The historic Palais Theatre last week showcased some formidable talent in a colourful spectacle previewing the 2013 Melbourne Cabaret Festival.

Arriving at the extraordinary venue was a spectacle in itself as sparkling drag queens paraded their costumes and the press and crowds revelled in the festival buzz.  Anything with the word gala in the title denotes flamboyance and on all counts this was delivered as audience members got a glimpse of sequins, sky-high platforms and theatrics outside and in the foyer of the Palais even before the commencement of the performance.  The hundreds of patrons weathered the St Kilda cold before bustling indoors as the ushers announced “tonight’s performance will commence in three minutes”.

Once inside, the sheer size of the Palais captivates your attention and on this night, the stage glistened with fairy lights and deep reds and purples. It looked like a more humble version of many memorable Oscar backdrops at the Dolby Theatre and really captured the evening’s fervour. The host, Fem Belling encouraged the audience to embrace the celebratory nature of the night and introduced the acts with enthusiasm, grace and some very swift frock changes. A renowned jazz musician and vocalist in her own right, she also did some “shameless self-promotion” (as she put it), advertising her show Dear Blossom, a cabaret performance that captures the music and persona of legendary jazz singer Blossom Dearie.

The opening gala of the cabaret festival was littered with legends, the best saved for last when Mary Wilson of the Supremes sauntered out on stage for four sultry songs showcasing her world class talent. Her performance, along with the knowledge that as an audience we were witnessing a living icon, was undoubtedly a highlight. Having said this, as Fem announced much to audience dismay, Wilson’s show at the festival entitled Stormy Weather, was unsurprisingly sold out. If you didn’t already have a ticket, the gala provided a once in a lifetime opportunity indeed. 

Despite perhaps not being able to witness Mary Wilson’s show, the festival has an enormous amount in store for Melbournians. Other highlights of the gala included the titillating Joey Arias who is one of the US exports of the festival line-up. His performance, inspired by the morose music of Billie Holiday, captured the suggestive intonation of the singer and combined both musical perfection and his (at times) outrageous flare for comedy. After seeing just a snippet of Arias’ cabaret show, there is little doubt that the real deal which played for only two nights late last week entitled, Arias on Holiday, would have been a spectacular show.

One performer that didn’t need sparkles and fur stoles to dazzle was the romantic and delicate London based harpist, Tara Minton. She performed at the festival late last week and showcased two songs from her show at the gala, one written by Joni Mitchell and one of her own tunes about the volatile love affair she had with a rock musician.  Minton and her two piece band of bass and drums were quite simply, glorious.

One of the best things about the gala was that it was enormously varied. One minute Fem Belling invited to the stage musical veteran David Pomeranz from the US to perform excerpts from his one man show, Chaplin-A life in concert. The next minute, drag queen Spanky launched into a tirade from his show Dead Bitches, fit with political incorrectness and extreme course language. London’s Spanky is also to perform in another show at the festival entitled, Fleetwood Mac Rumours, highlighting the 35th anniversary of the iconic group’s1977 album, Rumours.

The only act funnier and more provocative than Spanky at the opening night gala was notorious Melbourne based cabaret performer, Yana Alana who emerged from the depths of the audience as the first act after interval, completely covered from head to toe in blue. She sang a song from her upcoming show at the festival, Between the Cracks to laughter and applause from the unsuspecting audience. She was indeed the most interactive and downright outrageous of the performers and I felt suddenly very excited to be holding a ticket to her opening night at fortyfive downstairs. The show runs from Wednesday the 3rd of July to Sunday the 7th and promises to rustle some feathers.

With a sprinkle of other international and Aussie acts in addition to those mentioned, the opening gala of the 2013 Melbourne cabaret festival provided enough cabaret and crescendos to titillate any performance lover. My thoughts are that the festival will be varied in both performance style and audience reaction. Having said this, I think the cabaret festival will attract primarily lovers of the musical theatre realm. This is a great shame, because for someone not partial to singing, dancing and general stage over-exuberance, I haven’t stopped watching Youtube videos of Joey Arias since the gala. It would be wonderful if audiences not generally exposed to the wonders of cabaret got to this festival this year. After all, it is hosting 150 performances, over 12 nights at 16 venues across Melbourne so there’s ample opportunity. All I know is that I have a new found passion for jazz and I’ll be returning to the festival next year to indulge my interests.