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

Mario

Hayes Theatre Co, July 9

Blake Bowden and Phil Scott. Photo: supplied

Blake Bowden and Phil Scott. Photo: supplied

The new cabaret show Mario, conceived and performed by Phil Scott and Blake Bowden, takes a fairly straightforward biographical approach to the life of Mario Lanza, lacing the narrative with much of the music he was famous for singing.

With his glorious romantic tenor voice, the Brooklyn-born American-Italian was a 1950s superstar. He could have sung at the Met but chose to stay at MGM, where he had become a silver screen heartthrob, in order to play his hero in The Great Carouso.

Lanza’s career blazed brightly – but fizzled out just as quickly. He over-indulged in food and drink, and threw his weight around on set, getting himself sacked from MGM’s The Student Prince. He died aged 38, probably from a pulmonary embolism – though there were rumours the mafia had bumped him off.

Written by Scott and directed by Chris Parker, the show takes a linear, chronological approach. Given the 70-minute time constraint, it fairly hurtles through Lanza’s life: his discovery, rocketing career, marriage, the war and his demise.

Some things like his many affairs are dealt with in a phrase or two, while cheeky jump cuts help pack it all in. A brief war scene is followed by the comment, “Well, now that the war’s over” (or words to that effect). And on we go.

Scott’s script is well-written but is a fairly superficial skimming over Lanza’s life with just enough information to link the musical numbers.

Although Bowden doesn’t have quite the same dark, passionate, Italianate sound as Lanza, he does have a lovely tenor voice and sings the material beautifully, moving effortlessly between numbers including Granada, Your tiny hand is frozen from La Boheme, Nessun Dorma, We’ll Meet Again, The Loveliest Night of the Year, and the drinking song from The Student Prince.

Lanza’s growing girth, so frequently referred to, is left to our imagination – (Bowden is a lithe, trim figure) – and a padded jacket or some such costuming might not go astray.

Scott accompanies him brilliantly on piano, with his usual panache. He also plays a cavalcade of characters including a singing teacher, Louis B. Mayer, a personal trainer and a mafia hit man, lending the piece an extra theatricality.

If you know about Lanza, there’s nothing terribly surprising here in terms of the story or the way it is told. But for many in the opening night audience it was clearly a wonderful nostalgia trip. For those who don’t know about Lanza, it’s an entertaining introduction to a legendary performer who died all too young, that may well send them in search of more information.

Mario plays at the Hayes Theatre Co tonight and tomorrow at 6.30pm. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

Love and Death and an American Guitar

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Even if you don’t know the name Jim Steinman, you will almost certainly know many of his songs. He wrote Meatloaf’s epic Bat out of Hell, for starters, along with Total Eclipse of the Heart, Holding Out for a Hero, You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth and It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

In his new cabaret show, Love and Death and an American Guitar, Toby Francis picks up a red Fender Stratocaster and in the guise of Steinman gives voice to his songs, ambitions and frustrations. Chief among the latter are his bitter resentment at Meatloaf getting all the glory (and the money) and his angst at never getting his musical Neverland off the ground.

Francis, who wrote the show, has employed a clever structure in which he has Steinman talk through his ideas for Neverland – a dystopian take on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, set in New York, which he is struggling to finish – as if pitching the show to potential producers.

Steinman did, in fact, begin his career in musical theatre, where his credits include writing the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind and music for Dance of the Vampires. In 1997, he held a workshop of Neverland, three songs from which were picked up by Meatloaf: Bat out of Hell, Heaven Can Wait, and The Formation of the Pack, which was re-titled All Revved Up With No Place to Go.

Francis begins his show with Steinman’s spoken rock song Love and Death and an American Guitar (later recorded as Wasted Youth) and from there launches into Bat Out of Hell.

With occasional support from guest singer Noni McCallum, he rips through many of Steinman’s hits, his rock tenor voice well suited to the material. The dialogue gives us a fascinating taste of Steinman’s career and the musical that Neverland might have been, as well as a keen sense of his disillusionment.

