National Wine Centre, Adelaide
March 17, 2018

The ‘tribute show’ has become a staple of Fringe and cabaret festival programmes. However, many fall into the trap of being song accompanied by a history lesson, to the point where I feel like I am back in the classroom. The best tribute shows are those where the artist invests emotionally in the subject and the cabaret that ensues gives the audience a window not just into the voice of the subject, but the soul. While Brigitte Baden-Rennie provided some historical titbits from Wikipedia at telling intervals between songs, her nuanced take on an intelligently woven set of Lee classics and lesser-known numbers was a genuine cabaret performance.

Beginning with the mandatory opening I Love Being Here With You (even mandatory for the Lee-ophile Diana Krall these days), Baden-Rennie’s pitch was shaky early on, but improved as she relaxed into the material. Lee herself was a canny artist, perhaps the Madonna of her time. Realising that she didn’t have the stratospheric vocal range and tone of Sarah Vaughan or the pyrotechnic improvisational skills of Ella Fitzgerald, Lee created a sex kitten Mae West diva persona and wrote world-weary ‘lived in’ conversational songs that complemented her personality. While a Lee tribute must have staples like Fever, Black Coffee and Why don’t you do right?, it was the songs in Baden-Rennie’s show that I had never heard but recognised as quintessentially Lee’s (Waitin’ for the Train to Come in and I Don’t Know Enough About You) that I enjoyed the most.

Baden-Rennie also summoned all her experience, both life and artistic, on classic standards like the Billie Holiday masterpiece Good Morning Heartache and Gerard/Mercer’s When the World was Young. The fingers clicked appropriately on Fever, but the jazz improvisation on Is that all there is? detracted from the cynicism the song demands, although Baden-Rennie redeemed herself immediately belting out W.O.M.A.N with gusto. By the show’s conclusion, I was satisfied that I had been given a taste of the real Peggy – who inspired Miss Piggy – rather than simply a lecture.