Asian Provocateur

Hayes Theatre Co, June 26

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

Josie Lane is a gorgeous, bubbly, warm, fabulously fierce little dynamo, both on stage and off – and her new cabaret show Asian Provocateur is all of those things and more.

Premiering as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season, it’s outrageously funny, sweet and ballsy. In drawing on anecdotes from her life and career, the show is not only irresistibly entertaining but has serious things to say about discrimination, without ever labouring the point.

Lane is of an “Asian persuasion” as she puts it. Her mother is from The Philippines and her father is from Footscray – making her too Asian to have many friends at primary school but not Asian enough for certain roles (or so she suspects in some instances). Apparently that’s why she didn’t get an audition for The King And I.

On the other hand, she has been prone to typecasting, though her career extends beyond that with credits in musicals such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Avenue Q, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for Sydney Theatre Company, Into the Woods for Victorian Opera and, most recently, Miracle City at the Hayes.

For Asian Provocateur, she makes a dramatic entrance in a sparkly kimono with an ornate headpiece, then tosses the extravagant outfit aside to reveal a sassy little red and gold cheongsam.

With her musical director Mathew Frank providing excellent accompaniment on the piano, she sings a selection of songs with an Asian connotation from shows including Flower Drum Song, The King And I, South Pacific, Chess, The Mikado and Miss Saigon, as well as numbers such as Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love For You. Frank also sings Pretty Lady from Pacific Overtures while she changes frocks later in the show.

As for her stories, they pour out at a million miles, exuberant, touching, risqué: everything from eating fish semen to her surprise at being asked to play Power Rangers at school (only because they wanted her to be the Asian Yellow Power Ranger).  She does a hilarious imitation of her wonderfully eccentric mother who constantly imagines the very worst happening to her daughter and isn’t above ringing her at two in the morning with dire warnings.

Along the way, she has a dig at the casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes in The King and I, and Emma Stone as Eurasian character Allison Ng in the movie Aloha.

Then there’s the unfortunate, icky toilet incident which left her with Bali Belly for an entire holiday and her recent visits to a couple of Bangkok nightclubs, one called Super Pussy and another with a live gay sex show. (Yep, the show comes with an 18+ rating).

The thing about Lane is that she has the happy knack of being able to tell stories that are completely out-there without coming across as crass or crude. Instead, her vivacious storytelling is hysterically, endearingly funny. It also feels absolutely natural and truthful as if she is regaling friends at a dinner party. And she certainly makes her point.

On top of that, lordy can she sing. She has a glorious, thrilling voice that is true, clear and strong. She can belt with the best but her vocals are also coloured with emotion from the wistful beauty of Something Wonderful (The King and I) to the heartfelt pain of The Movie in My Mind (Miss Saigon).

The show looks terrific too. James Browne has designed a simple but very effective set with rice paper and bamboo screens (lit with plenty of coloured light) and two large lanterns.

Though it was advertised as running 75 minutes, the show ran for more than 90 minutes on Friday and while it never flags, a little tightening might not go astray. And – call me old-fashioned – but I didn’t think she needed to use the f-word quite so much. It felt out of place somehow.

But consider those the most minor of quibbles. Asian Provocateur is a terrific, spunky cabaret show and deserves to be widely seen.

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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