Sweet Dreams: Songs by Annie Lennox – review

Slide Lounge, July 1

Michael Griffiths in Sweet Dreams. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Griffiths in Sweet Dreams. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Griffiths’ new cabaret show Sweet Dreams: Songs by Annie Lennox is a cleverly crafted, beautifully performed piece in a similar vein to his previous cabaret hit In Vogue: Songs by Madonna.

Written and directed by Dean Bryant (as was Griffiths’ Madonna show and Christie Whelan Browne’s wonderful Britney Spears: The Cabaret), Sweet Dreams is clearly thoroughly researched, taking us through the life and career of the androgynous-looking, Scottish singer-songwriter who was one half of British synth pop duo the Eurythmics.

But it does so much more than simply trot out biographical details interspersed with songs.

The witty, insightful, linking dialogue gives us an insight into her life and creativity, showing how she channeled her heartache and other experiences into her songs.

Sitting at the piano, looking casually urbane in skinny-fitting trousers, shirt and tartan tie (a nod presumably to Lennox’s Scottish background), Griffiths gives an extraordinary performance that is understated yet passionate.

He speaks in the first person as Lennox but makes no attempt to impersonate her. Likewise, he interprets the songs in his own, musically thrilling way – playing the piano with the same sensitivity that he brings to his singing.

The factual information is combined with personal reflections and witty observations  – all delivered with perfect comic timing. Bryant has also incorporated a couple of gently comic motifs: Griffiths lighting a candle, which he then blows out, waving the smoke away as he tosses the match aside to symbolise putting paid to bad song ideas; and bits of sage advice from Lennox’s father (“As my father would say, Anne Lennox ….”).

All the songs that you’d hope for are there, including Why? Walking on Broken Glass, There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart), Who’s That Girl?, Love is a Stranger and Missionary Man among others.

For Thorn in My Side, Griffiths enlists the audience to do backing vocals – which they do with great enthusiasm.

Sweet Dreams (which premiered last month at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival) is intelligent, compelling cabaret offering a different kind of take on its subject to so many biographical cabaret shows that we see. For 70 minutes, Griffiths holds us in the palm of his hand – an angel playing with our hearts. Catch it if you can.

Sweet Dreams is at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne until July 7 as part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival and then at Hobart’s City Hall on July 12 & 13 as part of The Festival of Voices.

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Go Your Own Way, the Story of Christine McVie: review

Slide Lounge, June 27

Catherine Alcorn with Marty Hailey and Tamika Stanton. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Catherine Alcorn with Marty Hailey and Tamika Stanton. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Catherine Alcorn made her mark on the Australian cabaret scene with her debut show The Divine Miss Bette, in which she stepped into Bette Midler’s shoes.

Now, for her second offering, Go Your Own Way, the Story of Christine McVie, she takes on “the other woman” in Fleetwood Mac.

Christine McVie is nowhere near as colourful a character as Midler, which gives the show’s writer Diana Simmonds less to play with. The English-born singer/songwriter is apparently living a quiet life in her homeland with her beloved dogs and by all accounts is perfectly happy not to be part of Fleetwood Mac’s current reunion tour – though she herself has said little about it publicly.

There was the tumultuous time the band went through when recording Rumours, during which Christine and husband John McVie were breaking up as were Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, which is naturally dealt with, and a relationship with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson.

But overall there’s not a great deal of drama to McVie’s story. Simmonds (who was brought in late) takes a fairly straightforward, chronological approach to the narrative but laces it with some nice, deadpan, throw-away humour and some of the lingo from the 60s and 70s to give it some spice.

She also gives voice to Nicks at one point via backing vocalist Tamika Stanton – an effective device that might perhaps be worth exploring a little more.

Musically, the show is a cracker. The set list of songs (all written or co-written by McVie with the exception of Go Your Own Way by Buckingham) is fantastic: The Chain, Little Lies, As Long as You Follow, Say You Love Me, Over My Head, Don’t Stop, You Make Loving Fun, Oh Daddy, Everywhere, Songbird and, course, Go Your Own Way.

The enduring popularity of Fleetwood Mac’s music (given a boost in 2011 when Glee covered six tracks from Rumours) means that the show will have great appeal to Mac fans and indeed anyone who likes that period of music.

