Always one for the theatrics (and champagne for that matter) of an opening night, I trekked off enthusiastically to Gasworks Port Melbourne on Thursday evening. I use the adjective ‘enthusiastically’ loosely, as it was difficult to muster any energy in the forty plus heat that came to define Melbourne last week.  I had two nights at Gasworks in fact, Thursday for their launch of the Midsumma 2014 festival and Friday for the musical performance, Queen Bee.

I must confess that I have not been to the Midsumma festival before, so this year marked a belated exposure to what looks like it will be a vibrant and valuable festival, boasting an impressive programme.

As for the launch, it is always a pleasure to go to Gasworks and wander through the art space and surrounding grounds. A highlight for me on the night was that the visual arts curator, Tracy McIrvine took the time to engage with almost everyone at the event, meeting; greeting; networking and just generally making sure people were enjoying themselves. She informed the patrons during the formal part of the evening that as part of the festival, Gasworks would be presenting art both in the Foyer Gallery as well as the Angela Roberts-Bird Gallery which included ‘The Wall of Sound’. The purpose of this wall was for patrons to leave notes of support for the GLBTIQ community over the duration of the festival, particularly relating to marriage equality.

Upon inspection of both art spaces, it was clear that Gasworks (as always) was showcasing some dynamic and beautiful art that provided a visually pleasing backdrop for the launch.

The evening also showcased some wonderful cocktail choices (for those who are that way inclined) and some suggestive looking sausages. The food and drink were indeed a wonderful accompaniment to the evening. I found myself toward the end, sipping my champagne and listening to the breathtaking Melbourne choir, LowRez. They melodiously sung Aussie favourite, Flame Trees and I’m not ashamed to say that it brought a tear to my eye. As a result of my reaction to their transcendent voices, their show is my pick for the festival. It is called Low Rez-Sing Out! and it's being performed at Gasworks from the 31st of January until the 1st of February on Friday and Saturday evening.

Gasworks is also housing a variety of other performances during the festival including backyard cinema, mentalist extraordinaire Cath Jamison and a little show call Tell me a Story, hosted by comedian Kathryn Bendall. I am of course only mentioning a few of the festival gems at Gasworks. They are also staging Queen Bee, performed by Helen Nicholson. It was this show that signalled my return to Gasworks the following evening to see what this tribute show with a twist was all about.

Written and directed by Tracy Margieson and Tony Smith and presented by Purplestage Arts and Entertainment, Queen Bee is largely a musical/nostalgia piece telling the story of Dusty Springfield. It covers her rise to and from fame; her sexual preference and her volatile relationships, particularly those that coincided with her drug and alcohol dependence.

While Nicholson’s singing was impeccable, the performance on a whole was lacking. I was most put off by the blocking which seemed superfluous. Much of the set and most of the actress’s actions during the performance made little sense to me and (in my opinion) failed to best deliver on story or intent.

What Margieson and Smith created here was a homage to Dusty, told through the eyes of a fictitious tribute performer called Corinne. In the programme for the show, it was explained that the plan in the beginning was to present a straight forward tribute show before the idea of Corinne came into being. It is my opinion that Queen Bee would have been far more enjoyable had they stuck to this original direction. Somehow, the performance itself (singing aside) seemed very rehearsed and failed to bring to the stage much thematic nuance.

The show ended with a note (from Corinne) that it was important that the world knew about Dusty Springfield and while I did walk away learning something about the iconic performer, this statement of intent seemed a little pre-emptive. As an audience member, I don’t generally like everything summed up for me or to be told what the message is (if there is one). I also don’t think the performance really pinpointed anything particularly compelling about Dusty, apart from her musical prowess and influence. There were two areas that were somewhat broached, notably her relationship with the Mowtown sound and her bold, forward-thinking approach to sexuality at the time but I left feeling these areas were merely touched on, when they could have been more fully explored.

As I always like to end on a positive note, I will commend both Gasworks on their fun-filled launch and Nicholson’s flawless and wholly enjoyable renditions of Dusty’s songs. I just wished there was less talking and more singing but for that, I’ll have to trek back to Gasworks for the two choirs that are performing during the festival. These shows are entitled, Big Gay Sing and (as mentioned earlier) Low Rez-Sing Out!

Queen Bee is on at Gasworks until the 25th of January.

Midsumma festival runs till February 2

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