May 31, 2008

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Nowadays in the U.S., cabaret fights a decidedly uncool reputation – that of a musty museum of black-gowned older women and affected young men, who offer “tasteful” renditions of the standards to a starchy crowd. The genre takes a frequent beating from Simon Cowell, the American Idol judge, who sneeringly dismisses certain contestants as “too cabaret.”

Who in New York City, cabaret’s longtime capitol, could have imagined that a town on the opposite side of the globe would do so much to restore this field to the wacky, unpredictable, fun-filled grab-bag it used to be? Most of the offerings at the eighth annual Adelaide Cabaret Festival – which invades the Festival Centre from June 6-14 – wouldn’t fall within any modern-day expectations of cabaret. There’ll be a Leonard Cohen salute by Monsieur Camembert, a Klezmer band; a tango survey by Elena Roger, the Argentine star of
Evita; an Australian soprano (Marie Angel) in a laugh-filled retrospective of her life in opera. Judy Garland’s aggressively confident singing daughter, Lorna Luft, will take her place among an Adelaide country songbird (Beccy Cole), a Canadian actor (Tom Burlinson) who channels Frank Sinatra, and so much more – forty-five international acts in all.


Julia Holt, the ACF’s tireless mastermind since its inception in 2001, knows that cabaret should have no boundaries. “It’s all about that spark that happens between a performer and an audience – that human contact that makes it all seem intimate,” says Holt, who comes from Melbourne. “You can have that with any style.”

Her keen eye has made the ACF one of the Festival Centre’s major draws. Mark Shenton, a theatre critic for England’s
Sunday Express and a cabaret and musical theatre reporter for The Stage, has flown into Adelaide for years to see Holt’s array of surprises. “It is positively habit-forming,” he says. “And Julia curates it with taste and intelligence. I love cabaret, but nowhere else in the world offers the same kind of intensity or variety to celebrate a unique genre so uniquely. Even New York and London can’t compare.”

As a Manhattan-based chronicler of the scene and the author of
Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, I visited the ACF last year. To my astonishment, the field I loved was flourishing there in all its bygone glory. And what a history cabaret has! Its roots reside in 1920s France and Germany, where a rash of fearless entertainers moved into dingy cellars and back rooms and skewered the political forces that oppressed them.

Thereafter, cabaret became an American phenomenon. From the Prohibition-era speakeasy days through the 1970s, it served as a haven for talented misfits who couldn’t find a home anywhere else. In 1961, an off-Broadway producer, Ben Bagley, tipped off a nightclub agent about a promising nineteen-year-old singing newcomer. That agent’s response echoed nearly everyone’s skepticism about the brash, eccentric songstress that Bagley so admired: “Well, she’s got a wonderful voice, but she’s so ugly no one could use her on anything but the radio, and no one wants radio singers these days.”

Someone who did want her was the booker of the Bon Soir, a raucous cabaret in Greenwich Village. Today, that club is remembered mainly as the launching pad of Barbra Streisand. Woody Allen was a “gaunt, bony weirdo,” said his longtime manager Jack Rollins, when he made a reluctant transition from TV writing to cabaret standup in the early ‘60s. A decade later, Reno Sweeney, another Village hotspot, introduced its youthful audience to Peter Allen, an Australian pianist-singer whom they’d known primarily as the gay husband of Liza Minnelli. Cabaretgoers shared the thrill of discovery, getting early glimpses of Lena Horne, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lily Tomlin, and Bette Midler.

That was the tradition that inspired Frank Ford AM, the founding father of Adelaide’s Fringe Festival, to broach a cabaret festival to the city’s Minister of the Arts. Julia Holt, who’d had a twenty-year career as a theatre, tour, and festival manager, was hired as curator. “I was trying to revitalize cabaret as an art form,” she says. “I felt we had to look back but also look forward – even stimulate what’s going to happen in the future. I didn’t have any history or baggage to deal with in Adelaide. So I was free to test the edges of what cabaret is. Sometimes I even fall off the edge. That’s very important, I think, to keep it fresh and interesting.”

And how does she scout performers? “All sorts of ways,” Holt says, “from the internet, from other festivals or programs, to recommendations from patrons or other festival artists, to absolutely chance meetings.” After seven seasons, audiences clearly trust her taste; even shows by unknowns often sell out.

Mixed in with these are appearances by a few time-tested names; this year’s include Vince Jones, Katie Noonan, and a star of the London and Broadway theater star Maria Friedman.
“Julia is a shrewd woman,” says ACF mainstay Mikelangelo, a tongue-in-cheek, accordion-playing, Draculean nightingale from the Black Sea. “She uses more mainstream acts to gain the support and attention to be able to present lesser-known artists in a high-profile festival.”

At the 2007 ACF I saw Vaudeville X, three tuxedo-clad, deadpan satirists from Melbourne. They turned to cabaret when their musical-theater careers failed to skyrocket. Their leader Michael Dalley, a goofy professor who teaches drama at Thomas Carr College, penned the group’s pièce de resistance, “I’ve Got Something to Say” – a hilarious portrait of three wannabe leading men who use the cabaret stage as a combined analyst’s couch and audition platform.

Dalley could not have known how accurately he nailed a lot of New York City’s vanity cabaret. He’ll do much the same in
Intimate Apparel, his and Paul McCarthy’s contribution to this year’s ACF. The two comics will play Kevin and Kevin, frustrated performance artists who lampoon other “desperate and deluded souls.” Explains Dalley: “We sing songs about kids from the suburbs doing Asian Theatre, football players turned motivational speakers, the middle-class girl from the leafy eastern suburbs who does erotic cabaret that’s anything but erotic.”

Once the ACF is done, maybe Julia Holt can figure out how to move the festival to Manhattan and make the golden age of cabaret thrive again in its homeland.