“Stories into song” is how Virginia Gay defines cabaret.

It’s a simple concept, and also a broad one – which is handy when you’re programming a smorgasbord of artists ranging from a three-time Tony Award-winning musical theatre legend to pop stars, comedians, improv stars and burlesque performers. Gay has even thrown a Sunday afternoon book club into her magic mix.

“There’s a pretty extraordinary variety to it, which I really like – there’s something for everybody,” the Adelaide Cabaret Festival artistic director tells InReview.

“And there’s also a great variety of artists where I’m like, I know you won’t have heard of these people, but I promise they’re going to blow your mind.”

Gay – a star of both stage and screen who many will know from TV shows such as All Saints, Winners and Losers, Savage River and Dancing with the Stars – has performed at the Cabaret Festival a number of times and proved a popular host of the sold-out Variety Gala in 2023.

She will host the gala again in her first year as artistic director and “chief mischief maker”, promising “a delicious smorgasbord – a little charcuterie plate” of delights to herald the start of the June 7-22 festival.

2024 Adelaide Cabaret Festival artistic director Virginia Gay. Photo: Claudia Raschella

The opening weekend will also feature the first of a strong line-up of female vocal powerhouses, including singer-songwriter and 2019 Australian Eurovision contestant Kate Miller-Heidke with her show Catching Diamonds and Mahalia Barnes with her band The Soul Mates.

“Mahalia is doing something very special for us, which I’m absolutely obsessed with, which is where she is taking requests,” Gay says. “So in the show people yell out, at an appropriate time, and if one member of the band knows it, they have to do the song.”

One of the biggest drawcards of the 2024 festival is Broadway star Patti LuPone, who will bring her new show A Life in Notes to the Festival Theatre for one night before touring to other capital cities.

Fellow American singer and Broadway star Lisa Simone will be accompanied by a 16-piece band for her Adelaide-exclusive performance of Keeper of the Flame, in which she reprises classic songs by her famous mother, “High Priestess of Soul” Nina Simone.

“Her voice is incredible,” Gay says of Dame Lisa. “So weave that voice and that storytelling panache with the stories of her mother, the songs of her mother and an incredible band, and it’s going to be phenomenal.”

Giving InReview a whirlwind introduction to her program – which encompasses almost 80 performances over 12 nights, including 17 world premieres – the effervescent Gay highlights artists including First Nations singer Emma Donovan (launching her new solo album), Australian pop star Missy Higgins (as part of her national The Second Act tour), the “swoon-worthy” all-male four-piece Swing on This, Kiwi company A Slightly Isolated Dog (with their madcap musical-theatre take on Jekyll & Hyde), cabaret favourite Catherine Alcorn (channelling Bette Midler), and iconic UK trio Fascinating Aïda (celebrating their 40th anniversary).

Australian singers David Campbell, Christie Whelan Browne, Jess Hitchcock and Georgina Hopson will join the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for a show celebrating another icon: the late Olivia Newton-John. Hopelessly Devoted promises a playlist traversing hits from Grease and cult classic Xanadu, as well as Newton-John’s records.

Christie Whelan Browne will present her new show Life in Plastic. Photo: supplied

Indigenous singer Hitchcock will also perform her own solo show, while Whelan Browne has joined with comedian and writer Lou Wall to create Life in Plastic – a “bubblegum pop cabaret” that is described as both a sparkly celebration of sisterhood and an exploration of whether the “perfect” plastic life is shiny or suffocating. Whelan Browne and Gay appeared on the same season of TV’s Dancing with the Stars, where the former performed a Barbie-and-Ken-inspired routine that planted the seed for the show that will have its premiere at the Cabaret Festival.

Gay has drawn on her extensive network of television and entertainment-world friends for her program, which also includes a live version of Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales’ popular Chats 10 Looks 3 podcast, and a cabaret take on the ABC’s The Book Club hosted by Jennifer Byrne and Marieke Hardy and titled Between the Covers.

“Jennifer Byrne and Marieke Hardy and I all fell in love doing the ABC Book Club… they are now such important parts of my life. So I said, ‘What if we have a live on-stage reunion where we discuss a book that everybody will enjoy and everyone has a copy of and they probably read at least once in high school, too?’.”

The chosen book is F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and at regular intervals during the discussion a singer and band will perform songs from the period in which it is set to create what Gay dubs “an atmospheric world”.

“It’s a Sunday afternoon show and we want it to feel like a delicious warm hug… maybe you could have a little tot of rum with it, or a little spiced tea – that’s the feel of this show.”

As well as bringing familiar names to Adelaide, the Cabaret Festival has built a reputation for providing a platform for emerging artists and the development of new musical theatre. This year it will present an in-development showcase of writer and performer Cassie Hamilton’s A Transgender Woman on the Internet, Crying, described as “a techno pop joy explosion” about love, identity and the power of the trans community, and the work-in-progress Bumbling, by South Australian theatre-makers Isobel Marmion, Caitlin Ellen Moore and Kidaan Zelleke.

SA show Bumbling will have a work-in-progress showing. Photo: Laura Franklin

Adelaide singer Michelle Pearson, who has impressed Fringe audiences with shows such as Mixtape Australia and Comfort Food Cabaret, is this year’s Frank Ford Commission recipient and will meld pop music, power ballads and comedy in the world premiere of her new work, Skinny.

“She has made this show which is about her various shifting relationships with her body and how this word ‘skinny’ has a societal chokehold… so it’s a yell of rage and it’s also an explosion of body acceptance and positivity,” Gay explains.

The festival has several treats for lovers of improv. First up, in Musical Bang Bang, a team of brave performers including Jane Watt, Rob Johnson, Julia Zemiro and Tom Cardy will devise and perform a completely improvised – and likely chaotic – new musical on the spot each night. And in Comedians on Stage Auditioning for Musicals, Michelle Brasier and Ben Russell play the nightmarish artistic directors of an amateur musical theatre society holding auditions to find their next big star.

Gay was one of the comedians on stage who auditioned during that show’s season at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and indicates that she will be among the Cabaret Festival artists auditioning when it plays in Adelaide.

“I got up there and sang Javert’s ‘Suicide’ in the original key – that’s what I did for Comedians on Stage Auditioning for Musicals,” she says, laughing.

“It’s like the anti-Voice ­– it’s so funny. It’s such a joyful thing.”

Michelle Brasier and Ben Russell in Comedians on Stage Auditioning for Musicals. Photo: Claudio Raschella

Of course it wouldn’t be Cabaret Festival without a late-night offering, and in 2024 Mark Nadler, Victoria Falconer and Reuben Kaye will be entertaining in the Banquet Room, with the party set to continue in the foyer afterwards.

Virginia Gay signalled her approach to programming early on in her tenure when she became the first AD to go public with the callout for artist submissions, saying she loved “(finely-honed, expertly controlled) chaos”, and was excited by “queer, diverse, female and gender-non-conforming excellence” and shows which stretch the “story-into-song” format in new directions.

Gay acknowledges that cabaret has a long history, but is also constantly evolving. Her 2024 Adelaide Cabaret Festival highlights both that rich lineage and contemporary diversity.

“This festival is what I want the whole world to feel like – a celebration of community and abundance, togetherness through individuality, in all its sparkling joy.”

The 2024 Adelaide Cabaret Festival runs from June 7-22. The full program is now online.

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