Dolly done right

What would Dolly Do

The Old Museum

April 14

What would Dolly Parton do if she had some songs to share? She’d hustle up a storm and get a show happening. So, having discovered that she has an awful lot in common with her multitalented majesty Ms Parton (they both love sad songs, for instance), that’s just what Megan Cooper has done. Her return to the Queensland Cabaret Festival, “What Would Dolly Do?” sees the singer songwriter sharing some stories from her life, via the stories and songs of her song writing hero. It’s Dolly done a little differently as audiences are treated to sad songs, shimmy songs and mountain sounds with a little hip shaking on the side.

The curation of the show is its greatest strength. The transition between the songs from Dolly’s decades-long career in country music that we know (or maybe not always) and Cooper’s own songs is seamless. The essence of original numbers is so like that of Parton’s work, that the original songs sit easily alongside their more well-known counterparts. ‘Virginia Fall’, for example, (from Cooper’s debut album Ghosts, Choirs & Kings) has a lovely sound to its recall of experience of being in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, especially in its sweet chorus sounds and distinctive whistles.  

Cooper is a genuine performer whose story-telling is grounded in authenticity, which works well in an intimate venue such as that of The Old Museum. She is clearly an accomplished country singer who easily accompanies herself on guitar as required. Her light and bright vocals and occasional slight gravel, allow her to give much to her share of well-known Parton songs and her band, The Polished Flaws (Mark Angel on guitar, Brannon Crickmore on violin and Dr Bob on the double bass) also contribute considerably to the sensibility of each number. Crickmore’s strings, for example, both add to the heartbreak of ‘The Grass is Blue’ and fill the catchy country to pop crossover hit ‘Here You Come Again’ with hope.

The combination of all these elements makes for a musical treat to fill up our senses and immediately have us ready to go again, singalong song sections and all. Whether it be ‘Jolene’, ‘I Will Always Love You’ (both written on the same day) or Cooper’s own equivalents, there is much to enjoy about “What Would Dolly Do” given the respect with which its performers treat each and every of its numbers.

Loving Leah’s pop

Leah ♥ Pop

The Old Museum

April 16

The setlist of Leah Cotterell’s “Leah ♥ Pop” is drawn from the great flourishing of pop music when Nashville was competing with Motown, the Brill Building and the English invasion. These great songs, we are told, are from could well be regarded as the golden age of pop in the 1960s when pop music established so much of what we now take for granted.

It was an era of great diversity and innovation arising from experimentation, meaning that there is much fodder from which the concert’s songs could be selected. And perhaps in rally against the power of music to elicit emotion being used against us, the individual songs are not all the most obvious of selections. Indeed, Cotterell’s self-confessed broader-than-most definition of pop means that it’s a wonderfully varied smorgasbord of songs to celebrate the genius of over 20 artists and songwriters. This allows for audience members to have both the chance to perhaps reacquaint themselves with past favourites, or for those like me, not quite of the same vintage, the opportunity to discover for the first time bittersweet gems like Roberta Flack’s ultimate farewell song, ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’.

In all instances, Cotterell empowers each song with its distinct sensibility. Her warm, earthy sounds add depth to Nina Simone’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ and she gives Dusty Springfield’s ‘The Look of Love’ a lovely light touch with tantalisingly crisp, pristine vocals. Then, there is the fiercely-energetic ‘Green River’, which easily evokes the energy of the catchy county-rock tinged Creedance Clearwater Revival song thanks to her solid vocals in work with some smouldering guitar sounds from Dave McGuire.

The five-piece band of versatile and talented musicians (McGuire along with Jamie Clark, Paul Hudson, Helen Russell and Peta Wilson) is given its time alone on stage to shine in an introductory ‘Drive My Car’ by the Beatles. And in Glen Campbell’s ‘Gentle on My Mind’ the song’s folksy sensibilities allow for exciting showcase of its distinct sounds, courtesy of bassist Russell and Clark on guitar. And when guests Alison St Ledger and Annie Petersen join Cotterell and her band on stage for a concluding ‘Dancing in the Street’ and ‘What is Life’, emotions are uplifted even more.

