Cabaret stylings and then some

Women in Voice

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

August 26 – 28

“Women in Voice” (WiV) has been a Brisbane institution since 1993. Surprisingly though, there are still some first timer audience members at the shows. With its diverse range of quality performers, the 2022 outing is sure to convert these to annual attendees. With Master of Ceremonies Sophie Banister as support and guide in journey through the varied sets, it soon become apparent that this year’s “Women in Voice” may well be the best one yet.

Banister is given her own musical moments, comically linked together by the theme of her thwarted quest to become a Brisbane 2032 Olympics opening ceremony performer in order to have her own Nikki Webster ‘Under Southern Skies’ moment. Metaphorically flying, however are the evening’s incredible performers, starting with Naomi Andrew, whose contemplative set highlights her soulful vocals, especially in impassioned share of Rose Royce’s ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’. Not only this, but the heartbreaking song also allows for first standout of the live band’s accompaniment, with Dr Bob Bass (bass guitar and double bass), Meg Burstow (piano), Musical Director Jamie Clark (guitar) and Paul Hudson (drums) swirling their sounds around the song’s hopeless sentiments.

The second, double-bill, segment sees regular performer Leah Cottrell, joining with Menaka Thomas in her “Women in Voice” debut, to showcase the intersection of traditional and contemporary music, drawing upon Thomas’ classical Southern Indian Carnatic musical origins. After whisking our troubles away with a sweet lullaby in her mother tongue, things become infectiously joyous with the audience clapping along to a fusion number featuring join-in from Cotterell in emphasis of the cross-cultural shared language of music at the centre of the show’s celebration. And when Thomas sings of Indian goddess Vata it is with a mixture of precision and emotion that elevates this year’s WiV to being amongst the franchise’s best, especially as it then transitions into a thumping, tempoed Cotterell-led ‘Rolling in the Deep’, complete with Vata rap and Indian dance off. It’s all very clever and lots of fun.

Not only do Cotterell and Thomas share the stage, but the featured songstresses often serve as support for each other, with assistance also from Mel Lathouras and Olivia Weeks, blending their voices together to create a harmonious bed upon which other performances can shine. Musical highlights aside, the show is also very funny. Banister’s musical recount of explanation of Brisbane to New Yorkers in terms of the most significant of films to ever be shot here, in so animated in its delivery and has such a catchy hook line, that it is difficult not to toe tap along with an accompanying smile. And her re-representation of Maria Von Trapp’s third youngest adoptive daughter Brigitta gives us an angstsy ten-year-old’s reimagining of the musical theatre classic “The Sound of Music” through the lens of unresolved middle child issues.

“Women in Voice” is about empowering women to share their voices. Accordingly, the program is curated so as to present a variety of experience levels and musical styles. Act Two features another WiV debutant, Irena Lysiuk giving a stunning operatic Italian-merging-into English version of ‘To The Moon and Back’. With trademark lush Powerhouse Theatre lighting and acoustics, it’s a commanding few moments as her flawless vocals introduce us to her proud Logan girl love of pop duo Savage Garden. In fact, the 1990s group’s popular songs make up her entire set list, albeit in reimagined forms, as she considers them through the perspective of a range of musical genres to take us through opera and a stripped back ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’ to a musical theatre themed ‘Shake Me Break Me’ (with Clark punctuating things along in add to its dynamism) and a country styled ‘Affirmation’ complete with twang and a great hat. (#whatcantshedo?) And her between-song banter and share of her journey to becoming a singer (inset with Savage Garden trivia) is incredibly funny in its easy nuance, making her set another of the show’s high points.

Responsibility for rounding things out goes to larger-than-life fabulous cabaret diva Dame Farrar (Carita Farrer Spencer), who stumbles onto stage direct from her bedroom in Melbourne to give us a smashing ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. Her voice is powerful, she sure can hold a note and her commitment to the little jokes that contribute to the elaborate tapestry of her over-the-top, insult-laden characterisation throughout her set is commendable, resulting in circulating tears of laughter from the thoroughly entertained audience members.

