Awash with bright lights, glittering costumes and driving disco beats, the eponymous nightclub featured in Velvet channels the 1970s’ heyday of New York’s Studio 54, famous for its hedonistic parties, celebrity culture and embrace of sexual freedoms. Billed as a “divine discotheque circus”, you get exactly what it says on the packet and more in this sparkling and wildly entertaining love song to the disco era – a tribute to a New York club in which patrons apparently had to wade through four inches of glitter on the dance floor.
Velvet is essentially a nostalgic variety show, a heady mash-up of song, dance and circus acts. Director Craig Ilott strings together a suite of disco hits – favourites like Shake Your Groove Thing, Never Knew Love Like This Before, Last Dance and more – threaded through with a thinly sketched (though not ineffective) story of a young ingénue (Tom Oliver) on a path of self discovery and sexual awakening, guided by Australian legend of the disco era and ‘Queen of Pop’, Marcia Hines.
Joe Accaria in Velvet: A Divine Discotheque Circus. Photos © Tony Virgo
Joe Accaria hosts as music director, DJ and percussionist, decked out in glittering headphones and dark wrap-around sunglasses as he oversees proceedings from above the stage. He grooves along with some light air guitar and drums as the audience is seated, but delivers a series of hard-driving drum solos – at times with vividly glowing drumsticks or taking to the stage with an electronic drum – over the course of the show.
German circus artist Mirko Köckenberger sets the scene with an acrobatic costume change, shedding his day-job bellhop uniform for his club attire in a virtuosic balancing-act-turned-striptease that has the audience gasping.
It rains at least one man during the show – aerial performer Stephen Williams is suspended Christ-like above the stage before delivering a rippling, athletic performance to the song first made famous by The Weather Girls.
Emma Goh is also stunning in the air, soaring and spinning above the audience, and her aerial coupling with Williams has a balletic elegance. As the intensity is dialled up a notch, the pair’s airborne antics are also a highlight of the bondage sequence, which hypnotises audience and Oliver alike.
Stephen Williams and Emma Goh.
Dancers/singers Kaylah Attard and Rechelle Mansour are among the hardest working in the show, bringing buckets of energy and charisma to almost every number – serving as Hines’ entourage and back-up singers, adding their frenzied disco dancing to Accaria’s drum solos and taking the spotlight for a robust rendition of Turn the Beat Around.
Kaylah Attard and Rechelle Mansour.
Hines is both imperious and benevolent as the diva of the nightclub, fixing audience members in her gaze as she croons. If her delivery is a little wooden at times, this only serves to enhance her status as a distant and unknowable figure to be revered.
Oliver excels as her protégé, the nameless young man thrust into the intoxicating nightclub world. He makes a fine ingénue – nervous and wide-eyed in white shirt and thin black tie, clutching his comically delicate ukulele case – and brings a touching eagerness to his initiation into this new world. He quickly shows he can dance and act – he’s the only character in the show burdened by a character arc – and he can certainly sing. From sitting acolyte-style at Hines’ feet, he’s soon belting out duets with her and manages to wring a surprising amount of pathos from a stripped back ukulele version of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive.
One of the real highlights of the show, however, is Scottish hoola-hoop performer Craig Reid, whose joyous, virtuosic act is a thing of a beauty – it is his moments that are closest to touching on the divine.
Velvet is never less than entertaining, though unfortunately the finale doesn’t hit as hard as the showstopper sequences earlier in the evening, and the final number – a cathartic, hopeful rendition of Last Dance – becomes something of an anticlimax. With the bows fading out into an extended and slightly forced opportunity for audience dancing supervised by Accaria, the show trails off rather than finishing with a bang.
But at the end of the day, Velvet is loads of fun. Set to a high-energy, toe-tapping disco soundtrack, the show leaps from one visually spectacular number to the next in a dazzling feast for eyes and ears.
Velvet: A Divine Discotheque Circus is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until August 20.