Bob Downe in Live & Swingin’ | Judi Connelli and Suzanne Johnston in Take Two!
Bob Downe walks out on stage and, so convincing is the aura, you forget there’s a man - Mark Trevorrow - behind the mask. For Judi, it’s Connelli as herself on stage: but such is the evolution of her artistic persona, even that self appears larger than life.
There comes a time in the life of many a gifted artist when work and personality merge. Pedro Almodovar, Marlene Dietrich, Oscar Wilde, Marilyn Monroe and John Galliano come to mind. While neither Trevorrow nor Connelli, are yet in that league – fame-wise; as with all the above, pushing the boundaries of conventional sexual identity is a core theme. What’s fascinating is how differently Trevorrow and Connelli approach the task. Trevorrow - as Bob Downe - is in your face; his material comes at the subject from myriad angles. A Ken doll whose libido is trying to get out
Connelli's sexual politics are no less strident: yet not a word is mentioned. Quietly playing the role of lesbian patron saint, Connelli, the ultimate cabaret diva, need do no more than share the stage and sing love duets with opera-trained Suzanne Johnston, her partner in life.
The cabaret world has quite a few out gay folks, and more in the closet. But few put ‘who they really are' up for such intense scrutiny. In a typical Aussie way, it’s ‘like it or lump it’, which delights local fans, but could well scare the pants off audiences in other parts of the world.
Bob Downe’s Live & Swingin’ debuted in Melbourne’s Butterfly Club, via the Adelaide Cabaret Festival to a short season at the Studio, Sydney Opera House. It soon leaves these hallowed shores for three-weeks at the Spiegeltent, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with appearances to follow in London. He shares the stage with a lively three-piece band and a most delightful songstress, Pastel Vespa (aka Fiona Thorn).
This new show is a red-hot winner: superbly conceived, live as a bee in your bum, funny, smart, political, and oh so Bob Downe. If earlier shows were sometimes dizzying collections of musical and comic highlights, the good news here is that Live & Swingin’ works as a piece. Trevorrow is no longer Bob Downe’s master: they have become one. The man behind Bob Downe is so quick there is no way of telling where prepared material stops and impro on the night starts. One thing for sure: the show does not stop for a second until the show stops.
I was among a couple of dozen who witnessed the birth of Bob in a tiny café called Pastels behind Sydney’s Martin Place more than twenty years ago. On that occasion - fresh faced from a career in journalism and a whirligig stage romance with the highly successful Globos - Trevorrow arrived in a taxi as Batman (with then co-performer Cathy Armstrong as Robin). The lane was so tiny they blocked the street. It was a deliberately unconventional start.
After ‘entering the building’, the duo performed a variety of amusing skits. Most memorably, Trevorrow emerged at one point in a safari suit with a sad little ditty at the piano. The song, called ‘Being Beige’, was a take on the Muppet’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green”. The character not only wore beige, but in safari suit style! That original Bob Downe was more subdued than he is today, but all the hallmarks were in place: the daggy retro-entertainer, a take on a take: a stereotype we knew too well from television and clubs from the late 1960s and through the1970s. Some are still standing – just; or with the help of Zimmer frames.
Bob Downe, the character, serves as an homage to the myriad celebrities who toured the Australian club circuit through those decades when you got dressed to go out to ‘classy’ venues, which in Sydney would have included The Silver Spade Room at the Chevron Hotel and Chequers Nite Club.
Visiting stars included Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Bassey and Sammy Davis Jnr. Those closest to the Downe persona would likely include Wayne Newton and Australia’s own Sandy Scott, who chewed on lyrics like a cow its cud - and only wore beige.
On that fateful first appearance of Bob Downe, as we now can appreciate, Trevorrow stumbled upon his inner clown: a character that would give him full access to his encyclopedic knowledge of show-business history, with easy access to satire, tribute, and caustic one-liners targeting contemporary celebrity culture and the latest in politics.
In this new show, the presence of Pastel Vespa is a plus, adding a layer of sweet singing, bemused smiles and some hypnotically fluoro pantsuits. One also has to pay tribute to Downe’s long-time musical director, John Thorn at the piano, and his players: David Abusio and Jeremy Hopkins. The youthful Hopkins serves as the butt (I think that’s the right word) of a few of Bob’s more provocative jokes.
In Take Two! Connelli and Johnston pursue a more conventional approach. The pre-patter is unfortunately rather stiff, and sometimes you wonder if – as singers – the two have very much in common. But that’s not the point. As an out-there lesbian couple, their presence on stage, in itself, fills many in the audience with profound delight. Given that Take Two! is touring a range of smaller towns, the shared presence on stage of Connelli and Johnston is just as bold as anything Trevorrow might do. In another era, all three would likely have been strung up from lamp-posts!
This is the partnership’s second show and much of it is truly beautiful. It’s a very personal selection of songs - all are about love or the ups-and-downs of personal relationships. Genres range from Noel Coward ditties, through Sondheim to renowned opera duets. Vocally, both singers are in top form and the show should not be missed if fine singing is what you love.
From a showbiz point of view, there is no getting round the fact that the voices of Connelli and Johnston do not always exactly match. But given the show’s strong points, this is more a point of interest than a fault.
As that crusty founder of British post war realist drama, John Osborne, noted of Australia: “the love that dares not speak its name is being shouted from the rooftops”. If it makes good art, well why the heck not?
Sydney Opera House presents
LIVE & SWINGIN' & TAKE TWO!
Live & Swingin'
Venue: The Studio, Sydney Opera House
Dates: Friday 13 July - Sunday 15 July
Tickets: $38 / $30
Duration: 75 minutes
Bookings: (02) 9250 7777 or sydneyoperahouse.com
Judi Connelli and Suzanne Johnston
Venue: The Studio, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 17 July - Sun 22 July
Tickets: Adults $43/ Concession $37
Bookings: 9250 7777 or sydneyoperahouse.com