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.

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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.

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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.

Bush best

In The Warm Room – The Music of Kate Bush 1978 – 1980 (Electric Moon)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 9

josh daveta

When a show is billed as “the voices of eight seasoned cabaret performers will shine Bush’s creativity, imagination and innovation”, expectations are high. Appropriately so, given Electric Moon’s previous shows, and as-anticipated, realised from its opening, beautifully-mournful number, ‘Moving’, by Josh Daveta, with ethereal additions from Bethan Ellsmore. And then there is Alison St Ledger who sounds just like the iconic and unique artist in the meta-music ‘Wow’.

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It is not all whimsical, however, with Daniel Hack rocking ‘Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbreak’. Indeed, there is something for everyone, from everyone; the stage is cluttered with collaborators (#inagoodway) and the show is all the better for it. The ten piece band, for example, does an excellent job in evoking a variety of moods and genre influences, as eclectic as its source songstress’ musical catalogue.

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Highlights include Daveta’s rollicking ‘Oh to be in Love’ and a haunting ‘’Oh England My Lionheart’ from an imposing (as always) Sandro Colarelli. And there is also Lucinda Shaw’s guttural ‘The Kick Inside’ and later symphonic post-apocalyptic ‘Breathing’, and a wonderful ‘Wuthering Heights’ from Bethan Ellsmore, in nod to Bush’s trademark cinematic and literary references and as example of Ellsmore’s vocal prowess.

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In each instance, the songs in the warm room are almost shared anew as the performers each bring something different to bringing out Kate Bush’s very best. But one would expect no less from Sandro Colarelli, Lisa Crawley, Josh Daveta, Bethan Ellsmore, Daniel Hack, Lucinda Shaw and Alison St Ledger… the best bringing out Bush’s best in make of an infectiously-entertaining evening.

Photos c/o – Lachlan Douglas

Ireland lives on

Ancient Rain (Paul Kelly & Camille O’Sullivan)

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 13


Between Australian music legend and poet laureate Paul Kelly and Irish chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan, there is a proud Irish heritage, so it is appropriate that it is on WB Yeats’ birthday that they take Brisbane audiences on a journey through Irish poetry in “Ancient Rain”. The show, which combines original songs and music, together with spoken word, was inspired by more than a century of Irish writing and serves as both a reminder of its emotive poetry and range of themes.

It is a darkly beautiful show as it contrasts some of the most important events of Irish history, from the potato famine of the 1800s to the Easter Rising of last century with illumination of the evocative language of descriptions of lines like ‘October coloured weather’ which will linger long after shared. The lush musical arrangements transform the poetry into living art. In collaboration with composer Feargal Murray, Kelly and Sullivan have thread together a tapestry of tender moments of profound sadness at loss of language and country, but also celebration of survival. And lighting complements the mood and considered aesthetics of the elemental sounds of wind and thunder and the sensitive harmonies of the backing band, adding a theatrical feel to the show.


Kelly has a wonderful stage presence (as the country’s best balladeer with recognisable Aussie sounds, his vocals don’t always suit, but his voice is naturally suited to storytelling) and O’Sullivan is a compelling performer, whether in earthy or ethereal voice, meaning that together they are an irresistible combination, in complete command of the material. In Michael Hartnett’s ‘English Part Seven’, O’Sullivan soars in sing of ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’, while in Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ she tantalises with a husky voice in but a whisper. But it is Paula Meeham’s heartbreaking ‘The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks’ that represents the show’s pinnacle, at the end of Act One, as, draped in red veil she tells musical tale of the statue of the Virgin Mary, at whose feet a teenage girl gives birth before dying with her child.


“Ancient Rain” is a powerful project from two acclaimed performers that makes Irish history live again. While its tales are dark and melancholic in their heartache, they are very human stories, which means that everyone will have their own connection to its musical storytelling as they appreciate anew its old tales of war, rebellion and longing for freedom.

 Photos c/o – David James McCarthy and Sarah Walker

Stories and song (lines)

Song Lines (Michael Tuahine)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 1

For aboriginal and Torres Strait island people, a song line is who you are and where you come from. Accordingly, in his Queensland Cabaret Festival debut, “Song Lines”, acclaimed actor and singer, Michael Tuahine takes audiences on quite the journey of his ’42 and single’ song lines, weaving in and out of each other as the most genuine of stories often do.

There is an appealing authenticity from the tale that follows, stemming from the stories of his proud and determined Central Queensland mother and New Zealand Special Air Service Maori father, told with photographic slideshow accompaniment to help in celebrating the history and icons that have shaped his story. The show’s soundtrack is impressive in its considered curation, from Goanna’s ‘Solid Rock’ in tell of his mother’s life at Cherbourg Mission under total control of the Aboriginal Preservation Protection Act to Jenny Morris’ ‘She’s Has to Be Loved’ as chronicle of her journey, ‘waiting for some recognition’ to New Zealand, in search on her dreaming place.

There is much humour too, often at New Zealand’s expense. Indeed, Tuahine is a charismatic performer with a natural, comforting charm. The show is still a little rough around the edges; the live band accompaniment is competingly loud in, for example, in an otherwise outstanding ‘Great Southern Land’ opening number and there are few distracting sound and lighting issues. However, these a minor detractions from an otherwise absolutely entertaining cabaret experience.

