Bawdy bibliophilery

The Babushka Book Club (Little Match Productions)

Judith Wright Arts Centre

March 25 – 26

Babushka is back … darker, greyer and shadier than ever with a bawdy book club celebration of all the wine and worries of the suburban middle class experience. The appropriately-named Queensland Cabaret Festival show includes tips for nailing your next literary gathering, on making yourself and your book look the part, and how to provide acceptable conversation contributions. It’s all very funny as non-much-of-a-reader, earth mother Laura (Laura Coutts) and desperate-for-a-drink Alicia (Alicia Cush) mess with sophisticated book club founder Judy’s (Judy Hainsworth) meticulous planning. That is until her ‘Torn’ admission of Jamie Fraser feelings upon recall of her “Cross Stitch”, “Outlander” introduction the bibliophile life.

As with past Babushka cabaret shows the set list features iconic pop songs mashed up and used anew (music arrangements by Alicia Cush and Luke Volker) as favourite novels of chick lit, New York Times best sellers and even well-thumbed erotic thrillers are explored. Who knew, for example, that Blondie’s light and catchy ‘One Way or Another’ is so stalkery, making it the perfect expression of Coutts’ “Twilight” inspired fan fiction plans. And Hainsworth’s gritty Eminem style rap retelling of ‘The Hunger Games’ is worth the price of admission alone.

Witty dialogue and lyrics, instrumentation, costume reveals, props and accompanying reimagined Mills and Boonish book cover backdrop imagery are all very clever (designer Penny Challen), with even throwaway type lines adding much to the trio’s distinct charactersations. This is a book club at which you most definitely want to spend time, with the only disappointment being how quickly the tongue-in-cheek experience appears to be over.

With Music Director Volker in piano accompaniment, the gorgeous vocals of these talented performers harmonise in lovely blend, such as in an early, jaunty “Pride and Prejudice” inspired tribute to white-shirt men, ‘The Bad Guy’. And the ‘totally relatable’ ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the perfect vehicle for Coutts’s exquisite operatic voice, making it a clear Kate-Bush-inspired highlight.

Also of note, is the work’s clear feminist themes. Not only are the Brontë sisters doing it for the selves, but a snappy ‘That’s Not My Name’ shout out to women authors who have penned novels under male pseudonyms, captures the uplifting spirit of its sentiment.

Indeed, experience of the “The Babushka Book Club” is a joyous journey of song, laughter and even drinking along with its take through eleven chapters of deconstruction of literary classics of all genres. Under Bridget Boyle’s lively direction, the 60-minute cabaret is highly entertaining for its duration, even for those who may only have read the movies of the novels mentioned. Hopefully, it is bookmarked for a return Brisbane season soon.

Photos c/o – Mish Photography

Familiar fables reframed

Happily Ever After (Little Match Productions in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 29 – December 1

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Straight from a sold-out Queensland tour, the three talented princess of Babushka are back in the magical land of Brisbane to turn your favourite bedtime stories inside out as, along with their trusty companion Sir Luke-a-lot (Luke Volger) on piano, the trio bring their own brand of fairy tale to the fabled kingdom of New Farm with “Happily Ever After”.

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As with the group’s earlier “Doll”, there is an immediate appeal to the show’s colour and infectious energy, enhanced by the performers animated and over-the-top characterisations. The divas’ princess personas are clear from the start with their costume nods to Snow White (Alicia Cush), Rapunzel (Judy Hainsworth) and Red Riding Hood (Bethan Ellsmore).

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While each princess performer is given individual opportunities to shine, the most magnificent moments are actually where their talents combine. The harmonious voices of the three performers and co-creators meld melodically in, for example, Lorde’s ‘Royals’ and Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’, the latter also featuring violin accompaniment from Ellsmore.

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In true Babuska style, there is more to “Happily Ever After” than there first may appear. There is a theme of female empowerment at the core of its fable reframes for modern maidens, perfectly tempered to be neither too in-your-face or too subtle to succeed, but in true fairy-tale fashion, just right in placement and plentifulness. What also makes Babushka so special is their unique reappropriation of familiar songs for new thematic purposes. Hainsworth’s tale of a down and dirty Cinderella to Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, for example, is an appreciated audience favourite, full of humour. And their reinvigoration of old-school song mashup of Madonna and Duran Duran is inspired.

