards while everyone else was sipping their Grand Marniers, eating dessert and trying to figure out who won the silent auction, we were scanning the room for Jeff.  After he posed for publicity photos, we were able to talk to him right away. A woman told us, "Don't be shy," and she called out, "Jeffrey!" reminding Pamela and I of Mrs. Pennypacker!  When I told him we had come from San Francisco, he said, "Why?" and then hugged us both. We explained that we were one of the families that watched "Today's Special" together.  He was just as kind and approachable as Kim and Kelly told me he would be, and talking to him was the perfect ending to this very special evening.

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