Adelaide Cabaret Festival aficionados have been treated to a smorgasbord of Broadway legends since the Festival’s inception including Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen. However, aside from Maria Friedman in 2008, West End musical stars have been thin on the ground. This year, however, the Festival featured celebrated West End star Ruthie Henshall, who has famously played three roles in Chicago: Roxie Hart in London and on Broadway, Velma Kelly on Broadway, and Mama Morton in the West End revival last year. Her numerous other West End credits include Crazy for You, Cats, Miss Saigon, She Loves Me, Les Misérables and Billy Elliot.
Ruthie Henshall. Photograph © Kurt Sneddon
Making her Australian debut, Henshall delighted a packed Spiegeltent with a show that was not only a collage of songs from her most memorable roles, but a glimpse into life as a musical star – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Carole King’s Beautiful was a sweet if unexpected introduction. However, musical theatre then took command as Henshall launched into Electricity from Billy Elliot, the musical that confirmed in her, as a wide-eyed 10-year old, that she had found her dream. She later played Mrs Wilkinson in the show. A less than auspicious but salvaged debut in front of Stephen Sondheim was the cue for Ladies Who Lunch from Company where I couldn’t help comparing Henshall’s huskier tones with those of the raspy but masterfully cynical originator of the song, Elaine Stritch.
The “intimate” section emerged when Henshall sang So Big/ So Small from Dear Evan Hansen as a paean to her failed marriage and the impact that the separation had on her two young daughters. However, the revelatory part of the show was Henshall’s virtuosity in comedic character numbers such as Victoria Wood’s classic The Ballad of Barry and Freda (Let’s Do It) where a fatigued husband has to fend off a libidinous wife, and Wokin’ where a train station announcer revels in the hormones she stirs with her sultry announcements.
Of course, a Henshall show would be incomplete without at least one number from Chicago, but the audience was treated to a medley of Roxie, Razzle Dazzle, Class, My Own Best Friend, When You’re Good to Mama, and All that Jazz. The build-up to the big finish was She Used to Be Mine from the recent Broadway hit show Waitress and the finale was I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables – which of course is now more known as ‘SuBo’s’ party piece, although Henshall cleverly piggy-backed on Boyle’s social media bonanza by uploading her own version which has now acquired two million hits. Accompanied unobtrusively but skilfully by Paul Schofield, Henshall finished to a standing ovation which she rewarded with a plaintive but poignant rendition of the Lennon/McCartney masterpiece In My Life. All in all, a delightful way to start a Friday night in wintry Adelaide.