How to describe Tina Arena’s stage presence?

The Cabaret Festival artistic director isn’t always on stage for this two-hour celebration of music’s role in the personal histories of some of Australia’s most distinctive performers. But her spirit is here: she’s authoritative, in the way that a serious performer should be; but she also knows how to have fun.

And that’s what happened in this oftentimes extraordinary night at the cabaret.

In two hours, Arena transports us to her family’s sunroom in Moonee Ponds, swaying along with her mother and sisters to the melodramatic ’80s ballad, Maledetta primavera (Cursed spring), while her fellow performers give us a dazzling tour encompassing Chinese rock ‘n’ roll and Zimbabwean lullaby, Torres Strait gospel singing and Yom Kippur prayers, Scottish folk song, some Destiny’s Child, and one of the greatest versions of an Arena hit you’re ever likely to hear.

Under the direction of Johanna Allen, the Her Majesty’s stage is set with stringed lights and an array of lampshades. Arena welcomes the audience to the singers’ home – a slowly building (and very unexpected) version of Madness’s ’80s hit Our House introduces the concept.

On stage with Arena are Australian singers from an array of cultural backgrounds: Sophie Koh, whose background is Chinese-Malaysian, Israeli-born Lior, French-Canadian Wendy Matthews, Jess Hitchcock, whose family hails from Saibai in the Torres Strait, and Melbourne-based, Zimbabwean-born Thando.

After Arena begins with the gorgeous sway of Maledetta, Koh bursts onto the stage with a Chinese call-and-response rock ‘n’ roll celebration, the 1950s number Wo Yao Ni De Ai, before sitting at the piano for one of her own pieces, “Yellow Rose”, dedicated to unsung Chinese poets.

Thando, a powerful soul singer, kicks the night to a new place with her favourite song as a nine-year-old, “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, before stunning the audience with a soaring lullaby, Tula, Tula, once sung to her by her mother, that she now sings to her daughter.

By this stage, it was clear this was a unique performance – a chance to traverse cultures and styles in a way that is likely to be a once-off. Singers performing pieces of great personal meaning, was significant in the strength of the delivery.

The family theme extended to the local musicians on stage. Along with a string quartet, a band led by Adelaide’s Mark Ferguson on piano also included his family – the mother-daughter back-up singing duo of Sue and Ciara Ferguson were a joy to watch and listen to.

Lior’s turn: an impossibly cute rendering of his favourite song from his favourite kids’ album as a young child in Tel Aviv; then an unadorned Yom Kippur prayer for compassion, with the singer turning on a two-cent piece to turn the cabaret stage to sacred space, from a bounce-along ditty to a soaring invocation.

A similar turn came next from Jess Hitchcock, who surely will soon gain more attention for her effortlessly powerful and rich voice. After a nod to her Mum’s love for ’50s and ’60s rock with “Stupid Cupid”, she was joined by Sue and Ciara to raise the roof with a powerful gospel rendering of a Torres Strait hymn, Baba Waiyar.

Wendy Matthews told stories of her youth in Canada, starting with Cherokee Louise by Joni Mitchell (“I lived inside her emotions…”), and then her own hit “Standing Strong”, her distinctive voice perfect for a cabaret setting.

After the interval came a highlight: Arena and Hitchcock duetting on Arena’s hit “Sorrento Moon (I Remember)”, given a new nostalgic glow with a slower tempo. Gorgeous.

From long ago summers in the Victorian seaside town, we’re back on the streets of Tel Aviv – that terrible day in November 1995 when Israeli prime minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, with all of its terrible meanings for peace in that country. Before the killing, a crowd of 100,000 sang a prayer for peace – Shir L’Shalom – which Lior brought to the stage with his ringing tenor voice.

And so the night continued in this emotional vein. There were two highlights from here: Wendy Matthews singing her heartbreaking 1992 hit “The Day You Went Away”, mostly in French, leaning against the grand piano, her whisky-and-cigarettes timbre taking us into a late-night reverie.

And then, Arena, commanding the stage, delivered a searing version of “Caruso”, the story of the aching memories of a man about to die in that other Sorrento, in her Italian ancestral homeland.

A perfect ending was delivered with each singer contributing in their own language to Lior’s wedding song favourite, “This Old Love”, followed by an Italian wedding style sing- and dance-along with Tinarella Di Luna.

This was a genius concept and, perhaps, the crowning achievement of Arena’s oversight of this year’s Cabaret Festival.

Encore, please!

Songs My Mother Taught Me plays again at Her Majesty’s Theatre tonight, June 25.

See all InReview’s coverage of the 2022 Cabaret Festival here.

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