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Sunday 11 October 2015

Review: An Evening with the Incredible Mr Capsis

Posted in: Performance
By Lexie Matheson - 4th September 2015

An Evening with the Incredible Mr Capsis
Presented by Auckland Live for the Auckland International Cabaret Season
Live at Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall
Thursday 03 & Friday 04 September, 2015 at 9.15pm
Saturday 05 September, 2015 at 6.00pm


Baz Luhrmann said ‘There is no one like Capsis.'

We all know who Luhrmann is, don't we?

But who is Capsis?

Time Out Sydney was even more succinct. ‘Paul Capsis is fantastic', they said

When I got the call to fill in for GayNZ's regular cabaret reviewer I thought it might be a cool idea to venture out into the dire Auckland weather in the late evening and take in a concert by some Australian dude with an impossible name who I'd never heard of who's here for the Auckland International Cabaret Season. I love cabaret, don't get me wrong, but I don't get to go much due to a nasty wee conspiracy between the time taken up with other theatre reviewing and the fact that stuff this good doesn't come by that much.

Well, that's my excuse.

Ms Google helped and I quickly found that to not have heard of the Incredible Mr Capsis clearly implied that I'd been living under a rock in Philistineville for something like ever and that Philistineville is located on the moon. Everyone but me, it seems, has not only heard of Paul Capsis but is a big fan as well.

I am now too. Unashamedly.

I found that Paul Capsis is Australian theatre royalty. He's an ‘actor, singer and cabaret star who effortlessly moves from underground clubs to the bright lights of Broadway' or so his press agent says.He's a five time Helpmann Award winner ‘with a taste for glitter and a dash of irreverence' and he channels ‘the spirit of the divas who inspire him', names likeJudy Garland, Janis Joplin, Amy WinehouseandNina Simone. Well, those chicks inspire me too but I don't know that anyone but them can truly sing their songs – I certainly couldn't - so I head to youtube for evidence to either support these claims or that will give him the big au contraire.

I found a few interesting interviews with this wiry little half Greek half Maltese performer and some grainy images of him as Riff Raff in ‘The Rocky Horror Show', the role that creator Richard O'Brien had devised for himself and which the excellent Kristian Lavercombe has since made his own. ‘Not half bad', I thought. ‘In fact, pretty damn good.' Then I got distracted and soon I had to go off to another event entitled ‘Diversity Dividend' where I got to listen to a bunch of rich people, mostly white, pat each other on the back and celebrate the idea that diversity is about ethnicity and the colour of your skin and about maximising opportunities for businesses that can happen if you're nice to such people. After two hours of waiting impatiently for one of the ‘big idea' keynote speakers to mention that sexual orientation, gender identity, age, refugee status and disability also come under the umbrella of ‘diversity' I left in a huff and strode, in the rain, to the Town Hall where I found that Capsis was going to be going up 30 minutes late. Was I happy? Not a bit!

There was an upside, though, and it was this. I had moved from an essentially heterosexual, rich person's event to what was, to my delight, an event for family, for my queer brothers and sisters, and for people like me. There's no nicer feeling and we were clearly out in force. It was, in fact, catch up time with wonderful friends who I hadn't seen for awhile, so ‘vive la going up late!'

I love the Concert Chamber of the Town Hall. It's a sublime venue and is looking at its sophisticated best for this season of international shows. The massive rouched curtain at the back of the stage eats light and looked magnificent as it soaked up the colour while we waited. The auditorium, ¾ full and laid out with many tiny black-clothed tables, was welcoming and classy, the audience had dressed to match and there was glitter and sequins for Africa. It's great when people take the time to value the experience and to dress accordingly. As might be expected there were mirror balls and acres of gleaming white silk draped from the ceiling with lights inside and the whole thing smacked of queer.

The Capsis band is a four piece – guitar, drums, bass (sometimes upright, sometimes guitar) and keyboards – and they owned the compact Concert Chamber stage. Well, not quite. They left room for a diminutive Capsis to work his magic and work it he does. From his first entrance wearing an unpretentious little black dress and ankle boots, hair casually bouffant, to his final exit resplendent in gold he was the master of the space. He owned us too. From the nanosecond he opened his mouth we were his.

