Tributes to musical idols light up stage

23 June 2022

A cabaret veteran and opera performer bring very different interpretations of the greats of classical, jazz and pop in the second week of the Perth International Cabaret Festival, writes David Zampatti

Perth International Cabaret Festival: Paul Capsis Up Close and Personal, and Brigitte Heuser Maria, Marlene and Me ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 22 June 2022 ·

Paul Capsis bookends an emotional return to Perth after a decade’s absence with a passionate message: the stage is her happiness, and she wants us on it with her.

She began her set for Up Close and Personal, in the spectacular setting of a pop-up club on the stage of His Majesty’s Theatre, with the iconic “Life is a Cabaret” and ended with Nina Simone’s signature “Feeling Good”, and the two songs, along with everything in between, became as much a philosophy as a set list.

Capsis’s musical impetus is gospel – she’d be extraordinary in a revivalist tent – whether it’s her own “I’m On My Way” or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”, and she captures both gospel’s agony and ecstasy. 

Cabaret festival. A singer holds an arm in the air and the other on her chest. She has her eyes closes in what appears to be an intensely emotional moment
Paul Capsis wrenches all the emotional intensity from her material. Photo by Vanessa Cooper Photographie

This can bring a fresh perspective to a well-worn song: the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” has never quite sounded like this; even Cher’s “Bang Bang” strips away its 1960s novelty origins to emerge psychologically genuine, and genuinely frightening.   

And it can be utterly revelatory. In her “Back to Black”, Amy Winehouse stares coldly over the abyss of betrayal and desolation, but Capsis leaps over its edge, shrieking as she vanishes in the darkness.

There are songs, though, where Capsis’s admiration of the original keep her tight to that interpretation. Her reading of the deceptively simple “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” is as blue-eyed as Sinatra’s, and her closer, “Get it While You Can” is so true to Janis Joplin’s 1969 original you can close your eyes and see her there.

The jazz standard three-piece, led by pianist and musical director Jeremy Brennan with the cabaret festival band’s Greg Benton (percussion) and Joe Southwell (bass) adapt smoothly to the interesting acoustic of playing an “inside-out” auditorium with style and obvious enjoyment.  

Nothing demonstrates Capsis’s fealty to her musical idols, and her ability to expand their legacy, more than her encore, Lou Reed’s perfect “Perfect Day”. No one can, or should, toy with its beauty, but in its incandescent postscript, “You’re going to reap, just what you sow”, Capsis’s barely perceptible soul inflections make we wish, after 50 years of attentively listening to Reed and others, I could hear Aretha Franklin sing it. And that’s as high praise as I can give it, or to the marvellous Paul Capsis.

Brigitte Heuser in ‘Maria, Marlene and Me’. Photo by Vanessa Cooper Photographie

The WA Opera principal mezzo-soprano Brigitte Heuser descended the stairs from the Maj’s grand main hall to its more relaxed cabaret space downstairs to pay tribute to two of her idols, Maria Callas and Marlene Dietrich, for Maria, Marlene and Me, and it has to be said she’s left her comfort zone in doing so.

Heuser has a fine, confident voice, even when she’s tackling Callas arias like Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro”, Bizet’s “Habanera” or the diva’s masterpiece, Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte”that are sometimes, she confesses, not in her usual range. But the intimate setting for these glorious pieces, accompanied by Joshua Haines, was impressive.

Less so the Marlene Dietrich material; a personal gripe here, but it’s always a shame when you can guess in advance the material you’re about to hear – in this case “Naughty Lola”, “Falling in Love Again”, “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” and, in a Parisian meander, “La Vie en Rose”. Maybe these are the songs the audience expects to hear, but featuring them alone diminishes, rather than expands, the achievement of the legendary artists involved.

The same could be said of Heuser’s narration of Callas and Dietrich’s life and career. I don’t claim to know their stories in any particular depth, but I still learned very little about them from the show that a quick trip to Wikipedia wouldn’t have unearthed.

All of which left Heuser’s performance a little unsettled, and the show, consequently, lacking some sparkle.

Nothing, though, that more experience in the particular art and craft of cabaret, and a more judicious choice of material, wouldn’t remedy.

Paul Capsis and Brigitte Heuser end their festival runs on 23 June. The Perth International Cabaret Festival continues until 26 June 2022.

Pictured top: Paul Capsis and her three-piece on the pop-up stage at His Majesty’s. Photo by Vanessa Cooper Photographie

See more of what we saw at the Perth International Cabaret Festival

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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