Freak-pop parts

ÚMBRIEL

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

October 29

ÚMBRIEL is an electronic, art-pop quartet whose show occupies a niche position in the Queensland Cabaret Festival and Metro Arts’ Cabaret Long Weekend. Indeed, the nuanced artistic work may not be to more mainstream audience members liking. However, given the fan following obviously out in force, it hardly seems to matter.

The captivating ritualistic aesthetic experience begins from pre-show entry in the visually immersive space of the New Benner Theatre. From a Gothically-glad lead vocalist (James Halloran, whose musical persona is ÚMBRIEL) collapsed afront the projected image of a single wilting flower, things chant into a dreamy music experience. After a slow build comes release of beats and guttural belt of industrial rock with English alternative rock musician PJ Harvey’s ‘To Bring You My Love’. The music is like a thumping intoxication into the intimate musical backdrop upon which the vocals rest. Indeed, sweeping instrumentals only add to the drama of the orchestral theatricality.

The 2020 single ‘Desire’ is made all the more emotionally enchanting through its melodic sweeps and percussive pounds. It also allows for show of the softer side of Halloran’s versatile vocals. From fluid soar to fragmented jaggedness, they shape each song with appropriate emotions of yearning, lust or anger. However, with little at-mic punctuation of the setlist, there is no opportunity for uninitiated audience members to connect with the flamboyant performance. Similarly, while there is a certainly an appeal to lyrically descriptive phrases such as “he drinks my moans and drowns me deep”, the layer of hyperbolically metaphors upon each other makes it difficult to find light and shade moments in which to rest and reflect.

Many musical influences are evident at different times across every part of the setlist, from Nick Cave and Kate Bush to Stevie Nicks, Tori Amos and even some New Romantic sounds of pathos, such as in ‘Renegade’. And, through them, ÚMBRIEL provides audiences with a more ritualistic offering than the typical cabaret fare. The part-rock show part-ritual cabaret is an acquired freak-pop (as is its trademark) taste and while the show is perhaps mesmerising more than arresting in its melodies, the fan-base audience celebrates every piece of its sonic artistry.

Pop classics challenged

My Funny Valentine (Josh Daveta and The Sequins)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

October 29

The day that “My Funny Valentine” was due to open as part of Metro Arts’ Season of Surprises, southern Queensland went into a three-day lockdown. As devastating as its reschedule was, the show’s reappearance as part of Queensland Cabaret Festival’s Cabaret Long Weekend represents the perfect opportunity to shake off the short (for some) week that was.

Taylor Swift’s dance-pop song ‘Shake It Off’ appears as part of the setlist, however, not as the uptempo tune we might expect, such is the show’s challenge to present pop songs as jazz standards (think of it as old radio meeting Spotify). After a flash, bam, alakazam opener welcoming us into the cosy living room staging of the New Benner Theatre, Josh Daveta outlines the show’s premise and what follows is indeed a vintage experience through the lens of the pop music world of modern day Mariah Carey and Katie Perry et al magnum opuses. And thanks to Daveta’s jazz stylings and the smooth musicianship of the Kendall Layt, Jordan Garrot and Gracie Mack, we are delighted with the rhythmic surprises that ensure.

Wonderfully, band members are all given moments to shine such as pianist Gracie Mack’s magnificent introduction to ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, which segues into a buoyant Beyoncé number. And while Daveta delivers down to the “Single Ladies” hands-up oh, oh, oh choreography, the jazzy slow-down of its usually rushed lines, layers the lyrics with new meaning.

Things are paired back also in a slow and melodic ‘Oops! I Did It Again’ and Daveta’s impressive vocal range is particularly displayed in a transformed, but still rousing ‘Bad Romance’. Indeed, as the lights dim down, the number builds beautifully from tentative outset to a confident crescendo declaration that leaves no question as to the talent on display.

It may take until its encore to hear the show’s title song, however, along the way to this, there are many highlights, including a gospel-like play with tempo in Billy Eilish’s taunting electropop hit ‘bad guy’. And like so many sentimental torch song greats, heartbreak features within its themes, however, with a twist, as a swinging Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ rolls out into a joyous audience call and response segment.

Daveta is a charming, genuine and wittily-funny performer, which makes experience of “My Funny Valentine” an absolute blast. Hopefully, we will see the show in some form again soon. In the meantime, Josh Daveta and the Sequins are back for “Christmas is here, Again?” at the Old Museum for one night only in December.

