Rumour Has It

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 5

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Naomi Price as Adele in Rumour Has It.

Naomi Price has been performing Rumour Has It, her cabaret show about Adele, to considerable acclaim since premiering it in Queensland in late 2012.

With the boost in profile she has enjoyed as a finalist in The Voice 2015, she has been filling the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, performing eight shows over four days (January 3 ­– 6). The chart-topping success of Adele’s recently released album 25 can’t have hurt the show’s appeal either.

Price is certainly a talented performer. She has a good range of textures to her voice and a strong vocal technique. She also has a confident ease on stage, a robust sense of humour and is quick off the mark when bantering with the audience – the majority of whom clearly loved the show.

So why was I less enthusiastic than most of those around me?

What Price doesn’t have – or doesn’t convey in Rumour Has It – is Adele’s soul. She sings the much-loved hits (Chasing Pavements, Rolling in the Deep, Someone Like You and the Academy Award-winning Skyfall among others) well, but she doesn’t touch you emotionally the way Adele does.

Adele is a hard act to follow, of course, but when you come on stage dressed like her, talking like her and as her, and singing her songs pretty much the way she does, the comparison is inevitable. And when it comes to connecting with the lyrics, Price is no Adele.

My favourite biographical cabaret shows include Christie Whelan Browne’s hilariously funny yet heartbreakingly poignant Britney Spears: The Cabaret and Michael Griffiths’ In Vogue: The Songs of Madonna and Sweet Dreams: The Songs of Annie Lennox (all three written by Dean Bryant).

Both Whelan Browne and Griffiths used the first person (though Griffiths made no attempt to impersonate Madonna or Lennox) and reinterpreted the songs using strikingly different new arrangements. Crucially, both offered a fascinating insight into the artists they were representing using their songs to comment on their life and creativity as well as themes such as celebrity.

Price – sporting a red wig and padded outfits to give her a little extra ampleness – gives us a much more straightforward representation of Adele. The show, co-written with Adam Brunes, offers a fairly bare bones synopsis of her life from working class lass in Tottenham to one of today’s biggest soul divas. Any time Price seems about to give us some genuine insight, she tends to veer off into a joke.

She’s clearly a terrific mimic (she does a hilarious send-up of Celine Dion) and she nails Adele’s accent and colourful turn-of-phrase, though makes her more consistently potty-mouthed than Adele actually is. And while Adele is famously forthright and candid, there’s a humility to her that doesn’t quite come across here. Instead, the focus is more on a brassy feistiness.

Performing with a four-piece band under the musical direction of exceptional guitarist Jason McGregor plus three backing vocalists including Price’s partner Luke Kennedy, runner up on The Voice 2013, the show is impressive musically. It looks good too, simply but stylishly staged with a galaxy of hanging lampshades.

In a tongue-in-cheek riff on reality TV shows, Price shows what good comic chops she has, and I found myself wishing she was doing her own cabaret and just including some Adele material in it.

But for me, Rumour Has It feels too much like mimicry, minus Adele’s extraordinary soulfulness. And without a great deal of insight into what makes Adele the artist she is, I was left feeling that something was missing. But for many of the audience, Price clearly gives them exactly what they want.

Rumour Has It has two final shows at the Sydney Opera House today at 5pm and 8pm.

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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

Helpmann Awards

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sydney Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of The Secret River was the big winner at the 2013 Helpmann Awards, receiving six awards from 11 nominations including Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Neil Armfield) and Best New Australian Work.

Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel was a popular choice at last night’s ceremony at the Sydney Opera House, hosted by Eddie Perfect and Christie Whelan Browne.

However, the musical category has caused a fair amount of discussion on social media, with some believing that South Pacific was unjustly snubbed.

King Kong – the new musical from Global Creatures – had been portrayed in some sections of the media as the main rival to The Secret River in terms of its potential to sweep the awards.

But it was Legally Blonde that took out the main awards in the musicals category, winning five from eight nominations including Best Musical (over South Pacific, The Addams Family and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Best Direction and Best Choreography in a Musical (Jerry Mitchell) and performing awards for Lucy Durack and Helen Dallimore.

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Tellingly, King Kong was not nominated for Best Musical or Best Direction of a Musical – and rightly so, I would suggest, for a show that most critics agree needs more work on its book.

However, King Kong picked up four design awards (though Marius de Vries’ original music lost out to Iain Grandage’s for The Secret River.)

The show was also given a special award for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement for the design, creation and operation of King Kong – the creature. Apparently there was genuine discussion at one point as to whether King Kong himself could actually be nominated as best performer. He is certainly truly extraordinary but since he is a puppet, common sense prevailed.

Technically King Kong was not eligible for consideration at this year’s awards since it had its opening night on June 15 after the cut-off date of May 31. However, the rules allow for late inclusions in “exceptional circumstances” and given the relatively weak field of musicals over the last year, the decision to include it was presumably made to bolster the field.

For my money, Bartlett Sher’s production of South Pacific – presented by Opera Australia in association with John Frost – was the best musical of the year. Of course, that’s a subjective view, however, it did win Best Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards over Legally Blonde, Love Never Dies and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There’s also the question of whether a revival should be judged against a new musical, let alone a new Australian musical, and whether we should be giving Best Musical awards anyway to shows that are carbon copies of overseas productions, regardless of how well we perform them. (We could still give awards for performances in a musical).

Among the four nominees for Best Musical this year, only John Frost’s Forum (seen in Melbourne) was a new production created in Australia.

The Helpmann Awards have always been a curious beast. Trying to create live entertainment awards with a national reach in such a vast country where few voters have seen all the nominations in any given category is always going to be a challenge with the inevitable oddities and anomalies occurring as a result. (People can only vote in a category if they have seen at least two nominations.)

There is probably more chance of voters having seen all the nominations in the musicals category than any other as most of them tour nationally – as Legally Blonde and South Pacific did.

There seemed to be a few curious omissions among the nominations this year. With no disrespect to any of the nominated performers, it seemed strange, for example, that none of the cast of South Pacific were nominated despite the production being up for Best Musical.

Such oversights have happened before (remember when Cate Blanchett failed to gain a nomination for her stellar performance in A Streetcar Named Desire).

For me there were one or two others this year but it is inappropriate to name names when, again, these things are so subjective.

Partly I’m sure that this is the result of trying to ensure a broad geographical spread of nominations (though there are always complaints that Sydney and Melbourne are over-represented) and partly because it is the producers who put forward the nominations in the first place, paying a $50 fee per entry.

You can’t help thinking that there must be at least some element of strategy as to who and what a producer nominates in order to raise the profile of a show or a performer.

I have also always found it odd that the Helpmanns give awards for Best International Contemporary Concert. This year Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Wrecking Ball won over Coldplay, Barry Gibb and Tedeschi Trucks Band & Trombone Shorty. Doubtless the producing team and their staff work extremely hard to make these tours happen but surely the Helpmann Awards should be about honouring and supporting Australian entertainment.

Among other major awards, Geoffrey Rush won Best Male Actor in a Musical for Forum, Colin Friels won Best Male Actor in a Play for Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman, Alison Bell (who had two nominations in the one category) won Best Female Actor in a Play for Hedda Gabler at the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Opera Australia’s Salome won four opera awards, while Bangarra Dance Theatre collected two.

With 43 categories, it was a loooong night running around four hours. The entertainment helped maintain interest notably Tim Minchin singing “When I Grow Up” from Matilda the Musical, and performances by the casts of Grease and Hot Shoe Shuffle, among others.

For a full list of awards go to: www.helpmannawards.com.au

Disclaimer: Jo Litson is one of the industry voters for the Helpmann Awards.