What’s more, Alcorn sings it superbly – arguably better than McVie herself. She has a rich, powerful voice, which she uses with sensitivity and skill, and a big, warm stage presence.

Starting the show in the present day, she removes a tailored jacket, loosens her hair and dons a mauve, fringed and sequined kimono-like jacket to take us back to the start of Christine Perfect’s (as she was born) career, adopting a light English accent and a slightly lower register than normal for the dialogue. A number of rugs thrown onto the stage help lend the space something of a hippie feel.

Alcorn is backed by a terrific three-piece band led by musical director Isaac Hayward on keyboard, with Marty Hailey on guitar and Nick Cecire on drums. Stanton and Hayward provide strong backing vocals.

Having debuted at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and then performed it at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, Alcorn will presumably now go her own way with the show – and if she has half the success she has had with The Divine Miss Bette, she’s onto a good thing.

Meanwhile, The Divine Miss Bette has a season at Sydney’s Glen Street Theatre in Belrose from July 23 – 28.

Adam Guettel in Concert: review

Slide Cabaret, June 6

American composer-lyricist Adam Guettel

American composer-lyricist Adam Guettel

Tony Award-winning Broadway composer-lyricist Adam Guettel is currently in Australia for the first time for a series of performances and masterclasses.

Soon to appear at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and Melbourne Cabaret Festival, he did a one-off performance at Sydney’s Slide cabaret lounge this week.

The grandson of legendary musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers, Guettel has been compared to Stephen Sondheim, while Sondheim himself has described his music as “dazzling”.

I must confess that I didn’t know a great deal of his music before seeing him perform at Slide. I have a cast recording of his musical Floyd Collins (which Kookaburra was going to perform a few years ago but then cancelled) but only a passing acquaintance with his other shows – so the chance to hear his music, performed by the man himself, was special and very welcome (thanks to producer Jeremy Youett of Your Enterprises).

Accompanied on piano by his longtime musical director Kimberly Grigsby (musical director of Spider-Man on Broadway), Guettel performed songs from Floyd Collins, The Light in the Piazza (for which he won Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations) and his song cycle Myths and Hymns.

He also sang a few numbers from several new musicals he is currently writing including Days of Wine and Roses based on the 1962 film about an American couple who succumb to alcoholism, and Millions based on Danny Boyle’s 2004 film about two young brothers whose mother dies and who find millions in stolen cash – a musical Guettel described as being “about saints and cherubs” and how the boys “un-break their hearts”.

For several of the numbers he was joined by Haley Bond, a vocalist with a beautiful, pure voice, who he revealed to be his fiancée. As you’d expect there was an easy, intuitive rapport between the three of them.

Guettel has a great deal of charm, displaying a nice, self-deprecating, laid back sense of humour. He kept talk fairly tight, telling us mainly about the songs, but there was a lovely honesty to the way he engaged with the audience.

He played guitar for a couple of numbers, explaining amusingly how he is self-taught on the instrument so has to retune it when he wants to change key, as he did between two numbers here.

You can see why he is compared to Sondheim (though for my money he doesn’t rival Sondheim – but then who does?). His music is often complex with shimmering textures and emotional intensity. Many of the songs had a melancholic, yearning beauty but there were none you’d describe as showstoppers and for a cabaret show it could have done with a bit more variety musically, more changes of mood, and more light and shade.

Perhaps Guettel sensed that because at one he said that next time he came to Australia he’d bring some perkier songs.

Perhaps too, the songs didn’t have quite the same power performed out of context that they would have in the shows they come from.

Nonetheless, it was a treat to hear him perform his own music, much of which is undeniably beautiful, and especially to hear the new material, including a song called Something That We Know, which he said had never been heard publicly before. Fans of his will be very happy – and doubtless the show will win him more.

Adam Guettel performs at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on June 22 and the Melbourne Cabaret Festival on June 29 & 30. 

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Sarah-Louise Young

Sarah-Louise Young discusses her new cabaret show Julie Madly Deeply

Sarah-Louise Young

Sarah-Louise Young

Over the years, people have often said to Sarah-Louise Young that they can see a bit of Julie Andrews in her.

