Howdy Australia: Contest lights up the Town Hall, old chum

The Sydney Morning Herald.
By Joel Gibson
April 25 2003


Wanted: one good home for vibrant, established Sydney cabaret scene. Well-trained, loyal, talented stray needs roof over head, well-stocked bar.

The 2003 Sydney Cabaret Convention was launched at the W Hotel on Wednesday, a stone’s throw from the Tilbury Hotel, where cabaret once lived, and just a bit removed from the site of the former Sebel Townhouse, where it often used to stay.

The signs suggested it might have found the home it wants, if only for four nights in May.

The atmosphere in the City Cabaret Club, to be installed beneath the Sydney Town Hall from May 27-31, will be transformed from upmarket eisteddfod to intimate speak-easy, with a permanent host, smaller, more intimate seating arrangements, bespoke lighting design and a lower, closer stage. Patrons will enter from the picturesque Cathedral Square, no longer from dusty, dull Druitt Street; there will be “smart, chic” food on offer; and themed programming will give seasoned performers the opportunity to play off one another.

It’s all part of a strategy to make the event more user-friendly, according to artistic director Ron Creagher, and recoup some of the funding lost when Qantas withdrew its sponsorship.

“We really do need bums on seats, is what it comes down to,” he said. “The best of Australia’s just as good as the best anywhere else. We send people to New York each year but my goal would be that the Sydney Cabaret Convention becomes so important that New York wants to come here.”

There was ample evidence on Wednesday of the history and health of the genre in this town. The convention’s ambassador, Toni Lamond, sang a number called This Life to a crowd that included her son, the performer Tony Sheldon. Lamond’s half-sister, the singer Helen Reddy, will be one of the judges for this event.

Lamond was accompanied by Creagher, her producer of 26 years, on a mottled brown Alex Steinbach piano that once sat in the corner of the Tilbury and now lives at Creagher’s place, on permanent loan from former publicans Geoffrey Williams and Michael Freundt while it is in between engagements.

“It’s the only piano I know that gets better with age,” Creagher said. “Sometimes I take it out for day trips.”

Before Lamond, convention compere Chelsea Plumley did a Bette Midler number about Long John, the strapping seven-foot dentist: “You thrill me when you drill me and I don’t need no Novocaine today.”

Each night, Plumley will warm up the room for seasoned performers such as Stuart Wagstaff and Nancye Hayes, and then several young hopefuls will vie, after interval, for the coveted City of Sydney Award.

Of 12 finalists, down from 45 last year, one will win a ticket to New York and a spot on stage at the New York Cabaret Convention. They will have 12 minutes each to wow judges Reddy, Egil Kipste and Bernadette Hayes.

Of the 10 individual contestants, Belinda Wollaston is the youngest at 19. Back for her second tilt in two years, Wollaston said she “learned what cabaret was” at last year’s convention and needed that experience to get past about 90 other candidates this year.

Four-part a cappella group The Idea of North is one of two groups competing. They will fly to California next week for the final of the Harmony Sweepstakes contest, then return to Sydney for their first appearance at the convention, in its seventh year.

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