Lea DeLaria

Lea DeLaria
Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Festival Theatre, 11 June, 2018

Lea DeLaria opened her show in Adelaide with a beautifully arranged jazz adaptation of the Bowie classic “Boys Keep Swinging”. It is no accident that these lyrics, heard so many times before, are suddenly heard in a new way. As DeLaria sings, ‘Heaven loves ya, The clouds part for ya, Nothing stands in your way, When you're a boy’, there can be little doubt that the woman standing before us keenly feels the inequalities between the genders.

Unlike the gender-fluid chameleon that Bowie was, DeLaria also leaves us in no doubt about her sexual orientation. Appearing on stage in a simple check suit, blue boots and t-shirt emblazoned with the Nike logo (with a D), Delaria, from the outset, tells the audience that she is a lesbian, queer and proud of it. The evening is interspersed with seemingly uncensored banter which highlights her intolerance to inequality of any kind. With two lines she sums up her feelings about the Trump administration, one can’t be printed, the other is, ‘methinks thou dost protest too much Mike Pence’... enough said.

DeLaria may have shot to fame as Big Boo on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, but she has spent her life on the stage in various guises. She grew up in Illinois, daughter of a jazz pianist, and as a child began singing at his shows. In 1982 she embraced the life of a stand-up comedian, gradually adding musical numbers into her act. She has performed on Broadway, notably as Eddie in the The Rocky Horror Show, possibly the only female to do so. And, she has been the go-to-girl for American television producers whenever a butch dyke is required. DeLaria is an accomplished jazz singer with five successful albums to her name, most recently House of David, a compilation of jazz adaptations of Bowie classics.

The show draws largely on that compilation as she makes her way through a small but impressive portion of the Bowie canon. The jazz adaptations bring Bowie’s lyrics to the fore and shed new light on the songs we know so well. “Fame” becomes a commentary on celebrity in the age of social media and showcases the skills of her pianist Helen Sung in an impressive solo. In “Let’s Dance” DeLaria brings in undertones of the swing era, ably led by Double Bass player Endea Owens, fresh from Julliard School in New York. She adds a melancholy twist to “Life on Mars”, culminating with a spine-tingling vocal crescendo.

In a departure from Bowie, DeLaria entertained with a stirring rendition of the ‘deep jazz number, “My Cat Fell Down the Well”, in which the audience were told in no uncertain terms that they would participate. She followed that up with a jazz version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, endorsed by her mate Steve Sondheim.

As an encore DeLaria chose a jazz improvisation of Peggy Lee’s 1942 classic “Why Don’t You Do Right?” The number not only showcased her vocals but her impressive band of Sung, Owens and Sylvia Cuenca.

DeLaria is a generous performer: generous with her talent; generous with the laughs; generous with her opinions; generous to her band; generous to the songwriters she performs; and not least, generous to the audience.

By giving Bowie the jazz treatment DeLaria makes the stars look very different tonight…but in a completely new and enlightened way.

Jenny Fewster

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