Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cabaret Festival 2009

I was intending to put this up a lot sooner but, between the usual distractions and the necessity (as I saw it) of writing a special post about Michael Jackson, it fell by the wayside. But no more excuses.

So, this year was the first I went to any shows at the cabaret festival, so I thought I’d write about how it went.

My experience with cabaret (as a genre) prior to the festival was limited – I’d seen a couple of shows here and there, most recently during the Fringe. What I’d seen I’d liked (A Company of Strangers being the standout), so I thought it was worth having a look at a few shows during the cabaret festival.

So, I booked tickets for a few things that sounded interesting – Axis of Awesome, Gutenberg! The Musical, Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys: Ukulele Chanteuse and Pugsley Buzzard: Noir. Plus I was allocated to review a couple of shows – Hayden Tee: Generation Why? and Tyran Parke: A Little Knight Music.

What I’ll point out now is the one very important show I did not see – Bernadette Peters. Why? Because, to be honest, I have almost no freaking idea who she is; if it weren’t for the fact that she was a guest star on The Muppet Show (which I watched, almost religiously, as a kid; I believe it contributed a great deal to my wacky sense of humour) I wouldn’t even know the name.

Some people have expressed surprise at this. I expressed surprise at their surprise, and went on to explain that, despite my current level of involvement in theatre, it was still only a recent development. When you add to that the fact that the theatre I’ve done has mostly been at the straight play (rather than musical) end of the spectrum, it shouldn’t be all that much of a shock to learn that my knowledge of the shining lights of Broadway isn’t all that substantial.

Alright, yes, I went to Mandy Patinkin’s masterclass a few years back – but if it hadn’t been for The Princess Bride and the other non-musical, non-cabaret work he’d done I doubt I’d have known who he was at the time. Basically, for me to know anyone who is, or who has been, big on Broadway, they have to have done movies or tv as well – and, before you list all the films that Berndatte Peters has done, I mean movies and tv that I’ve seen.

So, no Bernadette for me. I may have missed an opportunity to see a hugely talented performer, but I think I can live with that.

Anyway, back to what I did see.

Axis of Awesome

These guys were funny, kind of a mashup of Tripod, Flight of the Conchords and Tenacious D. It wasn’t awe-inspiringly brilliant by any means, but they had good presence and decent jokes and could sing and play their instruments well. Highlight was the song Four Chords, which is a mashup of dozens of well-known pop songs based on – as you can probably guess - the same four chords. At a couple of points all three guys are singing totally different songs at the same time – and it’s brilliant.

Hayden Tee

You can read the review I wrote for the ATG here.

My personal opinion is slightly different. Yes, he was everything I described in the review; it’s just that I realised within a few songs that it wasn’t pushing my buttons – not because of him or his ability, but because it’s just not the sort of thing I like.

And I think that was a lesson I needed to learn – that the kind of cabaret show where the performer sings songs in Broadway style and relates anecdotes around a central theme or loose narrative concept – isn’t necessarily going to be something I’d enjoy. But more on that later.

Tyran Parke – A Little Knight Music...& other melodic quests

ATG review here.

This was the sort of show they call ‘intimate’ – the room was tiny, and fit all of maybe 30 people. But it worked really well because we were all close to the stage and therefore more susceptible to the strength of his personality, which was a key factor in the show.

I actually liked this one – personally – more than I liked Hayden Tee. But I kind of see why Tee got the bigger venue, because he’d be more amenable to the ‘traditional’ cabaret audience. Still, I felt a bit bad for Tyran, ‘cause he deserved to be playing to a couple of hundred at least.

What he also did was an amazing version of The Windmills of your Mind. I’ve tracked down some other versions on YouTube and found that none of them – including one by Dusty Springfield – is anywhere near as good as his.

Gutenberg! The Musical

Probably the highlight of the festival for me; it’s a two-handed musical comedy show-within-a-show. Basically, two guys are attempting to pitch their concept to a producer – and they play all the parts.

To make it even more unlikely, the story is about the Gutenberg who invented the printing press. Not a great deal is known about his life other than that, so the two have invented a whole raft of characters, including a love interest (Helvetica – an in joke, ‘cause that’s a font), an evil monk, an anti-Semitic girl and about a dozen townsfolk.

But it works due to the cleverness of the script and the talent of the performer – including a guy named Simon Van Der Stapp, who I recognised as having played Dr Rudi on the brilliant satirical lifestyle show Life Support on SBS a few years ago, alongside people like Abbie Cornish and Brendan Cowell.

Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys: Ukulele Chanteuse

This was one that I picked to see simply because the description intrigued me. This group play only songs from the 20s and 30s, kind of early jazz folk music I guess. Sounds a bit strange, but it certainly worked; they were very entertaining. Despite the title there weren’t very many songs featuring the ukulele, which was a bit disappointing.

Pugsley Buzzard: Noir

The writeup for this show sounded more like what I was after – the darker side of cabaret. Bright, happy singers aren’t exactly my idea of good time in popular music; the same appears to be true for cabaret. Pugsley Buzzard – the name alone inspires a certain amount of seedy imagery – conjured up visions of a smoky bar in New Orleans.

And I guess that much was true; unfortunately, it wasn’t really enough to hold my attention for an hour and a half. Again, he and his band were very talented, and I realise that the problem wasn’t them, or the music itself. It was me.


The conclusion I’ve reached, having seen 6 shows across the cabaret spectrum, is that it’s not really my idea of a good time. I like music, and I like theatre – but mixing the two together doesn’t always produce something I’m going to go for.

What I tend to like in theatre is narrative, and that’s generally true of musical theatre as well – hence why the musicals I’ve liked the most have literary foundations: By Jeeves, based on the PG Wodehouse (that’s pronounced ‘wood-house’, by the way) stories and Les Miserables, based on the novel.

Cabaret, for the most part, is the music part without the story. And if I want music that’s just songs, I’d prefer pop/rock. And to try and explain why I that appeals to me more than cabaret, well, that’s another – very, very long – story.

Which, all in all, means that I don’t know how much I’ll be going to see next time around – well, other than those I’m allocated to review that is.