Paul Capsis with Jethro Woodward and the Fitzroy Youth Orchestra – who have just played to glowing reviews at the Sydney Festival – are among six artists revealed by new Cabaret Festival artistic director Zemiro as a taste of what audiences can expect from her debut program in June.
The Capsis show will feature songs by musicians ranging from Patti Smith, Led Zeppelin and The Doors, to Lana Del Rey, Janis Joplin, Lou Reed and Tom Waits. It will be presented in the Famous Spiegeltent, one of several new festival venues.
“I think that show’s just going to go off,” Zemiro says.
“They’re a tight band who love each other and know what they’re doing, so it’s very exciting to see them rip it up.”
Capsis himself tells InDaily that after performing a lot of theatre in recent years – including in Windmill Theatre Company’s Rumpelstiltskin – he’s excited to be back behind the mic, especially in a show that allows him to let loose his inner rock star.
“When I started out I wanted to be a singer in a rock band,” he says.
“I’ve never had that kind of singer-songwriter career with my own band, but somehow I’ve managed to manifest that sensation, the feeling of what it’s like to have that charge behind you, to have the drummer or the bass player or double bass, in this case, and the two guitars – and Jethro is a mean soul-blues guitarist. It allows me to sing the way I sing.”
Melbourne-based composer and musician Woodward, who has worked with Capsis previously in the theatre, has arranged and reimagined an eclectic set of songs.
This has been one of the most exciting collaborations I’ve had in a long, long time
Some of the songs are by artists Capsis says he’d never considered covering before – such as Lana Del Rey and American “protopunk” band Suicide. There’s also a reinterpretation of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, which marries together very different versions by Joan Baez and Led Zeppelin, and a reworking of Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang”, which is infused with a flamenco flavour, as well as songs such as Patti Smith’s “Pissing in the River” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”.
They’re all performed in Capsis’s distinctive style with Woodward and a “high-octane” rock band which is dubbed the Fitzroy Youth Orchestra (but which Capsis reckons should be renamed The Hot Librarians).
“The band is loud, the band is raucous, it’s unhinged, so that’s where I’m at right now – I’m unhinged,” he says.
“I thought when I got to 55 I’d be calmer and more kind of looking to do easy material but I’ve actually gone the opposite direction ….
“I want to be the Mick Jagger of the cabaret world, or Keith Richards may be more appropriate. I have a vast collection of wrinkles that I add to daily.”
Promoters say this is Paul Capsis at his most raw and rock, and the performer agrees.
He likes to perform his concerts unscripted – in “freefall” – burying himself in the music and whatever emotions it triggers.
Capsis says the way Woodward has arranged the music for this concert has also “sparked something in me”.
“It’s tapped into something that excites me and I feel the audience has responded in a really positive way, because I’m not doing it the way I normally would.
“This has been one of the most exciting collaborations I’ve had in a long, long time.”
Julia Zemiro’s Cabaret Festival
Zemiro, host of SBS’s RockWiz and former host of the network’s Eurovision Song Contest, believes the essence of cabaret is that it “breaks the fourth wall”.
“When beautiful Frank Ford set this up, he set it up because there wasn’t enough cabaret; now there’s a lot, everywhere … it’s [a question of] how far can you push it and keep it in the realm?” she says, trying to explain what cabaret is to her.
“Whatever it is, it has to be intimate. That’s why the spaces you create are important.”
With both Her Majesty’s Theatre and the Festival Theatre unavailable during the 2019 Cabaret Festival, Zemiro has had to look to other performance venues. In addition to the Spiegeltent, there will also be shows at the Thebarton Theatre, which she says “just screams cabaret”.
Among the Thebby line-up will be the Australian premiere of German performer Ute Lemper’s Rendezvous with Marlene. It is based on a three-hour phone call between Lemper and Marlene Dietrich in 1988 in Paris, after Lemper had sent a postcard to Dietrich apologising for the media attention comparing them.
“I’ve always adored her,” Zemiro says of Lemper. “To have her in the Thebby will be incredible.”
Zemiro says her Cabaret Festival program will feature “multi-layered” works and shows with a political element – be it literal (such as in satirical panel show A Rational Fear), or through the exploration of issues like the “politics of the body” (for example, the dance work Cher).
“But there will be plenty of fun and glitz as well.”
Other Cabaret Festival shows announced before the full program reveal in April are:
The Swell Mob: A show by the UK’s Flabbergast Theatre (a clown, puppetry and cabaret group) which transports audience members to an 1800s taproom where they “dance, sing, gamble, and cheat their way through a decaying world”. “It’s a completely immersive world … you’re invited to participate as much or as little as you want,” says Zemiro.
Dragon Lady: The Many Lives & Deaths of Anna May Wong: Actor and singer Fiona Choi (currently starring in SBS’s The Family Law) will present this performance about Anna May Wong, the woman known as “Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star”.
A Rational Fear: “It’ll be like Q&A on crack,” Zemiro says of A Rational Fear, which will see a panel led by presenter and comedian Dan Ilic (Hungry Beast) present a satirical comedy show based on the day’s events. “It’ll be anarchic and it’ll be wild – Dan is fearless.”
Cher: Adelaide dancer and choreographer Larissa McGowan will use iconic singer Cher as a “totem for exploring the reinvention of the universal ageing female artist” in this solo work which is being presented by Vitalstatistix and sees contemporary dance take on camp and cabaret.
Also previously announced as part of the Cabaret Festival program is Nancy and Beth, a tongue-in-cheek song and dance show by Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) and Stephanie Hunt (Californication).
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