Kurt Phelan is a big slice of talent

Kurt Phelan returned to Townsville on the weekend to debut an all-new cabaret 'Songs of Love (and Pizza)' as part of Festival 2018. IMAGE: Hunter Canning (@huntercanning)

When you design a cabaret that is, for the most part, a one-man show, there’s nowhere to hide. Every note is exposed, and every lyric is laid bare for all to critique – especially when said cabaret is packed full of popular 90s’ hits. Singing your way through a vocal marathon such as this is a challenge unto itself – but when elements of this marathon are performed with a mouthful of pizza, the stakes are raised even higher.

Festival 2018 has kicked off with a bang in Townsville, as hundreds of artists fill Strand Park’s Uncontained installation, the sprawling lawns of Jezzine Barracks, and Queens Gardens’ spiegeltents and festival stage for the largest arts and culture event in Queensland’s history. Run in conjunction with the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, Festival 2018 is bringing some of the greatest acts from Townsville, Australia, and around the globe to our doorstep. The festival has funded the return of some of Townsville’s favourite performances, such as Theatre iNQ’s Alice in Wonderland and Full Throttle Theatre Company’s Astronomical; but it has also allowed for the creation of brand new shows specifically for the event – such as Kurt Phelan’s Songs of Love (and Pizza).

The Octagon spiegeltent at Festival 2018 ahead of Cajam Circus’ show ‘The Golden Ball’

The production, a musical journey following Kurt’s trials and tribulations in love, took place in the Queens Gardens Octagon – a towering venue that has to be seen to be believed. Once inside the big top you no longer feel like you’re in Townsville, instead being transported to any of the world’s leading cabaret festivals. While beginning later than scheduled, no one seemed to mind: the delayed start allowed for the throb of music from Ian Moss’ performance just metres away to finish, the final audience members who were booked in for both performances to hurry in, and for all focus to be on Kurt.

Taking to the stage with piano accompaniment by Musical Director Lance Horne, Kurt took us back decades with his signature sound giving 90s’ favourites new life. After several songs delving into Kurt’s early exploits in love, the show is interrupted by a guy who’s got the hots for what’s in the box (with the dots). A pizza delivery man wanders onto stage, dropping a pizza into Kurt’s hands before hurrying backstage to find ‘payment’ – only for local music teacher Ashley Crocker to return to stage, with sheet music for all remaining songs and a cello in hand. Coincidence? Surely.

Kurt is backed for the remainder of the evening by an incredibly strong sound, keeping pace with Ashley and Lance – who manages to keep up on piano while conducting tempo changes without flinching.

Particular mention must go to Lance Horne. The audience is given snippets of backing vocals from the pianist throughout the show, but it is during Kurt’s heartfelt departure from the venue that Lance has a chance to go rogue, and tease us with his original Little White Asparagus Blues. Despite playing second fiddle (or piano, as it were) to Kurt in Songs of Love (and Pizza), there’s no denying Lance deserves his Daytime Emmy Award as he sings witty lyrics effortlessly and with warmth.

There is very little about this show we could critique. As a diehard Savage Garden fan, Sarah picked a few lyric fumbles in the first verses of I Want You – but that’s easily forgiven knowing this was the world premiere of the show, and when you’re singing a song that most people just hurriedly mumble their way through (last night was the first time I realised the chorus was made up of actual words). There were also moments when audience members snuck out of the show, never returning. This could be attributed to the fact it was a school night and the show had started later than normal, however departures happened during references to pussy popping and doing lines of cocaine – the two slightly controversial parts of the show. While there were several families in the audience who remained throughout and were the first to give a standing ovation, I would hazard a guess that this bad boy isn’t for the young’uns.

A particular showcase of performing skill was Kurt’s emotional eat-singing. I can barely hold a note to save myself, but adding a mouthful of food into the equation sounds like a nightmare. Somehow, Kurt managed to sing an entire song while wolfing down a pizza and downing a 500mL beer; he remained in key, didn’t miss a cue (no matter how full his mouth was), and had finished the beer by the end of the number. This was just the start of the emotional rollercoaster he took us on to finish off the night, going from slow tear-jerkers to an exciting cymbal-clashing finale.

Festival 2018 is brilliant. We are playing host to some of the most innovative performances to ever grace venues across the city, many of which have been produced specifically for the Townsville event. Kurt’s thanks at the conclusion of his show was further testament to the importance of events like this to performers: as a Kirwan High alumni, it meant the world to him that his hometown not only invited him back to perform, but funded the production of a brand new work for Festival 2018 – which will hopefully find more life beyond the festival.

Catch Festival 2018 events at Queens Gardens, Strand Park and Jezzine Barracks from now until 15 April. Check show times and booking requirements here. For updates on when Kurt Phelan will next perform in Townsville, follow him on Facebook.

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