Freak-pop parts

ÚMBRIEL

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

October 29

ÚMBRIEL is an electronic, art-pop quartet whose show occupies a niche position in the Queensland Cabaret Festival and Metro Arts’ Cabaret Long Weekend. Indeed, the nuanced artistic work may not be to more mainstream audience members liking. However, given the fan following obviously out in force, it hardly seems to matter.

The captivating ritualistic aesthetic experience begins from pre-show entry in the visually immersive space of the New Benner Theatre. From a Gothically-glad lead vocalist (James Halloran, whose musical persona is ÚMBRIEL) collapsed afront the projected image of a single wilting flower, things chant into a dreamy music experience. After a slow build comes release of beats and guttural belt of industrial rock with English alternative rock musician PJ Harvey’s ‘To Bring You My Love’. The music is like a thumping intoxication into the intimate musical backdrop upon which the vocals rest. Indeed, sweeping instrumentals only add to the drama of the orchestral theatricality.

The 2020 single ‘Desire’ is made all the more emotionally enchanting through its melodic sweeps and percussive pounds. It also allows for show of the softer side of Halloran’s versatile vocals. From fluid soar to fragmented jaggedness, they shape each song with appropriate emotions of yearning, lust or anger. However, with little at-mic punctuation of the setlist, there is no opportunity for uninitiated audience members to connect with the flamboyant performance. Similarly, while there is a certainly an appeal to lyrically descriptive phrases such as “he drinks my moans and drowns me deep”, the layer of hyperbolically metaphors upon each other makes it difficult to find light and shade moments in which to rest and reflect.

Many musical influences are evident at different times across every part of the setlist, from Nick Cave and Kate Bush to Stevie Nicks, Tori Amos and even some New Romantic sounds of pathos, such as in ‘Renegade’. And, through them, ÚMBRIEL provides audiences with a more ritualistic offering than the typical cabaret fare. The part-rock show part-ritual cabaret is an acquired freak-pop (as is its trademark) taste and while the show is perhaps mesmerising more than arresting in its melodies, the fan-base audience celebrates every piece of its sonic artistry.

Pop classics challenged

My Funny Valentine (Josh Daveta and The Sequins)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

October 29

The day that “My Funny Valentine” was due to open as part of Metro Arts’ Season of Surprises, southern Queensland went into a three-day lockdown. As devastating as its reschedule was, the show’s reappearance as part of Queensland Cabaret Festival’s Cabaret Long Weekend represents the perfect opportunity to shake off the short (for some) week that was.

Taylor Swift’s dance-pop song ‘Shake It Off’ appears as part of the setlist, however, not as the uptempo tune we might expect, such is the show’s challenge to present pop songs as jazz standards (think of it as old radio meeting Spotify). After a flash, bam, alakazam opener welcoming us into the cosy living room staging of the New Benner Theatre, Josh Daveta outlines the show’s premise and what follows is indeed a vintage experience through the lens of the pop music world of modern day Mariah Carey and Katie Perry et al magnum opuses. And thanks to Daveta’s jazz stylings and the smooth musicianship of the Kendall Layt, Jordan Garrot and Gracie Mack, we are delighted with the rhythmic surprises that ensure.

Wonderfully, band members are all given moments to shine such as pianist Gracie Mack’s magnificent introduction to ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, which segues into a buoyant Beyoncé number. And while Daveta delivers down to the “Single Ladies” hands-up oh, oh, oh choreography, the jazzy slow-down of its usually rushed lines, layers the lyrics with new meaning.

Things are paired back also in a slow and melodic ‘Oops! I Did It Again’ and Daveta’s impressive vocal range is particularly displayed in a transformed, but still rousing ‘Bad Romance’. Indeed, as the lights dim down, the number builds beautifully from tentative outset to a confident crescendo declaration that leaves no question as to the talent on display.

It may take until its encore to hear the show’s title song, however, along the way to this, there are many highlights, including a gospel-like play with tempo in Billy Eilish’s taunting electropop hit ‘bad guy’. And like so many sentimental torch song greats, heartbreak features within its themes, however, with a twist, as a swinging Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ rolls out into a joyous audience call and response segment.

Daveta is a charming, genuine and wittily-funny performer, which makes experience of “My Funny Valentine” an absolute blast. Hopefully, we will see the show in some form again soon. In the meantime, Josh Daveta and the Sequins are back for “Christmas is here, Again?” at the Old Museum for one night only in December.

Feel the vibe-ration

Hughman

South Bank Piazza

September 17 – 18

In many ways the late-night cabaret slot can be a difficult festival gig, given the spirited energy needed to maintain the engagement of an often already ‘celebratory’ crowd. “Hughman”, however, is the perfect show to fulfil this brief at the Brisbane Festival. With music that never stops, it all is about the upbeat vibe from the outset of its spectacular Queensland premiere under the giant disco ball of the South Bank Piazza. As we bounce into each new number, there is increasingly “I love this song” exclamations about its setlist. Indeed, with co-creator (along with director Dylan Mahoney) Hugh Sheridan initially spinning beats from a mixing desk high at the back of the stage, the curation of disco-esque classics takes the audience to an Ibiza-like dance party celebration of everything, complete with a shirtless Sheridan.

