Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid

Sydney Festival, January 8.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale on which Meow Meow has based her new show is typically gruesome: an innocent young creature gladly endures unspeakable agonies in order to be close to Prince Right, only to see him promptly marry someone else. In an interview in November 2011, with Steve Dow, she said that “The Little Mermaid is about sexual punishment, in many ways for love”. She has all her power taken away “in order to have love”.

Meow Meow, the famously passive-aggressive – and very powerful – kamikaze cabaret artist, might be expected to take this badly. Indeed, she recently told The Australian’s Matthew Westwood that the story “is very resonant for me as it’s a perceived fate or destiny — so often imposed on the tragic female diva — that I do not want.”

Little Mermaid_SF 2016_credit Prudence Upton 004

Meow Meow in Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid. Photo: Prudence Upton

So what’s up when she tells her audience that Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is a show about happiness? She means it, too, in a Meow Meow kind of way. This Little Mermaid takes a scalpel to the original, peels away the layers and peers into the dark. Obsession, self-abnegation and physical mutilation get their moment as Meow Meow prowls, twirls and hobbles her way through the minefield that is romantic love and sticky sex, hoping for a shot at fulfillment.

As always, Meow Meow may be observed on multiple levels simultaneously. The diva’s fabled ability to seduce an audience with fragile neediness and control it with an adamantine will is in full bloom and those expecting Meow Meow to co-opt audience members, crowd surf, bitch about the management and sing like a voluptuous fallen angel won’t be disappointed. On the surface there is much that’s familiar, even cosy. The real action is in the knotty mess of emotions, impulses and desires underneath, particularly in the songs, of which many are new. Listen carefully.

Meow Meow isn’t afraid to tread the primrose path, as in Megan Washington’s gorgeous Making Love: “I don’t mind strings, you can leave them attached.” The opening song, Black’s Wonderful Life, speaks of magic everywhere but loneliness too. Meow Meow’s off-sider in this show, Chris Ryan, gives a piercing account of Schubert’s Am Meer (By the Sea), in which tears of love prove fatal. As I say, listen carefully.

Meow Meow’s ending is a happy one because she chooses it to be so. She may be tossed and buffeted in the sea of love but by god she’s not going to drown. In a funny way Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid has a happy ending too. Our wishy-washy heroine, having displayed her shining goodness, is given a shot at immortality. If that counts as happiness.

Our Meow Meow is made of sterner and earthier stuff of course, but it was nevertheless possible to discern in her show the hint of a gentler, kinder Meow. Perhaps for now.

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, January 28-February 14; Perth International Arts Festival, February 24-28.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 11.

Verdi to the Divinyls

See, they say ‘Get to your homes ASAP, stay inside, stay protected, don’t drive unless absolutely necessary and stay away from waterways’ and I hear ‘Hop in your Holden and get on down to sing an opera set in the desert on a floating pontoon with no sides or roof, on the biggest body of water in the immediate vicinity in a sleeveless chiffon dress.’ Cos that’s just how I roll, bitches!

– Jacqueline Dark, mezzo-soprano, preparing for a Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour performance of Aida on April 22 (April 21 performance were cancelled due to “unprecedented weather conditions” and the big wet was by no means over).

IF you’re not regularly checking in on Jacqui Dark’s larger-than-life life as chronicled on her Facebook page you are doing yourself a grave disservice. Irreverent, smart, exceptionally funny and greatly gifted, Dark is a cherishable original.

Tonight she gives her final performance as the vengeful Princess Amneris in Aida for HOSH, the last of 13 shows for her cast (it alternated with another). Early afternoon precipitation flagged a potential Singin’ in the Rain show as it was on Tuesday (interval Facebook post: “Our dressing room smells like wet dog …”), although things were looking brighter by mid-afternoon. But rain or no, the performance was expected to go ahead. [NOTE: Aida was indeed performed, although social media photos of Daria Masierio, in the title role, wearing a cape in the second half over her sleeveless gown suggested conditions were chilly.] Opera singers are not quite the precious, cossetted creatures of (lazy) general opinion. In fact, says Dark, difficult conditions can warm create camaraderie between audience and singers. “It’s like we’re all in this together, let’s make this something special. They appreciate us continuing and we appreciate them sitting there.”

Keeping an eye on things ... Jacqueline Dark as Amnesia is Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour's Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Keeping an eye on things … Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s been a testing schedule (Amneris is a big sing to tackle every second night) but there’s no time for rest after tonight. On Wednesday Dark will be onstage at Sydney club The Vanguard in corset and fishnets singing Brecht, Weill, Amanda Palmer, Rickie Lee Jones and some of her own material in Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers. By her side will be Kanen Breen, fellow opera star, multiple Helpmann Award winner (as is Dark) and gay co-parent although not biological father of her son Alexander, nearly three. It goes without saying he’s an original too (well, I mean Breen, but it sounds as if Alexander is proving to be rather an individual himself).

