Julia Zemiro has revealed the program for her first Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which embraces a broad range of repertoire from quintessential cabaret star Ute Lemper to a show by the RocKwiz team saluting the rock musical, with every shade of cabaret grey in between. The program features more than 380 artists from Australia and overseas in 245 performances over 16 days and nights. Showcasing classic and contemporary cabaret, the program features 17 Adelaide exclusives, 17 Adelaide premieres and seven national premieres.

Julia Zemiro. Photograph © Diana Melfi

Speaking to Limelight, Zemiro says that as soon as she got the job as Artistic Director, she asked everyone she met what they thought when they heard the word ‘cabaret’. “Sometimes for a younger audience it would be something tired and dusty which made me think ‘oh, that’s not how I see it’. Or it would be fishnets and a boa and you go ‘yes, that’s part of it’, but for me if you break the fourth wall, you address the audience, and you’re telling a story – that for me is cabaret,” she says.

“So we’ve got a performer in the festival called Omar Musa, who will be doing the opening night event with us and he does hip-hop and poetry. He did a show called Since Ali Died and it won a Sydney Theatre Award for best cabaret and I thought ‘right, I better go and see this’. [There’s] not a feather boa in sight, not a fishnet in sight, but politics, emotion, storytelling, love, music. For me that’s cabaret, so we’re thrilled that he’ll be part of it on opening night. It was trying to push the envelope a bit.”

The RocKwiz team. Photograph courtesy of Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Zemiro was keen to bring politics – which thrived in European cabaret during the 1930s – back into the mix. “Whether you’re thinking Weimar Republic in Germany or you’re thinking the salon in Paris in the beginning, they’re areas where people talked about ideas. They talked poetry, manifestos, politics. So directly and indirectly, there’ll be shows in this festival that are political, so whether it’s about body politics, gay politics, Indigenous politics, at some point or another the personal becomes political. So it’s just looking at those stories that open up our thinking a little bit more.”

She includes politics directly with Dan Ilic which is presenting a show called  A Rational Fear with Lewis Hobba from Triple J, aimed at a younger audience. “I said to him, ‘can you take that day’s events and turn them into a one-hour show that night with one original song?’ And he’s going to do that for a couple of night and he was so excited by that, that’s exactly what he loves doing,” says Zemiro.

Ute Lemper’s show Rendezvous with Marlene, which is exclusive to Adelaide, also has a strong political dimension, exploring the life and career of Marlene Dietrich and Lemper’s own connection with the legendary star with whom she had an inspiring three-hour phone call in 1988.

Ruthie Henshall. Photograph © Kurt Sneddon

Other big names in the Festival include West End and Broadway star Ruthie Henshall (with whom Lemper starred in the 1997 London production of Chicago), David Campbell, who will sing classics by Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima and Bobby Darin with a 14-piece swing band in a new show called David Campbell is Back in the Swing of Things, as well as Meow Meow, iOTA, Philip Quast, Paul Capsis, Lior with Paul Grabowsky, Bobby Fox, and Elaine Crombie, among numerous others.

Kate Miller-Heidke will perform new arrangements of her most popular songs with partner and regular collaborator Keir Nuttall together with Iain Grandage and a string quartet. “She’s such a wonderful performer; a classically trained performer who goes on to do her own pop career with really clever, funny stories. She’s a brilliant storyteller and so clever with language. Her voice can do anything and then she takes a very beloved film like Muriel’s Wedding, and with her writing partner and partner Keir Nuttall, they make this stage version of it that is adored all over again. She’s at the top of her game and the fact that the audience voted her to go to Eurovision with a song that has a beautiful combination of opera and pop, which is something the Europeans love [is fabulous]. It will be thrilling to see how she goes during that competition and when she comes to sing for us, that will be one of the first concerts she does on her return,” says Zemiro.

Kate Miller-Heidke. Photograph courtesy of SBS

This year, Zemiro decided to change the way the shows are grouped in the brochure. “Instead of having categories in the program under burlesque, theatre, comedy, which I think sometimes that really narrows what a show can be – within a one-hour show you might have a variety of that – instead our program is going to have headings like ‘if you love all things shiny’, or ‘if you love a main event’ or ‘if you love to laugh’ or ‘if you love to reminisce’ so that you’re not locking yourself into thinking I only ever see this kind of work. Hopefully you’ll at least maybe be encouraged to see something else,” she says.

“It’s actually something I’m really excited about because most performers don’t want to be put in a compartment. There’s Kate Miller-Heidke who is a classically trained performer but who does so much else. It’s the same with Dami Im, she’s a classically trained pianist, her mum was an opera singer, and then she’s found that she can sing and that she has not just a voice but a powerful, belt-y voice for pop. What a revelation! And that’s the lovely thing, seeing acts revealing themselves in different ways.”

Paul Grabowsky and Lior. Photograph © Simon Shiff

Zemiro has changed some of the venues for this year’s Festival. “We actually thought about venues in a way before we thought about shows,” she says. “We kept walking around the space because the Executive Producer, Ebony Bott, is new in this job as well so, together, we were really thinking about what’s the audience experience? And what is the performer’s experience? Because you want them both to have a really good time, to give the best show and to give the audience the best time.”

This year, the Festival is using The Famous Spiegeltent. “It’s the loveliest Spiegeltent, I think, because it’s the right size, it’s only 300 seats. It’s that intimate space that performers adore to perform in and audiences love being in. So that’s going to be like this shining little jewel with its little blinking lights and mirrors and windows,” says Zemiro.

“And then you’ve got the big Festival Centre which has got a room called the Banquet Room. We’ve turned it into the Blue Room and we’re decking it out with a bar to turn it into more of a club so that when the audience comes in half an hour before the show starts they can get a drink, get settled, have a chat, forget their troubles, and then the show begins,” says Zemiro.

“And I thought we needed an area where people can just get away and have a bit of a chat. Sometimes you don’t want to be in the thick of it, you just want to have a wine quietly, so [we have set that up] in the foyer area with QBE, our sponsor, so there’s somewhere a little bit quiet where you can recover between shows.”

Adelaide Cabaret Festival runs June 7 – 22