June 23, 2014

Adelaide Cabaret Festival: From Kate With Love

Filed under: 2014,Archive,Cabaret

Daily Review

Adelaide Cabaret Festival: From Kate With Love

21 June, 2014
Adelaide Cabaret Festival
June 6 – 21

With the Winter Solstice comes the end of the 2014 Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Now in its fifteenth year the festival has proven a staunch success and a boost for the Adelaide Festival Centre in a usually dark month. Using every speck of space in the venue, this year’s Cabaret Festival featured some 470 artists in more than 60 shows, 35 of them sold out. 2014 also marks the third and final festival for Artistic Director Kate Ceberano whose vivacious presence has energised the event.

Opening with the now-familiar Variety Gala, the range and calibre of the program was there to be seen. Appropriately it was Ceberano, in stylish frock and feathery millinery who opened the proceedings with a light-hearted version of My Way. Also on the Gala bill was Melody Beck with a medley from King and I, My Fair Lady and West Side Story, all songs “voiced” in the film versions, not by Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood, but by unsung performer Marni Nixon, celebrated in Beck’s one woman show Unseen.

Others featured in the Gala included French chanteuse Caroline Nin with an unregretable version of Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien, versatile singer Ali McGregor’s take on Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing and Beyonce’s Single Ladies, and high profile musical performers Rachael Beck and Michael Cormick with Sun and Moon, the duet from Miss Saigon.

But it was the towering presence of Rhonda Burchmore, all legs, pizzazz and red sequins, which captured the Gala audience, especially when, after her swinging version of Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball, she was awarded the second of the Cabaret Festival’s Cabaret Icon awards. (Reg Livermore was last year’s inaugural winner)

The very talented Kim Smith, born in Taralgon, Victoria, now resident in New York, made a welcome biennial return to the festival with his new show Nova Noir, a mix of electro-pop (his own composition, Radio) and renditions of Weimar classics such as his opener, Pirate Jenny – Bertolt Brecht’s lyrics sung with reptilian intensity and expertly phrased to the last vengeful breath. Dressed in the sort of outfit Helmut Berger might have worn in a Visconti film, Smith sardonically banters with the audience. It is a fusion of wit and campy self-parody – funny and adroitly understated.

He sings classic American material – Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and a haunting version of George Gershwin’s Summertime. In his macabre persona he adds Peter Allen’s Dixie and Toto Coelo’s Dracula’s Tango (Dracula-la-la – I’m a Sucker for Your Love). With his MD, Benjamin Ickies at the piano, and band members Brett Stafford, guitar, Alana Dawes on bass and Enrico Morena on drums, he deconstructs and extrudes (in Vanilla Fudge grand manner) Sonny and Cher’s Bang Bang and the Supremes’ You Keep Me Hanging On.

Kim Smith expertly delivers pastiche, parody and the real thing. He even quotes, for no apparent reason, from Brecht and Weill’s Surabaya Johnny – cryptically, and with a Peter Lorre flourish – “take that damned pipe out of your mouth, you rat.” Nova Noir is terrific neo-retro cabaret and we look forward to Kim Smith’s even more triumphant return in 2016.

State Theatre of South Australia’s contribution to this year’s program was a new work, commissioned by Kate Ceberano and written specifically for cabaret favourite Paul Capsis. With text by Nicki Bloom and music and songs by Quentin Grant and Cameron Goodall, Little Bird is an undoubted highlight of the festival.

In good folktale tradition a couple yearn to have a child and, prefigured by a falling feather, the mother’s wish is granted and a baby known only as Little Bird, arrives. Nicki Bloom’s sparse, lyrical text is part fairy story, part changeling ballad as it takes Little Bird beyond the family nest to life in the wider world; first as a married man and then, in a gender morphing shift, to live as a woman with a woodcutter named Rocky.

Little Bird is a picaresque of identity and self-discovery, magically designed and lit by Geoff Cobham, with evocative piano lines from Quentin Grant, enhanced by Belinda Gehlert on violin with added guitar and percussion. Mix in the winsome, melodic songs by Grant and Cameron Goodall and all that is needed is Paul Capsis for things to take off.

Commissioned for Capsis by Kate Ceberano, Little Bird displays him at his most versatile and subtly detailed. He narrates this strange transformative story with hypnotic flair and inhabits the stage memorably. Let us hope that Little Bird will migrate to other venues beyond this Adelaide season.

