Who: Bad Girl Leila
What: Leila Live!
Where: The Cotton Factory (270 Sherman Avenue North)
When: July 18-19 at 7:30pm, July 20-21 at 2pm and 7pm (as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival)
Leila Live! is billed as a cabaret hosted by Toronto-based drag character Bad Girl Leila. After performing over 100 shows where she looked for love and a sequel where she planned a Christmas party for her coworkers, Leila is hosting another party- and this time, it’s a concert for her adoring fans.
Like any good party host, Leila began the show by greeting the audience as they arrived. Hugs and introductions were plentiful before the show’s start time. This conscious effort meant that the mood of the show was established well before any music was played and the intimate set (created by a border of string lights and a large rug) evoked the feeling of being in someone’s living room. After the show was introduced (by herself, of course), Leila took the time to find as many ways to greet the audience as possible to ensure everyone felt warmly welcomed.
Leila seamlessly weaves stories of her childhood, family and many full-time jobs with music. Her vulnerability with the stories that are shared are clearly Leila’s greatest strength; her character and challenges come from a place of honesty and the creator’s personal experiences. However, Leila is also a talented storyteller; each of her stories are concise, charming, funny and sometimes a little educational. Her control in each moment is extraordinary- her spontaneity and banter with the audience could only come from someone who knows each second of their show inside out.
Although Leila Live! is marketed as a cabaret, the production is structured more as long-form comedic storytelling that included occasional music, snacks and dance. The audience is seated theatre-style (as opposed to cabaret-style), ensuring that those who are less inclined to participate can sit amongst the crowd, while those wishing to play a more active role in the show are closer to the front. Rather, the cabaret-style relates to the way in which Leila utilizes the music as a catalyst for her stories and antics- a highlight of the show was a story about love that evolved into a dramatic reading of Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle.
Her sparse but thoughtful set (the large carpet and string lights) within the large 3rd-floor Cotton Factory main space was critical to creating the intimate, living-room style space that acted as the set of Leila Live! However, the depth of the room and the lighting created large and at times, odd and distracting shadows beyond the performance space. Although Leila seemed aware of this at times (at one point asking the audience if her shadow was “scary”), it would be great to see the performance either find ways to use the shadows to add a new aspect to the show, or find a way to eliminate them all together.
Seeing a show by Bad Girl Leila is like seeing an old friend for the first time in awhile- there is much to say, much to catch up on, and some sort of spontaneous, unexplained dancing may occur. And when the show was over, it was like saying goodbye to that same old friend- you’re grateful for the time you had together and can’t wait to see her again.