With tight direction, cohesive tie together of ideas and finely tuned performances, the 2 hours + (including interval) duration of 2022’s “Women in Voice” has all the ingredients for a wonderful night out… extraordinarily talented performers, authentic stories, humour and songs we thought we knew presented afresh. Get tickets now … if you can

Silver songstresses

Women in Voice #25 (Women in Voice in Association with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

November 10 – 12


“Women in Voice” is a much-loved feature of the Brisbane music and theatre landscape, which not only goes from strength to strength, but increases in popularity each year, as evidenced by its packed Powerhouse Theatre audience. The local phenomenon is not only well-liked, but unique in many ways, including its allowance for all performers to leave their distinct mark in curation of its program. In its silver anniversary show, this is ever the case with its versatile program ranging from ethereal ‘60s numbers from the stellar Allison St Ledger to Carita Farrer-Spencer’s faded diva delivery of self-lamenting standards and all things French, from Pepe Le Pew to Manu, featuring alongside segments also from a soulful Pearly Black and powerhouse vocalist Ellen Reed.

With such a formidable line-up of superlative songstresses, of course all performers are of excellent voice. Indeed, the immense talent of all the women is undeniable, especially when they join together for a final ‘Good Vibrations’. Ellen Reed, is, however, a standout, especially in stunning delivery of a soaring ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’ from “The Rose”. The song features as part of a unique set in which she sings ‘man’ songs whose narrative changes when sung by a woman.

Offering a different perspective is a key factor of the show’s success as the songstresses ensure audiences appreciate well-known songs and lyrics anew. Pearly Black moves from Carole King’s ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ to a raw and vulnerable ‘Jealous’ yearn by the divine Chrissy Amphlett. And Reed both strips back George Michael’s synth-y ‘90s chart-topper ‘Fast Love’ and shares an intimate rendition of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ complete with carivalesque musical accompaniment.

Under the musical direction of Stephen Russel, the Women in Voice Brand is versatile in support, but given chance to shine in numbers like Black’s share of Joni Mitchell’s sweet ‘Edith and the Kingpin’. The most memorable moments, however, come from a very funny Bridget Boyle as emcee in role as ‘fine Rockhampton artist Anna Smart’ who entertains with a tambourine/interpretive dance routine, complete with ‘Piano Man’ sing-along. She also provides a hilarious highlight with a ‘needed’ political statement through mashup of Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name Of’, which serves as contrast to the an earlier ensemble ‘Meet You in the Middle of the Air’ by Paul Kelly in fitting tribute to those of the Women in Voice cannon who have been lost, including pioneering rock chick Carol Lloyd.

Certainly, the “Women in Voice” celebration of individuality of entertainers from different musical backgrounds and generations offers something for everyone in its diversity of musical choices and arrangements. And at well over two hours duration, the immensely entertaining musical experience makes for a marvellous night out. See these ladies once and you will surely be in their audience annually as the institution continues to journey from an intimate concert in an alternative café in West End to the longest constantly running local production in Brisbane’s history.

Double bill with a difference

Larry Paradiseo and the Fabulous Dame Farrar (Judith Wright Centre & Women in Voice)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

July 15 – 18


From the moment Dame Farrar enters through the audience, dressed in pink, with Martini class in hand, her fabulosity is clear. Far from demure, however, she is drunk, debaucherous and every bit the diva as she entertains with all sorts of outrageous demands of poor accompanist Stephen Russell. Her stories are also gloriously over the top in their tragedy of life growing up in an orchestra pit and the bitterness of her love and loss of many husbands. Her Act One set is filled with hysterical comic moments amid her songs, to be lapped up by the audience. And by its end it is clear that Carita Farrer Spencer has created quite the character in the fierce Dame.

And then there is Act Two’s introduction of gender bending ‘International Sex Symbol’ Larry Paradiseo, who arrives with swagger and glorious hair to flirt outrageously with the ladies in the crowd through his suggestions and double entrendres. His sleaze is harmless and everything is in good fun as he has us sing and sway along to a few of his favourite songs from Kiss, Doctor Hook and every a bit of Johnny Farnham, and, like the Dame, gets audience members on stage as part of the act. Like Dame Farrar, Larry Paradiseo is a character created by the former Brisbane performer, now based in Melbourne, for “Women in Voice”, so they have both been tried and tested before. And clearly Spencer is comfortable in their similar but different over-the-topness.