Directed by Neil Gooding with moody projections evoking the world of Neverland by production designer Lauren Peters, the show begs to be performed with a fierce, rocking live band but musical director Andrew Worboys does a good job on piano and synthesizer.

The three-performance season as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season ended on Sunday with Francis going down on bended knee to propose to Peters at the curtain call. What an encore!

The show deserves to make a return – and doubtless will.

Hilary Cole in O.C.Diva

Hayes Theatre Co, June 22

Hilary Cole. Photo: supplied

Hilary Cole. Photo: supplied

Hilary Cole is one of the brightest new stars in Sydney musical theatre. After stepping confidently into the limelight in Squabbalogic’s much admired productions of Carrie and The Drowsy Chaperone, she now takes on her first cabaret show as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season.

Titled O.C.Diva, it’s an interesting, brave little show full of smart song choices, some clever reworking of lyrics and terrific musical arrangements (courtesy of her musical director and accompanist Stephen Kreamer) in which she charts her obsessive compulsive behaviour.

She still has to master the art of delivering her patter as if chatting to the audience rather than reiterating a script (occasionally delivered here at breakneck speed), and she could also work on developing a warmer rapport with the audience (she frequently seems to internalise rather than reach out) but it’s an impressive debut. And she is certainly singing beautifully in that lovely pure voice of hers.

Looking gorgeous in a figure-hugging gown, Cole swans onto stage as if she is an ego-mad diva who treats her pianist (whatever his name is) like shite. It’s a tongue-in-cheek set-up for her opening number “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” from The Book of Mormon, with amusing, rewritten lyrics, but presenting herself this way, even in jest, doesn’t come across as the warmest way to start a show. A little more twinkle in the eye perhaps?

However, once she starts talking about her obsessions – opening a different shaped bottle of water every time she wants a drink, Lord of the Rings, Bernadette Peters and other strange behavioural tics – she gradually draws you in with her honesty and the vulnerability she reveals.

There’s a wonderful section in which she solves a Rubik’s Cube while singing a shimmering medley of Sondheim songs: “Colour and Light” from Sunday in the Park with George, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company and “Losing My Mind” from Follies.

She also sings “Being Alive” from Company, “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods and “Bill” from Showboat but it’s not all show tunes by any means. Other numbers include Blondie’s “One Way or Another” (with a touch of Phantom) for her story about stalking Peters and a mash-up of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”.

Cole is a real talent. As she settles into the cabaret genre, her confidence is bound to grow and this show, which already has much to recommend it, will grow too. Well worth a look.

Hilary Cole in O.C.Diva has one more performance at the Hayes Theatre Co on Sunday June 29 at 8.30pm. Bookings: http://www.hayestheatre.com.au

David Campbell Sings John Bucchino

Hayes Theatre Co, June 18

John Bucchino and David Campbell. Photo: Sam Bratby

John Bucchino and David Campbell. Photo: Sam Bratby

David Campbell and renowned songwriter John Bucchino met in New York 17 years ago. Friends ever since, their ease with each other shows in their new cabaret show David Campbell Sings John Bucchino currently playing as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season.

In the intimate setting of the tiny theatre, with Bucchino on piano, they perform songs from across Bucchino’s career, from the heartfelt “Grateful” to the jazzy “Puddle of Love” to a number from the DreamWorks animated film Joseph: King of Dreams.

They’re beautiful songs with lovely, sophisticated melodies and lyrics in which Bucchino wears his heart on his sleeve. Many have a theatrical feel and a strong sense of storytelling. They may not be widely known but they are accessible.

Campbell sings most of them though Bucchino does a few himself, while Bucchino has the lion’s share of the patter as he talks (delightfully) about how the two met, his career and the inspiration for the numbers (often love and loss). Campbell chips in with the odd witty comment and bit of banter but for the most part stands respectfully to one side when Bucchino chats.