There is so much to love about “Leah ♥ Pop” and the spirited event is well-suited to its placement on the final day of the 2023 Queensland Cabaret Festival’s celebration of the cabaret inspired world of live music, storytelling and creativity. “Leah ♥ Pop” makes for a joyous way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Cottrell’s passion for pop is infectious, especially as she also provokes us to consideration of why we love it too. She is a great talent, a versatile vocalist and a charmingly authentic performer, and in her hands, the show is a comforting celebration of some legendary numbers from a perhaps under-celebrated era.

Going on grooves

What’s Going On

The Old Museum

April 14

Queensland Cabaret Festival’s “What’s Going On” represents one of the most unique cabaret show experiences I have ever had as what starts as a subdued easy-listening event soon swells into an all-in revel, such is the seductive power of Marvin Gaye combined with the appeal of performer Tyrone Noonan.

The salute to the American soul singer’s eleventh studio album sees Noonan, along with his 7-piece jazz/Latin/soul band, Palimpsest, performing all the songs from Marvin Gaye’s musical masterpiece album What’s Going On, along with select choices from throughout his hugely successful career. For those without such intimate familiarity with the classic free-form 1971 album, introductory information is provided as to the truth and sensitivity at its core and as its numbers are played through in intended stream of consciousness style without pause (apart from a break between its A and B sides). This is certainly apparent through the songs’ introspective lyrics, told from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning to his home country. And with themes such as concern for the environment, urban poverty, police violence and outrage at the then war in Vietnam, they could sadly so easily be products of the here and as much as 50 years ago.

ARIA award-winning musician Noonan’s voice is perfection as he gives us some flawlessly divine moments in hymn-like songs such as the devotional ‘God Is Love’, and ‘Wholy Holy’ which are woven through the jazzy doo-wop harmonies of the album’s surface sounds. It is never a one-note performance as he takes us from the iconic sorrowful requiem of ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ about how mankind is destroying the environment, to the croony seduction of a later palpably-desirous ‘Sexual Healing’.

The virtuosic backing band provides the lush orchestration that contributes so much to the show’s laid-back groove and effortless slide through each of the album’s tracks. And while side two’s almost overture of ‘Right On’ serves as an infectious all-in mash up of funk rock and Latin soul rhythms, with jam-session sensibility (that sees audience members on their feet in dance-along), there are also many appreciated moments in which individual musicians are given their own opportunities to shine through effortlessly smooth saxophone and alike solos. Similarly, things kick off with the titular number, which sees Ellen Reed joining Noonan for a gentle espousal of peace.

“What’s Going On” is not just about the distinction of its namesake album’s songs, so much as their profound timelessness and it is easy to appreciate how Gaye’s grand artistic statement was not just Motown’s fastest selling record, but still holds the coveted Number 1 spot in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Gaye’s magnum opus is an incredible musical and social statement made by an artist at the peak of his career, and thus, very deserving of such a classy homage to the enduring legacy of both it and its creator.

Beret ‘baret celebrations


Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 30

“Bisbaret” may be, at is core, a celebration of Brisbane and its artists, but its latest outing at Metro Arts also has a touch of an international feel as performer Thien Pham, embarks on a film noir cold open clip chronicle of his beret-clued search through some of Brisbane’s iconic spots to uncover the city’s artistic degenerate cabaret underbelly. As the beret hunt is brought from screen to stage, we are reminded of our right to be entertained…. and that we are over its coming 90-minute duration.

The show, which is fast becoming a Brisbane institution, is created and hosted by musical comedian Sophie Banister and musician Pham, and unfolds as a curated variety night bringing audiences a smorgasbord of local talent, in this instance in a one night only return as part of the 2023 Queensland Cabaret Festival. The international flavour continues with its first act and the show’s from-then house band, The View From Madeleine’s Couch (led by Anje West and Kym Ambrose with Owen Newcomb on bass, Lachlan Hawkins/Paul Hudson on drums and Bruce Woodward on guitar), which shares some swaying Portuguese and Brazilian bossa nova sounds to ease us into the show’s easy-going vibe.  It continues, too in later-show appearance of Indian-fusion musician Menaka Thomas, whose catchy original number ‘My Eyes Can See’ is infectiously soul-stirring with audience clap-along in shared celebration, while also allowing feature of talented musicians Meg Burstow on keys and Tsoof Baras on drums.

