Performance review: The 2024 Variety Gala, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Festival Theatre

A charcuterie plate of cabaret excellence!
A blonde woman in a strapless evening gown is standing next to a bathtub, which is on a raised platform.

The 2024 Adelaide Cabaret Festival got off to a glittering start with the annual Variety Gala at the Festival Theatre last Friday night. The fun began before you even walked in the door, with the fabulous Adelaide DJ Ruby Chew spinning tunes on the Plaza forecourt as photographers snapped the glitz and glamour on the red carpet. Adelaide audiences aren’t always known for dressing up, but this is one night when all the sequins and sparkles came out to play.

The Gala was hosted by the irrepressible Virginia Gay, the “high priestess of cabaret” and Artistic Director of this year’s Cab Fest. Emerging from a bathtub on stage, in a stunningly swishy evening gown, Gay was quick to say, ‘I’ll make sure the Gala runs to time’. Everyone who attended last year’s Gala breathed a sigh of relief after that one went way over time with interminable speeches. No such nonsense this year, thankfully. 

Celebrating its status as the world’s largest cabaret festival, the Gala offered a delectable smorgasbord of talent with great acts from start to finish. And Gay was not shy to plug each and every show, urging the audience to go and buy tickets immediately. 

Young Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri man Isaac Hannam gave a warm Welcome to Country with a yidaki (digeridoo) accompaniment. At just 19 years old, Hannam is an accomplished and confident presenter. And then it was on to the fun, with a musical tribute to this fair city, simply called ‘Adelaide’, from Gay backed by a nine-piece band, including Musical Director Shanon Whitelock on piano.

From there it was nonstop fun with performances from 13 Australian and international acts. Bert LaBonté brought old-style smooth to his rendition of ‘Let’s Get It On’ from the show Swing on This. As the festival guide says, he is ‘suave, slick, and oh-so-swoon-worthy’! He was definitely a highlight of Act One.

Singing sisters from the UK, Flo and Joan, with their eponymous show on this week at the Space Theatre, were a clear audience favourite. Their tongue-twisting song was hilariously impressive (or impressively hilarious?). How many songs do you know about a lady in the woods with licorice?

Cabaret veteran Mark Nadler took us into interval with ‘I Love a Piano’. Nadler is a quintessential New Yorker who can effortlessly transport you to a late-night off-Broadway piano bar.  

After interval, it was all the decadence and naughtiness that is Reuben Kaye with ‘I Want Ya’. He held the audience in his hand and gave them more of what they wanted. Presenting him with this year’s Cabaret Icon Award, Gay said Kaye is ‘the spirit of modern cabaret.’

The Award celebrates and acknowledges the people who have had a significant impact on the Australian cabaret industry. Reg Livermore AO received the first Cabaret Icon Award back in 2013 and Adelaide’s own boy wonder Hans (Matt Gilbertson) was last year’s winner.

Much-loved musical theatre star Rhonda Burchmore was another Act Two highlight with ‘Moving the Line’. Burchmore is the ultimate entertainer and has been in the business for 42 years.

Read: Dance review: Coppélia, QPAC 

There was even a burst of Olivia Newton John with Christie Whelan Browne and Gay making a very convincing Sandy and Danny in ‘You’re the One That I Want’ from Grease. Whelan Browne is starring in the ONJ tribute show Hopelessly Devoted at this year’s Festival. 

And then the audience was on its feet for the big finale with Mahalia Barnes and the band giving their all in ‘River Deep Mountain High’.

With sophisticated direction by Mitchell Butel, Artistic Director of State Theatre SA, the Gala had the perfect blend of glitzy glamour and delightful je ne sais quoi. This is Butel’s fourth Gala and that experience shines through. Kathryn Sproul also returned this year as set designer, with acclaimed composer and performer Shanon D Whitelock as Musical Director.

In the words of Gay, our wonderful Gala host, the Variety Gala was indeed ‘A charcuterie plate of excellence!’

The 2024 Variety Gala
Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
Host: Virginia Gay
Director: Mitchell Butel
Musical Director: Shanon D. Whitelock

7 June 2024
Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

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.