Not all opera singers can successfully make the transition from Verdi to the Divinyls – also on the Under the Covers songlist – or indeed to other forms of music considered less challenging than opera. It’s trickier than it may seem to conquer an entirely different vocal technique and musical style, as the, ahem, unidiomatic Kiri Te Kanawa-Jose Carreras foray into West Side Story amply demonstrates. But Dark was singing cabaret and musicals right from the start, about 20 years ago, and although Breen came later to the cause, he proved at the first Under the Covers performances late last year he could have been born in a smoky bôite. (Read my review for The Australian of the December show here.)

So yes, Dark and Breen can certainly do it, despite preconceptions some might have about opera singers straying from their usual realm. It’s early days but interest has been keen. Dark and Breen have successfully taken their show to Melbourne’s Butterfly Club and will appear at this year’s Queensland and Adelaide cabaret festivals. There is a DVD in the making, a venture in Melbourne late this year that can’t yet be discussed and some thoughts about perhaps taking Strange Bedfellows offshore next year. The two are also throwing around ideas for a new show to succeed Under the Covers – perhaps something with a dark, Grimm’s fairtytale kind of theme. “We’ve got enough repertoire, even in a narrowed down list, to have enough stuff for three or four shows,” says Dark. “Plus we keep hearing things and say, ‘we have to sing that’.”

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“We have to sing that” is undoubtedly the key to the passion project that is Strange Bedfellows – that and the bond forged between Breen and Dark together 20 years ago when they sang in the chorus of the now-defunct Victoria State Opera’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore. It’s safe to say the production was something of a disaster (I saw it) but at least Breen and Dark got their deep connection out of it. A further result: actor, satirist, writer and director Jonathan Biggins was also in the cast and has offered to advise the Strange Bedfellows.

They’d welcome that, because at the moment the two are multi-tasking with a vengeance. For this aspect of their working life they are their own writer, wardrobe designer, manager, agent, entertainment lawyer and public relations specialist. They’ve worked their contacts and social media, had some crucial help from friends and work with Daryl Wallis as music director, but essentially Strange Bedfellows is a two-person outfit. They’ve made the pitches to venues and festivals, they sort out their own contracts, and if something goes wrong with lighting or sound they have to take charge. (Dark says something about learning how to do a lighting rig and I’m not sure she’s joking. She could probably do it – she is quite the brainiac with a degree in physics.)

They even arranged a series of celebrity endorsements that may be seen on YouTube. I heartily recommend that of beloved Australian soprano Emma Matthews; others offering their thoughts are Lou Diamond Phillips, Stuart Skelton, Cheryl Barker and Kate Miller-Heidke. Those contacts are fairly speccy.

It is, however, a far cry from the world of a big company like Opera Australia, where until recently the two were permanent ensemble members with everything on tap. Becoming a freelance artist has brought its uncertainties but also its rewards. Chief among them was the opportunity to bring Strange Bedfellows to life. It’s an idea they’ve been throwing around for about 15 years. They even wrote some material, including a version of Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It that Breen sings for me, with Dark joining in. Let’s just say time hasn’t diluted any of its deliciously subversive taste.

The desire to challenge and provoke remains today, with Exhibit A a pedophile-inspired medley in Under the Covers and Exhibit B a song involving a dog – not a real one, as a complainant seemed to think – and unusual sexual practices. A later show might include something about violence against women. They don’t want to be preachy, they say, but along with being entertaining they do want to make audiences consider some unsettling issues. “If people go away questioning themselves, that’s a start,’’ says Dark.

“I’ve always wanted to do a cabaret show. I absolutely love it, the intimacy of it. Kanen and I had been on salary [with OA] – me for 10 years, Kanen for 15 years. If you’re full-time you have a very heavy workload and we never had time to do it before. It’s incredibly exciting to create your own work – terrifying, but incredibly exciting. And it’s great to push yourself to do, but you feel so vulnerable. Excited and scared, as Sondheim would say.”

While Strange Bedfellows might be fulfilling, the amount of behind-the-scenes organisation it takes is “laborious and exhausting”, says Dark. Not to mention not exactly lucrative at this point. Happily, however, Dark and Breen are far from disappearing from the operatic sphere. Dark is covering the role of Eboli in Opera Australia’s Don Carlos and sings the role of Marcellina in the new David McVicar production of The Marriage of Figaro. Breen appears in the Melbourne season of Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s The Rabbits for Opera Australia and is Beadle Bamford in Victorian Opera’s Sweeney Todd, among other engagements.

That work is their bedrock and helps keep the bank manager happy, but in their new situation they have also to make their own opportunities “and not sit on our bums and wait for work to come to us and assume it’s going to”, says Dark. “You’ve really got to get out there. The more we’ve done that the more we’ve loved that.”

They are incredibly disarming in their modesty about what they’re doing and their roll-up-the-sleeves attitude to getting the job done. Says Breen: “We’re not saying we’re experts at cabaret or that we’re particularly gifted, but what we do have is a preparedness to give it a red hot go and immerse ourselves in the style and emotion of the music, which is what we both get out of our opera work as well.

“It’s very rewarding to us as performers to be able to explore different avenues of that expression and delivery that isn’t always afforded on the operatic stage.”

Cabaret:

The Vanguard, Sydney, April 29 and May 3; Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 5-7; Queensland Cabaret Festival, June 14; Melbourne Cabaret Festival June 19-20.

