Brisbane Powerhouse & Kurt Phelan
Brisbane Powerhouse Turbine Studio
December 1 – 3 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
– Kurt Phelan
Kurt Phelan is one of those hard-working, long-time-coming “overnight” success stories. You may have heard of him. He’s been in such shows as Kiss Me Kate, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Singin’ In the Rain, Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing. Phelan hails from Townsville and his cabaret show, the fantastically funny Phelan Groovy, is both a tribute and a tongue-in-cheek exposé of what it’s like to come from the tropics and conquer the world of musical theatre.
A natural performer, warm and genuinely welcoming, Phelan demonstrates from the outset perfect comic timing, a flair for rewriting our favourite musical theatre songs and a knack for nailing the sort of impersonations usually left to the drag queens. His delivery of Memory in (broken) Debra Byrne style, with her permission, of course, and complete with enormous dark sunglasses, an oversized martini glass and what could be a wrap or the green room rug thrown across his shoulders, is sidesplittingly funny and painfully accurate. Byrne is just one of the celebs Phelan dishes the dirt on during the show. When the balance is struck between a little bit nasty and a little bit naughty, these moments will land with greater aplomb.
A re-worked Dream A Little Dream paints the picture of Phelan’s birth on the laundry steps of his parents’ house up north. I Dreamed A Dream describes his heartbreak upon seeing the woeful film version of Les Miserables. And I’ve Had the Time of My Life is dedicated to the women who groped him during the touring production of Dirty Dancing (during the show!). Whether the entirety of this story – or any story – is truth or fiction we’ll never know, but the question doesn’t keep me from laughing until mascara tears stream down my cheeks.
When Phelan leaves the stage momentarily to slip into “something more comfortable” it’s to lose his dress shoes to flip flops. Only in Australia. And later, we’re certain only Peter Allen could be as comfortable as Phelan appears to be in a garish tropical shorts and shirt combo. Phelan wears it proudly. He’s a gorgeous performer with a cheeky grin that lets him get away with saying the most outrageous things in the most outrageous dress ups. Bare-chested and bold before conceding defeat in the face of Disney, he shares the infuriating discomfort of all the dads whose children are still singing/screeching Frozen’s Let It Go.
The show takes a serious turn when Phelan reflects on the too-soon deaths of some industry friends (Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles, stunning in its unadorned delivery) and again, as he shares JRB’s superb song, Someone to Fall Back On. It’s an incredibly difficult number to do, vocally demanding and emotionally complex, but Phelan sells it with a stirring, stinging honesty, just as he did during a masterclass with the composer.
There’s no ceremony about Phelan; he’s the real deal, as frank and honest, and as heartwarming and entertaining as any cabaret performer can ever hope to be.
Joined by Luke Volker on keys for this Brisbane Wonderland season, Phelan shows us what it is to be human and fallible and funny and loveable and laughable, in that typically Australian, incredibly ironic sense. While the show in its current state is clearly meant for our audiences, and probably the more theatrically inclined among them, with a few tweaks it could travel, and it should. Phelan’s appeal is universal, and talent such as his in this context deserves a larger, broader audience.