Christie Whelan Browne. Britney Spears The Cabaret. Photo: Photos By Jeeves
This review could have been vastly different if the person who attended the show wasn’t a Heat magazine-reading, celebrity-loving child of the nineties and noughties. To be fair, someone who isn’t those things probably wouldn’t have requested a ticket to review a show entitled Britney Spears The Cabaret, but anyway. When I received the latest list of shows to review from the Sardines office, I stopped scrolling when I saw the title and pondered for a second. This production sounded like it could be the worst thing since they re-wrote loads of the lyrics in Miss Saigon, or it could be utterly genius.
Luckily, it was the latter.
To say that only a person like me would enjoy BSTC is actually slightly unfair. Described as “Not so much a cabaret but a cry for help”, this one woman show is very cleverly written and delivered. Australian performer Christie Whelan Browne, who I’d probably put in that clichéd category of “blonde bombshell”, spends 70 minutes basically owning the stage. She makes you believe you really could be watching the real Britney Spears, but without transforming herself into a horrible caricatured version; one minute she’s making you laugh out loud and the next, she’s reducing you to tears. The show has already had sell-out seasons in Australia and I can see why.
Raised in Louisiana, Britney Jean Spears was thrust into the spotlight at a very early age. She rose to fame on American TV show The Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Justin Timberlake, who she later went on to have a high profile relationship (and break-up) with. She then burst onto the music scene in 1999 with probably one of the most famous pop songs ever, …Baby One More Time. (I remarked to my friend that I even remembered where I was the first time I heard this song, which I don’t think can be said for many pop tunes.)
Since then, Spears has had two failed marriages (one to backing dancer Kevin Federline, with whom she has two sons, and one that lasted only 55 hours, to childhood friend Jason Alexander), had a very public breakdown, where she shaved off all her hair, lost custody of her children and is now in the ninth year of a court-ordered conservatorship under her father, which gives him complete control of her assets. Although she seems to be in a much better place now, Britney has been through a hell of a lot in her 35 years.
So how were all these desperate and tragic events presented in what is essentially a comedy show? I was unsure how they would be approached and to start with, thought the whole thing might just be one belly laugh after another. The stage was set simply with a grand piano, microphone and stool. Oh, and a bright pink hula-hoop. Christie entered through the audience and I was immediately glad to hear she wasn’t attempting to emulate Britney’s very specific singing voice, which can just sound awful if done in an OTT way. She opened with the song Circus, complete with crazed facial expressions and hand gestures and as soon as she spoke, Britney’s child-like southern drawl came out and I was hooked.
The show weaved through Spears’ life using her most famous songs interspersed with dialogue. I was surprised by the poignancy of many of the lyrics, which you could hear more clearly as they were sung in a slow, cabaret style. They weren’t sung in order of release, but were cleverly placed to match with points in her life to which they’d be most relevant. Songs like I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, Overprotected and I’m a Slave 4 U speak for themselves in title alone as being relevant to parts of her life. Slave 4 U was cleverly sung by Whelan Browne as a child version of Britney, complete with tap shoes and baton twirling, and although it was hilarious, it also did the job of making you feel sufficiently uncomfortable about just what pushy parents will do to make sure their kids succeed.
Hit after hit was sung (exceptionally well) and there were many very funny moments, including my particular highlight of Britney mimicking the sounds that her microphone actually picks up on stage when she’s miming to a backing track. (Apparently this video can be found on YouTube, so I know what I’ll be doing tonight.) Small things, like Britney drinking from a bottle of vodka covered in an Evian sticker, gave the show even more touches of comedy and Whelan Browne was extremely versatile in her performance. Accompanist and musical arranger Mathew Frank must also be mentioned for his flawless piano playing (you almost forgot he was on stage, but in a good way) and writer/director Dean Bryant should be extremely pleased with how the show plays out.
Towards the end, the show becomes sadder and sadder, as we hear about the worst periods in Britney’s life. The high heels come off, and she sits on top of the piano, her legs under her like a little girl. The songs become more melancholy and the saddest few lines in the show for me were when she mused: “People tell me that all the papers have my obituary already written; they just update it every week. The paparazzi will probably care more when I die than my mum and dad…”
This show really was a roller coaster of emotions, and although it may not be to everyone’s taste, I think many would be surprised at just how deep and meaningful a show called Britney Spears The Cabaret was. I loved it.