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Review: Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

Cabaret Festival

Scottish singer and actor Alan Cumming segued from a stirring war anthem, to a condom commercial ditty and a dash of Miley Cyrus in an Adelaide Cabaret Festival show which was sentimental, sassy, hilarious and heart-wrenching.

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Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs is not just a catalogue of soppy tracks. It’s a wonderful whirlwind journey through some of the career and life highlights – and low points – of a multi-talented artist whose credits include playing the master of ceremonies in Broadway hit Cabaret and Eli Gold in American TV series The Good Wife.

He sets out to make us cry and laugh, and achieves on both counts.

Entering the stage dressed entirely in black and backed by a three-piece band including musical director Lance Horne on piano, alongside a cellist and percussionist, Cumming launches straight into a powerful rendition of The Eurythmics’ “Why”, following by Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know”.

His voice is rich and resonant, with that gorgeous Scottish accent shining through to give each song a unique character.

Between the music, Cumming shares stories and anecdotes: about Cabaret, The Good Wife and another of his Broadway shows, The Threepenny Opera; about his Who Do You Think You Are? journey to unlock the mystery behind what happened to his maternal grandfather, Tom Darling; about a torrid love affair and the ink of regret; about Liza Minnelli, that condom commercial and more.

A slightly wicked smile and mischievous laugh, balanced by an ever-present tinge of vulnerability, give him a captivating stage presence. The banter is sometimes risqué, sometimes enlightening, sometimes political (the recital of a letter to US President Donald Trump written in the style of Scottish poet Robert Burns is gold).

Among the most stirring songs are “Goodnight Saigon”, a tribute to Tom Darling and the scars inflicted by his war experience, and the Scottish ode “Mother Glasgow”. Then there’s the pure fun (a cheeky mash-up of pop songs by Adele, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, followed by another fusing pieces by Sondheim) and the sweetly romantic (Jean Renoir’s “La Complainte De La Butte”, sung in French)­.

Cumming is at his most raw when performing Rufus Wainwright’s “Dinner at Eight”, which resonates because of his relationship with his abusive father. It was a rendition which, to borrow Cumming’s words, would bring a tear to a glass eye, especially for those who have also read his memoir. He’s clearly still deeply affected by the emotions it stirs, pausing briefly to wipe his own eyes; it just made us love him more.

The tales of two tattoos are shared during Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: the first, the result of that passionate yet short-lived love affair, has been permanently erased, but the second, inspired by an EM Forster quote, is on the inside of his forearm. It reads “Only Connect”.  Cumming certainly connected with his audience at Her Majesty’s Theatre last night. He also stole a few hearts.

The Adelaide Cabaret Festival season of Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs has now ended. See more Adelaide Cabaret Festival reviews and previews here.

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