 Opera:

Don Carlos, Opera Australia, Melbourne May 20-29; Sydney July 14-August 15; Sweeney Todd, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, July 18-25; The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Australia, Sydney, August 6-29; The Rabbits, Opera Australia, Melbourne, October 9-13

‘She makes you laugh then makes you cry’

Hayes Theatre Co, August 20

IT’S little wonder so many former child stars go off piste spectacularly, particularly those who started very young. Right from the get-go they learned that to be a success they would have to know how to please. To please Mommy, who took her to all those dance lessons. To please Daddy, if he was around, who paid for those lessons. To please the judges of the talent shows, and the advertising people picking out the prettiest, most compliant kids to be in the commercial. To work really, really hard because they were very likely the family breadwinner, and not to screw that up by not pleasing.

If you’re a pleaser, perhaps you get taken advantage of. It’s hard to lose the habit of being the one who is the approval-seeker. It’s sad. Even if you have a bulging bank account to ease the pain.

Christie Whelan Browne

Christie Whelan Browne

In the case of Britney Jean Spears, for quite a while she didn’t even have control of the bank account. Her father did that when she was judged unfit to manage her affairs and to take care of her children. She’d pulled quite a few stunts, true, but perhaps they too were another aspect – a more adult one – of trying to please. The paparazzi sure liked what she did, and she obliged big time.

Out of Spears’s very public woes writer/director Dean Bryant and the glorious Christie Whelan Browne have fashioned a new (relatively; Britney Spears the Cabaret first saw the light in 2009) take on a very old tale: fame as nightmare. It’s the “be careful what you wish for” story.

Whelan Browne delivers her performance with laser precision, switching in a nano-second from dumb broad to sweet innocent without you seeing it coming. She makes you laugh at Britney’s naivety and then makes you cry. Well, I got a bit teary. People can be so very cruel, particularly when they wield the power. And the fans do. They get to decide who is in and who out; who is not longer adored; who is to be chased and who ignored.

Obviously there are worse things in the world than being an over-impulsive, undoubtedly under-educated, far too rich and silly young woman (or young man, guess who?), but they’re with us, and they say something about us as well as themselves.

Assisted superbly by music director Matthew Frank at the piano, Whelan Browne interprets Spears’s songs with ferocious energy (she’s a great singer – no Auto-Tune required here!) and point. Circus, Piece of Me, … Baby One More Time, I’m a Slave 4 U, Womanizer, Oops! … I Did It Again, Toxic … well, you can see how songs with such titles might fit into the depiction of a troubled life. Frank’s arrangements do the rest by ripping them out of the pop realm and making them sound very unsettling indeed. Brilliant.

Britney Spears the Cabaret ends September 7.

Proof; Boys Like Me

Proof, Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, February 25 (matinee)

Boys Like Me, Courtney Act, Sydney Theatre, February 25

DAVID Auburn’s Proof had a Sydney Theatre Company season in 2003 with George Ogilvie directing Jacqueline McKenzie and Barry Otto as the father and daughter maths whizzes who share a genius for numbers and potentially a similar fate. The play won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award for that year, but I failed to see why. Proof has some sterling qualities, it’s true, but they are contained within a highly conventional and disappointingly creaky structure. It was an enjoyable experience because of the quality of the performances, but not a wholly satisfying one.

I’ve just caught up with The Ensemble’s current production, which is also impressive from a performance perspective (Sandra Bates directed) but no more plausible from a dramatic one. Matilda Ridgway beautifully negotiates the task of making bolshie, anxious Catherine highly sympathetic and the scenes with her father Robert (Michael Ross) are most moving. Catherine McGraffin and Adriano Cappelletta have the unenviable job of playing a pushy sister and a not terribly successful mathematician who are there to set the conflict in motion.

Matilda Ridgway and Michael Ross in Proof. Photo: Clare Hawley

Matilda Ridgway and Michael Ross in Proof. Photo: Clare Hawley

The notion of proof that gives the play its title is given very short shrift indeed. Odd that Auburn should have been so garlanded for it. Still, the production is worth seeing for those lovely few scenes between Catherine and Robert.

COURTNEY Act’s cabaret show, for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, is called Boys Like Me. Depending on where you put the emphasis, the title can means two things; both of which meanings, as Act explains, are true. Men are extremely attracted to Act, and how not? She is a witty, glamorous beauty. But as Act was born Shane Jenek, she is also a man. The most beautiful man in the world, as the promotional material has it, and I’m not going to argue. Certainly there is industrial-level maquillage to aid the impression, but it’s flawlessly done. And the drag persona is just part of the story, one that Act describes as living on the divide between genders.

Boys Like Me is a touching, generous and warm-hearted show about the fluidity of gender as it applies to Act and to many others in their individual ways. Her special guest last night, for instance, was Chaz Bono, a transsexual, although the point of their song together, Gender Rebels (a version of Bosom Buddies) was pretty much that you should forget about the labels. Bono isn’t the singer his parents – Cher and Sono Bono – were but you had to admire the attitude and the statement.

Act got cosy with her audience very early, confiding aspects of her, ahem, personal life that would be considered waaaaay too much information in many circles. It takes a lot of class and style to make intimate anecdotes such as these seem amusing and appealing rather than crass – and they did. It was delightful to hear that Act’s parents were in the house and had always backed their boy. Yes, apparently even when hearing sex-life details no parent would actively seek out. Bless.

