Alan Cumming, Meow Meow, Michael Feinstein, Dianne Reeves and The Tiger Lillies are among the 430 artists from Australia and overseas who will perform at this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival, in an exciting, eclectic programme announced by co-Artistic Directors Ali McGregor and Eddie Perfect.

Festival co-Artistic Directors Ali McGregor and Eddie Perfect. Photo: supplied

Now in its 17th year, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival is the largest cabaret festival in the world. Running from June 9 – 24 at the Adelaide Festival Centre and Her Majesty’s Theatre, this year’s line-up features 147 performances, among them 17 world premieres and five Australian premieres.

McGregor and Perfect have embraced a broad definition of cabaret, with renowned cabaret artists rubbing shoulders with artists from a range of genres.

Tony and Olivier Award-winning performer Alan Cumming, who delighted audiences at the 2016 Sydney Festival, makes his Adelaide Cabaret Festival debut. Michael Feinstein, master interpreter of the Great American Songbook, returns to the Festival with a 17-piece big band to pay tribute to Frank Sinatra. Also from New York come award-winning cabaret chanteuse Lady Rizo and comedian/alt-cabaret performer Bridget Everett, who was described by The Village Voice as “the most exciting performer in New York City”.

Australia’s own “kamikaze” cabaret diva Meow Meow performs her new show Souvenir, created in collaboration with composers Jherek Bischoff and August von Trapp. Joining forces with the Orchestre der Kleinen Regiment, Meow Meow summons the ghosts of Her Majesty’s Theatre in a “misreported” investigation of its history.

Programming Meow was “a no brainer”, Perfect tells Limelight. “Audiences absolutely adore her and she’s so much fun. And what she does on stage is quite subversive. I think that part of her act is trying to understand and deconstruct cabaret itself, which is really good for us because it speaks to what we are trying to present across the board.”

The wide-ranging 2017 programme includes Grammy Award-winning jazz and R & B singer Dianne Reeves in concert, while revered guitarist Bill Frisell, who is also best known in the jazz world, performs selections from his latest recording When You Wish Upon a Star, which features unique interpretations of American cinema’s classic tracks.

Alan Cumming.  Photo: supplied

Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright joins forces with the four virtuoso saxophonists of the Nexas Quartet for Composers in Exile, which follows the journey of exiled artists from 1930s and 40s Berlin to New York and beyond, with a mixture of political songs from the Weimar era, the music theatre of Kurt Weill, and cabaret and song from Stolz and Schreker.

Performing with the Australian String Quartet, singer/songwriter Lior previews material from his forth-coming album and presents a re-imagined version of Sim Shalom (Grant Peace) from the orchestral song cycle Compassion which he wrote with Australian composer Nigel Westlake.

Other arguably left-field programming includes the dance company KAGE and a cappella group The Idea of North performing with vocal percussionist Kaichiro Kitamura.

“That’s what’s great about the art form, I think. You get to have those discussions [about what cabaret is],” says Perfect. “For me, I love music and I love theatre and I think the combinations of those two things are endless. Every so often I gravitate towards something that someone else might think ‘is this cabaret or not?’ So we’d debate it and normally the thing that would tip it over the edge would be, ‘is it really good? Is it worth allowing our audience to look at it and make up their own mind?’” adds Perfect.

“There are worse things in the world than going to see something that’s bloody brilliant but doesn’t fit your definition of cabaret. The worst that can happen is that you go, ‘I don’t know if that was cabaret but it was really amazing’. I think I’d go for the amazing experience over the definition any day. Part of the joy of experiencing cabaret is trying to understand what it is as an artfrom, and I think that’s part of the discussion at the Festival. A really fun thing about the artform is that it’s not set in stone.”

Perfect cites Bill Frisell as someone he is really excited to have on the programme, but who might be considered “an outside idea. He’s a legendary, contemporary guitarist. I first came across his work playing with Tom Waites. There’s something about the way he uses the instrument. He is a brilliant guitarist. Without wanting to sound wanky, he has a soulful singing voice through his guitar. That was one of those one where were we like ‘what do we think of this?’ And we agreed it was too exciting not to try it. and I think in the context of the festival is going to be really wonderful. Maybe some of the cabaret purists, if they exist, might go ‘is this cabaret?’ So I guess we’re going to find out.”

