Speakeasy will definitely be a highlight of the 2015 Melbourne Cabaret Festival. It was certainly one of the most slick and entertaining Cabaret’s I have ever had the pleasure to see. The Perth Cabaret Collective took the audience on a musical journey from 1918 to 1933. From the end of the First World War, through tough times in Germany, a boom (and then the crash) in the USA, from the beginning of prohibition, through to the end, all portrayed through the music of the day, as performed in speakeasy’s and clubs in Europe and America. The musical numbers were carefully selected to illustrate the mood of the time, broken up by brief narration of the historical milestones in between each song.
The ‘speakeasy’ atmosphere was enhanced by the cabaret seating, the orchestra’s roughhewn music stands made from wood palings, with a similarly constructed bar, topped with a crystal decanter. The orchestra were dressed in line with the time portrayed – flat caps and braces for the guys, fur stoles, ostrich feathers and diamanté headbands for the ladies. The lighting was simple, alternating between cool blue and warm yellow lights depending on the mood, and sometimes with traditional twin spotlights shining on the vocalist through a smoky haze, enhancing the vintage feel. When they weren’t playing, the band passed silver hip flasks around, another little touch that added to the ambience.
The first 2 numbers were instrumental, highlighting the vastly different moods arising from the celebration at the end of the war, and the economic crisis in Germany after the war. Before each number, the Narrator Nick MacLaine supplied the context for the next song, briefly explaining the historic events of the day, before returning to his place behind the bar. It wasn’t until much later in the show that he sang, and showed that his vocal skills were as strong as his acting.
During the opening number, there was an attempt by some of the musicians to add to the atmosphere with some whooping and cheering in support of their bandmates. This was inconsistent however, but was energetically led by Musical Director and Bari/Tenor Sax player Jess Herbert, who kept up the enthusiasm and energy throughout the entire show. A notable moment in the second number was the trombone solo by James Cross, which showed amazing versatility and control.
At this point, we had reached the introduction of the 18th Amendment – the start of prohibition. Jessie Gordon takes the stage, looking like she has time travelled directly from 1920. Wearing a classic gold, drop waist dress, and with her hair artfully styled in defined rolls, Gordon looked every inch the ‘flapper’ girl. When she sang ‘After you get what you want you don’t want it’, she also perfectly captured the unique sound of the era, and her mannerisms support the roll, from her facial expression to her dance moves.
During the next number, ‘There’ll be some changes made’, I noticed the only criticism I can find for the entire show. Sometimes, during the climax of various numbers, despite Gordon belting her heart out, the orchestra would drown out the vocalist. Considering I was sitting in the front row of tables, I can only assume the issue would be worse at the rear of the room, but it fortunately only occurred in a couple of songs.
Next our journey travelled to the Kit Kat Club in Berlin, and an example of the satirical German cabaret. Gordon underwent a dramatic costume change during the narration, emerging in fish net stockings, bustier, briefs and tails, and delivering a saucy rendition of ‘Mein Herr’ from the musical Cabaret.
After our diversion to Germany, we returned to the US, with a stunning rendition of ‘Love for Sale’. Gordon had made her final costume change – an elegant gold and cream chiffon, off the shoulder gown with a beaded bodice which she wore for the remainder of the show.
Following this number, an upbeat instrumental piece showcased both Clarinet and Trumpet, and then MacLaine surprised us with ‘Mack the Knife’. Gordon was back for the next song – ‘When you’re smiling’ which contained a clever musical device to symbolise the 1929 Wall St crash – the orchestral accompaniment gradually devolved into a chaotic noise that drove Gordon from the stage in apparent confusion. This signalled the return of MacLaine, with a dramatic rendition of ‘Brother can you spare a dime’. From here things became more optimistic, with a fun duet ‘Manhattan’, Gordon singing Nina Simone’s ‘I want a little sugar in my bowl’, and another duet, ‘Cocktails for two’ symbolising the end of prohibition, and coming to an amusingly appropriate conclusion. The show seemed to end quite suddenly, and the audience were not happy to think it was over, but the blow was softened by a fun encore that ended the night on a high note.
The vocals and instrumentals were faultless. The singers were ably supported by MD Jess Herbert and Laura Corney on Alto Sax/Clarinet, Luke Minness on Alto/Tenor Sax, Matt Jodrell and Ricki Malet on Trumpet, James Cross on Trombone, Zac Grafton on Bass, Ronan Chapell on Piano and Alex Rei on Drums. The performance was not only highly entertaining, but also educational, with some history thrown in, and perfectly captured the look and sound of the era. While it worked extremely well as an hour long cabaret, I would happily have sat through a much longer show, and the audience response tells me they would agree. I will be looking out for these guys in future, hoping they return to Melbourne again soon.