It helps that Act has lovely comic timing and a sweet way with a putdown. “I was in Adelaide. Always a precarious start to a story …” was the introduction to one story, swiftly followed by an apology to that city.

Act is a fine singer as well as a charming raconteur. Highlights for me were Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl and, from Wicked, I’m Not that Girl. So touching in this context.

Act played the diva role to perfection, donning a series of glittering gowns and showing a great deal of extremely well-turned leg. The show would have benefited from running straight through rather than losing momentum with an interval but Act manages to carry the day nevertheless, aided by an excellent band.

Act now lives in Los Angeles and is a contestant in the current series of the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality series about drag queens now in its sixth season. RuPaul is a showbiz legend so this is no small thing. It was divine, then, to know this hasn’t gone to Act’s head in any way. She has a sharp eye for absurdity and captured beautifully Hollywood’s boundless appetite for the unusual. She reckons that when she discovered the existence of an American TV show called Hillbilly Handfishin’ she knew there was a place for her. I looked it up, and it’s true. It’s a series about catching fish with your bare hands and feet. Go Courtney.

Proof ends at the Ensemble Theatre on March 8.

Michael Griffiths; Bernadette Robinson

Michael Griffiths, Sweet Dreams: songs by Annie Lennox. Slide Lounge, Sydney, June 1. Bernadette Robinson, Slide Lounge, June 4.

HOW many times have you said how much you love a particular artist, but in reality you’ve stopped listening? Not stopped hearing, but stopped listening. Much of the time perhaps. The music does its job of reminding us of where we were and with whom; it uplifts or soothes or matches a blue mood. The lyrics – well, even if they were initially heard and absorbed accurately, they can so easily become pieces of rhythmic material adrift from meaning.  Perhaps they never meant anything in the first place. Da do ron ron.

Michael Griffiths and writer-director Dean Bryant have created a matchless way of compelling one to listen and hear anew. An earlier show in this style presented the music of Madonna. The subject of Sweet Dreams is – no surprise here – Annie Lennox, 50 per cent of the Eurythmics, 100 per cent  singer and songwriter extraordinare.

Michael Griffiths. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Griffiths. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The stroke of genius is to have Griffiths speak as Annie Lennox but not impersonate her. There are all the benefits of first-person narration without there being the slightest attempt to impersonate the woman. The show simultaneously showcases Griffiths as Lennox and Griffiths about Lennox. It’s intimate and detached all at once. Brecht would have been proud.

Accompanying himself immaculately on the piano, Griffiths plays and sings arrangements that intensify the mood and meaning of lyrics so they cast light and shade on the ups and downs of Lennox’s life. Which were many and varied, including an ill-advised marriage to a Hare Krishna devotee (“Don’t mess with a missionary man”), ill-fated relationship with the other half of the Eurythmics, Dave Stewart (Who’s That Girl?)  and much more. Including, of course, remarkably fine pieces of pop.

With Thorn in My Side Griffiths manages the miracle of audience participation that is not only not embarrassing, but really rather excellent – at least on the evening I was there. Here Comes the Rain Again is sung with melancholy understanding; even better is the sad and lovely You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart, and Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) gets a particularly graceful arrangement. Indeed, there is not a false note, metaphorically speaking, nor musically speaking. Sweet Dreams is a memorable and treasurable piece of music theatre.

Griffiths appeared in Sydney as part of a small-scale but impressive cabaret festival staged at and by Slide Lounge. Bernadette Robinson, who closed the festival, has had huge success with the theatre piece written for her by Joanna Murray-Smith, Songs for Nobodies, in which she performs songs associated with Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf. In her Slide show she covered some of this ground, showing her razor-sharp ability to convey the vocal quality, timbre, style and temperament that made such singers adored.

Robinson said at the end of the show that she considers herself an impressionist rather than an impersonator. “I evoke them,’’ she said. In truth she moves between those states. When it comes to her performance of the protest song Strange Fruit she is giving a very close picture of Holiday, and one that out of the context of Songs for Nobodies seems not quite right. On the other hand, her performance of La vie en rose was much closer to a suggestion of Piaf than a copy.

Robinson’s control of her instrument is extraordinary.  She can sing with crystalline clarity, absolutely on the note and with not a trace of vibrato, or else fatten the sound with lots of harmonics. She can alter tone, weight and colour at a moment and is masterly in her understanding of the expressive power of dynamics; necessary attributes for what we might call her vocal sleight of hand. That’s not meant to sound dismissive – I admire Robinson greatly – but her skill at these impressions, impersonations, evocations, whatever, can feel like a protective shield.

Robinson gave deadly accurate and most enjoyable versions of the disparate likes of Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, Shirley Bassey and Callas, the latter giving Robinson a chance to demonstrate her operatic chops with a snatch of the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor.  (She also sang the coloratura showcase Olympia’s aria from The Tales of Hoffmann. This was an eclectic program.)

The most memorable part of the show, however, was Robinson as Robinson. Her performance of Damien Rice’s The Blower’s Daughter was magnificent. I could hear that again and again.

