Turner’s Turn

Hayes Theatre Co, February 22

Geraldine Turner. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Geraldine Turner. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Returning to the cabaret stage for the first time in a decade, Geraldine Turner goes straight to it, opening her new show Turner’s Turn with the epic Rose’s Turn from Gypsy.

It’s a bold, almost bolshy choice both for her and the audience as it’s a song you would generally build to emotionally. But it does capture the kind of big, brassy chutzpah for which Turner is known.

She was cast as Rose in three different productions, she tells us, none of which happened. Cue a version of Some People with comic lyrics Tony Sheldon wrote for her.

Turner shot to fame in 1973 when she played the maid Petra in a production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which opened Sydney’s new Her Majesty’s Theatre. By all accounts (I didn’t see it), her rendition of The Miller’s Son was a show-stopper.

Her four-decade career has been predominantly, though not exclusively, in musical theatre and she has the kudos of being the first person to have recorded an all-Sondheim album. (She met Sondheim and Hal Prince when they came to a musical theatre conference in Sydney in the 1970s).

In Turner’s Turn, she tells a series of entertaining, behind-the-scenes stories about various shows from her career including Sydney Theatre Company’s infamous, troubled production of Into the Woods, in which Turner played the Baker’s Wife. It opened two weeks late due to challenges caused by a double revolve, but went on to be a huge hit. There’s also a very funny story about Doris Fitton’s failing memory when she played Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music.

Turner brings a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour to the anecdotes, which she tells with verve. It’s in the storytelling that the show hits its mark. Musically, it’s more hit-and-miss.

She sings a career medley with brief extracts from shows including Oliver!, Anything Goes, Chicago (in which she starred with Nancye Hayes for STC), Company and Sweeney Todd among others.

She also performs a song Tim Minchin wrote especially for her when she was in the musical Somewhere by Minchin and Kate Mulvany at the Q Theatre, and a (fairly underwhelming) number from a new musical she is writing herself with Greg Crease.

There’s an interesting section when she sings an extract from a musical of Sunset Boulevard written for Gloria Swanson, and intercuts it with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s number for the same part of the story, As If We Never Said Goodbye.

She brings a nice sense of comedy to Sondheim’s The Boy From….. and I Never Do Anything Twice but the emotion she clearly feels while performing a couple of Jacques Brel numbers doesn’t communicate itself to the audience. And if you’re not going to deliver a riveting interpretation of Send in the Clowns, why perform such a ubiquitous song?

Turner’s trademark belt is still there but her voice is insecure and shaky at times, and exposed in certain song choices.

Directed by Caroline Stacey, with sensitive accompaniment on piano by her musical director Brad Miller, Turner’s Turn feels a bit overlong at 90 minutes and could be tightened. A little more context would also help at times for those who don’t know a great deal about her career.

But her fans love her for who she is and what she has achieved. They recognise her braveness in putting together a show of this nature at this point in her career and they weren’t disappointed, with a large section of the opening night audience giving her a huge, enthusiastic response.

Turner’s Turn is at the Hayes Theatre Co on March 1 and 8

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Matthew Mitcham interview

When it comes to slashie careers, Olympic diver/cabaret artist is one of the more unusual ones. For Matthew Mitcham, the leap from the diving board to the stage began with the ukulele.

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

“I had to take three months of bed rest because I had stress fractures in my spine,” says Mitcham, who famously won gold with an unprecedented perfect score at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“That was in 2010. Because I was going stir crazy I bought a toy ukulele for $24 and started teaching myself how to play it by watching YouTube videos. And from there, that ignited a hunger for more information so I went on these little learning adventures and taught myself music theory, chord theory and jazz theory. It was insatiable, I was like a sponge and couldn’t stop learning.”

Ever the perfectionist, Mitcham spent hours fine-tuning his playing and during the 2012 London Olympics posted video clips on YouTube of him playing Beyonce’s Single Ladies and the Family Guy theme tune from his room in the Olympic Village.

To his surprise they went viral. Musical director Jeremy Brennan saw them and invited him to play in a couple of cabaret nights at Sydney’s Slide Cabaret.

“From there the Melbourne Cabaret Festival invited me to MC and perform at their closing gala in 2013 and the producers were so impressed that they asked me if I would consider turning the book (his revealing 2012 autobiography Twists and Turns) into a cabaret show,” says Mitcham.

They put him in touch with Rhys Morgan (aka cabaret artist Spanky) to help write the show and director Nigel Turner-Carroll, while Mitcham approached Brennan to be involved as musical director.

