Take Two

Cremorne Theatre (Judi Connelli and Suzanne Johnston)


Professional production

Cabaret or concert? In a small intimate theatre like the Cremorne, and with such versatile performers as Judi Connelli and Suzanne Johnston, it’s hard to tell. Part of me wanted the intimacy of sitting at a small table with a couple of drinks and dim lighting, but another part of me wanted a full concert performance with the singers in full view, strutting their amazing stuff above and in front of us.

For this show we got the usual raked seats instead of the Cremorne in cabaret mode – it costs thousands of dollars to remove all the seating and set up the space with tables, I believe – but it worked perfectly well, for these two Grandes Dames of musical theatre know how to entice an audience and massage them into compliance, and they know the tricks of looking audience members in the eye and involving them in the music. By that, I don’t mean the dreaded drag-‘em-up-on-stage-and-humiliate-‘em technique that is currently going on next door in the Lyric Theatre, but making us feel part of the show, friends of the performers rather than a faceless audience sitting there determined to be entertained.
BR> It certainly felt like Old Friends Night, for both Judi and Suzy are well-loved in Brisbane, to the extent that even a reviewer feels confident enough to refer to them on first-name terms, and their rare appearances here are always welcome. Both of them have international reputations in grand opera, musical comedy, music theatre and cabaret, and between them they have earned honours as various as Helpmann Awards, MO Awards, a Churchill Fellowship and an Order of Australia. But both wear their greatness lightly, and they performed for us as friends rather than celebrities, which helps dispel the formality that even a small theatre venue can often have.

For me the concert was a dream, combining plenty of Sondheim (I’ve always maintained that if Mozart were alive today, he’d be writing Sondheim musicals) with standard classics by Noel Coward, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter; as well as a touch of operatic genius with the Flower Duet from Delius’s Lakme. For even more variety there were a couple of comedy numbers, one of which, by local composer Robert Keane, was completely unknown to me, but a great light-hearted treat, for it was about choosing what animal you’d like to be if you could come back for a second time. This “Kangaroo” number is one of those songs that can work on any level, and to see Judi and Suzy hamming it up with dead-pan faces was one of the comic highlights of the evening.

But there’s more to cabaret theatre than just the songs. It’s the way the performers interpret them, and how they relate to the audience and to each other, and I think these two women have the balance just right. Their interpersonal relationship is strong, and because it comes across with just a slight touch of ambiguity (I particularly liked the gorgeous fashionably asymmetrical jackets and skirts), their affection was able to manifest itself while still including the audience in the emotions. Lots of good feminist stuff, of course, but without the stridency of the early Robyn Archer and her ilk – rather the emotions have a bitter-sweet edge to them, a kind of wistfulness for what might/could/should be more than anger at how things don’t work out.

There’s lightness and passion – and when both women use their astonishing operatic range, especially Connelli in Sondheim’s “Could I leave you?”, the mood changes exponentially and we are swept away by the power of the voices as well as the emotion – but there’s no sentimentality, for this is not a three-hanky show, nor even a women’s show. The men in the audience were enjoying it as much as their wives, girlfriends, and Significant Others of both genders.

It’s brave, it’s honest, it’s quirky and just naughty enough – in other words, as the old Cole Porter song goes, “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delectable, it’s delirious, it’s dilemma, it’s de limit, it’s deluxe, it’s de-lovely”.

Director: Jason Langley

Musical director: Michael Tyack

Lighting design: Michele Preshaw

Playing 13 – 23 June 2007, Wednesday and Saturday at 1.30pm, Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm

Duration : 2 hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 14th June 2007)