When it comes to the musical numbers, Campbell is in fine voice, singing with supreme control and beauty, and connecting to the lyrics with great sensitivity. Highlights include his dramatic performance of “I Stayed” from Bucchino’s 2008 Broadway musical A Catered Affair  – how good it would be to see him back on stage in a musical – and a moving version of Learn How to Say Goodbye, as well as Bucchino singing songs like Unexpressed.

The chance to get so up close and personal with the composer and hear his songs performed by such a superb interpreter makes this a special show.

David Campbell sings John Bucchino is at the Hayes Theatre Co until June 28 and at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta on June 29

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 22

Ben Mingay

Slide Cabaret, May 23

Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Ben Mingay puts the bloke into cabaret in his new show, presented as part of the Slide Cabaret Festival. Making an unorthodox entry, he spends the night in work boots, boardies and ratty T-shirt, with a tinnie close to hand. (The supplied picture above is so not his look here!)

The show has an interval so I imagined that he would return in the second act in something more like the promo shot but, no, he merely traded one T-shirt for another.

The contrast between his downbeat look and the camp glamour of Slide is all part of the fun, of course, and Mingay – who did start out in construction – has such a laid-back, laddish charm that he pulls it off with aplomb. (Having got the joke in the first act, though, I reckon a costume change for the second could be good, adding another dimension). He tells his stories with a rough, throwaway charm and endearing honesty that feels absolutely authentic – and he knows how to spin a good yarn.

His rich, rumbling baritone works a treat across genres (rock, country, musical theatre and opera) as he traces his journey from construction worker for his Dad in Newcastle to a pub rock band to classical voice studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to roles in musicals including Hair, South Pacific, Dirty Dancing in the US and Jersey Boys. (An Officer and a Gentleman doesn’t get a mention). There’s also a passing reference to his role in Channel Ten’s Wonderland.

Backed by a four-piece band led by Bev Kennedy on piano, Mingay opens the show with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma! From there his song list takes in everything from “Working Class Man” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific and Leporello’s catalogue song from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (complete with a make-shift prop on the back of a beer carton).

At the Slide gig, he invited David Harris on stage to sing “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables with him (both made it to the final auditions for the production about to open in Melbourne), while his partner, musical theatre performer Kirby Burgess, joined him for rousing versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Time of my Life” from Dirty Dancing.

All in all a thoroughly entertaining show from a rough diamond with a wonderful voice. Developing a warm rapport with the audience, Mingay shares enough of himself that by the end of the night you feel that you really do know a fair bit about him. And didn’t the sell-out crowd love him.

Avigail Herman: Good Girl/Bad Girl

Slide Cabaret, May 21

IMG_9354 Avigail In her latest cabaret show, Good Girl/Bad Girl – which premiered last Wednesday at the Slide Cabaret Festival – Avigail Herman plays an author, who is writing a series of stories based around the seven deadly sins but who has encountered writer’s block and is struggling after finishing just three.

Inspired by Audra McDonald’s 2004 song cycle around the seven deadly sins, Herman uses the framework of a Writer’s Support Group – us – to whom she confesses her pride, laziness, relationship breakup and trips to therapy and rehab.

She sings some of McDonald’s material (“My Book” by Jeff Blumenkrantz, “I Eat” by Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens, “The Greedy Tadpole” by John Pizzarelli & Jessica Molaskey) but also includes her own, eclectic choice of songs by Stephen Sondheim, John Bucchino and Lance Horne among others.

There isn’t a great deal of patter so at times it feels more like a concert. And since the songs aren’t widely known (the person I went with didn’t know any of them), it took time for the Slide audience to warm up.

You could feel the instant response to the humour in “Making Love Alone” and during another number, which keeps breaking into well-known songs from musicals such as “Midnight” from Cats, a few in the audience yelled out “sing it all!” She didn’t oblige as the show is clearly tightly structured. But a couple of better-known numbers might help draw people in more quickly.

