Melbourne Cabaret Festival 2019 Gala

Emma Dean stars in Broken Romantics A Unicorn’s Quest For Love - photo by James ThomasIf, due to illness or mishap, you couldn’t be at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, then the Melbourne Cabaret Festival is possibly worth a look. Opening Galas of more recent years have shared a diversity of programme tastes, and sometimes uncomfortably stretched the definition of ‘Cabaret’..

This Gala of the 10th Melbourne Cabaret Festival continued the tradition. Surely it’s difficult to distil a 60-minute show to something like a 10-15-minute spot to advertise your work. Some managed this better than others, but talent has a habit of shining through, whatever the situation.

The evening began with festival ‘ambassadors’ Drew Downing and Sarah Bourne belting out a tune. Ms Bourne advised she was fluey and on codeine, and that’s where we’ll leave it. Over the course of the evening the pair would appear in pre-recorded ‘housekeeping’ video segments, which might show the duo cleaning hotel bathrooms. The manic cameos of some festival artists in these segments might not sell so many tickets, but the clips are possibly the most memorably awkward sponsor promos you’ll ever see.

Our first act Creatures of the Deep featured an ensemble sharing some songs about marine life. The group sang and played instruments well enough, but the depth of their laments wasn’t 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, it’s something a bit different, and seems a pleasant enough show for a range of ages. Thursday 20 to Sunday 23 June – 6.00pm.

The format didn’t seem to suit singer Alexis Fishman’s Amy Winehouse: Resurrected. We’ve seen this kind of celebrity-returns-to-Earth show before, and the star often lacks any clear reason for the revisit. It didn’t help that the attempts at jokes just fell flat. Yet, Fishman has talent, providing solid renditions of Wake Up Alone and Valerie. One for the fans: Wednesday 26 June – 8:15pm & Thursday 27 June – 6:30pm & 8:15pm.

From Valerie to (Steven) Valeri, this singer suggested his obsession with John Farnham through a taste of Age of Steven (Thursday 20 to Sunday 23 June – 7:30pm). If you aren’t a Farnsey devotee, it wasn’t clear why we should love his 1960s-1980s playlist. Amongst the five songs offered, we could have done with a hint of what would differentiate this from a cover act. It seems there might not be much time for this in the show as Valeri advised that he’ll shoehorn 17 songs into his hour. Guitar accompaniment by Caleb Garfinkel was accomplished, and this should be a musically strong show.

After the interval we resumed with Drew Downing’s Ultimate 90s Playlist, which made zero attempt to be anything but a cover band. They’re a pretty good band, sure, but why do you want to go out in Melbourne winter to hear covers of these high-rotation commercial songs? 90s fans, this 8:15pm offering (Thursday 20 to Saturday 22 June) might be what you want to get your night started.

When restlessness with a lack of ambition on stage could have swamped us, the last two acts lifted the spirits of the room. Broken Romantics: A Unicorn’s Quest For Love provided a splash of colour in costuming, the appealingly flexible voice of Emma Dean seated at piano, and her audacious contribution of original songs.

Her vocals recalled difficult loves, both real and imagined, and there was a refreshing unpredictability about the performance. With similarly offbeat and supple musical support from Tony Dean (electric drums, backing vocal) and Wayne Jennings (Cello), this set caught the room’s attention. It was also rewarded with the most vigorous applause of the night. You only have Friday 21 and Saturday 22 June to see this 9.00pm show that seems likely to reward the adventurous.

The adventure continued with Nefertiti LaNegra’s snippet of What’s Love Got To Do With It? Describing herself as ‘The Serena Williams of Drag’ – LaNegra might have some issues with pitch when dancing and singing at the same time. However, she has attitude and presence to burn. We didn’t get much story here, but a check of the festival blurb afterwards indicated something about growing up different in a small town. I can’t see how the full version (Friday 28 & Saturday 29 June – 9.00pm) will be anywhere near boring.

It was good to have a strong finish to the night in which the ‘Cabaret’ came to the fore. Of course, there’s a lot more to the 2019 Melbourne Cabaret Festival Programme than the Gala showed. Fear not, your intrepid team of AAR reviewers will scrutinize a selection of acts in the near future.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival 2019 Gala
Chapel off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Wednesday 19 June 2019 – 7.00pm
Festival continues to 30 June 2019
Information and Bookings:

Image: Emma Dean stars in Broken Romantics: A Unicorn’s Quest For Love – photo by James Thomas

Review: Jason Whyte