By Sasha Meaney
This weekend the inaugural Sydney Cabaret Festival opened with an explosion of glitter and
personality. Watching their headliner Jennifer Holliday sing is an experience like no other.
Mouths were dropped open in almost disgust at how one woman could be so talented and
so giving of herself on any stage.
For those who do not know her – get acquainted. Jennifer Holliday was THE original
Dreamgirl. She rose to fame in the 1980s as Effie in the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls
for which she won a Tony award. She laughs it off as being her one and only hit, but from
the performance she gave I beg to differ.
Holliday’s range is inexplicable. She bounced from jazz standards like My Funny Valentine,
to the musical theatre canon of Barbara Streisand. Her voice seems to know no limits as she
moves from a rich timbered contralto up to a piercing soprano, and while her technique is
flawless, she is no slave to tradition. Her skill at phrasing shines in her Aretha Franklin
tributes, and her ability to shape a story hits home in Peter Allen’s You And Me (We Had It
She admits to the audience that she would never cheat us of her signature song “And I Am
Telling You”, but that each time she sings it she must make sure there is something new for
herself and her audience. This lesson sticks with us throughout her show. It feels like we’re
watching Holliday live a thousand lifetimes as she sings. With such overwhelming feeling, it
is remarkable that she does it with such composure. It was dirty, radiant and completely
individual. In unfiltered glory, Holliday was selfless with her vulnerability that was both
trusting and guttural.
Holliday was supported by an incredible band of local musicians, and her musical director
Peter Nash. When you could tear your eyes away from the star, Nash was a pleasure to
watch. His ear to ear grin, clever arrangements and attention to Holliday could not go
unnoticed. Holliday’s respect for the musicians, particularly for her right-hand man was truly
humbling especially in contrast to the larger than life voice.
Incredible vocals aside, Holliday presents herself with extraordinary candor. Her segues
were revealing, and in their honesty - bluntly hilarious. As she introduced her closing song
Etta James’ At Last, all I wanted was for my loved ones to be in that room. Before she even
opened her mouth, I knew I would never hear it performed quite like this again. What we
may be accustomed to hearing as a love ballad became a victory cry for the voice of
Holliday. In that final song her soul and voice wrestled with all the nitty gritty of life.
If Jennifer Holliday is ever in town again, do yourself a favour and book a ticket. You just must
see her live - it won’t be every day that you come nose to nose with a living legend.
Photo Credit: John McRae
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.