Toronto’s JFL42 comedy fest returns this month for its third annual 10-day laugh riot. For the uninitiated, the “JFL” part stands for Just for Laughs, and the “42” refers to the number of acts on the lineup, which this year includes Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Seth Meyers and a handful of local comedians. If, like most of us, you require comic relief all year round, this is a great moment to live in Toronto: the city’s indigenous comedy scene has flourished of late. We’re currently flush with neurotic kibitzers, daffy sketch troupes and enough nostalgically divey comedy clubs to fill an entire season of Louie. Here, a guide to navigating all the funny.
All stories by Emily Landau
Torontonians are spoiled by luxury—an inevitable side effect of living in a city where you can book a private chopper to Georgian Bay, nibble on sustainable sturgeon caviar and moisturize with 24 karat gold–flecked lotions. In the past year, however, the city has truly outdone itself, supplying the kinds of outlandish foods, amenities and products that would astonish even the most pampered urbanite. Our team of seen-it-all critics gorged on ornately plated desserts, scoured fashion trucks and baby boutiques, and subjected their bodies to aggressive Russian bamboo massages, all in the quest to bring you this, our annual roundup of Toronto’s best of absolutely everything.
Rock ’n’ Horse Saloon
250 Adelaide St. W., 647-344-1234
A night at Rock ’n’ Horse Saloon feels like a scene from Footloose: line dancers tap steel-toed boots to Brooks and Dunn, bartenders in 10-gallon hats pour beers, and a rotating slate of heart-on-sleeve country crooners twang their guitars on stage. The bar’s most gimmicky (and awesome) attraction is a mechanical bull that thrashes, bucks and throws riders into a pit of blessedly soft padding—an indignity best cured with another shot of Knob Creek. For saddle-shy spectators, the bull-riding competition on Tuesdays is better than Netflix.
267 Niagara St., 416-745-5656
Homeowners like LEDs because they reduce energy bills; designers like that their slim profile and low operating temperature make unconventional forms possible. At Lightform’s showroom on Niagara, boundary-pushing options range from an Ares light shaped like a giant bulb to a polished aluminum bar by Philippe Starck. The most arresting of the lot: designer Ron Gilad’s series of ring-shaped tubes, which appear to pierce the walls like hooped earrings.
81 Harbord St., 416-477-2361
In a narrow white room, chef-owner Yasu Ouchi delivers glistening sushi, one piece at a time, to 10 guests seated at a marble-topped bar. Yasu is the city’s first sushi-only omakase restaurant, and as at other tasting menu–driven spots, you give yourself over to the chef’s whims. Ouchi and his one sous bring Jiro-like fanaticism to the 20-course experience, offering fresh cuts of fish and shellfish draped over perfectly seasoned rice. One night he served up a plump scallop lightly torched for sweetness and dressed with yuzu vinaigrette, then mackerel with pickled radish and scallion, then salty, foie gras–like monkfish liver with a julienne of shiso leaf. And on and on and on. Seatings at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., reservations a must. $80 per person.
We thought it was a mirage last fall when we saw Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy having dinner at Woodlot, basking in a beatific glow. Then we spotted them again, walking with their baby down Queen West, and caught Danes head-bobbing to Arcade Fire at the ACC. Danes and Dancy are new Torontonians, living several months of the year here while Dancy films his CityTV series Hannibal, a prequel to Silence of the Lambs. Apart from being the grisliest show on television—in one scene, Dr. Lecter, played by the hollow-cheeked Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, sews together a pile of naked, still-twitching victims—it’s also thrilling and suspenseful, beloved by critics and obsessively anatomized online. Hannibal is one of several Toronto shows contributing to the box’s golden age. Among the new crop of hits is Orphan Black, the creepy Space sci-fi series about a troupe of clones, which films all over the GTA and sells out auditoriums at ComiCon. On CTV, Reign, a moony, Toronto-shot soap about Mary Queen of Scots’ teenage love life, has amassed a rabid fan base who call themselves Loyal Royals. And then there’s The Strain, an apocalyptic vampire show from weirdo director Guillermo del Toro, which films near Queen and Church. (Del Toro loves shooting in Toronto so much that he’s made his last three projects here, including 2013’s Mama and Pacific Rim, and next year’s Crimson Peak, a haunted house story starring Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska.) The Strain is the summer’s most anticipated series, set to debut in July on FX, a network that’s rivalling HBO in quality cable programming. Toronto’s TV industry is finally something we can brag about: last year, TV productions poured nearly $730 million into the local economy. Spotting Claire Danes at the AGO is just an added perk.
