Keith Alessi is neither a trained actor nor professional musician, and his hit show was supposed to be a one-off.
“Instead,” he says, “it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Now touring North America and Europe and on its way to Surrey, “Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life” is a heartfelt exploration of Alessi’s journey from magazine-cover CEO to banjo-playing storyteller, in the harsh light of a cancer diagnosis that probably should have killed him by now.
Alessi’s award-winning solo show comes alive with music, laughs and an uplifting story, debuted in Toronto in 2018, some three years after he quit a job as boss of a public company. Days later he was told he had esophagus cancer, triggered by the heartburn of eating tomatoes, doctors told him. “I had a 50-per-cent chance of living a year,” he says, “and 14 per cent of surviving five. That was seven years ago!”
For years, the part-time Vancouverite collected banjos from here, there and everywhere, and Alessi puts several of his favourites to good use in “Tomatoes,” which plays Surrey Arts Centre’s Main Stage on Saturday, Feb. 11, in a Surrey Civic Theatres presentation.
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Every word of the script is true, Alessi emphasizes as he tells his tale of growing up in Windsor, first loving banjo sounds upon hearing the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song, making his mark in the corporate world, storing banjos in his closet and then discovering them when he needed them most, to realize a dream of clawhammering them proficiently.
In Maple Ridge on Friday, Jan. 27, in a special night sharing the spotlight with guitar/banjo duo Pharis & Jason Romero, mandolin player John Reischman and bassist Patrick Metzger, Alessi performed his show for the 238th time, and added to the $600,000 he’s raised for various cancer charities. It’s his mission to do so with “Tomatoes,” which Alessi, 68, continues to perform in “retirement” years, a time when he doesn’t really need the extra income.
As for accolades, the show won three awards at the Frigid Fringe Festival in New York City and honours at Fringe festivals in Windsor, Edmonton and Vancouver. Last year Alessi did a month of dates at the largest performance festival in the world, Edinburgh Fringe, in Scotland.
For tickets and more details about the Surrey show date mid-month, visit tickets.surrey.ca or call the arts centre box office, 604-501-5566.
For more about the performer, visit keithalessi.com.