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June 25, 2019

Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2019

Ruthie Henshall
The Famous Spiegeltent
June 22.

In the final weekend of the 2019 Cabaret Festival, West End music theatre star, Ruthie Henshall, brings a vibrant solo show covering the impressive range of her thirty year career.

At the microphone in The Famous Spiegeltent, Henshall is the down-to-earth Londoner, veteran of the music stage from Cats and A Chorus Line to Billy Elliot, but there is also a glimpse of something more fragile, emotions near the surface, which gives her performances a wistful, reflective edge.

Her set opens with Beautiful, title tune of the Carole King tribute musical, followed by “ I can’t really explain it/ I haven’t got the words” from Elton John’s Electricity, one of the high voltage songs from Billy Elliot. Henshall talks about her emerging career – beginning as a dancer and moving to the chorus. As she makes endearingly evident, she never wanted to do anything but sing.

There is a Stephen Sondheim anecdote : when she dried during a performance of the tribute show, Putting it Together- with Sondheim himself in the audience. And follows with a fine version of Ladies Who Lunch, but not quite a match for Patti LuPone at the Cabaret Festival last year.

She talks about her private life, her daughters and the unhappiness of her divorce. From the musical, Dear Evan Hansen, she chooses So Big/So Small to illustrate a child’s view of family separation. From her role as Nancy Sykes in Oliver she moves into even darker territory with Lionel Bart’s problematic portrait of an abused wife, As Long as He Needs Me.

It is then time for a shift of mood and the talented (and much lamented) English comedienne,Victoria Wood, is a rich source. Henshall is brilliant with latter-day Music Hall and Wood’s exuberantly witty Barry and Freda (as Freda friskily propositions her sexually reticent husband) showcases her pace and flair for musical comedy.

The talents of songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb are explored with the plaintive Liza Minnelli classic, Sorry I Asked, another highlight of the set, and then a medley from their 1975 hit musical Chicago. Ruthie Henshall owns Chicago.

As she says, Henshall has played Roxie and Velma on both sides of the Atlantic, and then Matron Mama Morton in the West End. Her powerhouse medley of My Own Best Friend/ Nowadays/ Razzle Dazzle and All that Jazz, accompanied by the excellent Paul Schofield on piano, is a reminder of what a knockout set of tunes Chicago still is.

I don’t know who composed the poem, The Siren Song, but Henshall’s recitation of this comic account of a young woman making lascivious platform announcements over the railway station public address system, is another glimpse of the singer’s penchant for vaudeville bawdy.

“This is Woking” she says with breathy microphone reverb “When I say Woking, Woking , Woking/ It is thoroughly provoking to the men that travel out from Platform 2.” The double entendre multiplies and the joke extrudes, but Henshall’s deadpan delivery is great fun. As she says, they/we are “victims of my golden voice.”

And Henshall’s golden voice finally settles on I Dreamed a Dream, Fantine’s show-stopping song from Les Miserables. The singer has performed the role many times in her career and notes drily that she also gathered viral YouTube clicks as her version slipstreamed behind Susan Boyle. Henshall pushes the song to its operatic limits as Schofield, at the piano, gathers chords like huge bunches of arum lilies. The full Spiegeltent happily rises for an ovation.

Ruthie Henshall closes with a pensive reading of In My Life, the Lennon/McCartney gem from the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. “Though I know I will never lose affection/ For people and things that went before…” It is a fitting conclusion to Henshall’s tender, funny, and very likeable musical memoir.

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