These are some reviews of the 2017 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, originally published online at Fritz magazine.
Reuben Kaye – Journey to the Centre of Attention
If you saw Reuben Kaye at the Adelaide Fringe, you know what you’re in for: “it’s the same jokes,” he says drily. Essentially, this is the same show, but no one minds – even his musical director Shanon Whitelock breaks down in laughter, and he’s heard them all before. Reuben takes the stage in the whirl of sequins, looking like Thin-White-Duke-era Bowie in Liza Minnelli’s makeup and Liberace’s wardrobe. The show is based on Reuben’s transformation from the ‘different’ kid to gay superstar, focusing on his teenage years, and how he rose above the haters. He weaves the story through a repertoire of songs covering everything from Kurt Weill to ZZ Top, Kate Bush (his version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a delight) to Iggy Azalia. His acerbic wit is never far away, turned on everything from the location, politics, straight men and arts graduates to the individual audience members he zeroes in on, and occasionally, even himself. He’s an expert at playing the audience, like the diva mother you never knew you wanted – one moment clutching you to his breast, the next turning his sharp tongue on you, then drawing you back, but only so you can lavish him in praise – and we love him for all of it. He returns for two encores, each featuring a costume change that’s more outrageous than the last, finishing with his unforgettable version of Men At Work’s ‘Land Down Under’. Reuben Kaye delivers perfect cabaret – wickedly funny, delightfully subversive and with a voice that will leave you begging for more. 5 stars
Kim David Smith – Morphium Kabarett
Kim David Smith strolls in from the back of the spiegeltent like a male Marlene Dietrich, dressed in tails, top hat, heels and glittering makeup, silently touching audience members as he passes. It’s a reverent beginning to a show that combines the best of what cabaret is about – heartbreaking songs, witty, sly banter and subversiveness. The key to what this show is about is in the title – the German spelling of Kabarett flags the pre-war Berlin aesthetic that permeates every minute, not least in Kim’s androgynous made-up face that’s prettier than a guy has a right to be. He has the voice to back it up, taking us through a repertoire of songs made famous by Dietrich, Lotte Lenya, and many others of the era– ‘The Song of Black Max’ and ‘Pirate Jenny’ are highlights, and Weimar-ised versions of Kylie Minogue’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ and my favourite, ‘Dracula’s Tango’ by 80s Toto Coello. Whatever the song, Kim imbues it with a tragic edge, drawing out the broken dreams, fading hopes and fighting spirit within each song, underlined by his simmering sexuality. Between songs, his ‘unrehearsed monologues’ provide light relief and play on his diva persona. If you’ve always longed for a time machine to transport yourself to the heady days of the Weimar cabaret scene, this is as close as you’ll get to it.
Meow Meow – Souvenir
Meow Meow is pretty much the queen of cabaret at this point in her career. Her bossy, shambolic diva with the syrupy voice is loved around the world, and anyone entering the show is fair game for being climbed on, made fun of and even cajoled into fetching her drinks. Her intimate shows are known for her getting very up close and personal from the front row to the back, all while pumping out cabaret favourites that tug at your heart strings. Her Majesty’s Theatre doesn’t allow for quite the same level of intimacy, though she enters by climbing over several of the front rows, but that’s okay because this show is designed for the larger space. She’s accompanied by the Orchester der Kleinen Regiment and occasionally by the haunting ‘Lilliputian children’s opera, making it a big stage production. The theatre itself takes centre stage, the show written around its history and ghosts that were, are and are yet to come. While Meow Meow’s tactics ensure plenty of laughs throughout, it’s the songs that steal the show. As the show progresses, they become more majestic, sweeping us up in their mesmerising beauty. Putting together a show of such seriousness, the melding of the comedy isn’t as seamless as it could be – as the show progresses in tone, it almost seems superfluous to such a poignant experience – but that’s a small quibble. Meow Meow is dazzling, and it’s not just the thousands of sequins on her dress– she is at her prime as a performer, nuanced and enthralling, and she knows how to make the crowd feel every note of her performance. 4 stars
Courtney Act – The Girl from Oz