Clever artists never leave you wondering what you're about to receive and Capsis certainly knows the ropes. ‘This is a rock and roll show' he says and reaches deep into his grab-bag of Joplin for starters. There are Tony Abbott gags – he doesn't like Abbott, neither do we – then he launches into ‘I'm on my way to Freedom Land' accompanied by the best gospel piano I've heard since 1972 when I saw the great Leon Russell at Western Springs. Everyone has recorded ‘Freedom Land' from Mahalia Jackson to Mavis Staples to Bobby Darin to Ritchie Havens but I've never heard it sung better. We talk briefly about the flag – he hates the designs, so do we - and then he reminds us that ‘this is cabaret, there are no fucking rules' and what had already been great took a giant step into the superlative. Capsis is a bravura performer and when he gets it right, as he mostly does, he's quite superb.

He doesn't talk much but when he does it's pertinent. He chats about Winehouse's grandmother, advises us to see the Amy film and then sings a haunting ballad about his own Maltese grandmother. It's deeply touching, especially to someone like me who never knew either of hers.

Then it's the Arlen/Gershwin classic ‘The Man That Got Away' that featured in the George Cukor film 'A Star is Born' (1954) and was selected by the American Film Institute as the eleventh greatest song in US screen history. Garland also made history by recording ‘The Man That Got Away' for the movie in one continuous take. Our man, not to be outdone, performed it in one continuous take for us too, and, to be frank, it was just as memorable.

Capsis is a very physical performer and following one of his sweeping bends he notes, almost as an aside, ‘I haven't shaved my legs' and, looking up, ‘I'm a bit feral like that' and I find myself loving this feminised genderless man and wanting to take him home with me. I have no doubt at all there'd be quite a queue for this privilege.

The show took a further leap into the transcendent with an amalgam of the Eurythmics 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)'and The Doors ‘People Are Strange'. It's a highlight of the night with Capsis' enigmatic vocals matched by a soaring guitar line and, despite Capsis being unable to get staid old Auckland to sing, for once I fully understood. We were just having too much damn fun listening to him doing it.

A dear friend, who by chance happened to be sitting just in front of me, leaned back and sagely whispered ‘trans heroic chic' which really pissed me off because it's a line I wished I'd thought of, so I've stolen it and here it is: Paul Capsis the performer to a tee!

There's a big costume change after a striking version of Cher's 1966 hit ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)' and around this point I realised I'd been watching a singer embody the work of the artists who made the songs famous but without losing himself in the process. It's very subtle stuff, and impressive beyond words.

Capsis says he going to end as he started with Joplin and he does, but then he comes back for an encore. It's ‘Lou Reed's ‘Perfect day' and he does it perfectly. Everyone who's anyone has covered ‘Perfect Day' – Bowie, Bono, Sasha Lopez, even Patti Smith - but no-one will ever better Lou Reed for me. Not until Capsis, that is. Not until Capsis. Now I have a new hero, and this one is still alive!

The evening should be over but it's not.

Next Nina Simone's ‘Feeling Good' and it's magic, absolute magic. I write in my notes ‘just the best voice ever' and suddenly there it is again, that fabulous piano, always the piano, supporting, underpinning, embellishing.

The encore is like a concert in itself, it's that good, but it does all come to an end and I'm wondering in the dark ‘how do you put a full stop on this magnificence?' You do it, it seems, with Steven Foster's 1864 parlour song ‘Beautiful Dreamer' and you do it wistfully, quietly, with oodles of echo and you take your band and your audience with you.

Capsis leaves through the audience and we clap him gone. He's moved to the foyer to sell albums, sign autographs and touch the flesh. The music has gone and I'm a mess. I slip away, moved beyond anything I could have imagined 90 minutes earlier. It's drizzling in Queen Street and the skies are about to open.

I recollect the pinnacle of this experience, Capsis in my head and in my heart, singing …

‘Faces come out of the rain,
When you're strange,
No one remembers your name.'

Well, he might not remember mine but I'll sure as hell remember his.

Thanks, Paul. C'est magnifique.

You truly are incredible.

Lexie Matheson - 4th September 2015

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