A Toast to Prohibition
Created by Melanie and Wendy Gall
Produced by Sisterscene (Ottawa)
62 min / PG / Musical
A Toast to Prohibition is a delightful musical full of champagne sparkle. It’s just what audiences have come to expect from talented Melanie Gall, star of of shows such as Piaf and Brel, Ingenue, and We’ll Meet Again. Her powerful soprano voice soars effortlessly in a wide variety of Prohibition era songs. Like any good opera singer (she has opera training and experience), Gall’s acting skills complement her lovely voice.
Gall plays Gladys, hostess of an American speakeasy, The Tipsy Sparrow. It’s 11pm on December 4, 1933. Prohibition ends at the stroke of midnight. After 14 years, the Volstead Act which added the 18th Amendment to the American Constitution has been repealed. Therefore, instead of the speakeasy’s usual entertainment of jugglers and dancers, Gladys decides to tell us the story of how Prohibition came about, and how it “fundamentally changed all our lives”.
It all started with the Temperance Movement in the early 1900s. Gladys tells amusing stories about a couple of temperance celebrities and some equally amusing songs such as “Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine”. The Great War became the determining factor. It was argued that grain to make beer would be better used to make bread for American troops. It didn’t help that a lot of brewers were of German descent. So in October 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act and the US became officially “dry”.
Gladys rhetorically asks, “How did the nation’s fifth largest industry go extinct overnight?” Well of course, it didn’t… it just went underground. Speakeasies sprung up—at one point, there were 20,000 of them in New York City alone. Cocktails like the Bee’s Knees and the Mary Pickford became popular, mostly because they were “loaded with juice and mixers so you could barely taste the homemade alcohol”. Eventually the alcohol became more palatable and the speakeasies became more lavish, with floor shows and even mini-golf.
But the biggest change, Gladys asserts, was the freedom Prohibition brought, particularly for young women. They went from corsets and chaperones to drinking booze, dancing with strangers, and “sitting in the back seat of her own automobile making whoopee until dawn”. Men would take their wives to speakeasies, instead of going out with “the boys”. Or they’d host dinner parties with exotic foods (parsley! paprika!) and lots of illegal hooch. (I loved the double entendre song “Everybody Wants A Key To My Cellar”.) All this freedom was revolutionary.
I’ve mentioned Gall’s powerful voice. Unfortunately, sometimes the piano accompaniment drowns ourther singing. It’s a pity the sound engineering wasn’t done with more care—Gall’s voice deserves to be enjoyed to the fullest.
There’s more history and lots more songs in A Toast to Prohibition. So buy your ticket, mix yourself a nice cocktail, and settle in for an hour’s entertainment.
A Toast to Prohibition is screening at the Ottawa Fringe Festival until June 27, 2021. Tickets are pick-your-price from $12.50 to $47.50 (100% of which goes to the artists) plus a $2.50 surcharge. Visit ottawafringe.com for streaming information and the complete festival lineup. Read more reviews at apt613.ca/fringe. Shows are on-demand, however the festival’s ticketing platform can take up to 12 hours to email the streaming link. So although there’s no risk of online shows selling out, your best bet is to buy tickets early!