By Suzanne Tate

After a bumpy start Wednesday’s opening night of the MUST Cabaret Festival, streamed from the MUST Facebook page, started the festival off with a bang, showcasing some impressive talent. Opening night was ably hosted by Sophie Ashkanasy and Shannon Brown, who did an excellent job in difficult circumstances. Not only did they face the challenge of presenting to an absentee audience, but they battled technical issues and delays. They did so with professionalism and humour, and filled the downtime in an entertaining way.

The opening act was ‘TV-OH!’ by Vocally Owned, a 5 person Acapella group. Their performance featured solid harmonies supported by amusing visuals (normally no one is watching when they sing in the shower!), but some of the vocals lacked polish.

Act #2 was a juggling performance by Joe Fisher. His performance was impressive, but like most circus art, would definitely would have worked better as a live performance. The juggling was skilful and the performance was dynamic, enhanced by a clever combination of music and lighting. Unfortunately, the footage was recorded from a substantial distance. This was necessary to cover the wide range of Fisher’s rapid movement across the stage, and the full height of the balls being juggled, but it left Fisher quite small on the screen. I hope I have the chance to see Fisher perform live one day.

The next performer was singer/songwriter Tash Tunaley with several original numbers. Her songs were interesting, but appeared challenging both vocally and in timing. Tunaley’s music did not seem to sit entirely comfortably within her own vocal range, as there were some moments when she seemed to be straining to reach the highest and lowest notes, and to fit in all of the lyrics. Tunaley accompanied herself proficiently on guitar, and her performance was engaging. I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

The 4th performance of the evening was Mahalia Moves with ‘The Moods of Lockdown as Told Through the Hoop’. This act had a creative premise but failed to deliver. The idea of demonstrating the various moods of our ISO lockdown using a hoop performance was intriguing. To run with that theme however, I think more than 2 ‘moods’ were needed. The first part of the act was intended to capture the lassitude we have all felt living through lockdown. Unfortunately, the hoop skills displayed were not terribly eye catching or exciting, and a feeling of boredom is not generally the goal of an acrobatic circus act. The second section, depicting having a rave in your kitchen, was much more visually engaging. The hoop was moving in a much more dynamic way, and the coloured lights on the hoop further increased visual interest. While it is a sign of skill to make to make any physical act appear easier than it is, this performance lacked the wow factor, and the deliberately ‘homely’ setting just added to that impression.

The final performance in Act 1 was one of the highlights of the evening. Vocalist Isabella Molino performed two songs; ‘Love Never Dies’ and an Indie Rock piece by Radiohead.  In the first song, Molino’s sound was beautiful and pure, with excellent pitch, impressive range and perfect diction. She then showed her vocal versatility, producing a more earthy sound that was still incredibly beautiful. Molino’s talent is evident and it was a pleasure to witness her performance.

After the brief interval (one highlight of a virtual Cabaret performance is no bathroom queue at intermission!) the show went in a dramatically different direction. Strangekit are a group of performers “…inspired by multidisciplinary contemporary performance practices and theatre”. This is a genre with which I am not familiar. It felt, experimental, quirky and cutting edge. But for me, unfortunately, what it wasn’t was entertaining or funny, which is what I expect from a night of cabaret. However, it felt more to me like a piece of performance art, a concept I am more familiar with and can get my head around. There is certainly nowhere more appropriate for such edgy theatrical performance than a University campus (virtually speaking). It certainly gave the audience something to think about.

Written by Stephanie Lee and Josh Connell, and performed by Josh Connell, Jeremy Harland, Grace Laing and Olivia Mox, the next act brought another sudden turn for the evening. ‘A Zoom Group Project: A Musical’ was thoroughly entertaining. Creative, clever lyrics and melodies that overlapped and intercepted each other in true musical tradition made for excellent viewing – I would have happily watched more of this, despite the sometimes unsteady vocals. This act could definitely be a scene in the highly successful, but yet to be written ‘Pandemic: The Musical”.

The variety of talent and genre presented in the opening night of the MUST Cabaret Festival was noteworthy. The next performance, a monologue written by Elly D’Arcy, directed by Molly Forshaw and performed by Lenah Simbauni sent us in yet another direction. Simbauni’s performance was extremely powerful. She expressed a range of emotions and drew us on a journey. The path was not clear, but it was intriguing, and I was hanging on every word.  At the end, I wanted to discuss the story with the author and discover its true meaning. A beautiful work, enhanced by appropriate use of lighting and cinematography.

The final act of the evening was a vocal and acoustic guitar performance by the talented singer/songwriter Jord. His songs were emotive and moving, and prophetically appropriate for performance during a pandemic.

Overall, the night was highly entertaining and bodes well for what is to come over the remaining 5 performances.

Image: Sarah Walker