It’s a pub. It’s a cabaret. Live from Toronto’s east end, The Flying Beaver Pubaret has been entertaining crowds for almost two years now. It’s time you got acquainted.
It’s a damp Friday night in Old Cabbagetown. Beside a Starbucks, and below a psychic, lives a place of utter charm wedged in amongst a mostly utilitarian stretch of Parliament Street. The vibe is far mellower than the scene outside most happening clubs: there’s no line of screaming patrons anxiously waiting to pay cover, and not even a single binge-boozer frantically chugging a traveller in sight. (After all, this isn’t that kind of strip.) Unless you peeked inside The Flying Beaver, you’d never know there was actually a grand old time waiting to be had, out of view from the city streets, on the other side of a curtained wall.
Through the vestibule and adjacent to the main bar, there’s a lineup of people waiting to be let in. You can hear the room exploding with laughter on the other side. Tonight is the debut of “Comedy, Cabaret, and Coffee Talk,” a new one-man-ish show from singer/actor/dancer—and diva!—Ryan G. Hinds. (“I take the ‘diva’ title very seriously and pride myself on giving people a theatrical experience no matter what I do,” he says.) Tonight, Hinds has promised “a cabaret evening in a chat show format to shake away your January blahs.” He says we should expect bite-sized portions of “music, gossip, stiff drinks, and fabulous guests.” I pass through an interior that looks positively, and perfectly, pre-Firkin 2.0, and snag a seat by the sound booth. The stage looks like a stripped-down Letterman set. Hinds—clad in red glitter lips and a structured shoulder bolero jacket—sashays up and down the centre aisle greeting guests. A server flutters around with menus and armfuls of plates; some guests are eating, others enjoying a drink. It’s looking like a full house. A show with dinner service—and you didn’t even have to wear a tie.
Heather Mackenzie and Maggie Cassella opened The Flying Beaver just before St. Patrick’s Day in 2011, pulled it together in a few short weeks, just in time for the biggest drinking day of the year. What makes their bar unique, though, is that they’ve branded it a “Pubaret”—part pub, part live entertainment venue. “Heather was looking for a restaurant, and I was looking for a room to put shows in,” says Cassella. “I wanted a room without a bar, dedicated to a show so you have to look at the stage and pay attention to the act.” The Pubaret—a term the ladies actually trademarked—takes dinner theatre and makes it approachable. Hence the perfectly-sliced pub-slash-cabaret bar, with a menu curated by chef Alamin Mozumdar.
The Flying Beaver Pubaret owners Maggie Cassella and Heather Mackenzie
Although The Flying Beaver has been quietly entertaining crowds for nearly two years, the joint has just started to reach beyond its boundaries and attract new audiences, like me. In the last two months, I got an explosion of invites for shows happening at the Pubaret. Aside from musical acts like Hinds and New Wave legend Carole Pope, there’s a strong comedic presence on the talent bill, with performers like Gavin Crawford, Carla Collins, and Kids In The Hall-er Scott Thompson, just to name a few. Next week, the main stage will welcome Sharron Matthews, who’s been called “the hottest ticket in town” by everyone from here to New York.
The room, which seats around 50 comfortably, is long and narrow, which performers say ultimately works to their advantage. “This was the first time doing my own show [here],” Hinds writes to me a few days later. He’s made recent appearances at the Pubaret as a guest of saxophonist Carrie Chestnutt, and at drag queen Jade Elektra’s talent show show last year. “I fell in love with the intimacy and layout. The stage is big enough to move around, but small enough that facial expressions and small movements stand out, and the long and narrow audience makes it so easy to pop out into the crowd for interaction. Half of all performance is audience energy, and The Flying Beaver setup makes it easy to mainline that energy.” His opinion makes sense since co-owner Cassella, a comic herself, says she built the room to reflect “the rooms I’d want to perform in from my trips around New York or Provincetown.”
“Who needs men?” sings Hinds during his intro, before he catapults into a monologue about Les Miserables and sings Anne Hathaway’s soon-to-be-Oscar-winning “I Dreamed A Dream.” Hinds is hilarious, and even though I was sober as holy hell, his show made me giddy. He surveys the audience, walking over to greet a table of “celebs” that includes NOW magazine’s Glenn Sumi and fab‘s Michael Lyons. (FYI: I’m left in the corner, alone.) He then introduces his guests with their own custom-tailored intro songs modelled after tunes from the musical Chicago. Those guests include dreamboat Vivek Shraya, who sings about guys he’s never met but seen on the internet; burlesque performer Dainty Box, who strips to Lana Del Rey’s “Cola”; and Gabi Epstein, who is the biggest vocal show-off ever (in the best way). Hinds interviews each guest after their set. The whole thing is so loaded with kitsch and camp, I almost sneeze glitter.
Carla Collins and Heather Mackenzie
Naturally, due to its proximity to Church Street, The Flying Beaver has a large queer audience, especially since Mackenzie once owned popular Village hangout Slack’s (back when it was called Slack Alice). “It’s funny, two lesbians owning a bar with the word ‘beaver’ in it,” laughs Cassella. “It led people to think it was lesbian bar, but the flying beaver is a Canadian icon—it’s a bush plane, that’s the joke.” Regardless, the bar maintains an aura of nothing but love, and its clientele varies with each performer. “We call ourselves an asshole-free bar. Obviously, we’re queer, and we love having queer patrons in the bar. I mean, it’s 2013, and there are straight people who feel queer to me,” elaborates Cassella. “It’s so different than 20 years ago, when a gay bar was a gay bar. It’s developed into a really lovely space with a really nice vibe and it’s impossible to put your finger on it.”
Artists like Hinds make a great case for the lost art of cabaret in Toronto, calling back to an era where performance was paramount, and dinner theatre ruled the lot of nightlife. “The Flying Beaver is important because they’re doing a fantastic job making cabaret accessible in Toronto. In their lineup, you’ll find first-time artists alongside people like Sharron Matthews and Gavin Crawford, people who are at the top when it comes to Toronto names,” he says. “As the big theatre scene is dying, and theatres like the Princess of Wales are under threat of the wrecking ball, venues like The Flying Beaver are popping up. [They] give us cabaret space that ensures we [can] work as much as we want to.”
For the hopefuls searching for time in the spotlight, the owners say they’ll put on anything “legal,” but they shy away from yelling and screaming. (“No fire acts, please.”) As for who should drop by for a night out? “Anybody who loves a great show, great food, and great service.”
So, c’mon, let the Beaver entertain you.
The Flying Beaver Pubaret, 488 Parliament Street. pubaret.com.