“It’s probably just because we’re both very well spoken,” says the British musical theatre and cabaret performer in her crisp, beautifully enunciated English accent.

Modesty aside, Young also has a great singing voice and though she wouldn’t consider comparing herself to Andrews – “that would be scandalous” – she is excited about performing the Andrews songbook in a new cabaret show called Julie Madly Deeply.

The songs will be intertwined with stories and anecdotes from Andrews’ life along with “a selection of witty and insightful elaborations” as the press release puts it, promising a show in which “Miss Squeaky-Clean finally comes clean.”

But Andrews fans can rest assured that though Julie Madly Deeply may be a little mischievous at times, it comes from a place of love.

“It’s always been our benchmark that if she ever came to see the show she would love it. We are describing it as a cheeky and affectionate love letter,” says Young.

Julie Madly Deeply starts its Australian tour at the Noosa Long Weekend Festival on June 16 then goes to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival followed by dates in Victoria, New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

It follows in the wake of Dame Julie herself, who tours Australia for the first time this month. However, Andrews doesn’t sing anymore after her four-octave voice was damaged during a throat operation in 1997, leaving it to Young to turn on the pure but killer vocals in songs from Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady as well as less well known Andrews numbers.

Young’s cabaret career is riding high. She won Best Musical Variety Act at the 2013 London Cabaret Awards and in 2011 was named one of Time Out London’s Top Ten Cabaret Artists.

In 2010, David and Lisa Campbell brought her show Cabaret Whore to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival then toured it around Australia the following year. During this time, Young met Richard Carroll, who works at the Campbells’ production company Luckiest Productions. They hit it off and co-conceived Julie Madly Deeply, which Carroll is producing.

Sarah-Louise Young will play a Julie Andrews impersonator in Julie Madly Deeply

Sarah-Louise Young will play a Julie Andrews impersonator in Julie Madly Deeply

Young has been a fan of Andrews since childhood. “When I was a little kid my parents got divorced and I thought if Julie Andrews came in, married my Dad and made a dress from curtains then everything would be all right,” she says.

When it came to putting a show together about her, Young says they wanted to avoid doing something that comes across like “Wikipedia live. You can’t tell anybody’s life in 55 minutes, it’s just not long enough,” she says. Nor did she want to pretend to be Andrews.

“My producer Richard and I felt very strongly that nobody can sing like Julie Andrews. You can’t impersonate that voice. There is so much love and respect for her that we didn’t want to put words into her mouth.

“Obviously we’ve read her autobiography and watched hours and hours of documentaries and we thought very, very carefully about the best framing device. It would be easy to do an hour of her songs and chat about them but the device we use is that I play a Julie Andrews impersonator doing a tribute act,” says Young.

“That person can investigate other people’s relationships with Julie Andrews so I play Audrey Hepburn, Richard Burton, Carol Channing, Liza Minnelli – little bits of all of these. So there will be times when I do my best to sound like her but it’s also a lovely excuse to explore the other relationships in her life.

“We’ll sing the hits from her shows and also a few unexpected songs that you don’t associate with her. There’s such an amazing back catalogue of songs so we’re going to do a medley at the end because we just couldn’t fit in all the songs that we wanted to.”

Young believes that although Andrews tried to change her sweet, wholesome image later in her career with some interesting choices including working with Hitchcock and famously going topless in the film S.O.B. directed by her husband Blake Edwards, “it was really tough for her. People wanted to see her in that maternal role because it made us feel safe.

“She was obviously a lovely woman but it was well known that she swore like a trooper and was a great practical joker. She worked with Hitchcock, she did some really unusual and interesting stuff but people didn’t want her to break the mould.”

Young hopes that people who see Julie Madly Deeply “will fall in love with the songs again and go home and watch the movies, and question their own relationship with her.”

Noosa Long Weekend Festival, June 16; Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 19 – 20; Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne, June 21 – 22; Karralyka Centre, Ringwood, June 25; The Q, Queanbeyan, June 26; Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs, June 29; Seymour Centre, Sydney, July 4 – 6; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, July 7; Glen Street Theatre, Belrose, July 9.

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 7.