Melbourne Cabaret Festival 2015 Opening Gala

SB_Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen_photo by Jeff BusbyWhile in the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, (thank you Alfred, Lord Tennyson) in Winter they may seek indoor expression, and turn to Cabaret. (Well … mine do. That’s what comes from time spent in Adelaide.) It’s not just because seeing a show with a glass of red in your hand provides a pleasant refuge from the cold. The lure of Cabaret lies in its ability to surprise. It’s an art form that offers a range of musical styles, one able to critique or inspire. It can also preserve insights from the past, reinventing them for the now.

With such a tradition, the selection of the Alex Theatres in St Kilda as the venue for the Opening Gala of the 2015 Melbourne Cabaret Festival seemed apt. Formerly the George Cinemas, the interior was recently refashioned into two theatres and a studio. Climbing the stairs to the foyer area, one quickly feels that this venue is trying to be its own brand of theatre.

Rather than the baroque flourishes seen in some of Melbourne’s venerable theatres, the bright foyer embraces minimalism. A simple white rectangular bar complements the photographic feature wall of theatre frontages adorned with the banners of musical theatre shows. Refurbishment seems to be ongoing, and we may hope there’s still some more cash to splash around. An easy improvement to make would be to upgrade the currently one-dimensional house red.

Traversing some dull grey carpet, the felt walls of Theatre 1 showed its origins, somewhat lessening the sense of occasion. I was surprised to see that the mezzanine didn’t overlap even the last row of the lower level, however I didn’t see the view from there as I was in the stalls. These are on a gentle gradient, affording a good view over those in front, and legroom is better than many venues.

This opening gala presented a selection of festival acts over 90 minutes. The range of quality was as wide as cabaret itself.  Some acts, being unable to establish context for themselves in the time allotted, didn’t suit the event as well as others. Some covered similar ground, suffering from the direct comparison with their betters. But yes, there were some surprises, and I’ve seen snippets of some shows that I’m now quite looking forward to seeing.

So lets start with these, in order of appearance. Cabaret revels in a variety of dark flavours, and Annie Lee has some breadth of experience here. Known to some as Mourne, the eldest of rural-goth-spinster musical comedy group The Kransky Sisters, Lee presents Lighthouse Berlin at this festival. The show is a result of Lee meeting singer Agnes Bernelle, modern-day guardian of the songs of Weimar Republic poets. The lyrics — say in a tale abut a carriage driver’s disdain for his horse — recall the kind of extrapolation of nasty behaviour into the darkly comic as heard in Brecht, for example. It’s bizarrely noir, and possibly an acquired taste. Lee sang with her whole body, widening eyes and slashing the air as she worked the room, and I was intrigued by her explorations of material I found unfamiliar.

Runner-up in the 2015 Your Theatrics International Cabaret Contest and “serial first dater” Noni McCallum gave selections from her show on the trials of contemporary dating: Tinderella. McCallum has the sensitivity to express heartbreak through song, and the comedic inventiveness to link it to Ikea. Her bracket showed lyrics that were sharp, earning both sympathy and laughs. I particularly liked that McCallum is confident enough in herself to sound like an Australian singer, rather than adopting some generic show-biz sound.

Vocal duo Strange Bedfellows are the multiple Helpmann and Green Room Award winners Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. The Cab Fest guide listing for their offering Under The Covers says  “…Bedfellows explode the boundaries of good taste with a hydrogen C-bomb.” Having often seen profanity used as a substitute for talent, this would probably have caused me to avoid their show.

Based on their performance however, the pair are all class. Confronted by Breen in boots and suspenders, teeth frozen in a grin — or was it a gnash? — and the (appropriately named) Dark in an elegant glittering ballgown, I expected a sonic assault. However, Dark and Breen are talented singers who understand the shades of the art form. They can entertain with parody, as with a song of the feminine man and the masculine woman. They also know that art can still be a viscerally affecting form of protest. Their take on the Dresden Dolls 2006 tune Sing made the delicate incendiary, as lyrics brought to the fore

There is this thing keeping everyone’s lungs and lips locked It is called fear and it’s seeing a great renaissance threatened to blast tears of frustration with the everyday —  and almost normalised — cruelty of our times free from their dams.

Other acts on the bill didn’t have the same appeal, and had a variable response from the audience. ‘Special guest’ Dolly Diamond (Michael Dalton) opened proceedings. I’m not directly familiar with this ageing diva and her penchant for insulting the audience, and I wasn’t given enough of the character to get the joke. The vocal performance was patchy, and the audience participation didn’t compensate, having nowhere near the bite of others, such as Dame Edna. It wasn’t a particularly strong start to the show.

Dolly introduced the evening’s host, Rob ‘Millsy’ Mills. Mills advised us that he was new to cabaret — something that would shortly be obvious — making me ponder the psychology of unsuitable casting choices, such as Alan Jones in Annie. Between struggling to read cue cards, forgetting lyrics, and reinforcing a growing impression of this event as generally under-rehearsed, Mills’ performance might not give him the bump in sales for his show he would have hoped for. Patrons may have unexpectedly obtained a personal insight into the reasons for those negative Grease reviews.

A change of pace followed with singer and keyboardist Peter J Casey. While his was a solid performance, his tunes on decreasing sympathy for asylum seekers and the fortunes of TV celebrity chef Pete Evans, were more effective as summary than comedy.

A light and bubbly a cappella bracket was provided by the pairing of the women of Ginger and Tonic and the likely lads of Suade (seemingly pronounced “suede”). The harmonies were good, and the material included twenty-something anguish about boyfriends who run off after sex. Their show will suit those who prefer the fluffier end of the cabaret spectrum.

Drag group Queens of the City (Simoana Luvzit, Frayda Cocks and Emma Roids) presented some routines from their eponymous show. It wasn’t the best start with the sort of classless dick jokes and lesbian taunting we’ve seen before. Unusually, these Queens can sing well and have great costumes, but there wasn’t anything to link the pieces together. While Rise Like a Phoenix is great for Eurovision, it’s drama, not cabaret. The troupe gave colour and movement, and it was unfortunate that some of the choreography looked half-baked. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I was primed for a dance party or Midsumma gala.

Overall, this gala was a mixed bag that had enough surprise gems to influence my Cab Fest plans. However, it was a bit sad for the punters that all of the acts intended to advertise the festival weren’t great, especially at the ticket price of $65 and upwards. My first experience of the Alex Theatre complex was positive, and I’m enthused to see what their programming will offer in the near future.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival 2015 Opening Gala
Alex Theatres St Kilda, Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda
Performance: Thursday 19 June 2015

The Melbourne Cabaret Festival continues to Sun day 28 June 2015. For more information, visit: www.melbournecabaret.com for details.

Image: Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen (Strange Bedfellows) – photo by Jeff Busby

Reviewer: Jason Whyte

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