Astonishing Simone sounds

Feeling Good (Mama Alto)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 28 – December 1

Dr Nina Simone was one of the most important and unique voices in music history, while gender transcendent cabaret diva jazz singer Mama Alto is a charismatic performer with a voice is to die for; in combination they make Wonderland Festival’s “Feeling Good” a match made in cabaret heaven.

The dip into Nina Simone’s vast songbook is more than just a stunning tribute to the High Priestess of Soul who refused to be pigeonholed; the hour long show is a charming experience of light-hearted banter and exquisite music, with accompaniment coming courtesy of pianist extraordinaire Miss Chief. In true cabaret style, Mama Alto gives us unscripted between-song shares of thoughtful unscripted stories of Simone’s glorious career, strugglesome life of marginalisation and iconic music.


Songs, meanwhile, are well-chosen to connect the personal and political of the peerless vocal stylist Simone’s lived experiences. From the enigmatically-styled but still so-soulful ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ to the light and playful ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’, the song that introduced Simone to a new audience upon its feature in that perfume commercial, we are also charted through the songstress’ intricate musical signatures. Mama Alto’s easily adapts to the genre fluidity that characterises Simone’s repertoire, sprying us along for the anthemic ride of the civil rights song, ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’, for example.

From the hauntingly elegant, enduring ballad ‘Wild is the Wind’ early number, it is clear that Mama Alto respects the precision of her vocal instrument and shows remarkable control of it, holding a note like nobody’s business. Astonishing vocal gestures add texture, magnifying the emotional depth and meaning of songs. In the heartbreaking ‘The Other Woman’ she pays great attention to the musical expression of emotions, filling the audience with melancholy in her tender and poignant realisation and trembling deliver yof its lyrical devastation. Indeed, there is captivating heart and soul evident in every number, in fact, every note and word she sings. And her technique is incredible, meaning that she can take us from silky sounds to tremulous musical exclamations with ease.


Just as Miss Chief’s musicology reflects Simone’s essential meeting of jazz and classic components, Mama Alto gives us an astounding tribute to Simone’s vocal nuances and flavours in an always-engaging performance. While possibly Simone’s best-loved song, the titular ‘Feeling Good’ makes for a memorable encore, ‘Sinnerman’ is the show’s standout number, not just in its representation of Simone’s complex relationships with family and religion, but its thrilling vocal unleash of thematic intensity (the song tells of a sinner’s futile attempt to seek salvation on judgement day).

As I know from experience, you will always remember the first time you become aware of the commanding musical presence that is Mama Alto. The consummate musical storyteller’s shows should not be missed. In fact, they need to be discovered as soon as possible, because the act of doing will fill you with regret at having missed her previous Brisbane visits. As “Feeling Good’ signals, the gifted vocalist’s shows come with guaranteed passion, emotional honesty and strength of technique that make them sublime shares of the human experience.

Christmakah cabaret celebrations

The Seventh Annual Mama Alto Holiday Special – Butterfly Edition (Mama Alto)

The Butterfly Club

December 17

Like just the short-lived “The Judy Garland Christmas Show” from which it draws its inspiration, “The Seventh Annual Mama Alto Holiday Special” has an appealing, organic feel as guests drop in on gender transcendent diva, jazz singer Mama Alto for a sing-a-long (with musical director William Elm at the piano).

Immediately there is a welcoming feel to the intimate show. Even the poinsettias are glittering in seasonal celebration at the seventh annual now not Christmas, but holiday, special. (But don’t even get her started about the conservative media). Intelligent and witty between-song banter is warmly conversational, meaning that the experience feels like it is over in the shortest time.


The beloved yuletide tradition starts in characteristic Mama Alto style with Ella Fitzgerald’s divine ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’, dedicated to its first recording artist, the days earlier passed Nancy Wilson, which showcases the talented cabaret artiste’s exquisite sound in its hushed longing.