The resulting show Twists & Turns premiered at the 2014 Perth Fringe World Festival where it won Best Cabaret and has since toured widely. Mitcham is back on the road with it again now. After selling-out in Melbourne, he plays Brisbane and Perth before winding up in Sydney at the end of this month to perform as part of the Mardi Gras Festival.

Mitcham, who turns 27 next month, has quite a story to tell. Behind his Olympic triumphs, the openly gay diver – who was brought up in Brisbane by an alcoholic single mother – was struggling with low self-esteem, depression and drug abuse, including crystal meth addiction.

As he did in his autobiography, he discusses all this in his show with an unflinching, winning honesty. He is equally forthcoming in an interview situation, replying openly and straightforwardly when questioned but without it ever feeling like he is grandstanding or dramatising. Nor does he seem remotely bitter.

“I’ve had really good experiences with being very candid in the public spotlight with the coming-out just before Beijing,” he says. “That was received so well by the public and handled so well by the media, (I received) just unanimous support. That was really heart-warming and gave me the confidence that I could be vulnerable with the public and the media and that I would be held and supported. So when it came to writing the book, I was a bit more comfortable to be as candid as I was,” he says.

“There were some pretty serious topics that I spoke about but I kind of thought there’s no point writing a biography if you are going to skim over things. So I went into quite a lot of detail because I felt if the potential benefit to others outweighs the potential detriment to myself then I really ought to share it, and so I just shared everything.”

Mitcham admits that at the last minute he got cold feet and almost deleted the darker, more confronting material but finally decided to go ahead.

“I’m so glad that I did it, because it opens up a dialogue and it gives people permission to be able to share their stories. I’ve had a lot of people share their stuff with me after the show,” he says.

“I think there is a positive outcome to my story and I guess that means it’s easier to share the harder stuff because there is light at the end of the tunnel. I think it is a positive story and an encouraging story.”

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Mitcham certainly seems to be happy. Despite a decidedly unconventional upbringing and some seriously troubled years, he now appears centred and levelheaded – though he admits to a pathological need to be loved. He is still diving, having won silver and gold medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and he is in a settled eight-year relationship with Lachlan Fletcher who tours with him on Twists & Turns, looking after “logistics” and merchandise.

– “I think I’ve always been a performer, a show pony. If you were going to psychoanalyse it, it would be searching for validation and positive reinforcement” – 

In putting the show together, Morgan wrote a first draft, which he and Mitcham discussed. “We got up to about four or five drafts before we knew the show well enough to stop using it,” says Mitcham.

“We wanted to keep the story-telling more natural. I’m not an actor so it’s better for it not to be a set script because I don’t have the practice to deliver a script naturally. Now it’s just me telling the story.”

Morgan – in his trash-drag Spanky guise – also features in the show, personifying Mitcham’s childhood invisible friend and his inner demons, as well as singing backing vocals. The show also includes a trampoline (Mitcham was a trampoline gymnast before he began diving, winning an event at the 2001 World Junior Championships), an eclectic selection of songs, and some pre-recorded voiceovers by his mother Vivienne (who he describes as “nuttier than a bag of trailmix”).

One of the stories Mitcham tells is spending six months without electricity as a five-year old when his mother had an argument with the electricity supplier. During this time, she bought a wind-up gramophone on which they used to listen to old records.

His mother was certainly eccentric, I suggest. “That’s the diplomatic way of putting it,” says Mitcham with a laugh. “But she has given me some fantastic anecdotes to tell in the show.

“Recording the voiceovers was so painful. She’s not done anything like that before. I had my laptop and my microphone and she was just bouncing all around the living room doing them over and over again. Nigel (the director) had to stand in the other room to try and keep a straight face. It was like a puppy with the worst ADHD you’ve ever seen. It was hilarious.”

Mitcham says that his mother likes the show. “She was even quite supportive of everything I put in the book because it is my story and she’s at peace with all that stuff from my childhood. She knows she could have done things better but we both know she did the best she could at the time. She’s done a lot of work on herself since, in the last seven years or so. She’s gotten sober as well and done a lot of personal development. She’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s and stuff so she’s working on those kinds of behavioural things as well.

“Before the book came out I gave her the manuscript because I was kind of worried about how she might feel about it all and after she read it she said, ‘Oh God! I thought you were going to be so much harsher than that, you could have been, I wouldn’t have blamed you.’ I think she’s a lot harder on herself but she is forgiving herself,” says Mitcham.

