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.

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.