When York Mills singer and actor Gabi Epstein was asked by an elderly woman in Pender Island, British Columbia how she has the moxie to get on stage and belt out tunes without a single inhibition, her answer was simple.
“I told her I grew up with chutzpah,” Epstein says with a snicker.
For those not familiar with the term, ‘chutzpah’ is the Yiddish word for gall or nerve. While it originally had a negative connotation, the word has taken on the broader meaning of being courageous in a cheeky manner.
Epstein’s courage and confidence are on full display in her aptly titled debut album Show Off, an eclectic mix of jazz, cabaret and pop influences.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Epstein has been performing as long as she can remember. Some of her earliest memories consist of singing and playing guitar at her birthday parties before the age of five.
She says the tradition of singing at social gatherings runs strong in her family, and she credits that for her no-holds barred approach to performance.
“It’s just this big loud South African Jewish family, who all love music, who all love performing, and so it’s always just been such an integral part of my life,” she said.
Her parents were supportive of her going into the arts from an early age.
“I guess they must have heard that I can carry a tune,” she quips.
As a child, Epstein was a chorister with the Toronto Children’s Chorus where she traveled to New Zealand and Australia. She was also featured in numerous commercial and television roles.
She dedicated herself fully to singing upon being accepted to the Claude Watson School for the Arts and later the Claude Watson program at Earl Haig Secondary School in North York.
“I would like to think that I would have always fallen into performing and that it would have always been a part of my life, but I really don’t think I’d be where I was had I not gone to those schools,” she said.
Epstein continued her education at McGill University, where she studied voice and fast-tracked to complete her degree in two years.
Upon returning to Toronto, Epstein landed her first major role in a one-woman musical about performer Fanny Brice’s life.
The musical was put together by Smile Theatre, a Toronto company that specializes in shows for seniors’ homes and retirement residences.
“It was this great first professional role, because I sort of got the role of a lifetime, but it’s not like all of Toronto is seeing me in the role,” Epstein said.
To date she has been featured in productions such as Toy Story the Musical and West Side Story Suite.
Epstein also performs cabarets at Toronto jazz venues such as the Rex, and has performed at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City.
She describes cabarets as more intimate, personal performances.
“It is your own sort of private show,” she said. “The idea behind cabaret is you’re supposed to make people feel like they’re in your living room.”
“It’s kind of been my favourite thing to do in the performing world because it really allows me to express myself in a way that I don’t always get to do in the roles I get cast in,” she added.
One of her most memorable experiences is performing as Disney characters Belle, Ariel and Pocahontas for Disney Cruise Lines.
“Performing your childhood dream of being a Disney princess is the best possible thing ever, but then you also live on a ship for six months, which can sometimes be a little rocky,” Epstein said.
As a result, she’s not likely to ditch her career as a cabaret singer to be a full-fledged resident of Disney’s private island any time soon.
“The first five times we went was amazing, but it gets a little old after that,” she explained.
Epstein is currently performing in I Love You Because, a musical where she plays an actuary intent on finding true love.
“It’s a really funny, poignant at times musical about mismatched couples who, obviously, end up falling for each other,” Epstein said.
I Love You Because is produced by North York company Angelwalk Theatre and plays at the Toronto Centre For The Arts until April 15.