Do you like cheese with your smoked meat?

While watching Schwartz’s the Musical at The Centaur theatre last Saturday, I was reminded of the dilemma faced by money-grabbing Hollywood producers: how do you, in cases like G.I. Joe and Clue, create a story based on a toy or board game?

This made-in-Montreal musical would seem to fall into that category. How do you make a stage musical based on a historical book about a restaurant? Well, it seems you need a typical underdog storyline, music numbers, an animated cast, a great deal of schmutz and you’re good to go.

It helps that it ain’t no regular restaurant on the marquee: Schwartz’s is an icon, the very stuff from which gastronomical legends are made. The Main St. deli, founded during the edges of the Great Depression, not only serves up a delectable array of smoked meat and other Jewish foods, but it is also a fixture for myriad locals and visitors of all stripes. As Bill Brownstein, Gazette columnist and writer of Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story, notes, it’s the “beef that binds Montreal.”

In this musical, what ends up on the audience’s plate is an inside joke for the city, celebrating the restaurant’s history of independence and authenticity.

Amber (Stephanie Martin) is a whipsmart, ambitious Torontonian (with Montreal ties) who comes knocking at the deli’s door, looking to purchase the restaurant, find out what makes it so special and capitalize on it. Waiter Ben (Vito DeFilippo, whose wonderful operatic voice outstrips his wooden acting chops) endeavours to knock some sense into her and keep from turning “kitchen into kitsch” (the bad kind of kitsch).

Along the way, talented performers sing, dance, play instruments and ham it up with a variety of Montreal caricatures with the dynamic, detailed backdrop of John C. Dinning’s deli stage. Famed Canadian comedy folk duo Bowser and Blue provide the music, which included numbers about the origins of smoked meat and a spirited opening gospel rendition praising the deli as the “promised land.” (Appropriate in a society so tinged with religions of all kinds.)

Rising Montreal burlesque star Holly Gauthier-Frankel makes an appearance as her delicious alter-ego Miss Sugarpuss, but also shows she has the chops to play comical characters, like a hilariously nasal old Jewish woman. Chris Barillaro, the youngest cast and crew member, plays Al the Cutter, while also playing the keyboard hidden behind the deli counter. Between rehearsals on Sunday, he said that the neat part about the show is that the band is fully integrated into the cast – everyone is acting, singing and probably playing an instrument.

The story is rooted in Schwartz’s actual history, with a cliché romance plot underlying it with tons of puns on top. But it works. The tickets aren’t cheap, and are over 80 per cent sold out at this point. But the buzz is so good that they’ll likely extend the show, and without a doubt, someone will restage this in the future. If you can scrub together the equivalent of about five meals at the restaurant itself, you can feast your eyes instead of your stomach.

This musical comes on the heels of Brownstein’s book, first published a few years ago, and Concordia journalism professor Barry Lazar’s recent documentary Chez Schwartz’s with director Garry Beitel.

With so many Montreal icons slowly disappearing, whether it’s the nearby Warshaw’s grocery or Ben’s Deli on de Maisonneuve Blvd., we’re documenting the things that have made Montreal so famous and special. In that case, Schwartz’s the Musical is an over-the-top and cheesy, but entertaining testament to a restaurant that is hopefully not going anywhere any time soon.

Schwartz’s: The Musical runs at the Centaur Theatre until April 24. For more info, check out centaurtheatre.com

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