Music is inextricably intertwined with Christmas and there is much for connoisseurs to enjoy in the program with Elvis’ ‘Blue Christmas’, Bing Crosby’s ‘I’ll be Home for Christmas’ and Nat King Cole’s iconic ‘The Christmas Song’ all making appearances. It’s not all snow and mistletoe lyrics though; the eclectic but nicely-curated set list includes a Hannakah Dreidel song singalong and a lovely ukulele-accompanied ‘Feliz Navidad’ with self-declared ‘cabaret deviant and really bad drag queen’ Six Inches Uncut. Other highlights include duet with Bianca Bruce in stunning share of the Judy Garland/Barbara Streisand mashup duet ‘Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again’, a much sort after standard since the first holiday special and an inspired operatic mashup of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Purple Rain’ in duet with Piera Dennerstein. Then there is also Bradley Storer’s soaring share of Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision-winning Bond-esque power ballad ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’, with its message of acceptance and unity.

If you love the holidays, vintage songs and the deliciousness of life’s ironies, this Christmakah cabaret (to also steal the “Orange County” show’s trademark term) is certainly for you. It not only celebrates the ideas of inclusion and community that make the holiday season such a joyous time of year, but it shows the regard in which Mama Alto is clearly held in the industry, given how many fellow performers are willing to share the stage with her for just a few minutes each.

Lady Mama luxury

Lady Sings the Blues – Mama Alto Sings Billie Holiday (Mama Alto)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 22 – 24


My first Mama Alto experience at last year’s Wonderland Festival was my absolute favourite theatre show of 2018. And it is only minutes into this year’s “Lady Sings the Blues” return, before I am reminded as to why. In fact, from the moment the gender transcendent diva and jazz singer statuesquely slides on to the stage, hair appropriately gathered up with gardenias, to divinely open with the titular song, there is an immediate appeal to the intimate (despite it being full house) cabaret show.

There is a natural attraction also to the work’s premise. As Mama Alto comments, it is Billie Holiday’s name on the program that would have brought audience members out on a Thursday night, such is the enduring fascination with the American jazz legend. For those who have seen Mama Alto, before, however, this is not necessarily the case as one experience of her exceptional talent and you are sure to be a return-again fan.

Just like Holiday herself, Mama Alto’s interpretations of the evening’s songs show a balance of joy and sorrow. The unscripted mosaic of Holiday stories that join them represents s similar mix of naughtiness and pathos. And they are wonderfully told too, helping to paint a picture of the iconic songstresses’ complexity and charm, inset also with a healthy dose of humble egotism as every diva show should possess. So engrossing is the whole experience that the evening is over too soon. The one-hour standard festival show length, so often an attractive attribute in allowing multiple experiences, this time, seems inadequate for collectively-captivated audience wanting more.

With only half a dozen or so songs, “Lady Sings the Blues” is far from a full Billie Holliday biography, but each one is still exquisite in tell of the tragedies and triumphs of the life and music of Lady Day. Not only is Mamma Alto’s voice distinctive and arresting in its ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ hauntingly long lingers, but her interpretive skill makes for an all-around enchanting experience. Indeed, she is intuitive in delivery of both lyric and melody and also astounding in phrasing and emotion, with vocals that are at once delicate and powerful, and always evocative, whether in the stunning seduction of ‘The Blues Are Brewin’’ or the aching desolation of infidelity suspicion in ‘You’ve Changed’.

Collaborator, Musical Director and pianist extraordinaire Miss Chief’s accompaniment is on-point too, showcased throughout to often mid-show applause. Having worked together for many years, the duo has a natural on-stage rapport that enable the show’s fluid approach, including, in this instance, the duo each improvising a mid-song brass solo.

Mama Alto adores Billie Holiday; this is clear. The other thing evident is that audiences love Mama Alto in both her storytelling and especially her songs. With perfect feeling, timing and vocals, she creates a personal, intimate and emotional cabaret experience of luxurious easy-listening to which you could easily return over again.

Considerations of quality


A couple of months away travelling and a couple more laid up with pneumonia and I saw fewer shows in 2017 than in recent years (but still well into the double digits). Reflecting, it is clear that quality over quantity can be incredibly rewarding. And what quality there was on offer… so much so that my usual top five favourite, has been blown out to the following ten:

  1. Torch Songs (Mama Alto, Brisbane Powerhouse, Wonderland Festival)
  2. Lady Beatle (The Little Red Company, La Boite Theatre Company)
  3. My Name is Jimi (Queensland Theatre)
  4. Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre)
  5. The Play that Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, QPAC)
  6. Chef (Persona Inc & Atobiz Ltd, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Festival)
  7. Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi The New Four Seasons + Dedications (Nigel Kennedy, QPAC)
  8. Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel in association with Cameron Mackintosh, QPAC)
  9. Spectate (Counterpilot, Metro Arts)
  10. Humans (Circa, QPAC)

And honourable mention to the UK’s National Theatre Stage to Screen show Yerma… Gut-wrenching, phenomenal theatre thanks to Billie Piper’s devastatingly powerful performance.

