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

Scones and songs

Margaret Fulton – The Musical (Jally Entertainment)

QUT Gardens Theatre

April 13 – 14

Food and cooking writer, journalist and author Margaret Fulton OAM is an Aussie icon. The first of this genre of writers in Australia, she was an instant and international success whose The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, with hundreds of recipes, step-by step instructions, hints, tips and full-colour pictures, taught a generation how to make delicious, economical dishes and be creative with food and international cuisine. We are reminded of this from the outset of “Margaret Fulton – The Musical”, adapted from her book “I Sang for My Supper”, with its initial rousing anthemic musical number ‘The Book’ outlining the pre-Fulton repetition of the same old boring dishes of roast lamb and rissoles et al made in the same old boring ways.

The original Australian musical comedy outlines how the formidable Fulton took Australians through scones and pavlova to new ingredients in celebration of the culinary queen’s professional journey from home cook to household name, but also acquaints the audience with her lesser-known personal life and penchant for ‘decorative, elegant and useless men’. The fiercely independent Margaret’s (Judy Hainsworth) story is a sweeping one that takes shape as she sets out from Glen Innes (where the family moved from Scotland after Margaret’s birth) to Sydney. As she lives as a single mum in the Rocks district, we meet her friends and fellow tenants, a vibrant mixture of actors, artists, writers and musicians (ensemble cast members Conor Ensor, Clancy Enchelmaier, Zoë Harlen and Paige McKay) in Latin chorus number ‘La Vie Boheme’.

The hardworking supporting cast are all vibrant in their performances, which are often exaggerated caricatures in play for laughs. Enchelmaier, in particular, is vivacious in his portrait of despicable men, including Margaret’s philandering Irish second husband Denis. This animated approach is reflected also in the cheerful choreography the features in songs such as ‘Jam’ and ‘Bobby Limb’. In contrast to this jubilant tone, Jessica Kate Ryan cements the emotional backbone of the story as Margaret’s proud Scottish mother Isabella. It’s an emotional core that Hainsworth also captures, particularly in the musical’s later reflective tones. Indeed, Hainsworth easily conveys the journey of the story, from the passionate optimism of a strong-willed 18-year-old Margaret, through her career triumphs and personal defeats to late-in-life contemplations.

Musical Composer Yuri Worontschaks’ score is an accessible one. And as a biographical piece, the show is well written to incorporate nods to passages of time and some song lyrics (book and lyrics by Doug Macleod) are very witty. Similarly, its music spans various periods of history of Margaret’s life, even if frivolously-energetic, unnecessary numbers sometimes drag things along. And while the mixed bag of musical numbers includes no real post-show stand-outs, there are some memorable moments such as when she promotes a new appliance in an Andrews Sisters-style ‘Pressure Cooker’. The show includes a mix of high energy numbers and beautiful ballads, the latter of which allows the ensemble to showcase some lovely harmonies. Ensor’s touching vocals make ‘Beautiful’ a tender reassurance of third husband Michael’s adoration and Hainsworth’s vocal strength endures throughout, especially in occasional a cappella moments.

While much of the show’s entertainment comes from its easy comedy, there is also a strong feminist message to resonate it beyond just its target older demographic. John Bailey’s single-set stage design creates a nostalgic authenticity, appropriately complemented by colourful props including, of course, an orange crock pot. And like “Ladies in Black”, its Australian vernacular often adds to the charm of its humour.

“Margaret Fulton – The Musical” is a delightful musical romp through the life of a national treasure. Whether your knowledge of Fulton comes from her 1968 best seller or her more recent appearances as a judge on the reality television show MasterChef, this tribute to the famed cook will leave you entertained and uplifted.

Spirited satire

Spirit Animal (#firstworldwhitegirls)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Rooftop Terrace

March 19 – 24

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In break from their woke world adventures and spiritual journeys, superprivileged Tiffany (Judy Hainsworth) and her best friend, millennial vlogger Madison (Kyra Thompson) are living the physic-told truths of their best lives and ready to tell audiences all about them (#irl). Over the top in their first world struggles, they remind us of the way to bliss through mindfulness and worship of our body temples, all with tongues firmly in cabaret cheek. The result is heaps of fun for everyone in the audience, even during a mass meditation session and shared mantra.

