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The Boston Globe

Her new life is a cabaret
Singer leaves South Africa to follow love, finds a changed career

By Denise Taylor, Globe Correspondent
January 30, 2005

NEWTON — Few performers can say they mean to "touch your heart" without sounding sappy. But when Jinny Sagorin says it, the words sound like the simple truth.

In fact, the acclaimed South African singer and actress has a sincerity that is so disarming, and charming, she could likely persuade even the most cynical among us to sing a hearty round of "Kumbayah."

But, no worries — she's not likely to. This former leading lady of Cape Town's musical stage is pouring her unfettered emotions into her first solo CD and cabaret show. And she has a lot to sing about.

"The show is about home — what is home, and leaving home, and finding a new home," said Sagorin, who knows well what it is like to make the shift. Four years ago, she gave up her life in South Africa for love. "Basically, I followed my heart to Boston. I came because of a man," she said.

She did still intend to pursue stage roles here — and she had some success when she did — but Sagorin doesn't dwell on the career risk she took. Nor does she boast of the many leading roles she played in South Africa. Rather, she gushes about her husband, whom she married in 2000 in Larz Anderson Park in Brookline with, as she said, "the ducks in the pond as our witnesses."

"I could boast for hours about him," said Sagorin. Her husband is a renowned neurologist, credited with groundbreaking work in cognition, but he still finds time to help Sagorin with her career. He does lighting for her cabaret shows, got her CD "It's for You" into record stores (it goes on sale next month), and attends all of her performances. "He's so humble," said Sagorin. "He jokes about being Jinny Sagorin's manager and that neurology is just a hobby."

Sagorin admits that switching continents and cultures wasn't easy. Once she got here, she found herself longing for the imposing presence of Table Mountain, which dominates the Cape Town landscape. "And I miss the sea air at the sea front — there's nothing like the smell of it anywhere — and I miss the tibouchina trees and their purple blossoms, and Boulder Beach, where the penguins have the right of way," she said.

She has also made a few frightening turns onto the wrong side of the road (South Africans drive on the left) and flummoxed people with her unusual vocabulary. Her accompanist, Doug Hammer of Lynn, still can't get over the fact that South Africans call traffic lights "robots." Her personalized version of the Gershwins' "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" recounts other language mishaps and adds a good bit of humor to her show.

But mostly, she said, the move was hard because it marked the moment that her life began to imitate her art. Although many whites left South Africa out of disgust for apartheid, she stayed on through all the hard years to be near her father, a pediatrician working in Durban. "My mother died when I was 3, and he was everything for us, growing up," she said.

Leaving her dad to move to America felt all too much like a role from her Cape Town days. "I loved the role of Hodel in 'Fiddler on the Roof,' " she said, describing how the daughter leaves her family and follows her true love to Siberia after he has been exiled for opposing the oppressive Russian regime.

Although her husband, an expatriate native of Durban, left freely, decades earlier, in opposition to apartheid, the parallels are there. "She goes to be with her love in a very, very cold place, and that's exactly what I did a few years later," she said.

"When I sing 'Far From the Home I Love', because of my special relationship with my dad, it's also my story."

The other challenge, she said, was that she knew only her husband when she came here, who as a child had been one of her father's patients. But when she got the role of Inez in "The Baker's Wife" for Boston's Overture Productions, all that — and her career path — changed. There Sagorin met Brian De Lorenzo, then president of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists. And a chance meeting with cabaret artist Will McMillan of Arlington blossomed into a friendship and shared performances.

"The next thing I knew, I was vice president of the association, and now I'm on the board," she said. "This was my entry into the whole scene here, and the support of the cabaret community has been amazing."

Sagorin is now part of a growing movement in the nation's big cities to revive the art of cabaret. What drew her from the big stage into the piano bars was the form's directness and the way cabaret performers sing, vamp, and banter their way through the theater's so-called fourth wall.

"I just love the medium of cabaret. It's so authentic. In the past, I played roles on stage and sang songs that were prescribed for that role, but in cabaret you speak your own truth and tell your own story," she said.

Initially, she said, the club settings were "quite a new thing. Having been used to being on a large opera stage with the audience out there, you're mainly aware of them when you're taking a bow. But cabaret is more intimate and it's about connecting with people and touching their hearts in a direct way."

Sagorin, with her open, honest nature and lush, lyrical voice, seems made for the task. As McMillan puts it, "She has an immensely warm personality that just makes you want to be her friend."

After becoming comfortable with the format at local open mikes and duo shows, Sagorin put together her own act. Her debut is this Tuesday at Scullers Jazz Club in Cambridge, and the buzz has been so great, the show sold out by word of mouth two weeks in advance.

In her performance, Sagorin sings an eclectic mix of standards and favorite tunes that range from the Cape Town band Bright Blue's "Weeping," about apartheid, to Joni Mitchell's "Carey" and Lennon and McCartney's "It's for You." But always the show revolves around her life, and how the Durban-born-and-raised girl wound up halfway around the world.

In fact, she says that so much of herself is infused in her show that she feels like it is "a rite of passage. This is my opportunity to say I'm here now and this is where I've been and where I am," she said. "And cabaret is really not that far from where I come from. The whole African tradition is essentially about telling stories in order to affirm and validate who you are."

Sagorin is quick to add that the show is "also a celebration of the people who helped me get here." She quotes an African proverb in isiXhosa, one of her homeland's 11 languages: "A person is a person because of other people."

Among those people for her was a close friend who she says was like a little sister. She recently died of AIDS in Durban, the South African city most fiercely ravaged by the disease. A portion of the proceeds from Sagorin's CD will go to support the work that Boston-based Partners Aids Research Center is doing in Durban.

Her litany of gratitude continues on from there. Foremost, she mentions her ever-supportive grandmother Rose Alper Magid, who was the principal soloist for London's Carl Rosa Opera Company.

And when Sagorin talks about how her CD and show are for all these people she calls "the angels along the way," one can't help but nod in agreement and feel like she must have been one for them, too.

For information on future performances, visit www.jinnysagorin.com.

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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