The songs in the show are well-chosen and include Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, Pink Martini’s Sympathique (one of his mother’s favourites), Nick Cave’s Water Song, the Spice Girls’ Too Much and New Order’s True Faith among others. Brennan also uses some Erik Satie and Philip Glass as underscoring.

Another telling song choice is Alanis Morrisette’s Perfect. “I felt there was no way we couldn’t have that in the show because it is perfect. It basically tells my story,” says Mitcham.

As for his singing, it has developed steadily since he began performing due to “hours and hours of practice” with Brennan.

The quest for perfectionism again? “Yes exactly,” says Mitcham. “I think it’s a pathological need for people to love me. It’s the perfectionist in me. I don’t like to do anything half-hearted.”

Having contemplated retirement after the London Olympics, and again after the recent Commonwealth Games, Mitcham is still diving – for now.

“I’ve been on reduced training since the Commonwealth Games because I have been trying to rehabilitate an injury,” he says.

“I tore a tendon in my elbow. I was dealing with that all last year. I got to the point where I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve in sport (having won a gold medal) at the Commonwealth Games so I’m just about ready to let the sport go but I’ve been talked into staying until (the Olympic Games in) Rio, which I’m OK with. But my condition was that I want to be injury free before I begin ramping up the training again.

“So I did this fairly new procedure where they harvested some tendon cells from the wrist and they injected those cells into the tear in my elbow tendon and hope that fills in the gap and repairs the injury.”

In the meantime, he has been training in the day while performing at night. “Diving Australia has been really wonderful. They have facilitated that I can train at any sports institute wherever I go with the show,” he says. “I don’t think I have totally integrated into the cabaret life, which involves a lot of late nights and alcohol. Everyone else goes out drinking (after the show) and I go back to the hotel and go to sleep so I can get up in the morning for training.”

The move from diving into cabaret wasn’t actually such a big leap, says Mitcham.

“I think I’ve always been a performer, a show pony. If you were going to psychoanalyse it, it would be searching for validation and positive reinforcement. They way I was discovered diving was because I was at the Chandler Aquatic Centre in Brisbane – which is one of the national diving centres but used to be open to the public – and everyone was doing bomb dives.

“I was doing double flips into bomb dives and showing off and one of the national coaches happened to be walking along the pool deck and called me over and said, ‘how do you know how to do that?’ So I started diving the next week. And that’s because I was showing off and performing. I’ve always felt that diving is a kind of performance art.”

Twists & Turns plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse on February 5 & 6, at the Perth Fringe World, February 10 – 16, and at Sydney’s Seymour Centre, February 26 – 28

Club Swizzle

The Studio, Sydney Opera House, January 21

Valerie Murzak in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

Valerie Murzak in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

As you enter the Sydney Opera House Studio for Club Swizzle, the place is abuzz. People are sitting drinking at a large central, rather elegant bar (which serves pretty expensive drinks though there’s a cheaper bar at the back of the room), friendly waiters and ushers are whizzing around, and entertainer Murray Hill is moving through the crowd chatting.

Then in a snappy piece of choreography the bar is quickly transformed into a performance space, getting the show off to a terrific start.

The concept (by Brett Haylock) of a cabaret-vaudeville show set in a late-night bar is fabulous, as is the production’s set-up. The show itself feels a little undercooked but it’s early days and is bound to develop.

Club Swizzle has more of an old-fashioned vaudeville vibe than its cheekier predecessors La Clique and La Soirée.

Hill, a New York drag king, acts as the MC. His tagline is “the man who puts the ‘king’ back in f#*king funny”. I didn’t actually find him particularly funny but he’s a warm presence with a nice, easy rapport with the audience.

The line-up also includes Movin’ Melvin Brown, an old-school vaudevillian from America who croons and tap dances, Russian circus artist Valerie Murzak who does sexy contortion and balancing on a giant mirror ball and aerial silks, Finnish dancer Anna de Carvalho who performs on a swinging aerial pole, and Australian ‘kamikaze’ diva Meow Meow who sings three numbers. (Ali McGregor replaces Meow Meow in February).

The backbone of the show though are The Swizzle Boys, four acrobats (Tom Flanagan, Joren Dawson, Daniel Catlow and Ben Lewis) who do the lion’s share of the performing.

Dressed as waiters, they certainly work hard for their money, performing numerous acts (balancing, Chinese pole, ropes, teeterboard, hoop diving) with oodles of exuberant enthusiasm, often with drinks in hand. The house band, Mikey and the Nightcaps, are also hot and add to the pumping vibe.