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The Aussie and NZ soundtrack is a real treat, featuring as it does, songs from Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel and Split Enz, alongside lesson known numbers like ‘Brisbane Blacks’ and of course a singalong ‘Slice of Heaven’. While there is light and shade within the show’s soundtrack, including a wailing performance of Rob Orbison’s organic ‘Crying’, Tuahine is best when with guitar in hand in share of country rock sounds, which serves as reminder of his wonderful work as Jimmy Little in Queensland Theatre’s 2015 celebration of the musician’s life and music, “Country Song”.

Although it is a one man show, “Song Lines” is so much more than just one man’s story. In its trace of ancestry through music, it presents a rocking story of family, identity and belonging, told with pride and love. Its only pity is that it is a one-night-only season, as the want to return with others is strong, such is its infectious appeal.

Sinatra satisfaction

Seven on Sinatra

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 2

With a stellar cast of some of Brisbane’s greatest songstresses in celebration of the Leader of the Pack, “Seven on Sinatra” is a real night to remember as Liz Buchanan, Jo Doyle, Jacqui Devereux, Bethan Ellsmore, Rebecca Grennan, Claire Walters and Melissa Western do it their way with a swing band of the Sands Hotel Copa Room sort.

With a catalogue of 200 career chart songs, Sinatra leaves the ladies copious crooner choices and the show’s selection of swinging tunes and suave sounds allows every performer their chance to shine, from the melodically charming ‘It Had to Be You’, now of “When Harry Met Sally” association to the ultimate love song to love, ‘Moon River’. And the result is a show of many highlights with some stunning vocal ranges giving the songs new life and depth, including Ellsmore’s beautifully ethereal take on the swinging ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, Devereux’s ‘You Can’t Take that Away from Me’, at once tough and tender in its mix of joy and sadness, and a declarative ‘That’s Life’ that Western makes all her own in belt to the back of the room. In every instance the power and pure emotion behind each number is clear, with the overall mix of ballad and uptempo numbers working well.

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It’s not all solos though; the magic begins with a ‘That Old Black Magic” duet and ends with an encore of a shared ‘The Lady is a Tramp’. The range of songs from the canon of the most important and influential American standards not only allows the songstresses to showcase the memorable melodies, but gives the live band opportunity to shine. And shine they do, in numbers like, ‘Night and Day’, for example, where the jazz musicians breakaway with multi-layered, seductive soundscapes, worthy of mid-song recognition applause. And amidst the smooth sounds are fun moments too like an interesting take on ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and surprises such as when Doyle emerges from the crowd to croon a syrupy ‘Strangers in the Night’.

Frank Sinatra is one of the most influential popular singers of the 20th century, not just because of the longevity of his success, but his cement of many of the songs that occupy the American Songbook. This show not only includes the most essential Sinatra songs, all impeccably arranged, but showcases the strong technique of some talented vocalists. Indeed, with seven styles of singing, “Seven on Sinatra” offers satisfaction for everyone, be they a Frank fan or not, sure to satisfy in its mellifluous melodies and show of how Sinatra is Sinatra and why we love him still.

Songs for you

Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 3

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From the moment “Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell” opens with cabaret chanteuse Queenie van de Zandt sharing its titular song from a lushly-lit Powerhouse Theatre, it is clear that the night is going to be a very special experience. It’s an appropriate opener for a show that shares the story of a life often spent in heartbreak, that of musical legend Joni Mitchell… a life of childhood hospitalisation with polio, art school abandonment, depression and unwed motherhood.

Given the Canadian singer-songwriter’s status as both an esteemed pop vocalist and composer, Mitchell’s songs are incredibly special, especially in their powerfully personal storytelling, and in Queenie’s hands, their poetry is made all the more apparent, allowing the sold-out audience to appreciate anew their narrative appeal. Inset with voiceovers representing those close to Mitchell, the setlist is perfectly curated to chart the emotions of the star’s extraordinary life. This also allows Queenie to stay in role, but of own voice, as Mitchell, relating experiences with a mix of humour and pathos as she speaks to, rather than at, the audience. Indeed, despite being played in the large Powerhouse Theatre, there is a really intimacy to the show’s revelation of the truths behind some of Mitchell’s most hauntingly-confessional songs.

Musically, numbers range from the light touch of ‘Little Green’ to the catchiness of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and the jaunt of ‘Twisted’. There are emotional moments too during songs about the baby daughter Mitchell gave up for adoption when she was an impoverished Toronto folk singer. In each instance, the live band adds their own appeal to Mitchell’s sometimes unusual musical arrangements.

Queenie van de Zandt is known as an artful storyteller and emotive vocalist and in both of these regards she more than delivers. Her voice is in top, translucent form, befitting a recapture of Mitchell’s delicate, ethereal vocals, in tribute rather than mimic of the icon. And her depiction of the folksy sound of songs like the quintessential counter-culture anthem ‘Woodstock’ is sublime in its affection.

Along with musical director Max Lambert, Queenie has created something beautiful in “Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell”.  Its exploration of Mitchell’s songs, stories and art, makes it is easy for even the uninitiated to appreciate how the peerless provocateur created a soundtrack for the Woodstock generation. Indeed, the show is not just for fans of Mitchell’s songbook and legacy, but also for all lovers of music and storytelling as only a live show can provide. “Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell” serves also as evidence of how songs can continue to live in spirit and melody when of such lyrical and compositional sophistication, meaning that when its opening number makes mention that ‘there is a song for you’, it’s a promise that is entirely true.