When I travelled to Australia for the first time last June to attend the annual Adelaide Cabaret Festival, I reported here on Whatsonstage.com, “This festival far and away exceeds anything I have ever seen in London or New York: I already can’t wait for next year.”

And true to my word, a year later, I’m back. And, to quote myself again from last year, it’s still “the greatest cabaret event on earth”. It may be a far, far place to roam, but it’s more than worth the effort to fly for two full nights (you’re served dinner and breakfast twice, but lunch not once; somehow, like Friday, it’s lost somewhere over Asia). But unlike Edinburgh, where I usually feel defeated before I even begin, this far more defined, specialised festival is at once more contained, intimate and inclusive for fans of cabaret and musical theatre. It reaches the parts – and most particularly, your heart and soul – that other art forms often fail to.

Human interactions

In short, it’s a festival on a manageable, human scale; and since cabaret is, above all, about human interactions on a highly personal level, it’s extremely rewarding to spend time so close up and personal with it. At its best – and Adelaide has, in my first week here, offered several blissful moments that have aspired to that status – there is, in my view, nothing to beat it.

Take Ann Hampton Callaway. I have tracked this Chicago-born, New York-based performer, pianist and composer for over a decade and a half now, ever since she first appeared at Pizza on the Park in the late 80s. If any single cabaret performer has turned me into the fan of the genre I am today, it is she. She demonstrated then, and she continues to demonstrate today, that cabaret is, above all, about rapport, communication and dialogue.

Songs, whether standards or “Anndards” (as she calls the self-penned repertoire she also draws on, which includes collaborations with Carole King and songs written specially for Streisand), are a means to an end – to connect with the audience - but not the end in itself. And those connections are unstintingly made in every breath she breathes, but never more so than in her celebrated piece-de-resistance: the spontaneous “improv” song she creates nightly, either from suggestions she asks the audience to throw out to her, or (a new trick I’ve not seen her done previously) by interviewing a member of the audience briefly about their romantic life (or lack thereof) and then weaving those facts into a brand-new song created on the spot. It’s like the work of British theatre company Improbable meeting cabaret.

Quirky personality

In Adelaide, she offered different facets of her quirky personality and superb musicianship in three contrasting arenas. First, a big band tribute to Ella Fitzgerald saw her backed by a 16-piece local band; then, a solo show with Ann herself behind the keyboard; and finally a masterclass tutoring four local performers through some songs. The spirit of generosity that informs Ann as an artist generally was never more evident than in her nurturing work with the other performers. But it also brought out one of the single most startling cabaret moments of the week: when she turned her improv song into one for the entire group, in which they joined in with her to offer personal testimonies on when they first discovered their calling to perform. The utter freshness, spontaneity and revelation that came out had me in tears; here was the true art and heart of cabaret in a nutshell. Performers were telling the audience something about themselves in a way they had never done so before, in a form they may never do so again; but for that one brief moment, we were privileged to be there.

Two of the four “students” also happened to provide my favourite original cabaret show of the week. Two twenty-something performers, a composer-pianist-singer called Matthew Robinson and a vibrant singer called Lucy Durack – who were both in the Australian cast of Mamma Mia! – offered a funny, touching and tuneful song cycle of original work penned by Robinson. After the invariable surfeit of Gershwin, Berlin, Jule Styne, Noel Coward and Cole Porter (step forward, New Yorkers KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler, returning to the festival that they previously visited in 2003 with a repertoire of five of their meticulously researched and lovingly performed shows that embraced those and other writers), what’s particularly refreshing here is that this was all original material. There’s room, of course, for both – not least in a cabaret festival - but how wonderful it is to see cabaret being so wholeheartedly embraced by a younger generation with something to say, and finding that cabaret offers them a place to say it.

Signpost of the future

Another performer who offers an exhilarating signpost to the future of cabaret instead of its past is Eddie Perfect, whose praises I also sang at last year’s festival. He’s about to launch himself on the world – he’ll be at Edinburgh this summer – but meanwhile, remember you read it here first. Here’s a genuinely subversive, disruptive cabaret composer and singer who offers keenly observed social and political satire beneath the surface appeal of his pastiche numbers. And after last year’s Angry Eddie showcase, in which he did the songs in the guise of a persona he brilliantly created. This year he reached an even bigger audience by teaming up with celebrated Aussie political impressionist Max Gillies for a show entitled The Big Con. Perfect offered an almost new set of songs that brilliantly dovetailed with Gillies’s uproariously funny impressions of local politicians.

