What is now cemented as one of Adelaide’s true red-carpet nights usually takes place on the opening Friday of the winter festival, but with the Festival Theatre hosting Frozen the Musical in June, the gala was brought forward this year and combined with the program launch.

We were welcomed to Country by Isaac Hannam on yidaki before the curtain lifted to reveal a stage flanked by vintage lounge seating, potted palms, a drinks trolley and musicians (a pianist on one side and the Variety House Gala Band on the other). It was the perfect set-up – performers popped in and out throughout the night, each taking a seat before their own turn and adding to the relaxed vibe of the evening.

After greeting invited guests at a pre-gala gathering in the Banquet Room, 2022 Cabaret Festival artistic director Tina Arena opened the show with two songs (“Church” and “Burn”) from her new show Songs My Mother Taught Me. During the festival she’ll be joined at Her Majesty’s Theatre by Wendy Matthews, Lior, Thando, Jess Hitchcock and Sophie Koh for the premiere of the show, which is inspired by family, song and storytelling.

2022 Cabaret Festival artistic director Tina Arena. Photo: Sia Duff

Two hours of incredible talent followed, skilfully managed by host Paul McDermott in fine form and hilarious from go to whoa in his burgundy velvet ringmaster’s coat. His song “Jenny” (performed later in the gala with his “plus one” Glenn Moorhouse on acoustic guitar) took a stab at the current Prime Minister, one of two popular targets on the night (anti-vaxxers copped the lion’s share of his attention with a series of running jokes on the “How many… does it take to change a lightbulb?” theme).

McDermott’s barbs were well received by an audience obviously ready for some respite from the misery of the last few years, and he’ll be back in June to host The Funhouse, a “sideshow of comedy, music and spectacle” in The Famous Spiegeltent.

Paul McDermott with Glenn Moorhouse. Photo: Sia Duff

Gary Pinto (The Songs & Times of Sam Cook) was up next with a high-energy performance of “Feel It, Don’t Fight It”, then it was straight into raunchy domestic satire from Carla Lippis with “The Hand” – a superb vocal performance that was sadly swamped by the volume of the band. The song will feature in State Opera South Australia’s How To Kill Your Husband (and other handy household hints), a “cabaret opera” based the hit novel by Kathy Lette.

Kieran Beasley (Class of Cabaret 2021 Graduate) deserved an award for his calm acceptance of what must have been an intensely awkward moment – a microphone fail on his first-ever appearance on the big stage. He sailed through it with a quietly confident rendition of the Billy Joel classic “Just the Way You Are”.

Catherine Alcorn (joined for her gala appearance by Michael Griffiths) gave us a sexy, speakeasy version of “In the Air Tonight” from 30 Something. Her Cabaret Festival show, with musician Phil Scott, is set in King’s Cross in 1939 and promises a dark and humorous romp through the heart of Sydney’s underworld.

Mitchell Butel (this year’s Variety Gala director who, according to host McDermott, “did everything including making the curtains”) was a smash with “Something’s Coming” from the sure-to-be-a-hot-ticket Moments in the Woods – Songs & Stories of Sondheim, a celebration of the musical theatre works of the legendary composer and lyricist.

Next up – and taking the energy level through the roof – was Libby O’Donovan with a medley of songs from Sister Elizabeth, an exploration of the divine nuns of film, TV and pop culture. A dynamo in shimmering emerald, O’Donovan was the standout hit of the gala, going by the huge audience response to her performance. To top it off, she was presented with the Cabaret Icon Award, an annual tradition celebrating the lifetime achievement of an individual artist.

Libby O’Donovan, 2022 recipient of the Cabaret Icon Award. Photo: Sia Duff

Clever programming saw the pace carefully controlled for maximum effect throughout the night. During Sophie Koh’s sensational bilingual performance of “Creep”, you could have heard a pin drop – no mean feat when moments earlier we’d been screaming for Libby and the nuns. In addition to appearing in Songs My Mother Taught Me, Koh has her own festival show in the Spiegeltent, Shànghǎi MiMi.

Victoria Falconer introduced us to And Then You Go – The Vali Myers Project, a Frank Ford Commission exploring the bohemian life of one of Australia’s most intriguing creators. With Parvyn, Erin Fowler, Jarrad Payne and Flick Freeman, Falconer presented “Go On”, taking us on a gentle hippy trip into the mind of the exotic cult artist.

Amelia Ryan, Michael Griffiths and Michaela Burger (Simply Brill) dazzled with their “On Broadway/Brill Building” medley. Their celebration of the “golden age of rock ’n’ roll and the sexual revolution” offers star power times three, as each is an acclaimed performer in their own right.

Closing the show was one of Australia’s most-loved entertainers, Marcia Hines, with “Love Me Like a Rock” accompanied by Charmaine Jones’ Gospo Collective. Hines might be one of our own national treasures, but in The Gospel According to Marcia (premiering at Her Maj on June 17) she will celebrate her US roots and her childhood experiences with Gospel music in Boston and the influence of Black American church culture.

Marcia Hines performs with The Gospo Collective. Photo: Sia Duff

Despite occasional sound issues, the Variety Gala treated us to a diverse taste of what’s on offer in this year’s program. There was velvet and sequins galore – in the audience as well as on stage – at what is surely one of Adelaide’s best nights out for cabaret lovers. Roll on, June!

The 2022 Variety Gala was presented at the Festival Theatre on Friday night. The 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival will run from June 10-25.

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