How do you pick favourites from a show that’s all highlights from start to finish?

Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s Variety Gala is always a hot ticket. The sell-out show is a fun way for audiences to sample what’s on offer and choose the artists they’d like to see more of.

Variety Gala host Virginia Gay was in fine form. Photo: Kelly Carpenter

Due to the diversity of the program, one might expect it would be difficult to wrangle the gala selections into one cohesive offering. In 2023, however, they nailed it. The evening was faultless, from Isaac Hannam’s evocative Welcome to Country to the closing medley of songs with a connection to South Australia – a powerhouse arrangement that got everyone singing and left us all on a high (but more on that later).

Under Mitchell Butel’s direction, the gala unfolded within a two-act structure that enabled the audience to get to know featured performers and some of the members of the Cabaret Collective (all former festival artistic directors) who curated this year’s line-up.

It was an inspired move. Throughout the show, expertly hosted by Virginia Gay, Collective members Julia Holt, David Campbell and Lisa Campbell, Kate Ceberano, Eddie Perfect, Ali McGregor and Julia Zemiro shared memories of their past stints at the helm of the festival, performed, and introduced other acts. The festival’s history was front and centre, with posters from previous years suspended above the band.

Gay gave us the old razzle dazzle to kick off the night and kept the show on track with wit, charm and a knockout voice. First up was Paris Combo with a number from their show, A Celebration of the Songs of Belle du Berry. Vocalist Carmen Maria Vega and accompanying band members were the perfect choice as opener, serving up a smoky, sultry blend of gypsy jazz and classic cabaret style.

The big performances kept coming all night, from Kate Ceberano’s majestic hit song “Brave”, to Eddie Perfect’s witty, fast-paced evisceration of arts critics via a song from an upcoming work, to The Voice Australia star thndo, with Dreamgirls power ballad “I Am Changing”. Ali McGregor’s spine-tingling rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” showed off her operatic skills and incredible vocal range.

Ali McGregor showcased her incredible vocal range with “Creep”. Photo: Kelly Carpenter

Mark Trevorrow (with Bev Kennedy on piano) revealed his “straight” side with a gorgeous performance of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie”. There were plenty of laughs, too. Trevorrow reappeared later as Bob Downe with Anne “Willsy” Wills – the duo are hosting a return season of their live Adelaide Tonight shows after its success at the 2021 Cabaret Festival. UK performer Sarah-Louise Young’s hysterical interpretation of a Kate Bush impersonator marked her as a likely festival hit.

Hans, Adelaide’s beloved “German” entertainer, opened the second half of the show, back on stage with The Lucky Bitches after a long absence following a serious injury sustained while performing on a cruise ship overseas. It was a triumphant return that was capped off by the announcement that Hans/Matt Gilbertson was the recipient of the 2023 Cabaret Icon award.

Members of the Cabaret Collective present Hans with the 2023 Cabaret Icon award. Photo: Kelly Carpenter

Ongoing festival initiatives shared the spotlight: Philimon Araya, Class of Cabaret participant from several years ago, impressed with a joyous mash-up of “Baby Be Mine” (Michael Jackson) and “Ethiopia” (Teddy Afro); Julia Zemiro reminded us of the legacy of Frank Ford, Cabaret Festival founder, and his ongoing support of artists through the Frank Ford Commission.

Meow Meow’s tribute to her dear friend, the late Barry Humphries, was perfection and very moving, capturing their shared love of compositions of the Weimar period. Vince Jones and Nina Ferro got under our skin with their smooth delivery of the Frank Sinatra classic.

Meow Meow performs a tribute to Barry Humphries. Photo: Kelly Carpenter

In this 50th birthday year for the Adelaide Festival Centre, David Campbell’s finale (featuring Ali McGregor, Nina Ferro and Virginia Gay on back-up vocals) soared through excerpts from “Reminiscing” (Little River Band), “Choir” (Guy Sebastian), “Cheap Wine” (Cold Chisel), “Because I Love You” (Masters Apprentices) and “Chandelier” (Sia) – all with some link to SA and all receiving thunderous applause.

This final performance gave yet another hat tip to South Australia in an evening that included many heartfelt mentions of the state’s contribution to fostering the arts. Bravo to an evening packed with energy, emotion and spectacular talent.

The 2023 Variety Gala was presented at the Festival Theatre on June 9 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which continues until June 24. See more stories and reviews on InReview’s Cabaret Festival page.

The 2023 Variety Gala set paid tribute to the Cabaret Festival’s history. Photo: Kelly Carpenter

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