The Swizzle Boys prepare to launch off in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

The Swizzle Boys prepare to launch off in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

Club Swizzle could do with a bit more variety – entertaining though they are, The Swizzle Boys are rather too ubiquitous – and a little more originality among some of the acts. There have been so many shows of this ilk (La Clique, La Soirée, Empire, Limbo to name just a few) in recent years that there’s little here we haven’t seen before.

I also missed the whacky, screamingly funny humour of acts like Captain Frodo squeezing himself through a tennis racquet or oddball comedy-magician Carl-Einar Hackner from La Clique/La Soirée.

It was an audience participation routine when two people are pulled from the crowd to do a pole dance-off that brought the house down on opening night, with Sunrise producer Michael Pell and The Voice contestant Lionel Cole hilariously giving it their all.

As Haylock has noted in interviews, a late-night bar is the natural, anarchic habitat for a various colourful characters. As it stands, a few more eccentric personalities and a bit more of a sense of chaos would give Club Swizzle more zing. But it’s still a lot of fun and got a huge response from the audience.

Club Swizzle plays at the Sydney Opera House until March 15

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 25

Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers

The Vanguard, December 16

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Jeff Busby

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Jeff Busby

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen describe themselves as the “oddest of odd couples in opera in Australia”.

Colleagues at Opera Australia, she is a mezzo-soprano who has just played Meg Page in Verdi’s Falstaff in Melbourne and whose roles next year include Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida; he is a tenor best known for comic and character roles, who starts next year as Monostatos in The Magic Flute in Sydney.

Off-stage they have a close relationship, which they have discussed openly in recent media interviews, as a straight woman and gay man raising a son together (though he is not the biological father).

Now, as Strange Bedfellows, they are performing in their first cabaret show together, Under the Covers, which celebrates their relationship and gives vent to their wicked sense of humour and broad musical taste.

Clad in skimpy, sexy outfits, the prevailing vibe is 1930s Weimar cabaret: dark, decadent and deliciously bawdy. It’s pretty out-there on a couple of occasions, with a song about a paedophile watching a young girl on a slide and another about a ménage à trois involving a family pet, but mostly it’s full of mischievous fun.

Under the musical direction of Daryl Wallis, resplendent in sparkling red jacket on the keyboard, they’ve chosen a wonderful eclectic choice of repertoire ranging from Amanda Palmer to Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill with smatterings of INXS, Tiny Tim, Rolf Harris (Jake the Peg) and a few operatic references.

Naturally they both sing superbly. Highlights for me included the more personal moments: Breen’s take on Is That All There Is? about growing up as a gay man and a song that Dark wrote about trying to get pregnant using IVF.

The show would be even better if it had a slightly stronger framework, and if their patter early on gave us the chance to get to know them a little better and therefore connect with them more – particularly for those who don’t know a great deal about them.

However, they both exude oodles of stage presence. Dark is warmly engaging, while Breen with his fascinatingly complex, ambiguous charisma is absolutely in his element.

They ended the show touchingly with Rickie Lee Jones’s We Belong Together to rapturous applause. Under the Covers won’t be to everyone’s taste but for those who love a little salacious fun allied with wonderful musicianship it’s a great night out.

Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers returns to The Vanguard in Sydney on January 3 & 4, then plays at the Butterfly Club in Melbourne, February 18–22.

Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs

Hayes Theatre Co, September 21

Joanna Weinberg. Photo: supplied

Joanna Weinberg. Photo: supplied

Joanna Weinberg’s new cabaret show Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs takes a quirky idea about addiction and really runs with it.

She has created a character from a fictional Eastern European country, with a thick accent to match, who has had a yen for blood ever since her detested nanny met an unfortunate, squishy end.

She doesn’t drink it like your common-or-garden vampire, but she can sniff out someone’s blood group at hundred paces, likes to bathe in it and finds sex boring without it. She works as a nurse for obvious reasons. A black comedy with a blood-red heart, the show explores her life with this unusual addiction and her battle to overcome it.

Weinberg performs original songs alongside numbers like Tom Lehrer’s The Masochism Tango and Queen’s Killer Queen. She has a lovely voice and plays the accordion for most of the numbers, with an occasional sortie to keyboard and drums, while Mark Ginsburg plays soprano sax, guitar and, at one point, a knife and knife sharpener.

Though the melodies and lyrics of the first few numbers are catchy and clever, musically it becomes a bit samey and not many of the songs are terribly memorable. Weinberg could have made more of The Masochism Tango, for example, which she performs seated and in a similar manner to the other songs.

Weinberg is a talented comic performer, and the character she creates is vividly realised and engaging. However, the story didn’t hold my interest for that length of time (it runs an hour and a quarter).

