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Review: The 2024 Variety Gala at The Festival Theatre

Review by Lisa Lanzi

The glittering front curtain is hung, the ruched back drop is, well, back, and Adelaide’s A-Listers have dug out their sequins, furs, and lamé for another Cabaret Festival, gaily celebrating its 24th outing.  The difference this year is Ms Virginia Gay adorning the Artistic Director’s seat.  Her infectious enthusiasm and undying devotion for the artform combined with her exceptional stage presence immediately upped the energy levels, all skilfully guided by Gala director Mitchell Butel  (Courtesy of State Theatre SA).  The woman can SING, and hosts with verve, spice, warmth and generosity.

As so many folk are under pressure from Australia’s continuing cost of living crisis, it may be hard to fill seats this year but if you were going to splurge on just one show, the variety gala would be the one to get to.  (Take note and book early for 2025 - the theatre was packed.)  The audience were treated to a grand feast of artistic styles and talents, both new, and not so new, a little like a contemporised vaudeville revue.  Many favourites are back this year and while they are just as good as ever, how many times do folk want to view the same artists year after year?  Gauging from reactions at the Gala, a reasonable number, however I’m still waiting for more daring programming.

The English duo Flo and Joan (sisters, Nicola and Rosie Dempsey) appear for the first time with their trademark deadpan, tongue-in-cheek wit.  With the winning combination of spare delivery and darkly comic lyrics, the audience were totally entertained by their act and I suspect they will be the indie hit of this Festival.  Opening the Gala, after forty years of fabulousness, Fascinating Aïda gave us ‘Prisoner of Gender’ with Adèle Anderson on lead alongside Dillie Keane and Liza Pulman with Michael Roulston on piano.  A very personal and moving story told in song, and entirely relevant as we approach Pride celebrations here in Adelaide. 

Each performer at the Gala has their own gig during the Festival and the alluring Bert LaBonté was a hit with Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’.  Swing On This features LaBonté with Luke Kennedy, Ben Mingay, and Matt Lee for their 10th Anniversary show.  Rhonda Burchmore, accorded a ‘Cabaret Icon’ award in 2014, is here with Tall Tales chronicling a huge life on stage and the collection of cherished memories it has delivered.  She sang ‘They Just Keep Moving The Line’ from the TV show SMASH in full Burchmore belt and utmost style.

Fitting in beautifully beside seasoned artists, the amazing Jess Hitchcock (with heritage hailing from the Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinea) performed ‘Suspended in Time’, from Xanadu.  This compelling, velvet-voiced Melbourne-based singer-songwriter seems able to effortlessly transcend genres from rock, pop, and opera.  She has collaborated with Paul Kelly, Archie Roach, Kate Miller-Heidke, and Bangarra Dance Theatre, to name a few and will appear in two shows this Festival.

The historic and outstanding contribution of the Festival to new and emerging talent was also celebrated.  The Class of Cabaret has been an exciting fixture for years and one of its graduates, now a very experienced, award-winning performer and creator, is Millicent Sarre.  This artist sang an electrifying ‘I Can Cook Too’, from Bernstein’s On The Town and is one of the mentors for Class of Cabaret this year.  ‘Falling in Love With Someone’ by emerging writer/performer Cassie Hamilton is from their work-in-progress musical  A Transgender Woman on the Internet, Crying.  Gorgeous voice, clever writing and a winner with the audience, I am keen to see their offering.

Gillian Cosgriff, another award-winning performer/creator, presented a stunning musical theatre work-in-progress last year.  Now she is back with Actually Good which won Most Outstanding Show at the 2023 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.  Cosgriff is riveting as she plays and sings, part poet, part raconteur, her song ‘Presents’ left us crying with laughter.

Mark Nadler, the effervescent New Yorker, and Reuben Kaye, the tall, tantalising drag and cabaret artist with the kick-ass voice are both Festival regulars returning this year.  Nadler is an all-rounder who somehow seems magically connected to a piano keyboard - he plays as if he and the instrument share the most intimate symbiosis. Singer, pianist, tap dancer, comic, and raconteur with supernatural energy, his age is unknown but his vigour is legend; I’m going to guess yoga, pilates and resveratrol are plentiful in his life.

Reuben Kaye is legend too.  Sadly, in the last year the legend has received death threats after uttering what some unimaginative elements of the population considered controversial statements.  With true cabaret panache, Kaye has incorporated that difficult experience into the act.  Additionally, in the spirit of original German Kabarett, Kaye infuses relevant, caustic social commentary into the work.  Fittingly, and meaningfully, Virginia Gay presented the 2024 ‘Cabaret Icon’ award to the artist after cheekily advising them to shut their eyes.  As the silver-toned antique microphone trophy was pressed into their hands, accompanied by some playful innuendo, the audience roared their approval.

More wizard piano playing was showcased by Gabbi Bolt & Matthew Predny.  Four hands, one keyboard and some fancy, comedic moves gave us a small hint of their show Murder For Two.  Christie Whelan Browne consorted with a gender swapping Virginia Gay as Sandy and Danny on ‘You’re The One That I Want’.  Browne will present her own show Life In Plastic and also appears in the Olivia Newton-John tribute concert Hopelessly Devoted.  Mahalia Barnes zipped from her own gig in The Banquet Room next door to perform the finale ‘River Deep Mountain High’ with her extraordinary energy and belt and the full band led by Musical Director Shanon D Whitelock on keys.

The Gala is over, the applause was raucous and the Adelaide Cabaret Festival has been well and truly launched.  The glittering party continues until June 22nd albeit with some repeats but sprinkled with a few fresh faces, sounds, and ideas.

Image Supplied


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