Brand building through storytelling

From the sword swallower to the Jersey Boys

I’ve always had a soft spot for Joni Mitchell’s song about the one-man band by the quick lunch stand, playing real good for free. Of course, here at this site I’m essentially a busker myself: you can stop and listen for a while, maybe put on a harmony, or walk on by. Only difference is, I don’t pass the hat.

Last week honest-to-goodness, hat-passing performers converged on my downtown Toronto neighbourhood for the annual shindig known as Buskerfest, which for the best part of four days transformed the familiar traffic-snarled streetscape into a pulsating, multi-coloured blur of balloons, stiltwalkers, juice bars and curious pedestrians. What a lovely idea—unless you live right in the thick of it. By Sunday I had wearied of running the Buskerfest gauntlet (and being hit up for a donation by the smiling volunteers from Epilepsy Toronto) every time I needed groceries. “I’ve already given,” I would say with a transparently uncharitable frown.

GuysLogoThe only performance I intended to see that day was the Toronto premiere of Jersey Boys, the multi-honoured musical (both a Tony and a Grammy) about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, whose infectiously frothy bubble-gum hits, blasting from every transistor radio, were the soundtrack of my childhood summers. But wouldn’t you know, our 11-year-old grandson needed a diversion while his dad coped with a family emergency. Inspiration struck: “Hey, let’s go to Buskerfest! It’s right around the corner!”

I had my doubts that the antics of a few street performers would cut much ice with Colsen. How could they compete with the sophisticated computer graphics on his hand-held games, or the eye-popping special effects that make or break a family movie? Oh me of little faith! To the overstimulated North American child, there’s now something downright exotic about unadorned human artistry, up close and personal.

For instance, the sidewalk creations of Chalkmaster Dave, a local artist who with no formal training—and with crowds scrutinizing every stroke—draws a Spiderman so sinuously powerful, kids hold their breath in envy. (Instead of a hat for our coins, Dave had a trompe l’oeil wishing well.) Or the swashbuckling stunts of the Space Cowboy, who came all the way from Australia to swallow a vicious-looking double-edged sword before our astonished eyes and then proceeded to juggle an assortment of alarming-looking objects—dagger, scythe and flaming torch—atop a nine-foot unicycle. Not about to stop there, he went on to repeat the triple threat in one of those black hoods that the condemned wear to the gallows.

All the way back to our place, Colsen marveled at the dangers braved by the Cowboy. “He almost couldn’t do that last trick. He had to try it three times!” I suggested that the Cowboy had been working the crowd, notching up the suspense with each attempt. The guy is such a showman that he’s turned his body into a billboard, all tattoos, piercings and implants. As Colsen exclaimed, incredulous, “He’s got rings in his nipples!” Besides, it’s not every day that a kid gets to watch a Guinness World Record-holder for sword swallowing.

For my husband and me, the day’s entertainment was just getting started. We spent a frolicksome evening at the Jersey Boys, revisiting a slew of triumphantly hummable tunes (“Sherry,” “Dawn,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and many more toe-tappers) performed by a cast that evokes the panache of the group that made them famous back when cars had fins. But unlike Mamma Mia!, that iconic Broadway tribute to a blockbuster group of yesteryear, Jersey Boys is more than a songbook. It’s a human story about a seemingly dead-end kid who escapes the kind of place where mobsters crack kneecaps, is undone by his own hard-won dream and finds the grace to go on. If this show doesn’t pull crowds until its run closes on November 9, I’ll swallow a double-edged sword.


Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.