Comedy has always been at the heart of Spencer’s performance style. It is clear that she has a devilish sense of humour and the sustained skill required to perform in such diverse character is to be applauded. It is all about timing of course, and down to the tiniest of moments, her characterisation is nuanced but never taken too far in terms of audience interaction. Even when, as Larry, she emerges for a showstopping finale take on Conchita’s 2014 winning Eurovision number ‘Rise like a Phoenix’ in guise as the Austrian drag queen, the result is nothing but riotous laughter. It is pleasing, however, that this is followed by a virtually uninterrupted version of Sinatra’s ‘One for my Baby’ as encore because, antics aside, Spencer has an immense vocal talent and it is a shame that this is sometimes sacrificed for the sake of a laugh, for although there is no doubting the success of the comedy I can’t help wondering whether the hilarity really has to be at the expense of the song.

These days there is so much more to cabaret than lounge-singing crooners. With niches now covering all range of themes, no two shows are quite the same. And “Larry Paradiseo and the Fabulous Dame Farrar” certainly shows this. Its descriptor of “One Woman. Two Genders. One Amazing Double Bill” is an entirely apt representation of what the night’s entertainment beholds. If there is one thing that is certain about Carita Farrer Spencer, she knows how to do it her way. And on a cold scotch and dry July night, there is nothing better to warm the soul that this double bill with a difference.

Sing it sisters

Women in Voice 21st Anniversary

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

October 16 – 25


The local phenomenon that is “Women in Voice” is turning 21 and audiences are invited to the party. And what a party it is, complete with childhood photos and a whole load of fun. ‘What were you doing in 1993?’ emcee Liz Buchanan asks the audience to ponder in the show’s opening moments; it was fitting for me to have my swampie (uni) self recollections accompanied by a snippet of The Cure’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. Although not all nostalgic, the musical selections are quite wonderful, ranging from The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby’ to Sia’s ‘Chandelier’, and even though Helen Reddy’s athematic ‘I am Woman’ makes an almost sneak appearance, this is a show far from any feminist agenda amongst the good time hilarity.

There’s always an inherent risk of audience participation when seated at cabaret tables near the stage and audience members will discover this when Carita Farrer Spencer appears as her outrageous male alter-ego asking for ‘your extra time and your kiss’. It is a lively, fun-filled, adult-themed end to an eclectic show that mere moments earlier sees the audience being soared to operatic heights by Bethan Ellsmore’s impressive vocal range.

In the secure hands of Broadway babe emcee Liz Buchanan, the show is presented as a series of sets (sweet, souful, sultry and surreal) from a diverse group of performers. Song selection suits both each performer’s distinct vocal style and the theme of each set, and the pacing is perfect, both within each segment and in contribution to the show’s holistic ‘something for everyone’ appeal.

The sets begin with a wistful performance from flower-child Alinta J’s, including of a lovely original number. Despite her relative youth, Alinta’s talent is clear and her vocals are very easy to listen to. In contrast, Lil’Fi’s following powerful, preacher-esque performance of sassy deep south blues numbers, is a toe-tapping, audience clap-along joyous celebration, complete with duelling banjo sounds and musician spoons. Indeed, members of this 21st line-up are all charismatic, dynamic performers with engaging stage presence, both when being showcased individually or when acting as backing babes. And the talent of the show’s musicians, is equally impressive.

“Women in Voice” is a glittering chandelier of a show and a guaranteed great girls night out. This is clear from the early moments when Alinta J bops out ‘Benny and the Jets’ prompting (controlled) audience desire to sing along, like in that scene from “27 Dresses”. Each audience member will have their favourite performer, but the talent of all the women is undeniable. Judging by this show, 21 years after its humble beginnings in a West End café, “Women in Voice” looks set only to continue to grow in popularity through its showcase of some of the country’s best female vocal talent.