Michelle Sweeney appears on the Centaur Theatre stage with all the glamour of the iconic diva she's honouring.
Settling in for a night of personal storytelling and belting out Aretha Franklin's greatest hits, Sweeney oozes charm and confidence, glittering in a red, full-length evening gown.
Sweeney has been a mainstay of Montreal's jazz and soul scene for decades. She brings a new vulnerability to her act with this latest performance.
Her show, Her Songs, My Story, premiered at the Centaur Theatre's Wildside Festival — a hub for emerging and indie theatre artists — Wednesday.
In a series of personal monologues, Sweeney opens up about her mother's battle with mental illness and her own experiences with intimate partner violence.
"I wanted to be brave enough for the young girls and let them know, 'You don't have to hide. Come and tell somebody. Tell us immediately so we can do something about it,'" she told CBC's Our Montreal.
"If they see it coming from somebody that they might admire, it makes it easier. It makes it easier for people to speak."
Raised mostly by her grandmother, Sweeney started performing as a teenager in Cleveland, Ohio, and arrived in Montreal in 1985 to join the Jubilation Choir.
On Wednesday night, she told her audience that this isn't the side of her story she normally shows the public.
But after her idol, Aretha Franklin, died in 2018, Sweeney wanted to do something to honour the musician's impact on her life.
Meeting the Queen of Soul
Sweeney met Franklin once, more than 30 years ago.
She spotted the singer's pink tour bus outside Montreal's Four Seasons Hotel and decided to wait in the lobby for a chance to bump into her.
Sweeney ended up getting more than she expected when Franklin finally did appear.
"We went shopping, and we spent about four hours together," she said. "I will never forget it."
Sweeney speaks about that meeting reverently during her show, telling the audience what the famous singer told her: "If you want to make it, you just have to work hard."
While Sweeney is known for her charisma and stage presence, she digs deep and lays her troubles bare during the hour-long, one-woman show.
She closes off the performance with a rousing rendition of Respect, as if to show that she's taken control over painful memories from the past.
"These are experiences that I've had, and I hope I can be able to convey it to others," she said. "What comes from the heart, touches the heart."
The Wildside Festival runs at the Centaur Theatre from Jan. 7 to 18, 2020. Her Songs, My Story plays on Jan. 12 at 4 p.m. and Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. Adult tickets are $16 and student/senior are $13.