Sweet Dreams, Melbourne Cabaret Festival, fortyfivedownstairs, ends June 7; Festival of Voices, Hobart, July 12-13.

Go Your Own Way, the Story of Christine McVie

Slide Lounge, June 27.

TOMORROW – June 29 – Fleetwood Mac will be performing in Spokane, Washington, as part of its 2013 Live tour, a huge international event lasting eight months. Singer-songwriter Christine McVie won’t be there, just as she won’t be in Australia when the band spends the best part of a month here from November 10. It’s been 15 years since she stood on a stage with Fleetwood Mac and since then she’s done a little solo work and, apparently, been enjoying the quiet life in England. People call her reclusive.

Catherine Alcorn in Go Your Own Way. Photo: Jo-Anna Robinson

Catherine Alcorn in Go Your Own Way. Photo: Jo-Anna Robinson

Late last year her former bandmate Lindsay Buckingham told CBS: “She ended up getting a divorce, she moved back to England, she quit the band, she sold her publishing. She didn’t have to burn as many bridges as she did. Everyone sometimes wonders whether or not there might have been more of a middle ground for her to strike – not necessarily in terms of her staying in Fleetwood Mac.

“But she just wanted to reinvent herself. She seems to want to lead the antithesis of the life she led before. I don’t pretend to understand such a radical change – but it was obviously something she needed.”

And from Stevie Nicks, this to Rolling Stone on the subject of a potential reunion: “There’s no more a chance of that happening than an asteroid hitting the earth. She is done. You know when you look in somebody’s face and you can just tell? She doesn’t want to do it any more.”

Hunt around, and you won’t find much of McVie talking about this or anything else. Which means Catherine Alcorn has set herself a challenge in Go Your Own Way. The full subtitle gives a hint: The story of Christine McVie, the other woman in Fleetwood Mac. Yep. She’s the one who wasn’t Stevie Nicks.

Go Your Own Way is therefore in many ways beset by negatives. McVie not doing this or that; not making herself visible for the past 15 years; and when she was in Fleetwood Mac, not being the mesmerising, extravagant, emotional, shawl-trailing show-woman that is Nicks. Oh, and she failed to respond to Alcorn’s approaches about the show. I gather there was a big silence there.

So writer Diana Simmonds, who was brought very late in to the project, was on a hiding to nothing I reckon. This is not a narrative overflowing with juicy personal detail. As Fleetwood Mac fans will know, the band members had tumultuous personal relationships and these are duly recounted. But the show is presented as McVie looking back on her life, which means there’s a certain decorum to the telling. There’s a swear word or two, sure, but Alcorn can’t play McVie as a rock’n’roll tearaway. She’s not. She’s a talented, private woman recalling another life. Near the end of the show, back-up singer Tamika Stanton has a short but strong moment as Stevie Nicks, which suggests that it’s worth exploring the flavour boost the narrative could get if McVie were seen more through the lens of others.

If the connective tissue of Go Your Own Way is generally low-key, there are three other elements to get the temperature rising: McVie songs, a tight and terrific band under the direction of the extremely young, extremely impressive Isaac Hayward, and Alcorn’s exceptional performance of the music. I was never a great fan of McVie’s voice, which had blues style but a reedy quality that could tend to astringency. Alcorn has a completely different sound. It is full-bodied, warm and flexible, and Alcorn works melody, phrasing and dynamics to suit those qualities. She personalises McVie’s songs with surges of voluptuous power and ethereal floated notes and has impeccable intonation too – quite the package really.

The song list is a knockout, particularly for listeners of a certain age. Everything you’d expect to hear is there and rocking with the participation of terrific Tamika Stanton, Marty Hailey on guitar, Nick Cecire on drums and MD Hayward on keyboard and backing vocals: The Chain, You Make Loving Fun, Little Lies, Songbird, Everywhere, Oh Daddy, Don’t Stop and, of course, Go Your Own Way. All there. The primitive, relentless beat of Tusk provides a clever frame for stories of band success and excess. It’s the highpoint of the show as a piece of theatre.

I recently had a long conversation with Alcorn in which we talked about the difficulties cabaret faces in Australia (to read it go to the People & Ideas category in the listing of posts on my home page). There are so few extended opportunities to hone a show. For instance, Alcorn premiered Go Your Own Way at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and is at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival with it tonight, having also performed there last night. That’s it for now, and it’s just one and two-night stands. True, Alcorn’s earlier show The Divine Miss Bette will be seen at Sydney’s Glen St Theatre from July 23-28 and had a Perth season earlier in the year, but this is hard graft for small handfuls of performances. I salute Alcorn’s tenacity as well as her talent.

Footnote: Although McVie has steadfastly declined to appear with Fleetwood Mac over the past decade and a half, she may be weakening. There are three Mac concerts at London’s O2 Arena in September and McVie told a UK publication, Metro, the following: “If they wanted me to, I might pop back on stage when they’re in London just to do a little duet or something like that.” I suspect the band might just want such a thing. Now that would make an uplifting new ending for Go Your Own Way.

Go Your Own Way, tonight (June 28), The Butterfly Club, Melbourne Cabaret Festival.

