It’s been 38 years since Jennifer Holliday originated the role of Effie White in the Broadway production of Dreamgirls, unleashing her volcanic rendition of the heartfelt, defiant song And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going, which has become a signature tune for her.

Making her Australian debut at the Sydney Cabaret Festival, to a huge, adoring audience, it was no surprise that she kept that number until last, building gradually to a climactic finale.

Jennifer Holliday at Sydney Cabaret Festival. Photograph © John McRae

Near the top of the show, Holliday told us she would be singing a lot of covers and classics – “that’s what happens when you’ve only had one major hit!” Instantly, that refreshing candour endeared her to the audience. (She did, of course, return to Broadway in 2016 in The Color Purple, taking over the role of Shug Avery from Jennifer Hudson). Later she discussed depression and the Multiple Sclerosis that kept her sidelined for years with frankness but positivity. Though she obviously knew what she was going to discuss between songs, the patter wasn’t prepared to within an inch of its life, and although it didn’t always flow freely it had an appealing spontaneous quality.

Sparkling in a glittery pink dress, Holliday has lost a huge amount of weight since her days performing in Dreamgirls – something she also addressed, telling the audience that she has lost 200 pounds – “a million kilos… I don’t know!” she quipped, unsure of the conversion. “I’m always really hungry!” she joked, adding that finding food late at night in Sydney wasn’t helping.

Holliday may have slimmed down dramatically since winning her legions of fans as Effie, but her voice is as large, rich and resonant as ever and when she tears into a song, she can effortlessly lift the roof.

Performing with seven Australian musicians, led by Holliday’s Musical Director, Brian Nash, on piano, Holliday began the concert in slightly tentative fashion with My Funny Valentine and The Way He Makes Me Feel from Yentl, telling the story of how Barbra Streisand asked her to sing the song at the 1984 Academy Awards.

Her voice began to settle as she sang Peter Allen’s I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love and The More I See You, which Allen made famous, and by the time she got to two numbers to honour the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, she was on fire. I Say a Little Prayer held the house rapt and when she said that it was “time to cut a rug in here” and launched into Respect, the audience was in the palm of her hand and on their feet.

Jennifer Holliday. Photograph © John McRae

From there, her songs included God Bless the Child, an a cappella gospel number, and three songs from Dreamgirls –  I am Changing, One Night Only and And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going – with Marvin Hamlisch’s The Way We Were as an encore.

Holliday’s vocal range is still huge, from high, floating, shiny soprano to a surprisingly deep, dark, caramel-toned contralto. At times, it’s almost like there are two different singers performing the one number together. She has a fierce belt and all the high money notes, but a softer soulful huskiness too. She uses back-phrasing beautifully and at key emotional moments, when she is really digging deep inside herself, as in And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going, she adds grunts and other sounds to highlight the emotion as if the words aren’t enough.

The numbers from Dreamgirls were the highlights of the night – each song given such vocal texture and passionate, emotional depth, you felt she was living each moment. As for her heartfelt, searing rendition of And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going, wow! That’s something I’ll never forget. Nash, who did all the terrific arrangements, was a consummate Musical Director, and the band was excellent. A fabulous way to launch the new Sydney Cabaret Festival.

Jennifer Holliday has one more performance tonight at the Sydney Town Hall