This has been a demented work week (and it's not over yet by a long shot) in which I have been too busy to blog, except to make a few manic comments on other people's blogs in little five-minute blogging time-outs from the making-a-living thing, but I want to say something quickly about a show I saw on Wednesday night.
We're in the middle of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which is always great -- for me there was not only Paul Capsis on Wednesday night, but there'll be Eddie Perfect in a work-in-progress version of Shane Warne: The Musical on Sunday afternoon, and if I'd been better organised I would most certainly have gone to hear Issa, formerly Jane Siberry, of whom I have been a breathless fan since about 1990 when I first heard 'The Valley' and 'The Life is the Red Wagon' and 'Something about Trains' and 'La Jalouse' and and and, on the album Bound By the Beauty. (If you don't know who she is, think of k.d.lang's version of 'Calling All Angels' - Siberry wrote it, and is the voice singing the high harmony.)
Anyway, there I was with friends at the short but extraordinary show being put on by singer, actor, 'female impersonator' and diva channeler Paul Capsis, and he was superb. We didn't quite realise how superb until he went into a sort of ballerina spin, gathered up and fastened his wild long Greek-boy hair on top of his head in a lightning-fast haute-feminine gesture, turned up his collar, did something mysterious with his eyes and mouth, and there, I swear, was a recognisable Judy Garland. And that was before he started to sing.
Doing Judy is standard, I know, but I've never seen her done as well as that, including by Judy Davis (who came in for a drive-by serve, in the best boy-bitch tradition). Two of his other 'channeling' standards were Marlene Dietrich and Janis Joplin, the former very funny and the latter terrifying, both performances quite stunning bits of mimicry.
Like most men who impersonate women, he was working with over-the-top, pre-feminist (and certainly pre-Queer) Les Girls type gestures and images of femininity; in the case of his Garland and Dietrich turns he was not just performing femininity but performing those particular women's particular performances of femininity, all with a deliciously obvious awareness of what he was doing and how he was doing it.
And it was a familiar form of theatre, brilliantly done. But what I found most riveting and magical was the straight (hah) part of the program, the songs he sang just because they were songs and he was singing them, songs he sang simply as himself. His third and final encore was a beautiful, exposed performance of Kate Bush's 'The Man with the Child in his Eyes', which he sang to simple piano accompaniment as though telling an old friend in private about his broken heart.
He also sang, of all things, the old Cher single 'Bang Bang'. Yeah yeah, I know, hard to believe, even after the Kill Bill revival. He sang it as a slow ballad and the effect all round our table was for us to shake our heads at each other in wide-eyed disbelief and say 'Well, Sonny Bono was a great songwriter. Who knew.' Capsis sang sweetly 'Music played and people sang, just for me the church bells rang' and transformed it into a story of the high point of somebody's life, and it was a wonderful example of how a good performer can transform a song you've known forever and never properly heard.
Given the degree to which the whole rationale of his act relies on the treacherous, shifting signifiers of sex and gender, it's amazing to see him take it up a notch to drop them so abruptly and so utterly, and sing those songs not 'as a woman', not 'as a man', but simply as an exposed human creature, where the emotions and images predominate, sexual identity seems a bit beside the point, and the role and image stuff falls away. Even his voice, used straight, is almost impossible to identify by gender, and he must have a range of at least four octaves counting the falsetto register, possibly more.
His impersonator mimicry is masterful, of course, and oscillates, as all good parody does, between the hysterically funny and and the creepily uncanny. But the straight stuff is just exceptional musicianship and performance, something I felt very lucky to be seeing.
Image: Queensland Government