Disclosure: Diana Simmonds and I are both members of the judging panel for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Catherine Alcorn and the art of cabaret

This is the second in an occasional series of in-depth conversations with people in the arts

CABARET is Kurt Weill and it’s the Moulin Rouge, it’s Barbara Cook at Café Carlyle, it’s the glamorous Ute Lemper, it’s the kamikaze stylings of Meow Meow and it’s Michael Feinstein at the piano singing from the great American songbook.

Cabaret is a dimly lit, insufficiently ventilated room crammed with too many people drunk on cheap wine and it’s a grand salon featuring a grande dame with a nifty backing band and a hefty minimum. It’s a chanteuse in a corner and it’s lines and lines of scantily clad dancers. It’s German, it’s French, it’s American, it can be anywhere and can be pretty much anything. It’s life, old chum.

The names coming to this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival illustrate nicely just how widely cabaret’s welcoming arms extend. The international contingent is headed by stars of Wicked on Broadway Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, one opening the festival and the other closing it. Former teen movie star Molly Ringwald (yes, she’s an accomplished jazz singer) will be there, as will American composer Adam Guettel, who happens to be the grandson of Richard Rodgers. The home team includes Paul Capsis, Phil Scott, Robyn Archer, Eddie Perfect with a new production of Shane Warne the Musical, Bernadette Robinson and the incomparable Meow Meow.

The festival’s artistic director Kate Ceberano has given herself a slot on the program too, teaming up with bass baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes of opera fame. This unlikely pair met and bonded when cast in Opera Australia’s South Pacific last year. They’ve astutely called their show called Meet Me in the Middle.

And also on the bill is Catherine Alcorn, a Sydneysider whose career is kind of just beginning but has been in the making for nearly three decades. She has wanted this moment so very badly, and for a long, long time.

Catherine Alcorn. Photo: Luke Stambouliah

Catherine Alcorn. Photo: Luke Stambouliah

Her story is an inspiring one. On the personal level it’s a snapshot of what it can take to get traction as a performer. There’s also a bigger picture. Alcorn is creative director for a venue, Slide Lounge, which is one of the few places in Sydney where cabaret has a regular foothold. Alcorn – intense, voluble, insanely determined, warm and spirited – is particularly well placed, then, to discuss the joys and pitfalls of this unruly art form.

Alcorn’s new show is called Go Your Own Way and is inspired by the life and work of former Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Christine McVie. After Adelaide Go Your Own Way will be seen at other festivals and, well, wherever Alcorn can get it seen.

In April Alcorn and I talked about what goes into making a career in cabaret.  It started, really, when she was 2 ½; she is now 31. This is an edited version of our conversation, which took place at Slide in Oxford St, Sydney, one afternoon.

The beginning:

MUM told me that I could always sing in tune. I used to watch The Wizard of Oz back to back. As soon as it finished I used to say, Mummy, more Wiz, more Wiz. I was 2½. She said I could sing along with all the words and I would sing in tune. At children’s birthday parties my parents would video kids in a circle singing. When it came to me, I would compose my own song. Butterflies Fly in the Springtime – that was for my 4th birthday party. I’ve still got it on tape.

It was just always there; always something I did and something I loved doing. [Schoolteacher] Mum was the choirmaster at school so it did come from my mother’s side. I know that my father can’t sing a note. He loves music, he’ll sing along, but he’s not musically adept.

I went to PLC [Pymble Ladies College] until I was in Year 5. Their productions are bigger than Ben-Hur.  I always had one of the leads because I was a good singer, always in the choir at school, took piano since I was five. I wish I had continued. I can still read music very well, but… I learned piano for about eight years but I don’t think the drive was really there. I was a really good swimmer, good at sport. I represented NSW in butterfly in trials. But I didn’t want it enough.

[After attending two other schools Alcorn completed her schooling at Barker College.] I wasn’t a problem child, but the feeling of the environment was very important to me. I was bullied at school a lot. Probably because I was loud. Or confident. I was always a very happy person, but sensitive. I think people can take advantage of that.

I’ve never shied away from having to lead. If we were ever put in group situations at school or at camp I would naturally want to instigate what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. That was always part of my personality.

I did Voice for my school certificate. When I went to Barker I chose Voice as my instrument for the HSC. That’s when I had to begin to train properly and I took up tuition under Dallas Watts, who I still train with today. It was classical training and we used to sing arias and musical theatre. I studied jazz vocally at Barker under another teacher. I was also doing guitar lesson intermittently. That helped with the jazz. Not so much pop. Pop was never a genre of mine; it was more musical-theatre based.

Then I went to Charles Sturt University [in Wagga Wagga]. It was a straight acting course, acting for the screen and stage, but they did have a voice component. It was just a shit-fight those three years. We went through so many changes of teacher.

A friend did some work in the Leagues club in Wagga Wagga, and encouraged Alcorn to sing there with her.

[LOCAL producer] Don Hillam saw us and said, I can make some money out of you girls. That was when I was 19. We called ourselves Double Platinum and for the next four years when I was in Wagga I did three or four gigs a week. It was great. From those gigs I ended up getting gigs with Don’s writing partner Peter Cox, who put on cabaret and dinner theatre shows around town, and that’s where I learned everything that I know. It wasn’t at uni. I rarely went to voice class after that.