Bill Frisell. Photo: supplied

McGregor and Perfect, both acclaimed performers themselves, curated their first Adelaide Cabaret Festival last year. Discussing his vision for the event, Perfect says: “I have been a direct beneficiary of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in terms of it fostering my new writing – it was the place where I have either workshopped or presented a lot of new work. It’s also been a place for me of great cross-pollination between myself and cabaret artists and composers from all over the world so it’s been vital in influencing the way I think about writing for the stage. So, I guess my intention heading in was to try and keep that alive and provide that opportunity for other people who are Australian writers of music and lyrics and original content for the cabaret and musical theatre stage. That’s been like the pointy end of the sword. The rest of the sword is to keep the integrity of the festival,” he says.

“We have got an eye on what’s happening in cabaret around the world and also around Australia [and we aim to present] things that are innovative and new and push the form in different directions. At the same time, we want to make sure that [we cater for] the incredibly loyal, opened-minded audience that the Adelaide Cabaret Festival has fostered, so that there is a way into the house for everyone, and then they can expand out from the thing that brings them in. It’s a bit of a balancing act but it’s a joyous one.”

The inclusion of an opera singer like Peter Coleman-Wright both expands potential audiences and, at the same time, offers his fans the opportunity to experience his talent in a different context, believes Perfect.

Peter Coleman-Wright. Photo: supplied

“Both Ali and I are huge fans of Peter’s. I thought he was spectacular in [Brett Dean’s opera] Bliss and the fact that he wanted to make a piece of cabaret is another example of Ali and I wanting to corrupt artists to come and perform in cabaret!” he says with a laugh. “I think it’s really great way to extend your access to performers like him. Putting him in a show where he gets to directly address an audience, and experience that performer and voice in an intimate setting, was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

Perfect is also excited at the return of The Tiger Lillies, who have been stirring up the cabaret scene since they got together in London in 1989. “The fact that they’re still around is amazing. They are really dark and brutal. I think they have influenced a generation of Australian performers since they started coming to Australia. I can remember seeing them at the Perth Festival in 1989 doing Shockheaded Peter, which just shook things up so it’s great to have them back and in amongst other artists they might have influenced,” he says.

Christie Whelan Browne. Photo: supplied

Among the five new shows commissioned or co-commissioned by the Festival is Vigil written by Steve Vizard and composed by Joe Chindamo. Set on Christmas Eve, it stars Christie Whelan Browne as 30-something prodigal daughter Liz, who returns after years of globe-trotting wanting answers.

“That basically happened because Ali and I saw a Steve Vizard/Paul Grabowsky collaboration called Banquet of Secrets with a chamber orchestra which was a really interesting piece [produced by Victorian Opera in March 2016]. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to programme that piece. Vigil was Steve’s idea. It’s inspired by the death of his mother and looks at what it means to deal with grief and the loss of a parent. He’s been working with Joe Chindamo who I’ve known for years. He’s one of the best jazz pianists around Melbourne and Australian and he has started to branch out into writing stuff for theatre. I’m always excited about dragging people to the dark side, so I’m very excited about that one,” says Perfect.

Other Australian performers to look out for include opera singers Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen who are unveiling their second cabaret show Strange Bedfellows: Bedlam, which follows their acclaimed debut show Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers – a deliciously bawdy, wickedly funny concoction which they premiered in 2014.

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Fresh from her award-winning performance as Miss Honey in the Australian production of Matilda The Musical, Elise McCann presents Dahlesque, which she co-wrote with Richard Carroll. Exploring the fantastical imagination and sardonic world of best-selling author Roald Dahl, McCann sings numbers from blockbuster musicals and movies, adapted from Dahl’s novels including Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach, backed by a nine-piece orchestra.

Michael Griffiths performs Lucky: Songs by Kylie, the third in a series written for him by Dean Bryant. Following similarly constructed shows about Madonna and Annie Lennox, Griffiths and Bryant use all those songs you can’t get out of your head to explore the life and career of our own impossible princess.

Michael Griffiths. Photograph © Kurt Sneddon

“It’s not just blowing smoke up Australian’s arses, but I do think that Australia has embraced cabaret in a really unique, interesting way,” says Perfect. “There are positives and negatives about the isolation of Australia but I love our approach to the diversity of cabaret. It’s like the diversity of our wild life. It could only happen in Australia because of our geographical distance. It is very much like a blank canvas and everyone breaks the rules without even knowing it. That makes it really fresh and exciting, whereas cabaret does tend to fit into more solid genres in other countries.”

Tickets to the 2017 Adelaide Cabaret Festival go on sale 9am Wednesday April 9


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