A little more chat and humour between songs might also help establish a closer rapport with the audience.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the show and the choice of songs. Herman is singing beautifully, still floating her soaring top notes with effortless ease and really connecting emotionally with the lyrics. “I Eat”, in which a lonely woman eats to fill the void, is particularly moving, as is Sondheim’s “We Do Not Belong Together”, but all the songs are well interpreted. And Herman’s bubbly personality does come through – it would just be good to give it a little more room to shine.

David Harris, Time is a Traveller

Hayes Theatre Co, April 20

David Harris. Photo: supplied

David Harris. Photo: supplied

Musical theatre leading man David Harris is about to jet off to try his luck in New York City. By way of a farewell, he is performing his cabaret show Time is a Traveller at the Hayes Theatre Co.

In the intimate venue – elegantly decked out for the occasion with candles, white flowers and dark drapes – Harris is an understated but warm presence as he reflects on his journey to the stage and the highs and lows of his career.

Head boy at school but by no means the popular, sporty type, he had his first musical experience as Superman in a high school production of Man of Steel, then hit the talent quests before learning his craft on the job during a two-year run of The Boy From Oz. From there he moved on to lead roles in musicals Miss Saigon, Wicked and Legally Blonde.

He traces this journey in a low-key, engaging fashion, lacing his stories with a wry humour and self-deprecating honesty.

Accompanied by wonderful musical director Bev Kennedy on piano, Harris brings his silken voice, with its thrilling top register, to an interesting mix of well-known and less familiar songs among them “The Way You Look Tonight”, “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz and several songs by Peter Allen, an artist with whom he feels a special affinity.

Highlights include numbers from several musicals he’s been in such as Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Full Monty and Miss Saigon, to which he brings a great deal of emotional nuance, and a spine-tingling rendition of “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables.

Harris also displays a sure sense of comedy with a hilarious version of “This Is The Moment” from Jekyll and Hyde as you might experience it in an RSL club and springs a very funny surprise with a story about his teacher’s discovery of his gorgeous falsetto.

He also duets with a guest: Marika Aubrey on opening night, Suzie Mathers this week. All in all, Time is a Traveller is a charming, classy show.

Time is a Traveller plays at the Hayes Theatre Co on May 2, 3 and 4. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 27

Bob, Sweat and Tears

Sydney Theatre, February 27

Bob Downe (aka Mark Trevorrow). Photo: Suzanna Shubeck

Bob Downe (aka Mark Trevorrow). Photo: Suzanna Shubeck

Given a rock star welcome by a decidedly eclectic audience, Bob Downe shimmied onto stage in all his camp, synthetic glory looking as young and gloriously cheesy as ever.

The self-styled Prince of Polyester has been flashing his dazzling pearly whites at audiences for decades now. Over the years, Bob (the sublimely funny alter ego of Mark Trevorrow) has become as iconic a comic creation as Dame Edna, yet despite the passing of time his act feels as fresh and funny as ever.

But Bob is here to tell you that all this time he has been living a lie. His latest show Bob, Sweat and Tears revolves around the shock revelation that Bob is actually straight – something he has discovered with the help of a therapist. So it’s goodbye to songs like “I Am What I Am” and “Two Little Boys” (“too gay”) and hello to a newly manned-up Bob, sitting with legs splayed rather than crossed.

As you might imagine Bob’s idea of straight wouldn’t cut it with too many macho blokes. His dress sense remains unaltered for starters. He opens the show in cream safari suit, neckerchief and white shoes plus trademark platinum wig, then changes into a natty, striped three-piece suit for the second act.

Forever on the prowl, pulling off jaunty little moves that wouldn’t look out of place on Thunderbirds, his snappy sense of humour remains as mischievous as ever too, laced with topical barbs (Sydney’s new liquor lockout laws, Rolf Harris etc).