I’m not proud of the fact that I didn’t turn up for class but I was working with professionals … and I wanted to be where I felt good, and I felt good with those people. I played with incredible musicians who are some of Australia’s best talent, all of this in Wagga. They’re lifelong friends who see a future in the younger generations and love it and nurture them.

I did a dip. ed after my acting degree. I finished, I passed. [Laughs.] I was terribly frustrated. I never had an agent straight out of uni. We did all those showcases but I was never picked up by anyone. I just tried to engage myself in as much music as I could.

Like many young Australians, Alcorn headed for Europe soon after finishing university. She was away for four years, returning to Sydney in 2007. She taught music for a time in primary schools and then took a personal assistant position with Channel 9, working on Wide World of Sports.

I DID not know how to get where I wanted to be. I thought, if I’m around television people, who knows when I might end up on the other side of the camera. As it turns out I’m a lovely bubbly person but I’m a rubbish PA. [Big laugh.]

I had a good time. I was 27 and 28. I ended up segment producing but it got to the point where I was so internally frustrated that I was going to burst unless something big happened. That something big was quitting; saving up six months’ salary so that I could quit, produce a show and start performing.

In 2009 – I’d never been to Slide before – Peter Cox was here seeing a show he had written. I came and saw it, raced up to Coxy after the show, and said please write me something. And he said, of course, but what do you want? I said, well, people are always telling me I look like Kate Ceberano and he said, sweetheart, she’s still active. And the next thing I said was Bette [Midler]. And a few weeks later he had the script [for The Divine Miss Bette].

Catherine Alcorn in The Divine Miss Bette. Photo: Wesley Nel

Catherine Alcorn in The Divine Miss Bette. Photo: Wesley Nel

We opened it in Wagga for a Christmas season in 2009. In November 2010 I opened Bette here in Sydney. It was going to be a one-off. All of my friends in Sydney who hadn’t got to Wagga wanted to see it, so I did it at Slide and it was packed to the brimful. We had 120 people downstairs and 45 upstairs. It was like everyone I knew. It was incredible.

We ended up doing a monthly show here all of 2011 which is incredible for a cabaret show. It was calculated in a sense that I wanted Bette to relaunch me – well, it wasn’t a relaunch [laughing]; to launch me – as an artist. So I picked a character that people loved, a character that I knew was going to be impactful, which she is; the music is incredible, it spans 100 different genres – musical theatre, rock, jazz, torch songs. I was just so relieved. I’ve never felt more relief. We ended up performing shows to the middle of 2012.

Freelancing is a really risky think to do, but the harder you work the more you work. You always have [to think], where’s my next pay cheque going to come from, but that’s the sacrifice you need to make if you’re moving towards a goal.

The networking and risk-taking started to pay off.

BEFORE we did the show in Wagga I was working with a friend in my building who’s a cellist, and I was talking about the show. It was still in production. And he said, well the bloke who discovered [Midler] lives just around the corner. So I contacted Steve [Ostrow, who opened New York’s Continental Baths in 1968]. I said I know you’re a teacher, I want to get training again in preparation for the show.

He said, what kind of a show is it? I said it’s a Bette Midler show. He said [Alcorn puts on an American accent], “Oh, I remember Bette. I used to pay her 25 bucks a night to sing in my club. Now she’s making 100 million. Come around and I’ll tell you all about it.” We struck up a really great friendship, but it was a slow build until he saw I was really invested in my career and started to take a bit more interest in what I was doing. He separated from his wife after the Continental Baths closed and moved out here to work with the opera company. And he’s stayed ever since. He’s 80. Still teaches.

The Divine Miss Bette also got Alcorn a manager.

I’D never had an agent; never had a manager. I really don’t fit a specific mould at all. But I’ve always believed in my talent. Michael [Montgomery, of Warehouse 16] said, I have not seen talent like you in a very long time and I would love to talk. And I just felt this excitement come up through my body. And after about five minutes he said, can I represent you. I just said, yes. I didn’t even think about it. Perhaps I should have. But my god, the relief. The show had done what I wanted it to do. Plus taken me around the country and to New Zealand.

It was a start – but I worked so hard. Those months I took off work I was learning how to build a website, building a website, making posters, all of those things. I did it all myself. That’s fine, I am proud of myself, but it was a huge amount of work. But I didn’t have any funding to do it any other way.

[Producer] Neil Gooding came to see the show too. It was very contrived. I emailed Neil and introduced myself. I saw he was auditioning for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Parramatta Riverside Theatre so I went to audition for that, and at my audition I invited him to the first show of Bette so he would come and see it and so then I would have a producer want to pick it up to help me. Because I wanted to be able to concentrate on the performance.

Before I could make it up to the dressing room after the first show in November 2010 I had a text message from Neil saying, I’d love to produce it any time you want. It just worked. It all fell into place. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Because the show was selling so well on a repeat basis I suppose Slide wanted to bring that energy and knowledge in to help their other shows. I came on as marketing manager in June 2011. Then six months later I stepped up as creative director.

So, despite having secured a manager and with a producer interested in her show, Alcorn took a desk job.