From Wham and Prince to Sia, The Jacksons and a dance-along ‘Xanadu’, the feel-good music is all incredibly infectious in a boogie-wonderland way that has you wanting it to continue all night long. There is not a lot of substance per se, but as performers integrate into the audience and sections of the crowd are soon on their feet dancing, nobody seems to mind. It’s all about the vibe really and in that regard, “Hughman” is a perfect celebration of life, love and music, saxophone number and all.

Hopefully audience members know what was in store from the show’s promise of seeing Sheridan in a new light, otherwise there may me some disappointment as to his role in things. And it certainly would have been nice to have a couple more signature smooth vocal numbers from the performer, as when he does take to the microphone for ‘My Way’, his vocals are as polished as ever. And California Crooners fans are in for a treat as he shares one of the group’s original boppy numbers, ‘I Need You’.  

Adding to the program’s diversity is a dynamic array of talented performers, Chase Vollenweider, Demi Jenkins, Winston Morrison, Nathaniel Hancock, Emma Pavich and Dion Bellow, who get the crowd buzzing thanks to their exhalating dance moves. From a high-voltage tap routine to Diana Ross to roller skate and hula hoop numbers, and even some fire twirling, it is all quite the spectacle of fun. And as performers frolic about in bohemian kaftans and alike by Camilla and rainbow flags, it’s difficult to no become caught up in the ecstasy of freedom that exists at the core of the show’s sentiment and celebration of what it means to be part of a big resiliently human family.

“Hughman” is a spirited, invigorating festival experience, guaranteed to make you feel good vibrations about the world. The kaleidoscopic mash-up of music, costume, colour and dance not only represents the very essence of festival culture, but takes on a new resonance as we celebrate being one of the few cities in the country in which the arts can currently continue. The dance party format guarantees a good time, making it the perfect way to finish off your night out, or maybe just get it started.

Let the James begin

Skyfall (The Little Red Company)

South Bank Piazza

September 14 – 18

As soon as its recognisable bah-dup bah-daaaah belts out to signpost the start of The Little Red Company’s blink and you may miss it Brisbane Festival season of “Skyfall”, the audience is ready to let the James begin. Its tag line promise of it being a license to thrill soon rings true too as, taking the concept of cabaret entrances to new heights, Luke Kennedy kicks thing off in full suave spy mode.

Anyone who has experienced a Little Red show knows of the company’s characteristic attention to detail. In this instance, the delivery of that trademark give to audiences of that little bit extra is realised also in Naomi Price’s entrance, which is totally in keeping with the seductive allure at the centre of the Bond film franchise. Indeed, Queensland’s leading couple of song both exude style as they swagger about the stage (and amongst the cabaret seating section of the audience), martinis in hand. And fabulous as Price’s ‘200 metres’ of tulle costume may be, her re-emergence in a golden tux is all sorts of fabulous as she sings of the man with the Midas touch.

Although the couple have only one duet together, their playful, punny banter about Bond Girl names and alike, and interactions with audience members keep things light. For all the opportunities that the South Bank Piazza space provides, however, it also comes with its limitations and its cold and cavernous space is not particularly conducive to the cosy intimacy that cabaret experiences typically provide. Things are shaken up by appearance of guest stars joining for some numbers. Drag act The Slaying Mantis appropriately allows us to feel her presence in the crowd during ‘Goldfinger’ and Lai Utovou oozes silky vocals in his smooth ‘The World is Not Enough’.

Iconic brassy orchestral stabs from an eight-piece horn section give numbers their signature sounds, in work with the company’s usual band quartet of Mik Easterman on drums, Scott French on Bass, Michael Manikus on keys and Jason McGregor on guitars. Kicking off with the spy’s swinging instrumental main signature theme, the band is always on-point, and are appropriately given individual moments to shine, such as Shannon Marshall’s triumphant trumpeting in Kennedy’s ‘Thunderball’ and Jeffrey Reid’s alto saxophone work in Price’s ‘Nobody Does It Better’ power ballad.

The musical highlight happens, however, in a bombastic ‘Live and Let Die’ thanks to Easterman’s dynamic drums, which make it easy to appreciate the song’s honour of, in 1973, being the first Bond song to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Indeed, as we experience the epic masterpiece’s build to a fiery explosion of instrumentation, its pulse its infectious.

High energy numbers are tempered with some tender tunes like Sam Smith’s ‘Writing’s on the Wall’, which Kennedy delivers with haunting beauty. The sleek, boldly bare performance conveys a real pathos, especially in his impressive falsetto, that makes it one of the night’s best vocal performances. Price is given many moments to shine, none more so to when we are taken into the conclusion of the 70 minutes show courtesy of its titular tune, which provides a swirling lush and moody reminder of her previous “Rumour Has It” Adele tribute show.

