SARAH SLEAN with the BLUE SPRUCE QUARTET and ROYAL WOOD at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, December 15. Attendance: 350. Tickets: $22. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Near the end of her friday-night set at Harbourfront Centre Theatre , Sarah Slean turned to her audience and said, "However weird I get, you always come and watch me. I can buy groceries because of you."
Now, try to picture what it must be like when Sarah Slean goes grocery shopping. I wager she buys a lot of radicchio (easily the most eccentric of vegetables). Or only purchases cartons of milk expected to expire on Tuesdays. Or exclusively eats citrus fruit grown in countries ruled by monarchies. Maraschino cherries are probably a frequent purchase, too.
Not that her grocer likely minds. For one thing, somebody has to buy the maraschino cherries. For another, the grocer undoubtedly finds her eccentric eating habits nothing less than endearing.
Because this is Sarah Slean, this is how she operates. This is what works for her. She is a charming lunatic.
Onstage, in a little black dress, she bounces around barefoot. She speaks in accents of unknown origin or just trills her between-song banter. At various points, she mimes. Or appears to be channelling Judy Garland.
You or I would be unable to do any of this and still maintain friendships or steady jobs. We'd be shunned, if not committed. But with these quirks, Slean has fostered a devoted group of charmed followers as the winsome young couples at Harbourfront would attest.
Her lunacy is tolerated nay, encouraged because Slean is an artiste. A painter-slash-actor-slash-musician, to be exact. The sort who takes off for France and posts poetry on her blog ("There are chemicals of me-ness/ alive in foreign neurons, / indivisible tadpoles of a matterless she.")
But what carries her cartoonish antics is what happens when she's left to a piano and her own devices namely, her voice. There alone or with a string quartet in between discussing Blink 182, sensible footwear and French culture, is where she justifies the weirdness.
For the most part, she succeeds. Slean is unquestionably talented, able to flit effortlessly from one personality to another. From ecstatic (Sweet Ones) to shattered (Last Year's War) to completely unhinged (Lucky You, performed barefoot with the aforementioned miming).
While the vaudeville show is cute, she's still best sitting at the piano. There, her eccentricities are focused.
At various points, she would let the final note of a song linger, threatening to strike another, running her fingers just millimetres above the white keys before opting to let it go. It was strangely enthralling stuff.
Was she, in those moments, attempting to communicate telepathically with her instrument? Or simply selling the drama? Is she a certifiable loon or does she just play one onstage?
Maybe only her grocer knows for sure.