Finger of fate gives Saskia a break

By Rita Zekas


You need to be a contortionist to get into the cubicles at Masa Japanese Restaurant. Not a problem for Saskia Garel.

As Mimi, the femme lead in Rent, Garel is required to hang and swing and dance draped over a high railing. In high-heeled leopard boots.

It's risky business. Garel broke her finger at the end of the first week she took over the role from Krysten Cummings, on March 11. She was executing the number "Take Me Out Tonight".

She is a stunner. Who wouldn't take her out?

"I didn't even remember hitting my finger, she said, perusing the menu.

She's so svelte you want to tie her down and force foie gras on her. But she eats. It's two ours before show time and she orders a pork dinner.

"I felt it throbbing," she said, getting back to the finger. "I broke it, bent it back. It was my 'f' finger. That was a month ago and I still can't make a fist."

The role is physically demanding. "You have to be 'up' all the time. Mimi is a junkie - wild, outlandish. I can't be Saskia being tired. I don't smoke joints, I don't drink (and she has the perfect opportunity - her boyfriend is a rep for Appleton rum). My friends came in and say, 'What do you know about heroin?'"

Cummings left Rent to join the London production but Garel had been subbing for her because of Cummings' chronic throat problems. "I did it four times a week before she left," she estimated.

She was part of the ensemble, understudying three other roles: bag lady, Alexi Darling and Mark's Mom.

At 28, Garel is making her stage debut in Rent. It's like the old Hollywood cliché; the lead breaks a leg/breaks down/gets pregnant/and/or drunk and the understudy becomes a huge star.

While Garel isn't a huge star, she admits she's been lucky.

She is a showbiz anomaly. She didn't have to struggle, she didn't have to waitress. She lived with her family and even had to be persuaded to audition for the role.

She'd never done musical theatre before; her agent suggested she try out for Rent. Naaw, she didn't think she wanted to bother, she was busy writing her own music - she had this deal with BMG.

"Then I got the music for the show and I loved it," she recalled. "They called me back five times and I was completely overwhelmed. My agent said, 'I told you so.'

"I was working on an album with BMG and I thought it would conflict. The casting agent said, 'Are you crazy?' The record company said it was fine.

Her music is r 'n' b pop. At 21, she was half of the girl group Love & Sas. From 1991-'93', Lovena Fox was Love, she was Sas.

"I was fresh out of school, I've been so lucky," she reiterated.

They had four top 40 hits and received two consecutive Juno Awards for Best R & B Recording, for "Call My Name" (1992) and "Once In A Lifetime" (1993). "But we didn't sell enough to make royalties."

In 1995, she became part of the Raptors cheerleader/dance team on "a wicked dare." She hasn't had any training as a dancer, she wasn't even a cheerleader in high school. She swears she's a klutz.

And while the other Raptor hopefuls strutted their sexist stuff, wearing more makeup than Paula Jones, Garel showed up in baggy sweats.

"I wore track pants, track top and a T-shirt tied around my waist. I was advised to take off the baggy top and show some skin."

There's that luck thing again. "I love to dance and I've done hip hop workshops but my dancing comes from the VCR. I'd tape all the Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos. And I can remember the eight-count."

She's been singing around the house since she was 6. "I never thought about it as a career, 'Yeah, whatever, that's for people in Hollywood.' I thought maybe I'd study something like music therapy."

In Grade 13, she switched to Claude Watson School for performing arts, due to pressure from her Auntie Shelley, who "pushed, pushed, pushed."

She went to York University to study music, picking up the Oscar Peterson Scholarship Award for excellence in jazz. She is also a graduate of the Royal Conservatory Of Music.

"To get my BFA (honours degree in music), you had to take three different arts. I took mime class. I hated it. The novelty wore off after a week - plus nobody likes mimes."

Born in Jamaica of Chinese, Spanish and West Indian descent, she relocated to North York when she was 6.

Her mother works at North York General, dad is a salesman at Sears, "and he plays the classical guitar, she added. She has a brother Mathew, who is a model in New York.

"He came up to see the show on Dec. 30th and Krysten got sick on Dec. 31st," she chuckled. "So he bought scalper's tickets to see it again (with her as Mimi)."

They auditioned hordes of Mimis for Cummings' replacement. The New York brass came up for Garel's audition. She was incredibly nervous. "You're almost on auto-pilot," she explained. "The first time I played Mimi was on New Year's Eve and I had only one rehearsal. My heart was beating so fast.

"You never get to see the whole show because you're tracking one character. I have notes so thick... like in 'La Vie Boheme,' on the words 'Pee Wee Herman,' you stand on chair and point to Tom.

Garel has become a fan favourite, especially with the kids. They still line up, five months after the show's debut. One fan has seen the show 66 times. At 20 bucks a pop, he gets a bigger allowance than I do.

"The response from the younger people has been phenomenal," she allowed. "The kids would sleep outside to get tickets. The kids sing along, they're doing the choreography and mouthing the words. The kids say, 'Omigawd, Rent is my life.' It's nice, but keep in mind it's a show."

Garel has also done a slew

Commercials and had odd bits in series like Street Legal and The Newsroom. She had a scene as a salsa dancer in the film Woo, which opened this weekend. Her scene was cut.

"I got paid," she said philosophically. "I used to hate shopping, I'm in training. I just bought my first car, an '86 Toyota."

She's working on finishing her solo album and pre-packing. Rent goes on tour after July 26.

"I've never packed for five months."