New Zealand Festival 2014: James Cabaret
Wed Feb 26-Sun Mar 2
The music of Jacques Brel with its strong themes around death is so full of life in this presentation of his works, featuring the voices of Jon Toogood, Julia Deans, Tama Waipara and Jennifer Ward-Lealand. The show, directed by Michael Hurst, debuted in Auckland last year but its first Wellington airing is sensible casting for the festival.
All of the singers shine – each of them brings something to the performance that is crucial. Jon Toogood brings his rock’n’roll energy to some of his performances, there’s a vulnerability from him too – one we don’t usually see in his other guises as frontman for Shihad and The Adults. His voice really suits this material and his understanding of how to sell a show has him stepping out of his comfort zone but totally nailing the role.
Tama Waipara brings a cool charm – as well as his great voice. He’s suave, he’s funny, he’s able to act within the songs, to bring out something from certain lines, to tease a moment between the verses, or – memorably – before the coda/pay-off/punchline of The Girls and The Dogs.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand brings a gravitas, a musical-theatre background, she perhaps can now do this sort of thing in her sleep, but she’s the safe pair of hands behind a relatively straight, obvious reading of Ne Me Quitte Pas, where, in other cases throughout the show, the arrangements are subtly different – sometimes there’s great risk in re-energising the songs. Ward-Lealand was not my favourite of the cast – but only because it was so clear that she can do this, the others all seemed like interesting casting, as if a risk had been taken. But for any risk to pay off you need a back-up plan, a safety net, someone you can call on to help marshal the troops, hers is a captain’s knock.
Julia Deans was certainly the revelation – that she’s a wonderful singer is no secret of course. But she was just so right for this from the moment she took to the stage, looking the part, acting the part, she inhabited every song – had a new look and feel and sound for each “character” that she created to live within the moments of each tune.
Each singer was fantastic – any they were all given moments to shine individually, to in fact show their individuality and what they – and only they – could bring to each song. But every time Deans held the spotlight she was head and shoulders above. No mean feat in this wonderful group, particularly when otherwise Julia was the shortest on stage.
And the songs – oh man, these songs. They ache, they pounce, they are filled with moments of joy and despair, they are so close to being unbearably grim and then so wholly jubilant, there is heartbreak and longing, pangs of grief and doubt in self-belief, but then there’s so much wit and wisdom within these songs.
This production is either a reminder of the power of Brel – or an introduction to one of the great and influential songwriters. It’s also an introduction to the new stage careers for Deans and Toogood, a reminder of the powerful work already offered by Waipara and Ward-Lealand.
This show was a triumph for so many reasons.