Kim David Smith has been performing at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival for more than 10 years. Back when he was still Kim Smith, he brought shows such as Misfit and Morphium Kabarett, featuring his shape-shifting gremlin mix of nova pop, reptilian camp and ­– when he switched into persona as “Pirate Jenny” and “Surabaya Johnny” – a very creditable version of Weimar revival.

Back with Mostly Marlene, a tribute to screen legend and post-war cabaret performer Marlene Dietrich, Smith has softened some of the witty sneer and smarm of his punk antics to more vulnerable readings of Dietrich’s mixed bag of torch songs and satire.

Dressed in top hat, white tie and leather tails, he proceeds through the audience in the Space Theatre to the strains of “Falling in Love Again”. He wryly notes that this show, which first played in March 2 last year at Club Cumming (Cabaret Festival AD Alan Cumming’s nightspot in New York), had barely opened when the city was shut down in the first wave of COVID. Everything stopped for 18 months. Until now – and Smith marvels at the sight of a live audience, not a virtual one, sharing a performance in real time.

This time around Kim David Smith is more reflective, more openly candid, and looking to delve into the rueful world-weary experience of Dietrich’s songs.

Not that there is any shortage of spark to the brisk realism of Friedrich Hollaender’s “Black Market” – “Powdered milk for bikes / Souls for Lucky Strikes / Got some broken down ideals? Like wedding rings?”. Or Dietrich’s “Jonny, wenn du Geburtstag hast?”, a raunchy ballad of carpe diem which segues into the urgent refrain from Madonna’s “Erotic” – “Put your hands all over my body”.

Hollaender features again with “Look Me Over Closely” – “Tell me what you find / But don’t be over-anxious / I’m not the marrying kind”. Dietrich, whose life spanned the 20th century, proves to be a free-spirited gender-fluid model for this one. Smith calls her a Bisexual Queen.

He has fun with Spoliansky’s “Ich bin ein Vamp” and Toto Coelo’s ’80s hit “Dracula’s Tango” – “Dracula la la I’m a sucker for your love” – with fabulously thundering chords from Amanda Hodder, Smith’s longtime accompanist, who is again exemplary in her phrasing and precision, and central to the success of the performance.

Kim David Smith in Mostly Marlene at Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Photo: Claudio Raschella

The selections highlight Dietrich’s range of material, such as “The Boys in the Back Room”, the boisterous theme from Destry Rides Again,  the movie western in which she not only starred but also made a hit for Loesser and Hollaender. And we can’t forget “Lilli Marleen”, the haunting wartime favourite for both Allied and German troops, sung here as unadorned lament.

Smith concludes strongly with “a song about nice things we can’t have”: Hollaender’s “Illusions”, interwoven with Kylie’s “I Should Be So Lucky” in German (along with delicious piano trills from Hodder). From there, Smith and Hodder power into more vintage Minogue with a knock-out “Fire. Fire. Fire.” version of “All the Lovers”.

A reprise of the Dietrich signature “Falling in Love Again” follows, also in German, and the finale is “The Singer”, the Liza with a Z favourite, with just enough Minnelli histrionics to finish on a high note. In this performance Smith demonstrates he can mix it with the very best. Mostly Marlene has been a Cabaret Festival highlight.

Kim David Smith is performing Mostly Marlene again tonight at the Space Theatre as part of the 2021 Adelaide Cabaret Festival. 

See more Cabaret Festival stories and reviews on InReview here.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.