There were tribute shows aplenty in the Cabaret Festival – Cecilia Low presented funk queen Betty Davis, Elise McCann rediscovered Lucille Ball, Ruth Rogers-White explored the work of Nina Simone, Blake Bowden sang the hits of Mario Lanza. And former Whitlams lead singer, Tim Freedman, reminded us of the brilliance of Harry Nilsson. A paradox of American song writing, Nilsson achieved success but refused to perform live, he wrote hits, but is best remembered for his versions of other people’s songs.

In a well-paced narrative, Freedman channels Harry’s Brooklyn whine and gives the concert Nilsson never would, or could have. The singer is represented with songs ranging from Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, best selling theme song from Midnight Cowboy, to more sharply personal material like 1941, a song about absent fathers, including Nilsson himself.

There are anecdotes of the talented and famous – including Nilsson close drinking pal, John Lennon. From the time of his first covers of Beatles songs, the Fabs anointed him their favourite interpreter, his pitch perfect voice and complex self-harmonies unrivalled in recorded music of that time. Nilsson and Lennon drunkenly prowled the LA club scene in the mid-1970s and for a short time it wrecked Nilsson’s voice and, for a longer time, his health and his career. Freedman’s version of Lennon’s Plastic Ono lament, Isolation captures the pain of that time.

Another collaborator and influence was Randy Newman, largely unknown when Nilsson recorded Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear as a single and then devoted a whole album – Nilsson sings Newman – with a splendid showcase of songs including Living Without You, Cowboy and I’ll Be Home.

But as things were spiralling down in Nilsson life, the songs speak for themselves – bright, tuneful, wittily shaped, they are masterpieces of pop – and with albums like Nilsson Schmilsson they sold in their millions. Gotta Get Up, Without You, Together and The Puppy Song – Nilsson wrote and sang them all. Freedman’s artful, splendidly presented tribute also gently reminds us that One is the loneliest number.

“I have been here in Australia with Cher, and Tom Jones, and Dionne Warwick – and now I’m back as Darlene Love.” So the pop diva with more than fifty years in the music business introduced herself on the closing night of the Cabaret Festival. Her profile raised again by 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville’s 2013 Oscar-winning documentary about unheralded back-up singers, Darlene Love exuberantly reminded us of the string of hit songs and singers she has collaborated with, and in the notorious case of The Crystals, substituted for.

A key vocalist for Phil Spector’s Philles label, Love and her group the Blossoms were the actual voices of the Crystals – for their monster 1962 hit, He’s A Rebel , and its follow-up, He’s Sure the Boy I Love. Darlene Love also recalls the many artists she sang back-up with – Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye. Included in her set are Marvin Gaye songs – Ain’t it Peculiar, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, and, a highlight of the set – What’s Going On.

Given excellent support by the Adelaide Art Orchestra and with her own back-up singers led by her duettist, Milton Van, Darlene Love sang songs she had adorned at some or other – Da Doo Ron Ron, Killing Me Softly, A Fine Fine Boy. And with her resounding, crowd-pleasing finale – He’s A Rebel and River Deep, Mountain High, she briefly moved twenty feet closer to the stardom that should have been hers in 1962.

The Raah Project – singer, lyricist, hip hop performer and beats arranger, Ryan Ritchie and violinist and orchestral arranger, Tamil Rogeon – are a tag team of musical explorers who like to work with live orchestras. Fortunately for them the Adelaide Art Orchestra supplied the precision and finesse that these two , sometimes indulgent, performers thrive on. Producing music which crosses Impressionist classical, Mingus style jazz, Chill, Hip Hop and Pop, the Raah Project create lush, lingering sounds with Ritchie crooning songs like Teardrop and, from their 2010 debut album Score, the haunting ballad All of Your Things.

Guest vocalists Kylie Auldist, lead singer for The Bamboos, and cabaret and music theatre star, iOta added to the riches with Trick of the Light and Covered Up in Stars and Kate Ceberano, onstage for the last time at her festival sang Wild is the Wind.

In this incarnation Raah Project lived up to their high ambition in blending orchestral arrangements with improvised vocals. Sometimes Ritchie’s hipster antics rankle, but his Hip Hop spontaneity and his smooth pop delivery, augmented by Rogeon’s dervish violin and artfully chosen orchestral borrowings, make for delectable listening. The final song, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart was a sublime closer and, somehow apt, as Kate Ceberano
sang her adieu.

Murray Bramwell

Daily Review online June 23, 2014.

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