Trevor Ashley made his professional debut in 1998 at the Sydney Cabaret Convention. Appearing in the second year of the cabaret event, which ran annually at Sydney Town Hall until 2004, his performance was lauded by the judges, audience and critics and kick-started his career.

Two decades on, Ashley has launched the new Sydney Cabaret Festival, which will feature over 40 performances across 10 days in July at several Sydney venues. The star performer is Jennifer Holliday, one of the original cast members of the musical Dreamgirls, who will be making her Australian debut with two performances at Sydney Town Hall.

Jennifer Holliday. Photograph supplied

Holliday, who is now 58, is currently in remission from multiple sclerosis. She told the Sydney Morning Herald that the disease had taken a heavy toll on her body in the past but that “fortunately it hasn’t affected my voice”. The Tony and Grammy Award-winning performer, who recently returned to Broadway in the revival of The Color Purple, will perform a show of powerhouse numbers, including the show-stopping And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going from Dreamgirls, which she made famous, with personal stories interwoven.

The Festival will begin with an All-Star Gala on July 5 at City Recital Hall. Other artists to appear at the Festival include Alison Jiear in a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald, Phil Scott and Jonathan Biggins in No Cabaret for Old Men, Tim Draxl in a new show that recreates the 1960s cult album Love Is A Drag featuring male-to-male love songs, New York downtown diva Natalie Joy Johnson, New York based cabaret performer Kim David Smith performing songs by Kylie Minogue, and UK duo Frisky and Mannish in PopLab in which they analyse pop songs using their unique brand of seriocomic “musical infotainment”.

Australia’s next generation of cabaret artists will compete in the Sydney Cabaret Competition Grand Final on July 10. Hosted by Ashley, with a judging panel featuring cabaret performers Catherine Alcorn, Phil Scott, Margi De Ferranti, and producers Mark Sutcliffe and Les Solomon, the winner will receive a career-changing prize and the chance to perform at the Festival’s closing night.

Tim Draxl. Photograph supplied

Ashley has put a lot of energy and commitment into driving Australia’s cabaret scene over the years. He has performed in many of his own cabaret shows including Liza’s Back! (is Broken), Liza (on an E), Diamonds Are For Trevor and I’m Every Woman, some of which he has performed in London and New York. In 2009, he ran a program called Civic Cabaret at Sydney’s Civic Hotel, and for many years he has run a cabaret showcase called Showqueen at Ginger’s in Sydney’s Oxford Street.

Announcing the Sydney Cabaret Festival, he said: “I have loved cabaret as long as I can remember. As a confused child growing up I discovered this incredible artform that celebrated unique personalities, and more than that, an irreplaceable bond between artist and audience. Seeing artists like Lorrae Desmond, Julie Anthony and Geraldine Turner live, made me believe I could be anyone I wanted to be. It changed my life.”

“I have long dreamed that we could bring cabaret home to Sydney so I am immensely proud to present the inaugural Sydney Cabaret Festival, which in its first outing brings together some of my favourite artists from around Australia and the globe. From our headliner, the legendary Jennifer Holliday, through to Alison Jiear, Kim David Smith and Reuben Kaye – three artists at the top of their game, who were born here, but now call London and New York home, there is something for everyone. Variety, comedy, jazz, and more belting than you could poke a stick at, we are coming out with a bang.”

The Sydney Cabaret Festival runs July 5 – 14 at Sydney Town Hall, City Recital Hall and the Seymour Centre