Theatre review: Cabaret Festival Variety Gala

Janice K. Johnson


The annual Cabaret Festival Variety Gala is a staple of Adelaide’s red-carpet calendar. It’s usually held in June, the week before the Cabaret Festival. This year it was held unseasonably early, due in part to the musical Frozen taking over the Festival Theatre for the whole of June. So it was a final fling at the end of ‘Mad March’ and hot on the heels of the Adelaide Festival, Fringe, and Womad.

Aussie favourite Tina Arena, this year’s Cab Fest artistic director, is heavily featured in all the advertising and promotion. She adorns the cover of the guide, resplendent in deep pink sequins, and features in a large-scale video advertisement at the entrance to the Festival Theatre. After a musical Welcome to Country by Isaac Hannam on yidaki, Arena took centre stage to perform two songs from her show, Songs My Mother Taught Me. accompanied by the Variety House Gala Band who were on stage throughout the night.

The Gala gives just a tiny taste of what’s in store for the 12-day Festival, with only a handful of the shows represented. Comedian Paul McDermott was the MC for the evening, looking every inch the maniacal ring-master in a long burgundy velvet coat and bushy facial hair. Former Premier Stephen Marshall, in the audience and ousted from office just a week ago, was the topic of a few surprisingly affectionate jokes. But most of McDermott’s humour was aimed at the one minority you’re allowed to attack these days, the anti-vaxxers. And given the Festival Theatre, like all other venues, is strictly off-limits to the unvaccinated, they’re a fairly safe target. There are many, many iterations of ‘how many anti-vaxxers does it take to change a light bulb?’ jokes and McDermott knows them all.  

Read: Exhibition review: Jamie North: Falsework

Gary Pinto came next with a strong rendition of ‘Feel It, Don’t Fight It’ from his Cabaret show The Songs and Times of Sam Cooke, the man who ‘invented’ soul music. 

Carla Lippis, looking fabulous in a black bob and tuxedo, was excellent with the State Opera chorus in ‘The Hand’ from the marvellous ‘cabaret opera’ How to Kill your Husband, based on the hilarious novel of the same name by the wonderful humorist Kathy Lette.

Tina Arena, Adelaide Cabaret Festival Director. Photo by Sia Duff 

After a lovely introduction from McDermott, young performer Kieran Beasley came on, representing the 2021 Class of Cabaret. And, of course, the gods of theatrical audio were against him. Performing for the very first time on the main stage, his microphone failed. Full credit to him for handling the nightmare situation calmly as he waited for a stage hand to bring him a replacement mic. He went on to sing ‘Just the Way You Are’ with real feeling and was rewarded with warm applause, including a standing ovation from Adelaide’s much-loved Hugh Sheridan – sadly only in the audience on this occasion and not on stage. 

It’s embarrassing that such a basic fail can happen in a professional Festival Theatre show. And it has to be said the mix was hard and unbalanced at times with the band overwhelming the vocals in quite a few numbers.

Catherine Alcorn and Michael Griffiths gave a true cabaret-style version of  the Phil Collins classic ‘Something In the Air Tonight’ from her show 30 Something, set in the seedy underworld of 1930s’ Kings Cross. 

Moments in the Woods, a tribute to the late great Stephen Sondheim, should be an exceptional Cabaret Festival show. State Theatre Company’s own Artistic Director Mitchell Butell showed his chops as a performer with a heartfelt rendition of ‘Something’s Coming’. Butell also directed the Gala and did everything ‘including making the curtains’ according to McDermott. Moments in the Woods will also feature stage royalty Philip Quast, Geraldine Turner, Queenie van de Zandt, and Josie Lane. 

Hometown favourite Libby O’Donovan is always a delight and the Gala was no exception. Sparkling in emerald green lurex, she performed a medley of songs from her new show Sister Elizabeth, an homage to the nuns of film, television, and pop culture. And she joined the likes of Reg Livermore and Rhonda Burchmore when she was named this year’s Cabaret Icon, an annual award recognising the lifetime achievement of an individual artist. Bravo, Libby!

Catherine Alcorn. Photo by Sia Duff

Singer Sophie Koh will be appearing in two Cabaret Festival shows, Songs My Mother Taught Me and The Shanghai Mimi Band, a recreation of the intoxicating jazz era in ‘the Paris of the East’. 

Victoria Falconer and guests performed ‘Go On From And Then You Go’ – The Vali Myers Project, a show commissioned by the bequest of the late Frank Ford, founder of the Cabaret Festival who died in 2018, and inspired by the life of Vali Myers. 

The ‘Brill Building Medley’ by Amelia Ryan, Michael Griffiths, and Michaela Burger from their show  Simply Brill was a highlight of the night for its energy and passion.

Finally it was time for host Paul McDermott to take centre stage with a piece from his show The Funhouse, ‘a dark carnival of minstrels and misfits’ and ‘an orgy of excess’. 

And yes, it wouldn’t be a Cabaret Festival without an appearance by the queen of rock herself, Marcia Hines. Performing here with the Gospo Collective, Hines showed she still has what it takes to rock the house. The Gospel According to Marcia, for one night only at Her Majesty’s Theatre, is sure to be one of the Cab Fest’s hottest tickets.

Many of this year’s big names were not featured in the Gala, no doubt due to the logistics of it being held so far in advance of the Festival. Cirque Bon Bon, Reuben Kaye, Hayden Tee (one of my absolute favourite cabaret stars) and the divine Meow Meow are all treats Tina Arena has in store for us in June. Many of these shows are one performance only, so book your tickets now.

The 2022 Cabaret Festival Variety Gala was performed for one night only at the Festival Theatre on 25 March 2022. The 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival will run from 10-25 June.



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