Thus begins this hilarious and bawdy musical tale of the rise and demise of Duplessis – from poor young seamstress and street waif (original name Alphonsine Rose Plessis), through her Pygmalion-like transformation to infamous courtesan and party girl, to debt-mired invalid and, finally, her death at just 23 in 1847 from tuberculosis.
Harbridge, who created the internationally successful Songs for the Fallen and plays Duplessis, describes it – mid-performance – as “a strange little independent theatre show with pop songs”.
It is indeed quite strange … but also quite brilliant. Part-farce, part-vaudeville and entirely cabaret, with pillow fights, orgies, raining glitter, a clever script and original music by composer Basil Hogios.
Harbridge herself is a tour de force as the ambitious enchantress Duplessis, who managed to squeeze many (many) lovers into her short life – including author Alexandre Dumas – and was the inspiration for Verdi’s opera La Traviata and Baz Lurhmann’s film Moulin Rouge.
She is superbly supported by Ben Gerrard and Garth Holcome, who switch between roles including her servant/companion, doctor and some of those many lovers. Gerrard’s portrayal of the besotted Count Edouard de Perregaux, to whom she was briefly married, is especially hysterical.
Songs for the Fallen pokes fun at itself constantly in a narrative peppered with quips and explanations for audience members, who are very much in on the jokes. Harbridge doesn’t speak in a French accent all the time (“it hurts my face”), but she does display a powerful singing voice that should have made her a shoo-in for the Moulin Rouge role played by Nicole Kidman.
The show is also full of cheeky contemporary culture references to everything from spam email to Beyonce, and witty words of wisdom: “The greatest lesson you can ever learn is don’t masturbate to Radiohead.”
In the end, however, the greatest lesson shared by Duplessis is that while good girls may go to heaven, bad girls can live forever – and in delightful decadence – on page, stage and screen.
This is a show for those who like their cabaret a little on the strange and salacious side, so do leave your inhibitions at the door. Did we mention two audience members are dragged on stage for an orgy?
Songs for the Fallen is playing again tonight at the Dunstan Playhouse as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which continues until June 25.