Music and Sequins [by James Wenley]
“Jubilation heartache and everything in between. Here are your tickets. It’s almost showtime”. My branded ticket pouch seems to hold even greater anticipation than I as I head into the Town Hall Concert Chamber for the International Cabaret Season. And I had a great deal of anticipation. With the colourful squiggles beloved my logo designers, its part of a bold new personality as the Regional Facilities Auckland’s The Edge rebrands as Auckland Live. If the cabaret season is a sign of things to come, it’s an indication that the change will be more than cosmetic.
The Town Hall has been spruced with dual chandeliers and some tastefully selected lighting gels, but the performers show all they need to bring this venue to electrifying life are some top class musicians, a good sound mix, and a certain amount of lung power. The Auckland Live curators could have easily just gone for the star power of the international acts like Lady Rizo (USA) or Le Gateau Chocolat (UK) – but the outstanding feature of this short season is they have also elevated the local acts – Julia Deans, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and the Modern Maori Quartet – for a first class evening with up to three acts you can see a night. My experience of the inaugural festival was made by Deans, Ward-Lealand and Rizo, but the quality of acts is such that it would be difficult to walk away disappointed.
Silo’s first season of Brel stands out as one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in this Concert Chamber, so I was looking forward to seeing co-stars Julia Deans and Jennifer Ward-Lealand in solo shows. Pairing Deans with the songbook of Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell is a perfect marriage, and it is clear how much this artist means to Deans. She’s directed by Shane Bosher who helps elicit an unshowy, natural, and deeply vulnerable performance quality. The sound mix wasn’t great for this opening act of Festival, but what it lacked for lyrical clarity was made up for by emotional clarity. Ward-Lealand as Marlene Dietrech teases the audiences about giving that song, which she saves till last. So too does Dean’s hold off on that song of Mitchell’s till right near the end, and when she finally gives it to us, it’s beautiful, devastating, and all that I hoped it would be.
Jennifer’s Dietrich, a figure of sophistication in a glimmering golden gown, is an absolute delight. In character throughout, Dietrich sprinkles anecdotes amongst her career defining songs from the pictures and personal favourite songs. Ward-Lealand brings out both Dietrich the actress, and Dietrich the singer, giving us both comically cheeky numbers and deeply felt songs of emotion. We fall in love with Jennifer once again, who really is one of New Zealand’s greatest stars.
Those two shows follow the usual conventions, and are put together in very similar ways. Lady Rizzo however throws rules out the window, unobtrusively appearing from the back and begins ‘A Song of Freedom’. That’s not strictly accurate – there are two rules you’ll quickly learn at a Lady Rizzo performance, and that’s all to with whether she puts her hands on her hair, or her chest. When Rizzo sings, her voices floods the Concert Chamber like no other, and it is impossible not to take notice. It’s easy to get on board with Rizzo’s philosophy: Rizzo, who identifies as a chanteuse, loves torch songs, music and sequins, and she loves us. She’s sexual and self-deprecating, with an outrageous and captivating personality that keeps you guessing as to what she’ll do next (just ask the man who was plucked from the audience chat to her while she changed her dress behind a screen). She seems fascinated by us, the “cool kids” out on a Thursday Night, and the feeling is certainly mutual. A New York provocateur who won’t take shy for answer.
Auckland Live definitely needs to bring back the Cabaret Season next year to help warm up these winter nights.
(As a side-note, whoever decided to ask Snort’s Chris Parker to MC for the second night, this was an inspired choice, make sure you bring him back next year too)
The Auckland International Cabaret Festival plays at the Town Hall Concert Chamber until 8 June. Details see Auckland Live.