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With their magical maestro in skilful musical support, the group presents songs in ways that allow for different lyric interpretation and appreciation, which makes for a dynamic cabaret experience. Full of fun one minute and darky seductive the next, “Happily Ever After” cleverly takes audiences from Britney to Metallica in its inside out turn of childhood favourites. The result is not only musically accomplished but wickedly funny.

Photos c/o – Natalia Muszkat

Doll debauchery

Doll (Babushka)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 24 – 27

As far as cabarets go, Babushka’s “Doll” is right up there in terms of craziness as it takes audience members along a trip down memory lane (of sorts) through examination of dolls in all their guises – cute, creepy and crude – and our experiences in treasuring and torturing them…. from their perspectives.

Crowded with accessories, the Visy Theatre stage is pinker than the Barbie aisle at Kmart. The increased intimacy compared to the show’s last Brisbane outing brings some virtues, however, such as allowing for a more commanding unplugged, mournful performance of ‘Barbie Girl’ from Judy Doll (Judy Hainsworth). Appropriately animated and over-the-top in her princessness , she takes audiences through her longing to know of life outside of her box, before also singing of her Bonnie-Tyler like need for a hero. And when she gets down and dirty with bursts of Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ during the trio’s terrific take of ‘The Clap Song, it is absolutely hilarious.

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Even so, it is Bethan Doll (Bethan Ellsmore), who is the naughtiest, sculling audience champagne as she tells of her wild life going from bargain bin to garden shed, in contrast to Alicia Doll (Alicia Cush) who multi-tasks about the place intent to overcome modern motherhood pressures and have it all.

Together the trio’s voices meld in perfect harmony in songs as such ‘You’re My Best Friend’ and when Ellsmore and Cush add opera’s most famous duet for sopranos, ‘The Flower Duet’ to Garbage’s ‘Cherry Lips’, they make for some sublime musical moments. This number also serves as perfect illustration of just what makes Babushka so special; their combination of classic (and classical) works with pop culture pieces in a contemporary context is inspired. And when Ellsmore blasts of Guns and Roses’ ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ in the show’s closing number, it is worth the price admission alone.

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Despite all the pinkness, things are not all froth and bubble. Pre-show play of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Independent Women’ signposts the show’s essential theme of empowerment, which is further emphasised by the dolls’ delivery of ‘When I Realised I was a Girl’ and some updated political references. Whether tongue-in-cheek or of more serious message, transitions between dialogue and music are always absolutely seamless, exploiting in the most wonderful of ways the different lyric interpretations that unpin the show’s premise.

As always, “Doll” is a simultaneously stylish and sassy show. Its balance of commentary and song is perfect and its dips in to the dark world of sex dolls and Ken and Barbie’s usually behind-closed-doors sessions, make it ideal for the debaucherous end-of-year carnival of circus, comedy, music, physical theatre, magic and burlesque that is Wonderland.

Right in the childhood

Doll (Babushka Cabaret, Little Black Dress Creatives)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

May 20 – 23

Fairy-light lit and adorned with dolly accessories, the Judith Wright Centre Performance Space is transformed to capture the essence of “Doll”, bathed in pink and full of fun. As audience members enter this musical Barbie dreamhouse, they are tempted to see the world through a doll’s eyes, for this is a show about all the dolls in our lives: the cute, creepy and crude, and our experiences in treasuring and torturing them.

The dolls’ stories are both set to and punctuated by music, but not always through the song selection you may expect, with the night’s playlist eclectically including opera, 80s pop, nursery rhymes and rock and roll. Indeed, the innovative fusion of styles is what always sets Babushka apart and, as usual, its combination of classic repertoire and creative contemporary context makes for an engaging and highly entertaining show. The original arrangements are everything and, as always, Babushka present songs in ways that allow for different lyric interpretation and appreciation, including a marvellous, mournful, unplugged rendition of ‘Barbie Girl’ from pristine, porcelain-skinned princess Judy Dolly (Judy Hainsworth), who has never really lived outside of the box of her fantasy world.

