It’s that time again. A week into June, just when winter starts to bite, and the Adelaide Cabaret Festival convenes for the 24th year. And as old as the festival itself is the Variety Gala. This is a chance to sample the program; a glimpse of the weeks ahead. For many it is an occasion for a night out, for others some serious plumage display, and for everyone a celebration of that elusively defined thing called Cabaret.

After Isaac Hannam’s quietly eloquent Welcome to Country, the curtain rises on Kathryn Sproul’s elegantly minimal décor – quilted curtains at the back of the stage lit in purples and blues and, suspended above, a dozen or so mid-century orange globes. Downstage left is a large bathtub from which tumbles, in a full-length grey gown, the Person of Ceremonies, current artistic director Virginia Gay.

She is announcer, narrator, but also chief spruiker of the event. Gay first performed at the Cabaret Festival 15 years ago and she is both advocate and devotee. Her pride and respect for the accomplishments and expanding reputation of the June get-together borders on hyperbole even for the local cheer squad. But it is deeply felt and generously sincere, and offers a welcome morale boost to a host of performing artists still recovering from a devastating loss of momentum during COVID.

Gay plays to local sentiment with a lively rendition of “Adelaide” – Ben Folds’ wryly parochial paeon, rather than the sardonic Paul Kelly one.

To follow is Fascinating Aïda, the UK trio of droll women satirists celebrating 40 years of musical barbs and lampoonery. “Prisoner of Gender” has them chirpily venturing into the choppy waters of transsexual transformation but they tunefully manoeuvre into a hymn for inclusivity and viva la difference to conclude.

The house band, lamentably unintroduced but outstanding all night, lights up with saxophones and horns for Bert LaBonté’s dazzling version of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On”. He captures that sweet, grainy high tenor in one of many highlights of the evening.

Also excellent is Gillian Cosgriff with “Presents”, an impishly preceptive send-up of the increasingly lackadaisical approach to gift-giving. The crisp, clever lyrics will attract many to check out her show, “Actually, Good”, which plays until Sunday.

Gillian Cosgriff’s Variety Gala performance was a gift. Photo: Claudia Raschella

Graduate, and now mentor, from the festival’s Class of Cabaret, Millicent Sarre featured with a belting version of “I Can Cook Too” from Lenny Bernstein’s “On the Town”, and Jess Hitchcock delivered a scintillating rendition of “Suspended in Time” from Xanadu – part of the Olivia Newton-John tribute Hopelessly  Devoted, which has one performance with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra on June 15.

From the UK, the deadpan, zany musical duo Flo & Joan come close to stealing the night. Their plaintive folksong rendering of “Lady in the Woods”, complete with tender harmonies and recorder interludes, is a hilarious melange of alliterative innuendo that gathers with alarming comic speed. Flo & Joan – one in earnest horn-rimmed specs with embroidered roses on her jacket, the other looking like a chorus member from “Pippin” – are surely one of the hot tickets of the festival.

Musical duo Flo & Joan were a crowd favourite at the Variety Gala. Photo: Claudio Raschella

In a line-up that has a welcome predominance of extraordinary women, the men nonetheless make their mark. Like Mark Nadler, for instance, whose “I Love a Piano“ is a thunderingly funny (and brilliant ) musical mash-up of Fats Waller, Scott Joplin, Glenn Miller, Mozart and Liberace. Nadler hammers the klavier with hilarious virtuosity, while managing not to sit on his suit tails and beaming imperiously at the audience. The Stein-Yamaha, as he calls it, will not only need tuning, it might need a chiropractor – especially after Gabbi Bolt and Matthew Predny’s four-handed keyboard blitzkrieg from Murder for Two later in act two.

Reuben Kaye, a longstanding Cabaret Festival and Fringe Person of Outrage, did not disappoint with “I Want Ya” from his show The End. With his reptilian wit, immaculate timing, and comic insouciance, Kaye delivers both queer comedy and challenging satire – attributes Virginia Gay alluded to as she awarded the genuinely startled Kaye the well-deserved Cabaret Icon Award for 2024.

Virginia Gay presents Reuben Kaye with the 2024 Cabaret Icon Award. Photo: Claudio Raschella

The program, astutely paced and briskly directed by Mitchell Butel, closes on a series of high notes. Cassie Hamilton is a rising talent with her splendidly sung and proudly affirming “Falling in Love with Someone” from her comic odyssey A Transgender Woman on the Internet, Crying.

Rhonda Burchmore, celebrating 42 years in the business, spoke both poignantly and pragmatically about the life of the jobbing stage performer before launching into a terrific version of “They Just Keep Moving the Line”, and Gay put on the Travolta leather jacket and mixed it with Christie Whelan Browne for a wiggly and Greasy workout of “You’re the One that I Want.”.

This has been one of the better galas in a while. Gay works hard and winningly to keep the pace going, even if sometimes the superlatives get the better of her enthusiasm. Musical director Shanon Whitelock and the band don’t miss a beat, and Mahalia Barnes’ closer – a soaring rendering of “River Deep, Mountain High”, with a chorus of ooh-ah singers – augurs very well for the weeks to come.

The Adelaide Cabaret Festival runs until June 22.

Read more Cabaret Festival coverage here.

‘You’re the One that I Want’ – Christie Whelan Browne and Virginia Gay. Photo: Claudio Raschella

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