“Skyfall”, which has been created by Adam Brunes and Naomi Price adds to the company’s catalogue of unique music-driven theatrical experiences. It is an energetic celebration of the spy film franchise’s massive music that leaves audience members thoroughly entertained. And its mashup encore tribute leaves us not only wanting more, but also wondering when the company’s ‘Sex Bomb’ show is happening.

Dirty delight

Dirty Laundry (Briefs Factory)

South Bank Piazza

September 9 – 11

Appropriate for its celebration of our city’s culture, this year’s Brisbane Festival features inclusion of the irreverent Briefs boys and their insatiable desire to entertain in the glittery escapism that is “Dirty Laundry”. The brand-new party cabaret from Briefs Factory, led by Fez Faanana (AKA Shivanana), features a line-up of classic Briefs boys alongside some newbies performing a mix of circus, comedy, burlesque, dance and drag to delight the late night festival crowd ready to party in the piazza.

From its ‘I Feel Love’ Donna Summer start, the spectacle of showmanship never stops in the high energy and highly physical show as we are taken through numbers that range from one with strategically-placed bubbles to the fastest aerial silks spin you are ever likely to see. It is all infectiously entertaining.

The shared tongue in cheek silliness stems from the notion of dirty laundry, signposted by the strategically placed washer and dryer set on stage. There are a lot of laughs as dirty laundry is aired and given a send-off, especially courtesy of audience confessionals that take quite the naughty take. And with the aid of an iPad and hazmat suit, its COVID restricted audience participation is hilarious in and of itself even before being elevated in its multimedia interdisciplinary contemporary theatre attempt to tick the grant application box of artistic merit.

Numbers are cleverly crafted to delight the not-easily-offended audience with showcase the unique talents of each cast member. From Broome boy Louis Biggs’ sexy Salt-N-Pepa inspired juggling striptease to Mark Captain Kidd Winmill’s flaming hula hooping, the late night party show’s raunchy rambunctiousness is filled with surprises.  And when Kween Kong (Thomas Fonua) leads the group in a ‘100% Pure Love’ finale, it serves not just a showcase, but a summary of the crowd’s sentiment towards the boylesque ensemble which has grown from its humble West End beginnings to famed cabaret troupe.

Sheridan stories and songs

Hugh Sheridan Live

South Bank Piazza

September 3

“Hugh Sheridan Live”… it does what it says on the tin really, but while the Brisbane Festival opener does feature the Australian television star and crooner live on stage with a full band, it’s aptness is more about its content, which features Sheridan sharing his story in meaningful jazz and swing songs, intertwined with heartfelt storytelling of his life and career journey to-date.

Those who have experienced the infectious cabaret stylings of the California Crooners Club of Sheridan’s previous Brisfest appearances, know of his charm in working a crowd so are probably not surprised to see him entering the Southbank piazza space from within, in share of Taylor Swift’s ‘Blank Space’ suavely decked out in a dapper suit. His debonair attire suits the shows early segments which see him fronting a full band of accomplished musicians in share of some lush jazzy sounds. And it is wonderful to see band members showcased in their own right within numbers, such as the a big and brassy slide trombone solo in ‘This Could Be The Start Of Something Big’ and an infectious piano segment in ‘Give Me The Simple Life’.

From the commanding swagger of Sheridan’s visits into the cabaret seated audience, the show progresses with a frank and honest vulnerability. The tone shift initially comes courtesy of his touching reflection of his relationship with his cherished father Denis, from whom, he tells us, he got his love of jazz. And just days out from Father’s Day his share of a song last sung at his father’s funeral, brings with it all sorts of feels for those who have suffered a similar loss. Indeed, slower and more graceful tunes are all beautifully interpreted in sometimes soul-stirring ways, including Bobby Darin’s ‘The Curtain Falls’ closing tribute.

Even when about the brutality of the performing arts, Sheridan’s recollections are profoundly introspective, especially around the controversy that arose from him being cast to play the lead role in the 2021 Sydney Festival production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, which leads into his on-stage transformation into the genderqueer East German singer for delivery of two of the rock musical’s numbers. When ‘Wig in a Box’ morphs from mournful ballad into potent punk anthem, its rambunctious is infections in its energy. And it makes the rousing ‘My Way’ that follows even more uplifting in its messages of reflective wisdom, resilience, belief in oneself and appreciation of life’s journey.

As a sub-in since the festival’s program launch, “Hugh Sheridan Live” had limited rehearsal, meaning that things are a little loose, but in a good way the suits the fun of the festival scene. And while transitions may, understandably, lack the polish of a more prepared show, the cabaret’s songs are delivered as if Sheridan has truly lived every word of them. And there is no denying the quality of his vocal prowess, across a range of musical genres. His interpretations of jazz standards are smooth, yet also bring with them a charismatic vitality and, as he shows in Tony Bennett’s ‘Who Can I Turn To’, he can hold a crisp high note as well as ever. With natural charm and engaging charisma, Sheridan gives us a cabaret show that is authentic and moving, but also ultimately joyous, meaning that we can only wait with anticipation of what is to come with his later festival Queensland Premiere of “Hughman”, an entertaining mash-up of music, colour, and costume set to show him in a new light.