Canwest Cabaret Festival Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto ON October 2

Billed as the city’s first-ever major cabaret festival, this event made its debut with an impressive cast of performers featured in 50 concerts over four days. The festival’s guiding light, Albert Schultz (of Soulpepper Theatre fame and the venue’s General Director) launched it with introductory remarks slamming the arts bashing of Stephen Harper, then introduced the first night’s prime attraction, a concert comprising songs from the treasure trove that is the Leonard Cohen songbook. Hard to go wrong with source material like that, and the result was a highly entertaining and musically eclectic evening.

Kicking things off was Patricia O’Callaghan, recognized as a bright light in both classical and cabaret spheres for her clear and expressive vocals. Her version of "Take This Waltz” was pleasant, but marred a little by wimpy flute accompaniment. This was replaced by sax stylings for the following "Joan Of Arc,” with better results. Maryem Tollar joined O’Callaghan for a charming duet, and then Tollar dazzled with a lilting take on "Dance Me To The End Of Love” and an expressive version of "Sisters Of Mercy.”

The energy level was then upped by Apostle of Hustle, as main man Andrew Whiteman recited a poem from a Hebrew mystic then led his two comrades through an adventurous version of "1,000 Kisses Deep.” This was followed by their take on "Take This Waltz” and a "Zen-reggae” version of a lesser-known recent Cohen tune.

Next up was the always enigmatic yet riveting Mary Margaret O’Hara. In typical fashion, she’d forgotten her reading glasses, shuffled her song sheets, mumbled cryptic Cohen-inspired comments, then dazzled with that incredible and idiosyncratic voice on "Coming Back To You.” If O’Hara sang the phonebook, she’d likely get the numbers wrong, but you’d still be enchanted.

She was followed by Steven Page, who won over the crowd with an opening joke about "not wanting to be on the cover of the National Post again” (a nod to the fest’s CanWest and his current legal problem). He then thrilled with convincing versions of "Famous Blue Raincoat” and "Death Of A Ladies Man,” showing real vocal clarity and depth, He returned later for "A Singer Must Die,” which fittingly leads with the lyric "the courtroom is quiet.” His drug bust may have derailed the Barenaked Ladies career as kid’s entertainers, but Page’s future in cabaret could be bright.

Two more songs from Tollar, including a stunning Middle-Eastern-inflected "Who By Fire”, nicely rounded out the concert. Perhaps predictably, the finale was reserved for "Hallelujah,” and though the appeal of this great song has been diluted by recent over-exposure, there was little to fault in O’Callaghan’s rendering. Later festival concerts featured the songbooks of Duke Ellington and Kurt Weill and performers of the stature of Sarah Slean, Jackie Richardson, Melanie Doane, and David Buchbinder. This is clearly an event of great potential, and the news that Schultz has secured funding for its next seven years is heartening.