Endearingly egoed (‘I’m Better than You’ is a very funny early number), the characters are easily brought to (larger than) life by the talented duo. As the common denominator of the #firstworldwhitegirls brand, Hainsworth, in particular, has an assured stage presence as the narcissistic Tiffany, not-so-passive-aggressive in her reaction to ex-boyfriend Harry’s new bride Meghan (her angsty anti Meghan Markle ranty rap is a hilarious highlight).

The duo’s vocal talents are showcased in a range of catchy original songs in a variety of musical styles from a sultry song about how to create a perfect Instagram flatlay photo (with help from audience ‘volunteer’) to the pop-ballady ‘Dick Pic’. And it is always great to experience revisit of the anthemic ear-worm ‘Little Black Babies’.

Social media themes throughout, even in the ongoing show prop of accompanying Instagram post posters, detailed in humour even down to their hashtags and likers. And there is a nice Disney thread too that ties together with Thompson’s ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman’/’Let It Go’ type attempt to motivate Tiffany to return to the stage, because #hatersgonnahate.

As with all #firstworldwhitegirls shows, “Spirit Animal” is a tight, topical satire of the silliness of first world problems and the girls’ over-the-top journey has many relatable aspects. It is easy to appreciate how the bespoke local show slayed at this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival; with whip-smart wit and nuanced comic timing, nothing can bring these spirit guides down. So do yourself an hour-long favour with experience of its full-of-funny songs and dialogue; it’s better than staying home Netflixing and Facebook stalking.

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

Entitled entertainment

Botox Party (First World White Girls)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Rooftop Terrace

March 7 – 12

When as part of his Brisbane Comedy Festival show comedian Rhys Nicholson made an Ivan Milat joke, it was to the gasps of some the audience in ‘oh no he didn’t’ shock. But that was nothing compared to First World’s White Girls’ song about accidentally hooking up with Gabel Toste (#toosoon?). Clever though the song is, however, it is not even the most memorable part of Judy Hainsworth’s and Meggan Hickey’s show, “Botox Party”, which is filled with up-to-date references, including a catchy song and dance routine for current newly elected President Trump, simply titled ‘Donald’.

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The show’s songs all showcase some incredibly cleverly writing in their highlight of social issues and resulting social commentary. With light-hearted approach “Botox Party” balances topics such as climate change and Tinder misadventure, with labiaplasty and accessories. Laughs abound due to its politically incorrectness, relevant satire and cascade of comic moments. Add a touch of physical comedy and the celebration of self-privileged ego, written by Hainsworth, is nothing short of excellent.

Equipped with their at-hand Norwegian waters, trust fund princess Tiffany (Hainsworth) and Noosa’s own Maddison (Hickey), with help from Miguel from Mexico as accompanist (Max Radvan), are endearing in their narcissism and very, very funny… because sometimes the best comedy comes from being able to say things that you couldn’t otherwise. And clearly, people are letting their guards done as audience members themselves stand up and share their own first world problems about flight delays and downgrades, and missing “Married at First Sight.”

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From the gentle strains of ‘Celebrity Died Today’ to the revealing final ‘Window Pane’ expose of the secret to a best-selling song, each song has its own unique and catchy melody and it is wonderful to see ‘Little Black Babies’ making a reprise from previous outings. Hainsworth and Hickey both showcase excellent vocals in their delivery whether together or in their solo numbers. Hickey’s “Snowflake” which comes complete with tap-dancing, trumpet playing and piano playing is hilarious in its steal of Tiffany’s limelight. And Hainsworth’s ‘Memory’ lament of pre-middle-aged late night partying and carb indulgence is perfect for share of some commanding vocals.

Even the most time-poor of everyday boring people need to find time for the gospel according to the entitled First World White Girls. And you don’t have to live by the bible of WWKKD (what Would Kim Kardashian do), accessories your active wear or carry around a cute extra-wrinkly dog as testament to your taste, to appreciate its laugh-out-loud comedy. “Botox Party” is about more than freezing your face; with its abundance of balloons, comically oversized syringes and pom poms, it is all about fun, fun, fun, fun.

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.