Yes, Midsumma is over for 2014, and in some ways, this blog entry will be pretty irrelevant. But for the record, here’s Midsumma 2014 experience.
It all started with Carnival on Sunday, January 12 of course, back in the Alexandra Gardens after a few years trying to work in Birrarung Marr, and a welcome return it was too. It was wonderful to meet with friends and spread our picnic blankets under palm trees and chat, eat, drink, laugh and check out the passing traffic. Carnival’s one of those events where you run into people you haven’t seen since last Midsumma, except on Facebook, so it’s a very social and relaxed day. We even managed to make in into The Age’s online photo gallery doing exactly that, which was nice. I managed however to acquire a singlet tanline which is slowly being replaced with a full chest tan…
T-Dance returned as it was first conceived too, as a free dusk dance party, and that too had a great atmosphere – good music and sexy vibe, the perfect end to the day.
And so the festival was off, and we had a very busy three weeks ahead of us seeing shows. Not that we got to everything (by the time Pride March finished the festival, we were burnout – literally and figuratively), but what we did get to was consistently good quality entertainment, whether it was the Revolt Artspace in Kensington or the State Theatre in the Arts Centre. It was a broad range of shows, but surprisingly two distinct themes emerged: divas and the channelling thereof, and self-reflection. And gay marriage.
We started off with Oprahfication at Chapel Off Chapel, a 90-minute musical speculation of What Oprah Got Up To Next. Rachel Dunham, who wrote the show with composer Shannon Whitelock, WAS Oprah as soon as she stepped on stage. The audience were, in effect, her studio audience for this ‘one-off ultimate interview’, and as such, it was lots of fun. It wasn’t satire, and not exactly a homage to the Queen of Daytime TV, but it was definitely an affectionate celebration of Oprah, her show, and her ego that wasn’t afraid to gently take the piss here and there.
Dunham channelled Oprah perfectly, and with her strong voice and the live band, she belted out some great original songs that sounded polished and professional. It’s no surprise then that Oprahficaction is aiming for something bigger – it’s Broadway or bust!
The following night it was off to fortyfivedownstairs to channel another diva with In Vogue: Songs By Madonna. With just a grand piano, smooth vocals and dry wit, Michael Griffiths inhabited the world of the Queen of Pop and her music. Like his other show, Sweet Dreams: Songs By Annie Lennox, which we saw last year at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, Griffiths didn’t imitate or impersonate Madonna; he adopted her persona and spoke and sand in the first person as if he were her. Loosely following Madonna’s career from her early days to who she is today, Griffiths made astute and sardonic observations about her music and acting skills (or lack thereof), and performed some great arrangements of Madge’s songs. But as good, and sometimes nostalgic as it was, In Vogue didn’t have the resonance or emotional depth that his Lennox show had. That probably says more about the two artists rather than Griffiths’ performance. Or maybe it’s just that I prefer Annie over Madge any day.
The week after, we were back at Chapel off Chapel for Standing on Ceremony – The Gay Marriage Plays, a much-publicised and anticipated collection of nine short plays on the theme of gay marriage. The collection premiered in New York in 2011 and is still very relevant, with some plays stronger than others. While they all had important things to say or observations to make, the more memorable plays involved a conservative housewife talking about the gay agenda, a Jewish mother and her made-up engagement for her gay son, both by Paul Rudnick, a dramatization of a Facebook post and subsequent comments, and the moving eulogy a gay man gives at his partner’s funeral. The strong cast included Spencer McLaren, Pia Miranda, Michael Veitch and Helen Ellis. Well put together, with live music linking the plays, Standing on Ceremony was thought-provoking, irreverent and well-considered. And not at all didactic or preachy, which is always a good thing on stage.
On to show number four – You’ve Got Male with Michael Dalton. This had been postponed for a week because of a death in the family, which is understandable, and actually made this first performance that little more poignant, given the show was a trip down memory lane as Dalton talked about his performance career, starting as a young boy in England. Dalton usually performs as his drag persona Dolly Diamond, so this sees him stepping out from behind the wigs and frocks to reveal himself – not an easy thing for anyone to do on stage. It was indeed very funny, mostly because Dalton happily made jokes at his own expense, but it also touched on darker issues such as self-esteem and body image. But it was a treat seeing archival video footage of Dalton performing ‘Believe It Or Not’ as a teenager on Young Talent Time.
Because this was the show’s first full run-through, and because Dalton was clearly enjoying himself on stage, he didn’t realise that the first act ran for almost two hours! Not that it wasn’t entertaining, but it was long. Luckily he kept the second act brisk and according to all reports, tightened up the first act the following night. Still it was a courageous, funny and revealing show for a born entertainer.
The following day was DT’s annual Golden Stiletto Rally around the streets of Richmond, always a fun and out-of-control day. Like previous years, I was accompanying Glenda Waverley at one of the challenge pitstops, this year at Ost Café on Bridge Road. Teams had to volunteer one member to scull a Crownie, which may or may not have been laced with tabasco sauce, and most teams rose easily to the challenge. Bribes were a bit lacking this year (I attribute this to the number of first-timers), but there was a good-natured effort in dressing up and having fun. Some teams performed well, others gave up along the way. Bless.
The following week we were off to Jonathan Duffy’s show at Revolt Artspace, Without Me, I’m Nothing. Essentially it was a one-man show with stand-up comedy and music numbers as Duffy recounts his experiences with showbiz success, especially his documentary The Doctor’s Wife. What was most impressive though was his willingness to make himself completely vulnerable in front of an audience, especially when talking about his early sexual experiences, body image issues and self-doubt. The fact that he stripped down to his underwear for a costume change made his exposure both emotional and physical, and took a lot of guts. It was a funny, brave, poignant and very human show presented with a healthy humour and self-deprecating insight. It was refreshing to see on stage that life as a gay man is complex, and not just about sex, dance parties, Kylie and coming out. And Duffy finished with a wonderfully hilarious finale performing ‘Euphoria’ by Loreen, Sweden’s 2012 Eurovision winner, assisted ably by Daniel Witthaus, kicking off a new career as a back-up dancer. I hope to see more of this type of show in the future.
To finish off our Midsumma marathon, it’s back to diva-channelling with Diamonds Are For Trevor. We’ve seen Trevor Ashley in Liza on an E, Little Orphan Trashley and Priscilla: The Musical, but in this larger-than-life and lavish show, he becomes Dame Shirley Bassey. It was uncanny, and not in mimicking the Girl from Tiger Bay, but by getting to the essence of who Bassey is.
‘Let’s Get This Party Started’ was an obvious but perfect way to start the show, and like all the songs Ashley performed with a 15-piece orchestra, incredibly faithful to Bassey’s own renditions. Other highlights included (as you’d expect), ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘History Repeating’, ‘I Who Have Nothing’, and some amazing frocks, but his ‘Bassey doing Adele doing Bassey’ version of ‘Rolling in the Deep’ was clever and priceless. With talent like that, it’s no wonder Ashley sold out the State Theatre, and the audience clearly loved it. Maybe it was the two standing ovations that gave that away.
It was a perfect end to a varied but rewarding Midsumma Festival, and if this is an indication of the festival’s performing arts future, it’s going to continue to strengthen. Thank goodness – the festival is still an important outlet for queer art and community involvement.