The Best of the Fest at The Butterfly Club introduces a selection of talent from the Melbourne Cabaret Festival. 4 acts performed a 10 min segment from their upcoming Cabaret, and the host, Trevor Jones also did a brief interview with each act. The format allows the audience to sample a very small selection of what the festival has to offer. The eclectic selection ensured there was something for everyone on the evening, but that variety meant that the overall selection might not have appealed to all.

The opening act was Amanda Harrison with an excerpt from her show Up Close and Reasonably Personal. Harrison has an impressive biography, having appeared in significant Musical Theatre roles, such as playing Elphaba in Wicked, and being a member of the London and Australian casts for We Will Rock You. Harrison spoke in a humorous way about dispelling the myths that circulate regarding the perceived glamour of a performer’s life – how in truth they are “…pitied by their loved ones” and explained that the show would focus on the things in her life that are important to her. She sang only 2 songs – ‘Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead’ and a song about hitting the big time in show business. She has a very powerful, versatile voice which easily filled the small theatre. I was surprised to hear a few slightly suspect notes, but any occasional pitch issues were totally blown away by the amazing final note! As a seasoned performer, Harrison’s manner was very confident, both when performing and in the ‘chat’ she had with Trevor Jones at the end of the set.  I was left with the feeling that her show would be very typical, if high quality, Cabaret fare – a strong vocal talent sharing anecdotes from their personal life between impressive musical numbers.

The next performance was in direct contrast to this approach. Tom Dickens, who would be familiar to regular attendees of The Butterfly Club as the bartender, will be performing his show Meet Me Downstairs in the Bar, not surprisingly, in the downstairs bar at the Butterfly Club. His extended show is more about storytelling, and features all original material. Also in contrast to Harrison, Dickens to lack a little confidence during the interview, but this was not an issue once he started performing. His performance, rather than being autobiographical, involved playing a role (or two) with the development of specific characters, such as a bartender and a drunk simultaneously. The original songs were a little hard to engage with taken out of context of the show and vocally the performance seemed to be more about the character than development than the music. Dickens performed 3 pieces, displaying a pleasant voice that was often covered by the affectation of a rough character voice and accent. He accompanied himself well on both guitar and piano and utilised some audience participation in the 2nd song, which was much more pleasant to listen to from a purely musical perspective, but still with a strong storytelling vibe. I do not get the impression that his concept really lent itself to a 10 min excerpt – it is certainly easier to connect with music you are familiar in such a short exposure.

Following Dickens was the acapella girl group ‘Ginger and Tonic’ with a few songs from their show Desperate and Dateless. ‘Ginger and Tonic’, made up of Emma, Jane, Carena and Laura, presented each of their numbers acapella, demonstrating beautiful vocals and stunning harmonies, with a comedy bent. Their parody of Beyonce’s ‘Halo’, rewritten from the point of view of a dedicated stalker, is hilarious, and musically perfect. I could have easily watched an entire evening of them, and their show stopping vocals combined with an approachable humour worked well as a short sample. The girls were a little inconsistent in the level to which they each put their characters across, but as funny as they may be, it is their stunning sound that is the real highpoint, so it didn’t really matter.

The evening concluded with a selection of numbers by 2 members of the trio ‘The Beautiful Losers’, Mark Jones and Karlis Zaid, from their show Despite Popular Demand. Theirs is clearly not a show for the fainthearted (or easily offended). Again, not sure their show format is ideal for a brief ‘taster’ format. Musical selection jumped from the quirky to the highly offensive. The second song, after lulling the audience into a false sense of security with a stereotypical choral style first verse before launching into a shockingly confronting second verse. The entire show seemed designed to make the audience feel at least slightly uncomfortable at best, thoroughly offended at worst. In their interview, they describe their full show as ‘character driven’, focusing on a “bunch of misfits”. It is clearly promoted as an example of cabaret’s ‘Dark Arts’ and that it “Would offend the vast majority of Australians”, so it shouldn’t be too much of a shock to the audience of Despite Popular Demand’, but it came as a bit of a contrast to the previous acts in the Best of the Fest lineup and was therefore doubly shocking.

Trevor Jones did a good job of tying the acts together and promoting their upcoming shows. The evening was an entertaining way to get a taste for the variety of material available at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, and if something didn’t appeal… well it was only 10 minutes! If you can’t get to more than one show, it might be a good way to sample what the festival has to offer, but if you get the chance, attending a full show of your performer of choice will give a richer cabaret experience.