It’s ironic that Trinity Bellwoods, the city’s artsiest neighbourhood, is too expensive to accommodate artists themselves: on average, commercial rent for a studio-size space in the area shakes out to a pricy $41 per square foot. Artscape, the utopian NPO known for creating artists’ colonies, is helping out with the price of admission. For their latest miracle makeover, they bought the Shaw Street School, a 100-year-old institution that the TDSB closed in 2000, and revamped the classrooms into bright studios. Artscape Youngplace, as it’s now called, opened last fall, offering artists the chance to rent workspace for around 50 per cent below area rates. Among the current inhabitants are sound artist Eve Egoyan (Atom’s sister); the Koffler Centre, a Jewish arts institution that occupies the old library; and the Small World Music Centre, which has a miniature concert hall. The building is buzzing with energy and optimism—kind of like the first day of school.
A pair of lavish newcomers are challenging Holt Renfrew for luxury department store supremacy. Last summer, Hudson’s Bay Company purchased the high-end American retailer Saks Fifth Avenue in a $3-billion takeover. To showcase its shiny new holdings, HBC will open a 150,000-square-foot Saks store inside the existing Queen Street Bay flagship, specializing in exquisite brands like Gucci, Prada, Givenchy and Céline. Across the street, in the old Sears space where we used to buy cheap tube socks and Tempur-Pedic mattresses, Nordstrom will sell Stella McCartney streetwear, Christopher Kane cocktail dresses and Lanvin gowns in a 213,000-square-foot, three-storey department store scheduled to open in 2016. It’s no surprise that these posh emporia have targeted Toronto: the city’s median household income hovers around $70,000, compared to $57,000 in New York and $53,000 in Chicago. Factor in the downtown density and influx of single, spendthrift professionals in condos, and it’s a vortex of free-flying disposable dollars. Two weeks after news of Saks’ arrival broke, Holt’s announced it would create a lavish men’s-only shop on the Mink Mile, in the space recently vacated by Roots. The new retailers have created a spirit of healthy competition in the city’s luxury landscape, and while Saks, Nordstrom and Holt’s fight their retail wars, we’ll be looting the spoils.
Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden so fully embody the romance of ballet that they may well have hatched from a life-size Fabergé egg. The couple met at the National Ballet School when they were teens. They started dating in 2006 and married in 2010—their Instagrams capture starry-eyed beach strolls and Valentine’s celebrations over pizza and House of Cards, and their real-life romance seeps into their stage roles. Côté leaps and lunges with the controlled energy of a flexed piano string. He’s also a promising choreographer—he’s created several short pieces, including one for Ogden called Lost in Motion II, and will debut his first full-length ballet, based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, in 2016. Ogden is the quintessential fairy princess: so lithe, light and elegant that she practically floats across the stage. When Côté and Ogden dance together, they generate an electricity that thrums all the way up to the fifth ring.