Compulsion capture

Songs of Compulsion (Lucinda Shaw)

The Outpost Bar

October 16

More than just setting the scene for the seminal story of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’, is one of the best emotional crescendos in song. Those not in agreement may just not have seen Lucinda Shaw’s version, which occupies place as one of the many highlights of her Queensland Cabaret Festival Show “Songs of Compulsion”. As her vocals cry out from its sparse introduction in capture of the sorrow, regret, and frustrations of those coming to terms with mortality, audience members know they are experiencing something wonderful. It’s an epic call-back also to one of Shaw’s previous performances in Electric Moon’s 2016 Cabaret Festival show, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” and the set is characterised by a nice balance between time-honoured favourites and original numbers.

The intimacy of The Fortitude Musical Hall’s The Outpost Bar serves as the perfect location in which to experience Shaw’s mesmeric vocal textures. The venue is everything you’d expect from a basement jazz club (if it were upstairs) seductive red and black décor and a grown-up cocktail list accompaniment to graze up against the slow, jazzy numbers on stage. Indeed, its David Lunch-esque ambiance suits the lingering lyricism and tender musical tones that appear as if they are happening in slow-motion, even as Shaw’s powerful vocals reach for the ceiling. This is especially the case as her robust voice rises up and take us down to a tender refrain in Scott Walker’s darkly brilliant ‘My Death’ toast to our inevitable demise, meaning that the audience is enraptured through to its very last note.

True to Shaw’s legacy, the setlist also includes ‘Best Boyfriend’, by local ‘90s feminist folk band Isis (of which she was a founding member) which has this year been released in a rare mix coupled with and even rarer live B-side. In curation with the evening’s other numbers, it illustrates not only her vocal versatility, but a chameleonic style that transcends even to musical accompaniment (by frequent collaborators Mark Angel – guitars, Terry Dixon – bass and James Lees – piano), which ranges from Spanish-style guitar to tambourine and even idiomatic cowbell sound to call our attention. And while the show seems to be over before we know it, as a community craving the vital human connection the comes from live performance, we are happy to be able to support and celebrate the arts again together if only for this 50 minutes.

Banana Brain breeze

Yours Sincerely Banana Brain (NiKNaK Productions)

The Old Museum

October 25

“Yours Sincerely Banana Brain” is a musical comedy cabaret featuring original music by Lizzie Flynn, performed by The Copabananas (Peter Stewart on Piano, Rory Dollard on guitar, Reuben Johnson on bass and Andre Bonetti on percussion) alongside its characters on-stage at The Old Museum as part of the 2020 Queensland Cabaret Festival.

Her name’s not Lola, but rather Zara (Lizzie Flynn), who is penning a ‘Hey You’ message to a FB friend suggestion of her lifetime ago bestie. And so the audience is taken back to when the younger Zara (Ella Macronkanis) and Violet (Emma Whitefield) meet in circa mid to late 90s at uni on a day it rained and rained (#soundsfamiliar). The two share musical dreams, so after an open mic night performance, they are soon on a road trip to perform together in regional New South Wales, talking along the way about all the paces they want to see.

When songwriter Zara sets out to realise her travel ambitions overseas, the friends’ navigation of growing together and then growing apart as they start to grow older unfolds through sharing of letters. It’s a trope we know can work well (think “Love Letters”), but without much backstory to their friendship beyond its origin by them happening to be in the same place at the same time, it is difficult to become invested in the character journeys on an emotional level with such short exchanges after such little time together. Indeed, from a story perspective, the show seems somewhat rushed, meaning that we are given little in way of resolution or filler as to what has happened between then and now.

Dramatically, “Yours Sincerely Banana Brain” is a work of much potential to grow and develop into a more substantial cabaret show that fosters full audience connection. Musically, meanwhile, it is excellent. Although the songs don’t really move the action along, they do capture Zara’s emotional journey in relinquishing her lifeboat to grown-up life. ‘Happy’ is a The Go Betweens type of breezy highlight with catchy arrangement and melodic vocal realisation. Even if its rap lyric inclusions are not always clear, its sentiment still comes across and it is a wonderful to hear it in reprise in the show’s closing scene. Clearly, Macronkanis, in particular is an incredibly talented vocalist.

In complement of the idiosyncratic letter sign off that appears as the show’s title, there are some appealing quirks to the show’s nooks and crannies, like bunch of bananas atop the piano. There is also a careful attention to detail, in, for example, its costuming, which includes nod to the shared characterisation of the now and then Zara. Most notable, however, is the collection of original songs and stories that weave through the duo’s friendship. Not only does it make for an appealing cabaret premise, but it assists in its clever realisation through the framing device of its on-stage performances.

