Photo – Andrew French
Cheeky, glamorous, political, frivolous, angry, soulful and silly, Lady Rizo is all of these and more in her latest cabaret for Sydney Festival. As she relates in her show, this is not the first time she has played the Festival, as indeed the last time she did so in 2014 she met her now-husband, whom she lured back to America with her to start a family.
America and its shortcomings serves very much as the theme of her new show, titled Red White and Indigo, the stage backed with a savagely painted punkish representation of the U.S. flag, inverted in a sign of distress, as may be familiar to followers of the acclaimed Netflix political thriller series House of Cards, now in limbo due to the real-life firing of its fictional president played by Kevin Spacey in the wake of post-“Weisteingate” allegations of sexual misconduct. The sense of limbo for a nation in distress due to the outrageous actions of a president are all too real in the picture Lady Rizo weaves for her audience, joking at first that as an American doing shows overseas she feels like she is doing an “apology tour”. Her banter between songs covers a range of related topics along this overall theme, stating that she regards America as a kind of abusive lover, forever testing her willingness to suffer more for the love of her nation.
While the tone ducks and weaves between the jokey and the sincere, Rizo covers a lot of ground, from the national obsession with guns and the epidemic of mass shootings, the suppression of women’s reproductive rights, and the underlying religious fervor and nationalism-tinged strain of passionate anti-intellectualism that underpins so many of the preceding issues. Yet for all this, Lady Rizo does not put on a dour or self-serious show, far from it; for just as much time is spent on giltz, glamour, self-deprecation and some good old fashioned belting of tunes.
Singing a combination of original songs and slyly subverted covers, Rizo’s stage persona has a burlesque edge to it, describing her quest for glamour as a form of rebellion against her Jew“ish” artist/hippy upbringing in Oregon, having fled to New York to start a career in showbusiness. With big hair and slinky dresses, she presents as a semi-ironic chanteuse, playing the glitz and sex appeal mostly straight but with a frequent hammy aside or knowing wink never far off.
Her own original songs Hit of you and The Ghost of the Chateau Marmont off her new album Indigo come early in the show and are soulful, seductive ballads of sadness, heartache and broken dreams in Hollywood, fitting in very well with her persona as a slightly tarnished diva. Much of the rest of the show involves covers, from Sonny and Cher to Leonard Cohen, although almost always with a twist, be it a change in musical style from the iconic version, often a substitution of some of their lyrics or a juxtaposition with another song, as they weave in and out of her stories. Her show is almost as much that of a raconteur as it is a singer pounding though a set list.
Weaving stories, commentary and song together seems to be Lady Rizo’s particular gift, relating the adolescent tale of participating a post-Cold War youth exchange musical in the freshly post-soviet former USSR in 1992 segueing into a Russian ballad. Similarly a remixed and reworded version of Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) springs off her monologue on gun violence, while a provocative mash-up of I'm a Woman (W.O.M.A.N.) with Give me a Reason is dedicated to Hillary Clinton’s loss of the 2016 election bookended with a sobering discussion of violent threats against abortion clinics and the cutting of sex education funding under Trump’s consequent administration.
The melding of the serious and ironic with an edge of the grotesque as favoured by neo-Burlesque is perhaps best showcased in some of her audience interactions, such as picking random patrons to join her in a childlike kissing game learned from Russia, or to engage her in conversation during a suggestive backstage shadowplay while she changes sequined outfits. At one point while enacting a coquettish cliché of tugging loose with her teeth the fingers of an elbow-length gloves, the act veers off into bizarre territory when she then proceeds to stuff the entire glove in her mouth and then awkwardly regurgitate it onto her microphone… only to reveal with a slight-of-hand trick an additionally vomited-up small American flag, also inverted like the large one flanking her onstage.
Lady Rizo is a funky, classy, crass, weird and wild dame, a powerful singer and speaker alike, equally at home with low humour and stirring political critique. Her show ends with her taking on the role of Lady Liberty, recounting in song and reenacting with the help of flashlight-wielding members of the audiences how, on the eve of Trump’s Immigration Ban targeting Muslims, the lights on the Statue of Liberty “mysteriously” went out due to a “malfunction”, an almost certain act of protest rife with the sort of symbolism that is shot through this thrilling and rewarding night of cabaret.
2018 Sydney Festival presents
Red White and Indigo
Venue: Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Mertion Festival City, Hyde Park | N/A
Dates: 7 – 13 January 2018
Tickets: $66 – $50
Bookings: 1300 723 038 | www.sydneyfestival.org.au