His patter in Bob, Sweat and Tears is genuinely funny as are his send-ups of a wonderful selection of 30-plus pop and rock classics from the 1960s and 70s including “Leader of the Gang”, “Sweet Caroline”, “Spinning Wheel” and “24 Hours from Tulsa” (or Lithgow). What’s more, he can really sing.

He is joined by a series of guests including Gretel Killeen as Mona Loud, the mother of Bob’s love child Cory Bernardi over whom they are fighting a custody battle (neither want him). With a fag hanging out of the corner of her mouth and a bored demeanour, Killeen is extremely funny in one of the highlights of the evening.

There are also appearances by drag queen Cindy Pastel (aka Ritchie Finger), Jane Markey as Bob’s mum Ida Downe and Shauna Jensen.

Performing in Sydney as part of the Mardi Gras, Bob was backed by a three-piece band called The Full Catastrophe – John Thorn (keyboards), Sam Leske (guitar) and Holly Thomas (drums).  ­The first act rocketed past but mid-way into the second act, the show lost a little momentum and started to feel over extended. I could happily have done without the sketch with Bob’s mother Ida, for example, and I can’t help feeling that it would have worked better without an interval.

A few cuts would sharpen the show, sending us home on a wave of hilarity rather than feeling that we’ve come down from the ride before it was quite over. Heaps of fun, nonetheless.

Bob, Sweat and Tears plays at the Arts Theatre, Adelaide as part of the Adelaide Fringe, March 5 – 15, and at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, March 28 – April 20.

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas

Hayes Theatre Co, February 16

Marika Aubrey in The Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Photo: Alek Mak

Marika Aubrey in The Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Photo: Alek Mak

Sophie Tucker (or Sonya Kalish as she started life) was born on the side of the road in the Ukraine into a dirt-poor Jewish family, who eventually migrated to America.

Fedko Kryczko entered the world in a neighbouring village around the same time “in circumstances similarly shitty” as his great-granddaughter Marika Aubrey put it. As a young man, Fedko fled to Australia where Aubrey was later born.

In her new cabaret show The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, Aubrey tells Tucker’s story in a fairly straightforward, linear fashion but weaves through it the story of Fedko and her own visit back to his Ukrainian village.

It brings a nice personal element to the show, giving it another dimension, though in the end it adds little to Tucker’s story and means there is less time to document her life in any depth.

We learn of Tucker’s tough beginnings, the discovery of her voice while singing for tips in her father’s kosher restaurant, the start of her career performing “coon” songs in blackface, and her metamorphosis into the renowned, outrageous star of 1920s vaudeville, known for her comic chops and risqué songs. Nicknamed The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, she was still performing into her late 70s.

Aubrey starts the night in a black and white satin dress with jewellery, headdress and long gloves then gradually removes articles until she is performing in vintage underwear.

Backed by a three-piece jazz band led by Bev Kennedy on piano, she sings a good, varied selection of songs associated with Tucker, among them “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”, “After You’ve Gone”, “The Man I Love”, “Hello My Baby”, “Some of These Days”, “My Yiddishe Momme” and “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love” – in which she showcases her own comic facility.

Aubrey has a big, clear singing voice, which she uses well. It’s higher pitched than Tucker’s husky, powerhouse instrument – something she addresses upfront with a quick, light-hearted aside to Kennedy about the key she’ll sing in.

She also has a big personality and commands the small space at the Hayes Theatre Co with ease. Her patter between the numbers is lively and she develops a warm rapport with the audience.

Inevitably, Aubrey is only able to skim the surface of Tucker’s life. What she tells us is fascinating but we are left feeling we’d like to know more. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining show by an assured, engaging performer.

Produced by Aubrey and Neil Gooding Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers has been playing as the first of the Hayes’s Month of Sundays cabaret series. If you want to catch it, you’ll need to get cracking as there’s just one show left.

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas has its final performance at the Hayes Theatre Co, Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point on Sunday March 2 at 8.30pm. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au