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Cabaret, News, Performing arts, Reviews

As good as it gets

Review: John O’Hara accompanied by Andrew Kroenert, #Val: A Glitery Ode to Queer Men and their Mums ·
Downstairs at the Maj, 13 September ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

John O’Hara. What a guy!

Raised on the Canning Highway Avenue of the Stars (Dave Faulkner at the Manning end, Dave Warner at the Bicton end), O’Hara schooled at Melville Primary and John Curtin College of the Arts, studied at WAAPA and has gone on to star on stage (Cats, Rocky Horror, Wicked, Priscilla) and cabaret, all over the place.

He’s back home, in more ways than one, with #Val: A Glittery Ode to Queer Men and their Mums, the story of his growing up, his coming out and the songs that helped him do both.

Those who’ve seen him on the Maj’s basement stage before, in Dedications (2015) or last year’s A Very Merry Christmas (there were plenty of comebackers in the audience – always a good sign) would have known they were in for a fine time in the company of a dead snappy performer.

I think they’d have also known they were in for more than that – because O’Hara’s cabarets are rare commodity in that glittery world. They are about things.

A fair swag of the songs of #Val are, in a sense, predictable. Gaga’s “Born This Way”, Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s have a Kiki”, an all-time gay anthemfest (“I Will Survive”, “Raining Men”, “Vogue”, “Dance With Somebody”…), George Michael’s “Freedom”, even the Barbie theme song, “Get Your Sparkle On” (we did).

But it’s the songs we don’t expect, and the way he gets inside them that we’ve never heard before, that makes O’Hara such a compelling performer. Who’s gunna to do the little tearjerker “Baby of Mine” from Disney’s Dumbo, Cher’s gun-totin’ “Turn Back Time”, or, of all things, Farnsy’s “You’re the Voice”?

But he does, and owns them all big time.

And when everything he’s trying to do and say comes completely together (much credit due here to his accompanist – well they’re a duo, really, Andrew Kroenert), in heartbreaking, revelatory versions of TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Sia’s “Titanium”, it’s like you’ve never really known what they’re about until now.

That’s the strength, but also the one weakness, of #Val. The story of a gay boy growing up and into is skin, his relationships (with his fabulous mother, of course, his straight brother, his absent father) is funny, sweet and makes all the points it needs to.

The extrapolation into the history of the LGBTIQ struggle way back to the Stonewall Uprising and the death of Marsha P Jackson is understandable and legitimate, but it confuses O’Hara’s narrative and dangles him on the crumbly edge of polemic.

But what the hey. That’s just me. John O’Hara, “Australia’s John O’Hara”, gives as good an hour as you’ll get to spend on this side of the footlights.

Pictured top: John O’Hara.

This review first appeared on Turnstiles and is published here with kind permission from David Zampatti.