Ensemble Theatre, September 9


The ghosts from his past turned out for this one. Marlene was there, as was Billie, hyperactive Judy (of course), Nina, Aretha and Janis. But the point was that now they were just ghosts. Where once Paul Capsis built his reputation on doing wickedly accurate impressions of these great divas, now the show’s heart and soul were his alone. Rather than pretending, he was just being, and the extravagant theatricality was wrapped around a deeper truth, with sadness at its core.

The songs became like items of reversible clothing. Instead of being content with offering garish facades and amusing us with the precision of his vocal and physical impressions, Capsis turned the songs inside out, and without entirely losing the sense of pastiche laced with affectionate satire, he has found how to move us simultaneously. He has found the secret of being Paul Capsis while channelling the ghosts.

Photo: Don Arnold. (Top photo: John McRae.)

His late-period, cracked-voice Billie Holliday led us from desolation to the deeper pit of despair on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and his mobile-mouthed Judy Garland sang The Man That Got Away with shivery intensity.

Amid the ghosts he and his made-to-measure collaborator, pianist Jeremy Brennan, glued an improbable mix of material into a mostly cohesive whole, ranging from One More for My Baby (and One More for the Road) to Proud Mary. Suddenly Dietrich, Cher and the rest were brought so close together that their knees touched.

Capsis was also just Capsis, re-angling the light on exceptional songs. On Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now Brennan crafted a startling piano accompaniment that was like icicles snapping against the profound sadness of the singing. Another was Lou Reed’s Perfect Day – among the most under-appreciated songs of the last century.

Some insecure high notes crept into Little Girl Blue, and the opening Ego Is Not a Dirty Word seemed a throwback to an earlier Capsis – but only once we had heard just far he can now take us.