Performance review: Adelaide Cabaret Festival Variety Gala, Festival Theatre

Adelaide puts on the razzle dazzle to launch the 2023 Cabaret Festival.

The Adelaide Cabaret Festival kicked off on 9 June with a sold-out red carpet Variety Gala featuring a degustation of this year’s performers. As always, there were some acts more to one’s taste than others, but that’s also the delight of a Variety Gala: perhaps you’ll discover something new that you really love.

Our host this year was the well-known Australian actor Virginia Gay – or, as it says on one of her online bios, ‘the cheaper Cate Blanchett’. Ginny was a delight – funny, warm, bold and brash, with great vocals for ‘Razzle Dazzle’ from Chicago, and enough energy to keep the show moving along even with the rather lengthy periods of reflection from the many guest speakers. She even did the splits in sparkles!  

This year marks the 23rd iteration of Adelaide’s popular Cabaret Festival and to celebrate the organisers invited nine (yes nine!) previous artistic directors to work together as The Cabaret Collective. Of these, Julia Holt, Kate Ceberano, Eddie Perfect, Ali McGregor, Julia Zemiro, David Campbell and Lisa Campbell came on stage to talk about the history of the Festival, to introduce the next acts, and to perform something of their own too.

Holt, director of the Cab Fest for its first eight years from 2001, described cabaret as ‘ the alchemy between artists and audiences… it interacts at all levels – the visceral, the physical, the emotional, the political, intellectual and the funny bone … a shared human experience’, and perhaps that’s why we love it so much; Ceberano did what she does best with a gusty rendition of her hit song ‘Brave’; McGregor impressed with her pitch-perfect singing in ‘Creep’; and Perfect wowed the audience with ‘Death to the Critic’ from his new show about a Shakespearean actor who wreaks the ultimate revenge against his reviewers. ‘I’ll kill them one by one, and it will be a lot of fun,’ he sings, as we scribblers in the dark squirmed just a tad in our seats.

Maybe this is personal because Perfect has suffered a few harsh reviews over the years, especially in the international press. But this was an absolutely Broadway-standard presentation and showed that Perfect really is an extraordinarily talented writer and performer. Later in the show, he described the Cabaret Festival as ‘the great sandpit of my creative career’, which is a wonderful turn of phrase.

Other highlights included Paris Combo with the divine Carmen Maria Vega on vocals doing a French chanson with a gypsy twist, and Sarah-Louise Young offering a hilarious (but perfect) Kate Bush homage. 

After the interval, Adelaide’s best-loved German, the one-and-only Hans, ‘boozier than Oktoberfest, more drive than a Volkswagen and more sausage than a bratwurst convention’ ripped into a rousing rendition of ‘Proud Mary’ with his faithful companions The Lucky Bitches.

It always surprises me that the rest of the world loves Hans as much as his hometown crowd, but they really do. The US especially absolutely loves this tall faux-German in lurex and sequins. And so it was only fitting that Hans, and his media personality self Matt Gilbertson, should receive the prestigious Cabaret Icon Award for 2023. Very touchingly, his first words on receiving the award were ‘but my mum isn’t even here!’ Luckily the organisers had made sure the Gilbertson family were indeed there to share the moment.

A little later, the delightful entertainer Melissa Madden Gray came on stage as her alter ego Meow Meow to share a very personal and touching tribute to the late great Barry Humphries. The two had toured the world together performing songs from the Weimar period or, as Humphries referred to it, ‘the music Hitler hated’. Cue enthusiastic applause from the appreciative audience for both Meow Meow and Barry Humphries. And David Campbell closed the Gala with a medley of popular songs that each had some connection to Adelaide.

The Gala was directed by Mitchell Butel, Artistic Director of State Theatre SA, with music direction by Mark Simeon Ferguson, and a simple but effective design by Kathryn Sproul with posters from previous Cabaret Festivals hanging above the stage accompanied by excellent lighting and a glamorous chandelier. It was a fun night and a great opportunity to sample the delights of the 23rd Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

The 2023 Variety Gala was presented at the Festival Theatre on 9 June as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which continues until 24 June 2023.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.