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Boxed up in original packaging, Judy Dolly initially dominates the stage, from a visual perspective, however, the show’s focus is spread across a trio of toys, for there is also Alicia Doll (Alicia Cush) who is the manic, multitasking, overachiever mother, intent on starting a blog and eating more kale. And then there is international party girl Bethan Doll (Bethan Ellsmore), who has a glitter habit and runs on booze rather than batteries. Her checkered past means that her original accessories are long lost or since pawned, but boy can she sing, with Ellsmore frequently flooring the entire audience with her soaring operatic vocals.

While each doll is given its solo songs and opportunities to shine, the most magnificent moments are where their talents combine. The harmonious voices of the three performers and co-creators blend beautifully, both in emotional ballad and when blasting out some Gunners, all the time accompanied on piano by the talented Luke Volker. And to hear the group present their namesake Kate Bush song is always a treat.

Despite its playful premise, this is a show far from PG descriptor as focus moves to Judy Doll’s search for companionship c/o a blowup sex doll and also, what Barbie and Ken get up to behind closed doors. It is perhaps a little more ‘talky’ than necessary at times and takes a while to hit its stride, but when it does, with its audience involvement, the participation is minor and full of fun. And through all of its detours, there is no detraction from the show’s ultimate feminist questioning of the fantastic world of plastic, its message about how ‘it takes all types of dolls’ and the realisation that perhaps Barbie is not that bad after all.

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Babushka’s “Doll” has all the ingredients of good cabaret: laughs, gasps and a show of genuine talent, and is defiantly worth a visit. The fact that it is built upon such an imaginative premise is just an added bonus, guaranteed to get you, right in the childhood #inagoodway.

Confide in cabaret

I Can Keep A Secret (Babushka)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

November 12 – 15

We all get hurt by love
And we all have our cross to bear
But in the name of understanding now
Our problems should be shared

So four-woman cabaret troupe Babushka uses Kylie’s lyrics to encourage its audience members to ‘Confide in Me’. And as an audience, we do; it’s like group therapy with bling, only it’s not covered on Medicare. The crassest language and crudest confessions, beyond just Spice Girls mourning and Kochie fantasy revelations, however, come from those on stage as deep dark secrets pour from diary confessionals and reflections.

A good cabaret wants a well thought-out progression of ideas and songs with a through-line from the beginning to the end. And with its titular focus of secrets, the show certainly does this. From little white lies to whopping big deceptions, we are told of all sorts of secrets. It is a theme that takes the audience to some pretty dark places courtesy of songs like ʻLotionʼ by The Greenskeepers and ʻJohn Wayne Gacy Jr.ʼ by Sufjan Stevens, because series killers, especially, have their secrets.

The key to cabaret is balance, familiar and unfamiliar songs, humourous and serious songs, different tempos and styles. And in this regard, “I Can Keep A Secret” certainly delivers in its musical mash-ups, from Sia to Gyote and some classic arias. And there are some modern classics too, with interesting new arrangements. A ‘White Wedding’ encore and the group’s  namesake ‘Babushka’ are show highlights.

Brisbaneʼs Alicia Cush, Bethan Ellsmore, Arlie McCormick and Judy Hainsworth are all in demand professionals and together they bring a dynamism to the hour long show. The eclectic mix of songs also serves to allow everyone’s strengths to be showcased, whether in four-part harmonies, duets or solos. Good girl Hainsworth shines from the moment she sings of her want to be wicked and, fresh from “Women In Voice”, Ellsmore (featuring in voice and on violin) again shares her amazing operatic range in delicate delivery of Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’.

Great artists can always surprise. And, although the eclecticism, of “I Can Keep A Secret” will be appealing to some but off-putting to others, overall, it is a beautiful but baffling show of the dirty and flirty talents of those pushing the boundaries of traditional cabaret. Babushka, Babushka, Babushka-ya-ya!

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