Photo – Magnus Hastings
In the iconic Opera House Concert Hall, the renowned Sydney Symphony Orchestra is assembled, ready for the big entrance of their glamorous headlining star. With a flourish she is announced and called to the stage by the conductor… but doesn’t show. They try a few more times, to no result. Finally, the extravagantly coiffed chanteuse bursts through the door, only to realise that rather than emerging from the wings, she has arrived through one of the upper audience boxes and is trapped on the wrong level. Dragging her luggage and apologising for the shemozzle of running late from the airport, she makes her way through the crowd, indecorously clambering over seats and asking various patrons to take her bags to the stage for her. The evening thus opens in very much the vein in which it will continue – carefully orchestrated chaos.
Melissa Madden Gray is by this point a Sydney Festival stalwart, in her persona of Meow Meow, the British-accented, highly glamorous, slightly trashy and extremely demanding diva, her immaculate hair and lipstick offsetting some frequently askew costumes, with rarely fewer than two cigarettes clutched between her fingers. Her character is a kind of time-lost star of the Weimar cabaret, a singer of Kurt Weill ballads and mistress of the Parisian chanson, with a dose of the burlesque and a dash of the American torch song thrown in. Styled as an international solo star vacillating between chic and glitzy, her act is an engaging combination of belting out some genuinely fantastic renditions of classic and original songs in English, German and French, interspersed with a great deal of outrageous comedic patois and stage business.
Her new show Pandemonium largely revolves around the notion that she, a big star who has recently been bilked out of a Broadway engagement, has been somewhat begrudgingly reduced to performing at the provincial Sydney Opera House. Meow Meow finds herself constantly whining/apologising that the majority of her extravagant and previously rehearsed stagecraft such as a descending trapeze, elaborate costume changes, or a line of dancing boys have either been stingily cut from the budget or delayed at immigration. But the show must go on, darling, so would-be improvisation is the order of the day.
Playing to the hilt the role of the mightily irked singer attempting to remain a consummate professional, she “struggles” through the entire show, explaining to the audience what should be happening onstage at any given time, digging through her luggage for substitute outfits, berating the conductor and, frequently, conscripting members of the audience to assist her. Indeed, for what is in reality clearly a quite tightly-rehearsed show, the level of potentially unreliable audience interaction is quite astonishing, both in its extent, but also its level of implicit trust.
Barking orders (often in German) to unsuspecting patrons to stroke and cradle her as she sings, she harangues theatregoers to throw flowers at her, give her their drinks, act as human furniture for her seductive numbers, and form a high-kicking chorus line. Some are even press-ganged into bodily lifting her up, mid-song, and rotating her while suspended in the air. A slow-motion stage dive even has a sizable portion of the crowd ferrying her prostrate form around the stalls as she continues to warble, with constant micromanaging interjections.
With songs ranging between the campiness of the overall show and those which are genuinely soulful and powerful, Meow Meow is an incredible performer, her chill-inducing singing no less impressive that her hilarious comedic persona as the bossy, slightly bedraggled songstress determined to propel the show forward even as it falls to pieces around her, by sheer bloody-minded vivacity.
Sydney Festival presents
Meow Meow’s Pandemonium
Venue: Concert Hall | Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 22 & 23 January 2018
Tickets: $129 – $62