IT’S a really hard balance. [Groans.] There’s limited work in Australia. I have to survive, and I’d prefer to be surviving by working with other artists and producing shows, and being able to perform as well and do things like cabaret festivals, rather than working as a receptionist somewhere else. I’m current, being here. Not everyone gets a drop-in from Phil Scott on a Tuesday on his way to lunch.

More often than not it is a daily struggle for me balancing one or the other but my boss supports me in everything I do. He lets all of us here at Slide play with new ideas, try things out. He’s an incredible guy. I just wish, I just wish it was easier to fill a room night after night after night after night.

Would Alcorn give up the Slide job for full-time entertaining?

I THINK about it a lot. Is it pulling my focus? Is it keeping me in a holding yard? I would say probably yes. It’s really hard. It’s so hard. Sydney hasn’t grown up with a cabaret culture. The closest I came to going to cabaret shows was at the Basement and they were live music shows. It’s a cabaret setting, where you’re right there at tables like a jazz club, but seriously that is the only venue in Sydney that I remember growing up going to that resembled a cabaret feeling for me. That’s part of the problem. It’s never been part of Sydney’s culture. Strangely.

We’ve got a lot of international people calling us [at Slide] the cabaret venue to go to in Sydney and I think that’s because none of us here stop talking about it. You’ve got to blow your own trumpet.

Catherine Alcorn as her alter ego Fidel Cathro. Photo: Johan Khoury

Catherine Alcorn as her alter ego Fidel Cathro. Photo: Johan Khoury

Go Your Own Way: The Story of Christine McVie

I WAS on a plane somewhere between Santiago and Lima – my brother got married to a Colombian girl so we were over there – and I was listening to Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits. I remember seeing Fleetwood Mac when they toured a few years ago, and I remember thinking, it’s a shame that other woman isn’t here because I loved her stuff. I remember thinking that, and then I forgot about it.

But then I was listening to that song As Long as You Follow that she wrote. I was thinking, I’ve been doing Bette for so long. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony. I was [thinking], I want to play another rock chick. I was thinking, maybe Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, or something like that – who would be great as well – and then I thought, my god, Christine, the woman I’m listening to. Who was a completely confusing character. She’s now a recluse living in Kent who just walks her dogs; who decided this was not the life she wanted. How could you not want this life. Who doesn’t want to be a rock star forever!

A pitch to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival was accepted.

SO I emailed [writer and actor] James Millar, who was then living in London, to ask are you interested in writing this show? My motto is, if you don’t ask you don’t get. We’re not besties or anything, but I knew him enough professionally to ask the question. And then my first choice of music director was Isaac Hayward, because he and I work together on everything, and as far as I’m concerned it’s such an important relationship with Isaac. He’s my musical soul mate. He may be only 21 but I’ll say something and he’ll just get it.

Then I asked Jason Langley if he would direct it. [Actress] Belinda Wollaston asked me if I’d ever been directed by Jason and I said no. And she said I had to be, he’s brilliant, and that stuck in my mind. He’s just a beautiful man.

I’m funding it. I’m producing it. That’s actually not true. Adelaide have commissioned it, and the fee that we have negotiated will fund the creation of the show, which is incredible. They invited me over to do the publicity week and the launch of the program with Eddie Perfect and Kate [Ceberano] and Paul Capsis and another local artist, an Adelaide girl. Out of everyone they could have chosen they asked me, and I was so grateful and thrilled and just lapped up being able to be the talent for one week instead of being the producer and organising everything. I’m so grateful. It’s the biggest cabaret festival in the world and I couldn’t be more honoured.

After Adelaide, everywhere else I take it, [including the] Melbourne Cabaret Festival, that will be at my own risk. Anything I do after Adelaide, which is only two shows, it will be self-funded and produced. That’s what you’ve got to do.

Does Christine McVie know about the show?

WE’VE tried to contact her, but I don’t think so. We’ve tried contacting Stevie Nicks’s management, because James [Millar] wanted to interview her. There’s only so much about Christine out there. We tried to contact Ken Caillat, who produced [the Fleetwood Mac hit record] Rumours and who wrote the book Making Rumours, but we never heard back from any of them. After we open the show it might be a different story, but you never know. We tried.

What is cabaret?

IN one word, intimacy. It’s about being right there with the artist and up close. Because cabaret has developed in so many different ways it’s not just about show tunes, it is seeing your favourite artist or an artist up close and personal. That’s the only real way I have come to know cabaret.  As a cabaret artist I get to say anything on stage I want to. I’m used to seeing reactions straight away and being able to feed off that. That’s what I love about an audience.

It’s the stories. Cabaret is a story. People love that and I maintain that Sydney loves cabaret. They just don’t know it yet.

 Go Your Own Way: The Story of Christine McVie, “The Other Woman” in Fleetwood Mac, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 15, 4pm and 10pm. Slide Lounge, Sydney, June 26.  Melbourne Cabaret Festival, June 27 & 28.

Alcorn performs The Divine Miss Bette at Sydney’s Glen Street Theatre, July 23-28

Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 7-22.

Slide Cabaret Festival, June 21-July 4.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival, June 26-July 7.