And mention also to the following highlights:

  • Best performance:
    • Elaine Crombie as a hilarious house-slave in Queensland Theatre Company’s An Octoroon.
    • Merlynn Tong in her intimate and vulnerable one-woman work, Playlab’s Blue Bones
    • Cameron Hurry as badly behaved brother Valene in the darkly irreverent The Lonesome West by Troop Productions
  • Best AV – Spectate (Counterpilot, Metro Arts)
  • Most thought provoking –- Octoroon (Queensland Theatre, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best new work – Merlyn Tong’s Blue Bones (Playlab, Brisbane Powerhouse)
  • Best Reimagining – Signifying Nothing (Macbeth) (Hammond Fleet Productions, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best musical – Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel in association with Cameron Mackintosh, QPAC)
  • Best cabaret:
    • Torch Songs (Mama Alto, Brisbane Powerhouse, Wonderland Festival)
    • Lady Beatle (The Little Red Company, La Boite Theatre Company)
    • Song Lines (Michael Tuahine, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Cabaret Festival)
    • Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs (Alan Cumming, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Cabaret Festival)
  • Best music – Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi The New Four Seasons + Dedications (QPAC)
  • Best opera – Mark Vincent Sings Mario Lanza and the Classics (Lunchbox Productions, QPAC)
  • Funniest – The Play That Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, QPAC)
  • Most fun – Let Them Eat Cake (Act/React, Anywhere Festival)
  • Most madcap – Chef (Persona Inc & Atobiz Ltd, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most immersive – Trainspotting Live (In Your Face Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse)
  • Most moving – Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre)

2018 looks set to continue to showcase both the wonderful work of this state’s creatives and innovative works from both here and further afield. Festivals will continue to punctuate the cultural calendar, serving to oscillate audiences between feast and famine like a cultural bulimic… although with Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival moving to May (maybe at the same time as Anywhere Festival) it may be a shower than usual start to the year.

Captivating cabaret

Torch Songs (Mama Alto)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 23 – 26


“Torch Songs” is not a fun drag queen lip sync show. This is evident not just from Mama Alto’s own admission but, in fact, from the moment the gender transcendent diva and jazz singer statuesquely slides on to the stage, hair clustered with gardenias, to open the cabaret show with the legendary Billie Holiday’s ‘Blues are Brewin’.

The self-confessed big Melbourne star is compelling performer with a versatile countertenor voice as she tributes vintage torch singers of the Ella Fitzgerald sort (torch songs meaning usually ballads sung by the great divas in share of their strong emotions of desire or loss).

In Della Reese’s ‘Stormy Weather’, her textured voice is stylish, seductive and full of emotion. Similarly, when she flawlessly shares a melody of Sarah Vaughan’s ‘Wild is the Wind’ inset with Roberta Flack’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, it makes for a captivating experience, bringing tears to some eyes, such is pure and heartfelt honesty of its beauty. As notes are lingered lovingly for savour by songstress and audience alike, there is no denying both the lusciousness of her vocal textures and the superbness of her vocal control, whether in belting out an ending or favouring distinction and delicacy.

When we indulge her in performance of Leo Sayer’s ‘When I Need You’, we are rewarded with a sublime experience that entrances all. And a late-show share of ‘Songbird’ showcases her intuitive delivery of both lyric and melody, serving as a highlight in its musical mashup with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, courtesy of collaborator and Musical Directress Miss Chief’s perfect piano accompaniment. Having worked together for seven years, the duo have a natural, witty banter with each other and the audience alike, full of fun but also mutual respect. It is an appreciation that is also shown for all songs, even when ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ becomes an audience sing-along.

“Torch Songs” is a spellbinding experience thanks to the exceptional talent of its star. This may be Mama Alto’s first solo show in Brisbane (she also appeared at 2015’s Wonderland Festival as part of the Glory Box ensemble), but you have to hope it will not be her last. Beyond her mastery of jazz standards, she sings with such dramatic power and interpretive depth that the result is an unforgettable, absolutely beguiling experience of musical magic in which to marvel.