Audience involvement is a key part of the entire show’s sensibility and success. Dynamic local favourite drag disco gremlin GoGo Bumhole (in some fabulous green boots), has us seat-dancing along in unison to a pumping (#literally) Body Rockers number. And her final act interactions with Whilhelmina bring some great comic moments and all sorts of chaotic energy. Add in some local flora funniness from comedian Taylor Edwards, and this “Brisbaret” does as its promises and gives us a great variety show of some of the city’s talent. ​​​

Energy never wanes, thanks to the upbeat between-act interaction of the show’s hosts. The dynamic duo of Banister and Pham have a natural rhythm to their banter, seen before in “All Day Breakfast With Sophie And Thien”. Their genuine enthusiasm for what they are doing makes in it easy to love it all as they weave local, topical and personal aspects into their own numbers, such as a musical exploration of the problems that come from heading on holiday as part of a bigger than 2 adults, 2 children family and, later, condemnation of the cost of living villain of our times. Indeed, their organic approach is what gives the show so much of its charm, especially in an ad-lib filled facilitation of the audience participation portion of the evening in response to shocking recent retail news. The No Myer, Myer Centre game, complete with bin chicken tokens, is lots of fun in this, and also its nostalgic relatable mentions of the dragon roller coaster, not being able to find a food court table or taking the wrong escalator to the bus stop.

Appropriately given its title, Brisbane is at the core of the fabric of “Brisbaret”, and its embrace of this is what gives the show so much of its unique character. The additional touch of having The View From Madeleine’s Couch as house band, snippetting the songs of Brisbane-based bands like Powderfinger, Regurgitator and The Go-Betweens between sets, shows the attention the detail that is belied by the rough and ready façade and random assortment of performers. The shared space of the “Brisbaret” stage may facilitate an unusual cabaret underbelly mix of local performers, however, its central celebration of their individuality and uniqueness is perfectly aligned with the sentiment of the Queensland Cabaret Festival. Even so, if you missed this March outing, there is always the next “Brisbaret” at the Brisbane Comedy Festival come early May.

Cabaret quest

Choose Your Own Adventure (Queenie van de Zandt)

Judith Wright Arts Centre

March 25

Unlike in traditional musical theatre, cabaret performers address the audience during their shows. In Choose Your Own Adventure, Queenie van de Zandt extends this basic feature by taking what is an all-encompassing performance genre and putting its realisation firmly in the hands of its audience… literally, as, with smartphones in hand, we vote as to how the evening will unfold at its every turn. From what she should wear and drink to what story or song she will go on to share with us, decisions are at the audience’s discretion, which makes the program unique in its every outing.

In accordance with the traditions of the theatrical form, the show, which was created also by James Cutler, features a mix of music, song, dance and drama. Queenie’s versatility as a performer is clear as she takes us through personal and professional life anecdotes alike, with self-deprecating honesty that only adds to their hilarity, alongside her stunning vocals.

The program offers not only something unique in its every outing, but something for everyone in segments, which include, for example, competition to identify the most number of song snippets in a 30 songs in 30 bars segment, for us of Aussie rock numbers rather than musical theatre songs. There is humour aplenty peppered throughout the cabaret quest, including from cameo appearance of Queenie’s alter ego Jan Van De Stool, and recall of some of the Canberra-born-and-bred performer’s stories from her years living in Brisbane. Memories are intertwined within the fabric of the show’s intent, starting from a slideshow of photos and videos from throughout a career that began with poetry performance at aged 8 as part of her prestigious Trinity School in London exam. It’s all very meta as she allows art to imitate the choose your own adventure of her story (like Barbara Streisand in “Yentl”) as we are taken through her life, her career and her influences.