Drag superstar Courtney Act is on a mission to show the world the music of Australia – or as she puts it, to be ‘the unofficial official cultural ambassador’. She’s horrified that Americans (the Brisbane-born Courtney lives in LA) have no idea so many songs are written by Australian talent. From Kylie to Sia, Peter Allen to Air Supply, the Divinyls to AC/DC, she’s got the voice and she’s not afraid to use it. From the minute she rolls out in glittery ruby red rollerskates for Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Xanadu’ and literally slips around the stage, we know we’re in for a treat. (Fortunately for her safety, she switches them for ruby red heels straight after the song.) Her ‘autumnal version’ of the Bee-Gees’ ‘Staying Alive’ is heartbreaking, Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ leaves us breathless and her Adelaide version of ‘Land Down Under’ has us in stitches. She belts them all out with heart, passion and often, humour. For this is a comedy show, and between songs the jokes come thick and fast, covering everything from America’s perception of Australia and Donald Trump to her time in RuPaul’s Drag Race (she was a finalist in season six) and taking any chance to riff off the audience. She changes from one glamourous costume to another while we’re entertained by hilarious videos from her YouTube channel. When it looks like it might all be over, the crowd is unanimous in footstomping for more. We’re not disappointed – a rocking version of AC/DC’s ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ (her signature song from Australian Idol) ends on a high. Courtney Act is a seasoned professional – she’s funny, has a killer voice and a warmth and ease with the audience that makes it look oh so easy. And she does it all while tucked and wrapped in a glittery corset. 5 stars
The Tiger Lillies – The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies
The Tiger Lillies were last here in 2014 for The Adelaide Festival, performing an epic retelling of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at Her Maj, with layers of animated projections that blurred the line between art and reality. This is an entirely different show – just the band in their trademark face paint and their eclectic rabble of instruments. As soon as they take the stage, it feels like we’ve stumbled into something special – the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent feels like a little club in the backstreets of some wonderfully seedy part of town. Singer Martyn Jacques beguiles with tales of tired prostitutes, cross-dressing disabled aunts, and sailors out for a good time, taking up the accordion, guitar and piano. Adrian Stout is a scene-stealer on contra bass, musical saw and Theremin, while Jonas Golland on drums delights at the front of the stage. The songs are darkly humorous, laden with eloquent doom, broken dreams and misfits. It’s a joyous romp of gypsy punk cabaret with more than a nod to pre-war Berlin and three-penny operas. Near the end of the set, they called for requests, and we were treated to several more songs, including ‘Banging in the Nails’ and’Violin Time’. Throughout, the audience was deeply appreciative though very polite, which was the only thing out of place – The Tiger Lillies deserve a rowdy crowd. 4.5 stars
Comedians Colin Lane (of Lano & Woodley fame) and David Collins (one half of The Umbilical Brothers) are two ‘professional idiots’ putting on an abridged version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classical comedy-opera The Mikado. They’ve roped in US powerhouse Amy G and between them, attempt to give the 70-minute, three-actor, one-pianist version of the two-and-a-half-hour musical extravaganza. Trouble is, Lane wants it to be ‘My Kado’, nabbing all the good parts for himself (often mid-performance) to the ‘detriment’ of the show. And so the scene is set for this talented trio to indulge in carefully orchestrated mayhem that has the audience in both stitches and cheerful applause throughout the show. The trio play all the characters, using Japanese fans, silly voices and posture to shift between them. Songs are interrupted, characters switched, individual performances insulted, sudden auditions take place, tempers flare and a walk-out creates ‘chaos’. All this with constant banter, often focused on the performers’ careers outside this show. Lane has built his comedy career out of being hilariously egomaniacal (most famously, opposite Frank Woodley) and he doesn’t disappoint. Collins and Amy G are each given their chance to shine, playing to their strengths and audience expectations – Collins using his trademark mime and sound effects to great delight, and Amy G showing off her impressive voice, most notably in Katisha’s ballad ‘Alone, and yet alive’. Pianist and musical director John Thorn, on stage for the duration of the show, also gets to join in the fun. The skill of these performers is in making a rehearsed show look like improvisation. They work so seamlessly together that even actual mishaps could believably be planned. You don’t need to be familiar with The Mikado to enjoy this, you just need to love good comedy. 4 stars
You can read more reviews of Adelaide Cabaret Festival shows by the Fritz mag team here.