The folks at Toronto Animal Services have many virtues, but they can be strangely inept when it comes to promoting adoptable animals: the low-res, anemic photos on their site, often taken in cages and kennels, make the dogs look sick, sad and skittish. The organization found a terrific unofficial publicist in Fred Ni, a computer animator who volunteers at TAS. While walking dogs on his lunch hour, Ni realized that the ones that seemed stressed and jittery in the shelter would loosen into furry fun bundles as soon as they were out in the park. To prove that shelter dogs can be as cheery and well adjusted as any pet, Ni began shooting the pups on their walks, bounding into leaves and burying their faces in snowdrifts, eyes bright and tongues wagging, and then posted their backstories and photos to his blog, IWantAPoundDog. The blog has become a viral phenomenon, attracting more than two million page views since 2009. To date, Ni has featured more than 600 shelter dogs—large breeds and lapdogs, purebreds and mutts, puppies and seniors. Many of them are adopted within days of appearing on the site. One dog, a one-year-old Lab-husky cross named Basquiat, had spent his entire life in a Quebec pound. The morning after Ni posted his photos, there was a line out the TAS door to meet him—and a High Park couple adopted him within the hour.
After his messy breakup with the Factory Theatre, Ken Gass has rebounded with a star-studded new company. How a shy indie producer became one of the most powerful players in Toronto theatre
In June 2012, the harmonious Toronto theatre community experienced its first juicy scandal. That month, the Factory, one of the most storied players in the city’s indie drama scene, fired Ken Gass, their long-time artistic director—he founded the company in 1970, rescued it from financial ruin in 1996, and introduced Canadian theatregoers to nascent dramatic giants like George F. Walker and Tomson Highway. At the heart of Gass’s dismissal was a scuffle so mundane it could’ve been a Slings and Arrows spoof. He wanted to transform the haunted mansion of a theatre into a sparkling modern arts centre. The board refused, claiming Gass’s plan would have cost $13 million—about 40 times the yearly fundraising amount.
No one has more fun in the kitchen than Farzam Fallah, the wildly inventive pastry chef at the Financial District hangout Richmond Station. To wit: the cryptically named Movie Snacks dessert, which turns out to be a quenelle of crunchy, buttery popcorn-rippled ice cream surrounded by weightless Coca Cola meringue, sticky almond brittle, fudgy chocolate cake and a tart cranberry-Pernod purée that tastes uncannily of Twizzlers. Like all Fallah’s plates, it comes arranged like an artful crime scene, splayed with pools, smears and crumbles that blend into a superfecta of salty, sweet, spicy and tangy. The dish is a refined riff on those nostalgic, junky flavours—yet somehow cheaper than a Cineplex Combo. $9.
Richmond Station, 1 Richmond St. W., 647-748-1444
Elaine Lui became one of the world’s most influential celebrity gossips by exhibiting a bratty disregard for the pieties of showbiz. What happens now that she’s nearly as famous as the stars she skewers?
Elaine Lui is 40 but has the bearing of a 16-year-old, boundless and brash, her body language filled with aggressive eye rolls, giggles and wild gesticulation. Sitting in a green room at the CTV studios on Queen West, writing a post for her blog, LaineyGossip, she takes a long drag from her e-cigarette, a bejewelled bauble that looks like a tube of lip gloss and emits a trail of vanilla-scented vapour. Then she resumes clacking away at her keyboard. It’s a busy day for Lui. The Golden Globe nominations have just been announced, and she’s struggling to keep up with the Sisyphean celebrity news cycle. In an hour, she’s scheduled to shoot an episode of her daytime talk show, The Social, and tape interviews to be banked for eTalk and CP24. She takes another hit from the e-cig as her stylist douses her with hairspray, engulfing Lui in a toxic cloud of chemicals.
Technically, the virtuosic Verdi soprano lives in Caledon, but she spends 10 months of the year travelling to the Met, La Scala and the Paris Opera. In April, she’ll sing in Toronto for the first time in four years, making her debut in the role of the aging, angry Queen Elizabeth I in the COC’s production of Roberto Devereux, an opera by the Italian composer—and Verdi progenitor—Gaetano Donizetti. We asked Radvanovsky what’s inspiring her, culturally speaking, outside the opera house.