Queenie’s voice is as stunning as ever as she effortlessly delivers serene ballads and big belt moments alike. As always, a highlight comes when she reminds the audience of already-fans, of her acclaimed tribute show “Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell” with a sublime ‘Both Sides Now’, however, “Choose Your Own Adventure” is a show of many musical highlights, including the beautiful (and beautifully delivered) ballad ‘Come Back For Me’ from “Smoke and Mirrors”, with exacting accompaniment from pianist Meg Burstow. Even the fragments of songs sung the night’s games show just how brilliant and versatile a performer Queenie truly is.

“Choose Your Own Adventure” is an interactive cabaret event like nothing you have likely seen before. It may have been devised during lockdown as an online experience, but its Queensland Cabaret Festival outing illustrates that its entertainment value is only elevated by its collective in-real-life experience. Queenie is a consummate performer who never disappoints and, with audience members taking control of how the night unfolds, anything other than outstanding entertainment would really be on us anyway. Indeed, the only detriment to the show’s format is that providing two song choices just leads to audience requests to hear both, because here in Brissy we just can’t get enough of Queenie van de Zandt’s delights.

Un-Santa-mental celebrations

Babushka Regifted (Little Match Productions)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

December 14 – 17

While its set is adorned with festive baubles, an elf on the shelf and a giant advent calendar, the ‘ding, dong, here comes the bells’ arrival of the three wise women of Babushka (Judy Hainsworth, Laura Coutts and Alicia Cush) signposts that “Babushka Regifted” is very much an anti-Christmas Christmas show. Soon thereafter, ‘Wake Me Up When September December Ends’ cements the show’s sentiment as an 18+ celebration of everything we love to hate about the holly jolly season.

The trio of performers is joined in their irreverence by accomplished jazz trio Jake Bristow (Musical Director along with Alicia Cush) and the Baby Cheeses band and, after the show’s initial numbers, things settle into a comfortable banter that moves us between segments. As with previous Babushka shows, there is plenty of audience participation, this time through Grinchy games organised around the share of Festivus airing of Christmas grievances and about the worst ever received presents, which works well in the intimate venue of Metro Art’s New Benner Theatre.

Variety ensures that “Babushka Regifted” is a fun-filled ride for everyone. The eclectic mix of musical genres includes features of some classic seasonal standards from The Pogues and Spinal Tap, however, a Madonna mashup also sits comfortably alongside Nick Cave’s classic ‘Red Right Hand’, reappropriated as a warning about Santa lap sitting. In all instances, the musical arrangements from Cush and Bristow serve as perfect vehicles for the slick vocals, quirky comedy and unapologetic sass that have come to characterise the Matilda Award winning cabaret trio’s work.

This is not a santa-mental show in any way. There’s not a Mariah song to be heard. And the familiar numbers that do make appearance are not as we usually would know them. The  problematic ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is amusingly shifted in focus to tell the tale of Hainsworth’s obviousness to her prowling of Bristow, yet it still allows us opportunity to appreciate her consummate vocals. And the three songstresses harmonise together beautifully in a ‘We Three Kings Queens’ accompaniment to the story of travel to the real Christmas charcuterie Mecca. And in their serene share ‘Walking in the Air’ from UK Christmas Day staple, the enduring animated classic “The Snowman”, their voices blend beautifully (with lovely accompaniment especially from Bristol) as the trio of singers literally bounce off each other in full snowman regalia.  

A sleigh-the-patriarchy theme adds another layer to things as they sing from a hymn him her book with holy PowerPoint accompaniment. Clever lyrics give carols like ‘Deck the Halls’ and alike a rework, and then there is ‘Good King Queen Wenceslas”, because who is Stephen exactly and more importantly, who is cooking his feast!

With all that is has to offer, “Babushka Regifted” may well be your new favourite festive tradition. Unlike the silly season, however, these Babushka shenanigans will be over in a flash so you will need to don your dodgy Xmas jumpers and get along quickly to experience what is a rollicking adults-only romp laden with tinsel and tunes, especially if you want to find out why Laura’s fruit cake brings all the boys to the yard.

Photo – c/o Penny Challen