Sappy song satisfaction

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Thetre

June 16

Alan Cumming is a versatile performer, as well known for his role as cunning political consultant Eli Gold on TV’s “The Good Wife” as for his Tony Award winning turn as the debaucherous “Cabaret” emcee. And versatility, appropriately, characterises “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs”, which contains a perfect balance of songs and stories.

brisbane-powerhouse-Alan-Cumming-3-1178x663.jpgCumming is the consummate cabaret performer and an engaging storyteller (not just because of his ‘soon-to-be-independent’ Scottish accent), creating an intimate connection with the audience, despite the Powerhouse Theatre’s vast size, through his vulnerability in share of personal stories. The show allows Cumming to share some of his favourite songs, looked at anew. “Take off your judgey hat,” we’re told early on, and, as promised we do hear them in a different way, from fellow Scot Annie Lennox’s ‘Why’ as opener to a mid-show mash-up of Adele, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, ‘because they are kind of the same song right’? In each instance Cumming finds the emotional heart of the songs, sharing it as his own, but engaging too through gossipy between-number anecdotes with tell of Liza Minelli, a regretful tattoo, and a retro online commercial he made with Ricki Lake for Trojan condoms.

There are serious times too as Cumming touches on personal traumas that those familiar with his best-selling memoir “Not My Father’s Son”, will recognise. Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’ is dedicated to his combat-traumatised grandfather and Rufus Wainwright’s ballad about father-son estrangement, ‘Dinner at Eight’ is delivered in reference to his abusive father, createing real poignancy.

The band (Lance Horne, piano; Eleanor Norton, cello; Chris Jego, drums) is excellent in musical support, adding to the linger of numbers like Hue and Cry’s ‘Mother Glasgow’, a tribute to the second city of the empire and its perpetual succour, at first comically but then movingly shared. And Cumming sure can sing, as seen in his rousing finale, ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ from the Broadway musical “Company”.

In Cumming’s charismatic hands, this is cabaret as it should be: emotional and personal, yet also chatty and with an easy charm (and sometimes bawdy humour). Indeed, “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs” is old fashioned entertainment from a master showman, easily able to take the audience from laughter to tears through the passion and pathos of his stories and songs. As such, it is not only a treat for Brisbane audiences, but up there amongst the most satisfying ever of Brisbane Cabaret Festival shows.

Austen attraction

Promise and Promiscuity (Penny Ashton)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 11

As if being a sole performer on stage isn’t difficult enough in itself, add in acting in multiple character roles and making it a musical and success is probably going to be no easy feat. Yet, in Penny Ashton’s hands in “Promise and Promiscuity”, the task appears to be a breeze.

brisbane-powerhouse-Promise-and-Promiscuity-2017-1-1178x663.jpg

In parody of the novels of Jane Austen, the show follows the fortunes of husbandless writer Elsbeth of Brisbaneshire (in this instance) who writes thrilling stories under the male pseudonym Wilbur Smythe and would rather die an old maid than concern herself with frivolity in possession of foolish notions of love.

It begins with Elsbeth’s socially-ambitious mother lamenting over her aged 2 and 20 daughter’s lack of husband, but also excited by the family’s invitation to a ball at Quigley Manor. Things move quickly as Ashton clearly establishes characters with physicality and vocals. To her credit, each character, whether male or female, is well-defined and well-distinguished from each other with their own, unique physical quirks and characteristics, whether it be excitable younger daughter Cordelia or the aloof Mr Dalton, who is search of intellectual endeavour rather than romance.

With such a crowded cast and quick changes, it takes time to ease into the show’s rhythm and unique Austen-like language. There is a veritable array of well-known Austen characters and although there are no wet shirts, male characters are the most memorable amongst the eight that Ashton plays, particularly, a snorting cousin Horatio, unable to offer compliment without also causing offence.

The script is full of witty incorporation of not just quotes for Austen aficionados but motifs that most people should recognise and double-entendre innuendo that nobody can miss. And the Ashtonisation of modern and pop culture references from Trump to Target and 50 Shades of Grey, add an often very funny touch to things.

Original music, composed by Robbie Ellis adds to the experience, especially when a dance partner must be sought from within the audience. Indeed, musical numbers that outline the importance of proper etiquette (to not be a strumpet) and the broken dreams of a family evicted from their cottage after accusations of wanton promiscuity (by writing as a male) could easy work in a mainstream musical.

“Promise and Promiscuity” may not be entirely proper in a Regency way, but it is genuinely good-natured. Ashton’s energy is infectious and, as a naturally engaging performer, she makes the show’s experience all the more delightful. While those familiar with the fiction of its source material, will appreciate its homage, its attraction goes to beyond audiences with this experience. It’s not so much a musical (as billed) but rather a play with some songs about the curse of being a woman in Austen’s world, yet it is still all sorts of wonderful.