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.

Meeting memories

Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club (Western Standard Productions)

Judith Wright Arts Centre 

June 10 – 18

Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club is having its very first meeting in the Judith Wright clubhouse and all ‘80s era fans are welcome. After pledging our allegiance, the show’s audience is moved through agenda items and commendations for watermelon carrying et al, to learn that Fran Grey (Melissa Western) is joining the executive committee. To serve, she needs to have her ‘80s movie climax initiation fast-tracked and we get to watch!

Blessed by the spirit of Swayze, this footloose foursome of girls just want to have fun and performers Helen Cassidy, Lizzie Moore, Neridah Waters and Melissa Western throw themselves into the show’s celebration of living our best lives. Western, in particular, is charming as shy spreadsheet enthusiast Fran, hesitant especially amongst the big personalities of her now fellow board members.

As Act One continues we learn of the fictional club’s foundation in a random, prolonged flashback to DFFCC’s founder and president, the right honourable Tracey Bacon’s (Neridah Waters) time working at the supermarket deli. It’s all a bit loose, but in the funnest clowning-about kind of way, including with audience involvement in a Hey Hey It’s A Knockout ‘80s movie quiz.

Things move more quickly in Act Two with its amped up audience participation courtesy of an en masse ‘Take On Me’ dance routine, testimonials and a audience club member raffle draw, punctuated by many memorable moments. Most notable of these, from an audience reaction perspective, is probably a difficult-to-describe “Labyrinth” dream fantasy sequence of Merchandise Coordinator Molly Estevez (Helen Cassidy), with a big helping hand (and then some) from Lizzie Moore as David Bowie’s Jareth the Goblin King.

Inspired by the spirit of the ‘80s, this cabaret-style comedy quasi-musical is, of course full of nostalgic nods to the era. Its iconic music hits are hinted at in dialogue and included in snippets, with a few featuring as longer numbers, such as an inventively choreographed ‘Maniac’. Recognisable pop culture props make appearance too, from “Flashdance” welding to tease of its water scene.

No ‘80s show, however, would be complete without a “Dirty Dancing” reference or two and “Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club” manages to achieve this with its own twist. Club Vice President Sam Sheedy (Lizzy Moore) gives us a sensual self-care ‘Hungry Eyes’ tribute to what every busy woman really wants and, at Western’s hilariously-animated lead, the talent-show-ending ‘Kellerman’s Anthem’ becomes a shared singalong of joined ‘hands and hearts and voices – voices, hearts and hands’. Indeed, each time the starting strains of a familiar ‘80s song fill the air, they are accompanied by the joyful sounds of nostalgic recognition from within the audience.

“Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club” may be a show inspired by Coles Radio electro synth escapism, but its nostalgia-inducing sentiments serve as proof that the ‘80s are ‘gonna live forever’ (and fly high) in all of the era’s scrunchied, crimped-hair, shoulderpadded and neon et al glory. Attendance represents an opportunity for those of a certain vintage to get their brat pack together, and potentially dress the part to take part in an infectiously-fun night of nostalgia-induced ridiculousness. Like Fran, you just might end up having the time of your life, to be send home to dance right through your life in revisit of the era’s great movie soundtracks.

Songbook soundtrack

Your Song (The Little Red Company)

Judith Wright Arts Centre

April 22 – May 1

When the little red company opens the world premiere of “Your Song” with the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road numbers, ‘Bennie and the Jets’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)’, the jubilant energy, both on stage and amongst the top-taping, clapping-along audience, has an infectious ‘not wanting to go to work tomorrow’ feel. The lively throwback to rock and roll with an edge of glam is a glitzy rainbow of celebratory colour (helped by Jason Glenwright’s lively lighting design). And it is a standard of excellence is maintained throughout the show’s 90-minute duration.

“Your Song” sees the company of talented singers and musicians tackle Elton John’s biggest hits. However, far from being a typical tribute show (no-one takes on the role of Elton John) creators Adam Brunes and Naomi Price have affectionately woven the music and lyrics created by Elton John and Bernie Taupin around connected, often deeply personal memories and stories shared by people who have been intimately affected by the music. It is a formula that works incredibly well as, in her directorial debut for the company, its artistic director and co-founder Naomi Price, crafts a taut show that encourages the audience to consider the music megastar’s unforgettable global hits anew, with songs being cleverly chosen from the performer’s catalogue to not only illustrate his musical versatility but connect intrinsically to the core, often heartfelt message of the real-life stories.

The incredible cast of Marcus Corowa, Irena Lysiuk, Luke Kennedy and Andy Cook (Corowa and Cook in their Little Red debuts) are superb in their vocals, and also musicianship with Corowa and Lysiuk giving a guitar duet of Elton’s lively and likeable 1976 number with Kiki Dee. Corowa also especially impresses in a soulful ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’, which is layered with melancholic yearning thanks to his richly textured vocals. And Lysiuk’s vocals are as lovely as ever.

Throughout the show, light and shade are factored into the curation not only of the set list but its anthology of stories, which allows for a beautiful rendition of the ballad ‘Daniel’ by Music Supervisor Kennedy and a captivating stripped-back ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ from Cook. Indeed, this captivating number is one of the show’s highlights, with Cook’s astounding voice creating a mesmeric performance that is worthy of admission alone. Cook is a thoroughly entertaining and energetic performer who not only can make the word shandy sound seductive but execute a full splits drop of which any drag queen would be proud. And his versatility easily takes us from a big-voiced, buoyant tease into the introduction of ‘Crocodile Rock’, complete with La la la la la la audience chorus contribution, through to the heartfelt sentiment of its story’s context.

It is to their credit that all the performers tell the show’s stories so engagingly that it is easy to forget that they are not of their own experiences. Lysiuk, in particular, is a charming storyteller who provides a lot of the show’s humour, including through on-stage synchronised swimming and a most-memorable reveal during ‘Tony Danza’ ‘Tiny Dancer’. And her fabulous energy makes it easy to consider ‘I’m Still Standing’ anew as a feminist anthem (#yeahyeahyeah).

As always musicians Mik Easterman on drum, Michael Manikus on keyboards and OJ Newcomb on bass provide strong support for the vocalists. In particular, Manikus shines in his realisation of the songs of one of the most iconic piano players in modern history, including through his rapid-fire ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)’ and funky ‘Honky Cat’.

Described as ‘the songs you know, the stories you don’t’, “Your Song” represents a clever concept, realised by outstanding performers along with first-rate original arrangements from Maitlohn Drew, Alex Van den Broek and the cast. It is a slick show full of entertaining energy, heart and humour and when the company’s mega-mix encore tradition sees audience members on their feet in elation, it is easy to appreciate the good reasons why this has been the fastest selling show in Little Red history, requiring the scheduling of additional performances. Not only does “Your Song’ remind us of the works of an incredible artist who has soundtracked our lives, but in, in the little red company’s hands, it creates an emotional connection that may catch us aware and linger long afterwards.  

Photos: c/o Steph Do Rozario