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

Bush best

In The Warm Room – The Music of Kate Bush 1978 – 1980 (Electric Moon)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 9

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When a show is billed as “the voices of eight seasoned cabaret performers will shine Bush’s creativity, imagination and innovation”, expectations are high. Appropriately so, given Electric Moon’s previous shows, and as-anticipated, realised from its opening, beautifully-mournful number, ‘Moving’, by Josh Daveta, with ethereal additions from Bethan Ellsmore. And then there is Alison St Ledger who sounds just like the iconic and unique artist in the meta-music ‘Wow’.

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It is not all whimsical, however, with Daniel Hack rocking ‘Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbreak’. Indeed, there is something for everyone, from everyone; the stage is cluttered with collaborators (#inagoodway) and the show is all the better for it. The ten piece band, for example, does an excellent job in evoking a variety of moods and genre influences, as eclectic as its source songstress’ musical catalogue.

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Highlights include Daveta’s rollicking ‘Oh to be in Love’ and a haunting ‘’Oh England My Lionheart’ from an imposing (as always) Sandro Colarelli. And there is also Lucinda Shaw’s guttural ‘The Kick Inside’ and later symphonic post-apocalyptic ‘Breathing’, and a wonderful ‘Wuthering Heights’ from Bethan Ellsmore, in nod to Bush’s trademark cinematic and literary references and as example of Ellsmore’s vocal prowess.

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In each instance, the songs in the warm room are almost shared anew as the performers each bring something different to bringing out Kate Bush’s very best. But one would expect no less from Sandro Colarelli, Lisa Crawley, Josh Daveta, Bethan Ellsmore, Daniel Hack, Lucinda Shaw and Alison St Ledger… the best bringing out Bush’s best in make of an infectiously-entertaining evening.

Photos c/o – Lachlan Douglas

Sinatra satisfaction

Seven on Sinatra

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 2

With a stellar cast of some of Brisbane’s greatest songstresses in celebration of the Leader of the Pack, “Seven on Sinatra” is a real night to remember as Liz Buchanan, Jo Doyle, Jacqui Devereux, Bethan Ellsmore, Rebecca Grennan, Claire Walters and Melissa Western do it their way with a swing band of the Sands Hotel Copa Room sort.

With a catalogue of 200 career chart songs, Sinatra leaves the ladies copious crooner choices and the show’s selection of swinging tunes and suave sounds allows every performer their chance to shine, from the melodically charming ‘It Had to Be You’, now of “When Harry Met Sally” association to the ultimate love song to love, ‘Moon River’. And the result is a show of many highlights with some stunning vocal ranges giving the songs new life and depth, including Ellsmore’s beautifully ethereal take on the swinging ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, Devereux’s ‘You Can’t Take that Away from Me’, at once tough and tender in its mix of joy and sadness, and a declarative ‘That’s Life’ that Western makes all her own in belt to the back of the room. In every instance the power and pure emotion behind each number is clear, with the overall mix of ballad and uptempo numbers working well.

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It’s not all solos though; the magic begins with a ‘That Old Black Magic” duet and ends with an encore of a shared ‘The Lady is a Tramp’. The range of songs from the canon of the most important and influential American standards not only allows the songstresses to showcase the memorable melodies, but gives the live band opportunity to shine. And shine they do, in numbers like, ‘Night and Day’, for example, where the jazz musicians breakaway with multi-layered, seductive soundscapes, worthy of mid-song recognition applause. And amidst the smooth sounds are fun moments too like an interesting take on ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and surprises such as when Doyle emerges from the crowd to croon a syrupy ‘Strangers in the Night’.

Frank Sinatra is one of the most influential popular singers of the 20th century, not just because of the longevity of his success, but his cement of many of the songs that occupy the American Songbook. This show not only includes the most essential Sinatra songs, all impeccably arranged, but showcases the strong technique of some talented vocalists. Indeed, with seven styles of singing, “Seven on Sinatra” offers satisfaction for everyone, be they a Frank fan or not, sure to satisfy in its mellifluous melodies and show of how Sinatra is Sinatra and why we love him still.

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.

Killer cabaret queen

Queen of the Night (Little Black Dress Creatives)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

June 13

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As she saunters out to greet her audience with “you can call me your majesty”, Bethan Ellsmore establishes herself as the titular Queen of the Night. And from the moment she starts crooning Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’, it is clear that this self-declared regality is entirely befitting as soars to the song’s amazing vocal heights to make it her own.

“Queen of the Night” sees Ellsmore, along with her dashing backing band, taking audiences on quite the musical trip through all range of genres and themes as timeless tales of love and longing are weaved together with upbeat, clap-along numbers like The Strokes’ ‘Last Night’. Indeed, the show features a diverse array of songs as Ellsmore performs unique arrangements of arias, pop songs, power ballads and rock-n-roll classics.

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An unexpected highlight comes from Queen’s ‘Killer Queen’, complete with violin solo from the multi-talented monach herself. Its inclusion serves to highlight the extent to which cabaret is so often all about the lyric and how well-known works can be turned inside out for dramatic effect. But beyond this, the eclecticism of the show’s song choices demonstrates her breathtaking range of vocal versatility. Ellsmore’s voice was not only naturally beautiful, but her technique is brilliant and the volume and power of her coloratura is something special. Indeed, one of the best things about seeing an Ellsmore show is observing how first-timers react when they hear the true magnificence of her voice. In “Queen of the Night”, this moment came during her rendition of a song to the mysterious goddess of the moon, from the Czech opera “Rusalka”, which showed that the musical beauty speaks beyond any language barrier.

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Despite the aching heartbreak that serves as theme to some of its songs, “Queen of the Night” is far from a pity party. With some debauchery and a lot of wine, it is also a right royal good time, complete with tiaras, streamers, party poppers and a couple of spilled drinks. Ellsmore’s voice is a remarkable instrument and she plays it flawlessly. And for that reason alone, you should do yourself and favour and check her out. If you are lucky you might even get to experience multiple cadenzas.

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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.