A satire on the cheesiness of (some) cabaret itself, Bob Downe is another Aussie institution who is now celebrating, would you believe, 21 years in the business, and returned to Adelaide to do so. The character was born in 1984, and is still going stronger – and funnier – than ever. He has become something of a comedy circuit favourite in Britain, too, a fully inhabited – and completely uninhibited – lounge act that puts the cheese back into the cabaret fondue.

Diva-fest

Real Aussie institutions, as opposed to an invented one, were also paraded in the diva-fest of a cabaret night called Australia’s Leading Ladies, in which no less than seven of Oz’s veteran (and not-so veteran) musical theatre stars took to the stage. Three of them I knew already from appearances in London. The spectacularly tall, leggy brunette Rhonda Burchmore had starred in the short-lived London premiere of the Broadway musical Sugar Babies (at the Savoy) in the late 80s (in the second week of the fest, she’ll be doing a solo cabaret that I’ll report on next week); Anne Wood had lived in London for a time, too, and came to prominence when she replaced, at the very last minute, our own Maria Friedman in the Cole Porter revue A Swell Party at the Vaudeville, but has more recently headlined the Oz production of Mamma Mia!; and Judi Connelli brought her cabaret to the New London’s late Talk of London cabaret room (that was recorded for a live album, and for which – to declare a full interest here – I provided the liner notes). It was a treat to see them all again; but also to finally catch up with four more locals whose talents I have heard variously celebrated over the years, Geraldine Turner, Marina Prior and Sharon Millerchip, plus host Toni Lamond.

There’s immense strength in Australia’s own musical and cabaret heritage, as witness, too, the still blazing career of Robyn Archer. Last year she provided one of the defining, yet uncategorisable, cabaret events of my lifetime, when she did a startling cabaret for audiences of just one person – in my case, singing ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’ to me and to me alone. This year, Archer – who has previously curated the Adelaide Festival and is soon to take up her appointment as director for the arts component of Liverpool’s designation as European City of Culture 2008 – offered a programme of political protest songs playing to rather larger audiences, but in a more confrontational style and energy than last year’s far more intimate experience.

Personal storytelling

Another rich evening of personal storytelling came from indigenous actor and musician David Page, a poignantly told memory play of his childhood (as one of a family of 12 children) and early career as a child singer that’s as intimate and direct as it gets – certainly prime factors in making good cabarets.

Of course, the important overlaps between cabaret and musical theatre – much of the material for the former comes from the latter – is openly acknowledged in a programming strand in which contemporary American writers are invited to join the festival and major events are programmed around their work. First up was Jason Robert Brown; last year, duo Maltby and Shire came over; and this year it’s the turn of Andrew Lippa, whose work is barely known in London (there was a brief run of his off-Broadway musical The Wild Party at Riverside Studios last summer, in a rather weak production). While he will also be offering a personal cabaret (and, like Callaway, host a master class), there has already been a two-night star cast celebration of his major work entitled A Wild Evening with Andrew Lippa that focused on his version of The Wild Party but also embraced other shows beyond it. Brilliantly performed by the cream of Aussie musical theatre talent – including a contribution from Eddie Perfect, once again, this time demonstrating his complete versatility by playing a nun! Other star turns were taken by Simon Burke, Chelsea Gibb, Kaye Tuckerman and Bert La Bonte.

Curiosity

Finally, I end this week’s report where I began the festival last week; with the sole British entry – actress and singer Jane Birkin - celebrating the work of her late husband Serge Gainsbourg. She’s not a massively accomplished singer – the voice is slight – but her investment in the material is so total, and the musicianship of her accompanists so absorbing, that I was utterly bewitched. It helps that, at 59, she is still completely gorgeous; but she’s also seriously charming, too. Though a legend in France, where she makes her home, she assumes no one will know her here and she pays tribute to their curiosity in coming out to see her. It’s that kind of curiosity that lies at the heart of cabaret, and it might, she says, just save the world.

The Adelaide Cabaret Festival runs to 25 June. For more details see The Adelaide Cabaret Festival Website.

NOTE: This feature will be updated with a report on the second week’s festivities next Monday 27 June 2005.