Dags and Divas

Brisbane ABC Studios, West End (X-Collective with Sirens of Song)


Professional production

Cast: Leisa Barry-Smith, Craig Allister Young, Jacqueline Mabardi, Shelli Hulcombe, Hugh Ponnuthurai

Timed for Mardi Gras, X-Collective’s edgy Cinderella revamp, is a mix of frocked-up cabaret, classics and comedy, designed to resonate and hit high notes with the Brisbane and Sydney scenes. The 13-piece cabaret ensemble, largely derived from members of The Queensland Orchestra, blurs the line between classical music and the cabaret stage. Programs stir a mix of jazz, Broadway musicals, techno and camp-comedy with popular classics, including Carmen, the Ponte Vecchio aria from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and lesser-known excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella.

The versatile musicians (string quartet, single woodwind and brass, percussion and piano) double electric bass, flugel horn, cor anglais, piccolo and bagpipes, and relish their additional roles as actors, singers, dancers and comedians. Given this production’s collaboration with Sirens of Song, there’s less scope for all musos to score a comedy or vocal spot, though flautist Karen Lonsdale projects a well-trained soprano. Violinist Gail Aitken embraces her anti-heroine character parts with gusto, adding to her duelling violins with Brynley White and dubious bagpipe solo a running gag as a leper. Yesterday becomes Leprosy (“I’m not half the gal I used to be”) and later there’s “You’ve gotta use what you’ve got to get what you want before what you’ve got falls off.”

The classic fairy tale has been vamped and revamped for centuries, so what’s new with this Cinderella for the 21st century production? Cinders gets the cutting-edge treatment in this collaboration with Sirens of Song, a group of professionally trained and experienced comic opera singers formed in 2004 by the show’s producer, Tarita Carbo. Jacqueline Mabardi and Shelli Hulcombe play the Ugly Sisters in full operatic diva mode. Their glitter contrasts with the opening scene’s ultimate orchestral “dags” in loud floral shirts, socks and sandals, and a red leather jacket. Oboist Bernard Girard’s thin legs in short shorts is an unforgettable sight.

With his rubber lips, fairground coconut-shy toothy grin and mobile tongue action, vocalist/bassoonist Hugh Ponnuthurai is always a show-stealer. He’s been deputising in Orchestra Victoria as Principal Contrabassoonist so the lack of rehearsal shows in some script cribbing and lack of vocal confidence, but once he hits his stride his comic range has flashes of Peter Sellers’ sheer manic genius. His Bollywood-style cross-dressing Fairy Godfather is a highlight of the evening.

As the gay director with control issues, Craig Allister Young projects a secure rich voice and assured over-acting. A running gag sees his hissy fits muffled in the Ugly Sisters’ pneumatic bosoms. Leisa Barry-Smith injects super-dag into her chrysalis of wardrobe dogsbody who stutters when nervous or when she’s around the Ugly Sisters. Her song “I feel p-p-pretty” is surely more witty and gay than Leonard Bernstein ever envisaged and the accompanying musicians mostly catch her disjointed rhythm. She further rises to a challenge to play Cinderella as an alcoholic crack-whore with Tourette’s syndrome and a limp. Her soaring voice creates a true metamorphic miracle in her final bouffant butterfly scenes.

Gags fly about botox, collagen, silicone, wax and haemorrhoid cream (to defy crows feet), while suitably camped up gowns are by award-winning designer Richard de Chazal and Leivi Jones. Choreography is generally tight, the cast move well, and singers and instrumentalists project with fluent professionalism. Apart from a rather untidy anti-climactic end to the first act (a sense of “Hey, it’s time for an interval, how do we get off stage without a curtain?”), the show’s energy maintains high voltage, and the cast have another week to fine-tune minor glitches before their Sydney performances on February 25.

A rousing finale “I am what I am … need no excuses” proves a heartfelt mantra to send the home crowd Brisbane audience out on a high. X-Collective’s fast-paced performance, full of energy, groan-out-loud puns, sheer professionalism and talent make it quite clear that they’re having as much of a ball as the audience is.

Directed by Leisa Barry-Smith

Performances: Brisbane: Sunday 18 February 6pm
Sydney: Sunday 25 February – 3.00pm & 7.00pm at the Downstairs Theatre, Seymour Centre.

Duration: Two hours and 15 minutes, 20 minute interval

— Ruth Bonetti
(Performance seen: Sat 17th February 2007)