Directed by Lisa Freshwater, the show unfolds at a similar pitch and in a similar vein throughout, then rather peters out at the end. It’s a fun idea but a bit more dramatic light and shade and some bigger laughs wouldn’t go astray.

Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs plays at the Hayes Theatre Co on Sunday September 28. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Britney Spears: The Cabaret

Hayes Theatre Co, August 20

Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears, with Mathew Frank. Photo: supplied

Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears, with Mathew Frank. Photo: supplied

It ain’t hard to parody Britney Spears given the many train-wreck moments in her life. The genius in Christie Whelan Browne’s Britney Spears: The Cabaret is the way the laughs are accompanied by an unexpected humanity, compassion and pathos.

Written and directed by Dean Bryant, the script brilliantly satirises the price of fame. Tracing Spears’ career from Disney mouseketeer to pop princess to shaven-headed emotional wreck, it includes all the headline-grabbing moments but without over-egging them. So, while the show fizzes with hilarious one-liners it also hits home with a surprising emotional truth.

Beginning in comic fashion, with Britney Jean Spears portrayed as ditsy, naïve and none-too-bright but endearingly self-deprecating, the show becomes sadder and sadder as her life falls apart.

Taught to feel guilty from a young age by a pushy stage mother when she didn’t land work, betrayed by boyfriends who boasted and spent her money, committed to a pysch ward by her father who took control of her money, losing custody of her children, Spears has endured much.

“Sometimes I feel the only people who love me are the paps,” says Whelan Browne-as-Britney.

Musical director and accompanist Mathew Frank has rearranged all the hit songs as cabaret numbers for solo piano – and they work astonishingly well. It opens with a manic, waltz-like version of Circus. There’s a jazzy Oops! I Did I Again and a darker, Weimar-esque Baby One More Time, while Womanizer explodes with a Broadway-like belt.

The musically spare arrangements put a focus on the lyrics, which fit seamlessly within the structure of the show, cleverly illuminating Spears’ life (even though she didn’t write most of them).

Wearing a little black dress, the gorgeous Whelan Browne is sublime. Her comic timing is immaculate and she sings superbly, while totally inhabiting the role. The show has been around since 2009 and the emotional depth she now brings to it is even more moving than ever.

It ends with heartbreaking versions of I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman and Everytime. Hilarious yet terribly poignant, Britney Spears: The Cabaret is a stunning show. What’s more, it sits perfectly in the intimate Hayes Theatre. Don’t miss it.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until September 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 24

Lady Sings it Better

Hayes Theatre, August 3

Lady Sings It Better – Anna Martin, Libby Wood, Maeve Marsden and Chandra Franken. Photo: Viv McGregor

Lady Sings It Better – Anna Martin, Libby Wood, Maeve Marsden and Chandra Franken. Photo: Viv McGregor

When it comes to the feminist agenda underpinning their work, comedy/cabaret group Lady Sings it Better takes a softly-softly approach, couching it within a hugely enjoyable, fun show – but, boy, oh boy! They still make their point, loud and clear.

The group, which has been performing for around five years in various incarnations, now has a four-lady line-up: founder Maeve Marsden, Chandra Franken, Libby Wood and Anna Martin. Their shtick is to sing songs written and performed by men. Giving the songs fresh musical interpretations but without changing the lyrics, they make us hear the words afresh.

Sometimes it’s quite shocking to realise what it is that we’ve been humming happily along to without really taking in the lyrics. In fact, some of them are so appallingly, hilariously sexist that at one point Martin feels the need to reiterate the fact that they are singing the lyrics exactly as written.

Their latest show begins with a mash-up of Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” and The Wiggles (the ladies are all dressed Wiggle-fashion in coloured tee shirts with logos and black bottoms). Other numbers include Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom”, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, Usher’s “Dive”, Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”, Bruno Mars’s “Gorilla”, Tom Jones’s “Delilah” and Sting’s “Every Breath You Take”.

Backed at the Hayes by a terrific three-piece band, they all sing well (each has a solo) and make sweet harmonies together, delivering the songs with the odd wink and knowing look but essentially “straight” – which makes it all the more hilarious and, at times, downright unsettling.

At the encore they break from their trademark and sing Britney Spears’s “Womanizer” – though the song certainly fits their theme. Lady Sings it Better is an act of provocation in its own way, but above all it’s hugely entertaining and the enthusiastic audience lapped it up.

Two shows at the Hayes Theatre sold out fast. The Ladies give a five-year anniversary performance at The Factory, Marrickville on October 4