Review By Lisa Lanzi
It is the final weekend of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and the Space Theatre came alive tonight with the verve of Mama Alto and her solo offering Follies Girl. The stage persona of Benny Dimas is a trans, femme-identifying person of colour and countertenor possessing remarkable range and power as well as an aura of charisma. In 2014 the artist was quoted thus: “Opening my mouth, singing with my voice, is an act of transgression against traditional gendered vocal roles, and indeed, of traditional expectations of gender constructed by society.” When Mama Alto takes the stage, gender is a non-issue; we simply experience an artist in possession of profound grace, intelligence, and talent.
For her Cabaret Festival show this year the inspiration stems from roughly 1860 until the 1920s, the era when vaudeville, variety, and music hall entertainment ruled: The Folies Bergère, Quartier Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge, the Ziegfeld Follies, and MGM’s golden age of musicals (think Esther Williams and the fabulousness of Busby Berkley choreography). Our Diva weaves stories around and through the songs, some true, some … who knows! As easily as Mama Alto converses and flirts, she is an elegant persona who thrives on expression and communication through song.
I was a little alarmed when the first song (as well as a few others) opened with recorded accompaniment but Mama Alto made it work in “Everything Old Is New Again” (Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager). Soon though, she was joined by the wonderful pianist/composer/arranger/educator, Adelaide-based Alex Wignall, an exemplary and sensitive accompanist on stage in this case. Also joining in the fun were two young males clothed in only shiny undies who handed Mama her over-large purple fans as she sang about “each night at the Folies Bergère” and segued into “Puttin’ On The Ritz” - rendered in her own interpretative fashion.
Announcing her penchant for “feeling sexy” and “singing sexy songs” a giant ‘fine bone china’ teacup was placed centre stage. Dita Von Teese may be famous for her giant martini glass but apparently tea is Mama’s favourite tipple. Amazingly enough, several songs were performed from this slightly cramped, half-reclined position inside said tea cup - a challenge for most singers but apparently not a problem here. Nina Simone’s suggestive “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”, a delicious torch song delivery of “Tea For Two”, and a Vera Lyn 1940s tune “Be Like The Kettle and Sing”. With a little assistance from the ‘brief boys’ a tea cup extraction was managed elegantly and we moved into the a new set.
Songs made famous by the divine Marilyn Monroe featured next. Here and elsewhere in the show the learned and incisive wit of this performer shines with feisty political digs or sardonic gender-referencing observations. Singing pared back but gutsy jazz versions of “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” we were treated to vocal extremes of power and fragility as Mama Alto found the meaning and pathos in each song. Donning a teal, marabou feather-trimmed peignoir atop her sparkling black gown Mama Alto had a few words to say about the romantic trope of using scantily clad young women draped on a cardboard crescent moon and launched into her own version of “Moon River”.
Thelonious Monk’s “'Round Midnight” was a huge hit with the audience who were already totally smitten with Mama Alto. Once again, vocal range, ornamentation, and expression wrought meaning from the song plus we were treated to an inspired piano improvisation by Alex Wignall at the middle point. Finishing with a Judy Garland tune, “I could go on singing (till the cows come home)”, Mama Alto brought the house down with her high notes, her belted phrasing, and growling lows.
This is near-perfect Cabaret entertainment from an someone comfortable in their own skin, totally at ease with an intimate crowd, and who can effortlessly manoeuvre through a crowded room while singing and regaling us with fascinating tales.