Melbourne Cabaret Festival – Opening Gala

MCF Dolly Diamond - photo by Sanjeev SinghYou know that criticism made of Hollywood that most new films are sequels, reboots, or other variations on the familiar, like “superhero” films? Following its opening night gala, Melbourne Cabaret Festival also came off as looking pretty risk-averse. Still, some performers took their chance to grab our attention.

After a delay, the evening was hosted by drag performer “Dolly Diamond”- joined by two backing dancers in an opening routine that looked like it was just rehearsed in the green room. (It gave a glimpse of the moments of amateurism to follow.) “Artistic Director” Diamond gave us uneven sequences of banter with the audience and sometimes out-of-breath vocals.

Moving on, the two acts of the gala presented us with snippets from six festival shows. The performers had varying abilities in forming a segment suitable for the format.

Alyce Platt and her band The Fish Shop Collective kicked us off in concert mode with three songs from Someone’s Daughter. The murky sound made some lyrics unintelligible, but the group were capable in their rock/pop offerings. Ms Platt’s invitation to attend the full show for a story of when she wore the wrong jacket to a party was not the most compelling inducement.

Accompanied by Adam Cook on piano, counter-tenor Max Riebl sings in Hard to Handel, a combination of the composer’s baroque works and “songs from the golden era of pop”. Riebel seemed more comfortable with his aria (Con rauco mormorio) than the pop tune (Young and Beautiful) given a treatment reminiscent of Radiohead.

A little more variety might have made this segment more compelling. Reading the show’s blurb, a 10-minute spot might not have suited the ambitions of this piece. It may have benefitted from some narrative, especially for those who don’t understand Italian.

He’s Every Woman is the work of very different piano (Jamie Burgess) and vocal (Justin Clausen) duo. Turning the switch from “concert” to “cabaret”, their spot gave a take on great women of pop. With covers of Celine Dion’s The Power of Love and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High, and a fine frock, this show looks to be a diva-load of campy (if undemanding) entertainment, which would probably be better suited to a slot later than 6pm.

Vocalist and pianist Drew Downing, with backing vocalists and band, gave us a taste of God Only Knows: The Songs of Brian Wilson. The three songs were nice, and there was the odd (insubstantial) aside on Brian Wilson’s life and band. The full show will have fourteen musicians on stage.  It seems likely to appeal most to those who want a concert of songs drawing heavily on The Beach Boys, but we had no hint of any further ambitions.

Fresh from awards at the 2018 Perth Fringe is What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger – an odd title that doesn’t substantially shorten the actual adage. Regardless, this segment was not at all “blah blah”. Vocalists Erin Hutchinson and Tyler Jacob Jones performed original songs, backed by Joshua Haines on piano. Their eccentric tunes on the extreme or bizarre things people will do to survive provided some good laughs, and this young troupe worked hard in their novel choreography.

Surprising elements of the set highlighted how little of this there was in the rest of the gala’s programme. Based on this taste of nuttiness – and the enthusiastic applause in the house – the full version of What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger, (this Friday and Saturday at 9pm) seems well worth seeing.

We finished with another tribute, Nancy Sinatra – You Only Live Twice performed by Danielle O’Malley (Ginger and Tonic). The setup has Sinatra performing at the recording of a television special, complete with plugs for the sponsor. O’Malley performed a tribute to Cilla Black last year, and clearly has a talent for imitation. It’s not stretching the artform though, nor the audience.

My last Melbourne Cabaret Festival Gala in 2015 was a big night out! It excited me about the prospects of high-quality shows: Annie Lee’s Lighthouse Berlin, Strange Bedfellows in Under The Coversand Noni McCallum’s Tinderella. It’s fair to say that the 2018 instalment fell well short on excitement (or even aspirations) by comparison. However, a number of festival shows did not appear in the gala, and AAR will be reviewing some of these in the near future. Watch this space!

Melbourne Cabaret Festival Opening Gala
Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Tuesday 19 June 2018

Image: Dolly Diamond – photo by Sanjeev Singh

Review: Jason Whyte