Bradley McCaw won Your Theatrics International Cabaret Contest in 2012 (book tickets here for the 2015 comp, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere). Part of the prize package was to take his original show on an all expenses paid national tour and on to New York. It sold out. This year, for the first time, Brisbane Powerhouse has added Wonderland, a “night-time playground”, to this city’s cabaret calendar. McCaw’s show fits the bill in a slightly more conservative and sensible manner than most, giving us a refreshing break from all things outrageously and outlandishly “cabaret”. (Don’t worry, I also love outrageous and outlandish!). His show is a lesson in the genre and without a doubt the most fun you’ll have in the cabaret classroom, though we’re far from the traditional classroom.
We find ourselves in the intimate Graffiti Room with only 28 others. I know this space as a meeting room so I’ll admit I was dubious interested to see what sort of performance space it would make. Artistic Director of the Powerhouse, Kris Stewart, told me that previously the room has been claimed by Comedy Festival acts. The teeny, tiny, carpeted space works well in this context too, with a raised stage beneath a proscenium arch made from striped butchers’ paper. Note to self: Pin that in Event Inspiration.
McCaw greets us just as casually as if we were still standing by the bar outside (has it ever been busier?!), and introduces what will become a 50-minute 100-year history lesson, complete with his easy humour and musical interludes. I wish my Modern History lessons at high school had been as fun as this fascinating look at the European timeline. We begin in Paris, to seek an answer to the question, “What is Cabaret?” It’s a question that’s been asked many times of course, but McCaw narrows the context for us and cleverly sings a comical song of an afternoon spent shooting hoops and talking shop with a mate named Steve. McCaw realises he is unable to give Steve a straight answer and determines to find out for himself.
Le Chat Noir – the Black Cat Café – tells through its haunting ugly lights time of night melody and eloquent storytelling about the drunken proprietor of an empty venue, who opens his doors one night in 1878 to a group of artists, creating a magical space where cabaret is born. At this time it’s the sharing of stories, songs, skits, drinks… Is it still? In this quiet number lies the essence of the show, but there’s much more to come and a lot of it is surprisingly upbeat!
It’s in the lilting ballad tones and also, when McCaw opens up mid-range, that we hear the famous Ten Tenors quality in his voice. And when he rocks out in Hard to Keep a Good Girl Down we hear (and see) the unmistakable confidence and showmanship of a true Piano Man. Quick! Last drinks!
“I heard Billy Joel and a song of his ‘Just the Way You Are’ and I thought wow, that’s possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. I want to make something like that, so I started making [music].” It’s a rousing, cheeky song, boyish, fast and fun. Unknown to McCaw, however, is the ambition of the microphone on a stand above the Roland, which spins of its own accord, distracting and delighting us all. Its accidental choreography is actually perfectly fitting. He stops and laughs with us, swings it back and around and around it goes in stubborn, joyous pirouettes like a barefoot child at the end of a birthday party until McCaw pushes it aside again and begins the song again. In any other genre this part of the show might be forgotten; that is to say we might try at least to forget about that awful, embarrassing moment with the mic. But in this case it’s testament to McCaw’s ability to nurture the relationship with his audience in a shared moment of unexpected comedy.
Gentler, and presented with a direct challenge to the audience is All I Need Is You. McCaw reaches for a ukulele and teaches us a line of the song – it’s call and response – and in the small space, in which everyone can hear everything, it feels like a big ask! Luckily we’re seated next to Lizzie Sing It a Third Above Moore so it’s a pleasant experience and we sing along too. The opportunity comes again at the end of the show with Daydreamin’ Girl, a fun way to finish. Poppy knows how all this audience participation stuff goes and we already have McCaw’s EP; it’s a souvenir from Noosa Long Weekend Festival, which he signed for Poppy, and which we often play in the car. When I mentioned this to McCaw after the show it was hard to gauge whether or not he believed me, but it’s true. We’ve just started listening to Mama Kin again too, in case we run into Danielle & John at Woodford this year. “How can you chat to the singer, Mum, if you don’t know their songs?” So asks the wise child!
We travel with McCaw on an intriguing journey through tumultuous times, across borders and oceans, and all the way into 1940s American Ragtime. The show works well like this, as a chronological effort to discover a working definition for cabaret, but it means it’s a little less personal than the first version. I couldn’t help but think No Feelings Today made a deeper impact in its original 8-minute competition context and McCaw let us in on some heart thoughts about the time two brothers might spend together. Now, in representing the artists’ perspective on cabaret (“we can do whatever we want”), I feel this song loses its beautiful, soaring sadness. There’s always a place for beautiful, soaring sadness, for longing, particularly within cabaret and we can’t shy away from it for the sake of an academic argument!
“I think that’s what cabaret’s greatest asset is; it is always evolving. It takes whatever is around its community and it makes it seem fresh because it’s so new and so contemporary. McCaw’s versatility is actually astounding as he shifts effortlessly between musical styles. I’d love to hear him sing more. Less shtick and more song!
I guess the answer to Steve’s question lies in each artist’s interpretation of the genre and if this show is cabaret too, let’s have more of it!