Review: Rufus Wainwright at Festival Theatre

Rufus Wainwright’s much-feted appearance on the final weekend of this year’s Adelaide Festival initially reads like a strangely sandwiched together highlights reel. It’s as if organisers just couldn’t quite pick between two very different directions and in the end chose the “why not both?” route.

Appropriately, the Australian premiere of two equally ambitious highlights of Wainwright’s career (in abridged forms, at least) begins with Wainwright himself shuffling onstage in his “composer’s outfit” to explain the format. As if to head off a flood of angry posts to the Festival’s Facebook page in the interval, complaining that he wasn’t even in the bloody thing, Rufus introduces the three singers who alongside the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will deliver choice cuts from his 2009 opera Prima Donna, while reassuring us he will return to perform the second half himself.

Thought not physically onstage, the hour or so of Prima Donna is infused with plenty of his personality. The narrative of a star of the opera returning to her most famous role, only to have her voice leave her has a pleasingly meta-narrative when placed in the lead up to Wainwright reprising what must be one of his most vocally challenging performances a decade after its first, rapturously received airing. Backed by arty footage of American photographer Cindy Sherman dressed up in all manner of glamourous prima donna costumes, it’s a lovingly constructed tribute to the form with some excellent jokes thrown into the mix.

Wainwright returns from the interval to an overture of  Over The Rainbow from the ASO, bedecked in a sparkling sequined red suit – Dorothy’s famous slippers in camp human form. Hustling through the nostalgic, famous American showtunes made famous-er in Judy Garland’s barnstorming 1961 Carnegie Hall performance, Wainwright sweats charisma as he navigates the imposing blueprint left by Garland. He channels her iconic performance right down to her brief muddling of the words to You Go To My Head (“forgot the damn words!”). A moment of nail-biting vocal tightrope walking comes as he sings Do It Again, a feat he explains has to arrive early in the set list as its sung in Garland’s original key (“tenor for her, soprano for me”).

Wainwright often pauses to provide context regarding Garland’s original performance, which though amusing also serves to expose the seams of tonight’s cherry-picked double bill. Like an audiobook reader announcing they’re skipping ahead to the good bits, it made for an at times jarring intrusion that did a disservice to his otherwise smooth performance.

An emotional moment comes as he admits catching himself thinking about his late friend Carrie Fisher mid-song, before dedicating the next to her memory as a lover of Australia. Another arrives when he breaks from the Garland material to entertain a request by Festival co-Artistic Director Neil Armfield to perform a track Wainwright composed for Armfield’s 2015 film Holding The Man. Prefaced with a tongue-in-cheek comment that it would also allow him to show off the third tier of his triple threat capabilities (“singer, songwriter, composer… and I’m not a bad pianist either!”), Forever And A Year is a tender, personal moment that, when set against the bombast of a Festival that’s been big on grand, ambitious statements, makes for a refreshing change of pace.

Rufus Wainwright performed at the Festival Theatre as part of Adelaide Festival on Saturday, March 18 2017.

Photography: Tony Lewis

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