2020 Wildside Recap: ‘Her Songs, My Story’

Special Festival Coverage

Centaur Theatre‘s annual independent theatre fest, the WILDSIDE is back for its 23rd edition from January 7th-18th. On the audacious lineup: jazz and blues legend Michelle Sweeney gets real in the World Premiere of her solo tour-de-force, Her Songs, My Story.

The songs are Aretha Franklin’s; the story is Michelle Sweeney’s. At the intersection of these two iconic women is one soulful medley on the power of vulnerability.

Michelle Sweeney has long been a musical sensation of her own after skyrocketing to stardom in Montreal while performing in local theatre legend Roger Peace’s hit Canadian tour of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in the late 80’s. She’s since worked alongside some of the world’s most renowned entertainers, including Celine Dion, Mary J. Blige, and Oliver Jones. Her ever-potent vocals and all-commanding stage presence have made the jazz and blues beltress synonymous with “strength”, and her stories of sterling career success have depicted nothing short of a life of stainless glimmer and glamour.

In her newest solo show, however, Sweeney finds true strength in defenceless, tearing away at the armour of fake lashes to reveal a complexity of emotion in the eyes – a decurtained window to the darker depths of her reality.

Interweaving Franklin’s cherished gospel music with a first-person narrative, the autobiographical Her Songs, My Story is an intimate revelation of the beloved Sweeney’s untold personal traumas. Connecting the themes of the score with the events of her own life, she vividly recounts her experiences being raised by her grandmother after abandonment and loss, regardfully unveils a family member’s difficult battle with mental health, and courageously breaks the 30-year silence as the victim in an abusive relationship.

The evening is ultimately one of tears of joy and laughter, though, in its commemoration of “Freedom” and of the resilience of the human spirit.

The show is a curious pick for the Wildside, however. It doesn’t seem a natural fit for the off-beat festival – which is not to discredit the wonderful artistic merits of either – but among the other offerings on the eccentric lineup, it plays perhaps too much as a traditional tribute-style concert featuring chart-topping favourites. It’s all thoroughly entertaining, certainly, but Sweeney is a riveting singer and storyteller, and as a theatregoer I confess I parted ways with my seat craving for more of the latter.

In a festival of misfits, however, I suppose it is precisely its outlier quality of convention here that makes it a perfect selection.

And besides, one cannot deny the bold and brazen quality of Her Songs, My Story that the Wildside is most celebrated for.

It’s a decadent listen to one of the most exquisite voices of our time, and a fascinating unprecedented glimpse into the soul behind the sound.

The 2020 Wildside Festival presents Her Songs, My Story
January 8-16, 2020
Centaur Theatre | 453 St Francois Xavier St.
$16 Adults | $13 Students/Seniors/Under 30s
514-288-3161 | www.centaurtheatre.com

For more 2020 Wildside Festival Recaps, visit: 

Camila Fitzgibbon

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