Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Dunstan Playhouse
Until 16 Jun 2018

Review by Thomas Filsell

“Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell” comprises first-person narration and a musical recounting of significant moments from the life and career of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, as presented by the emotional Cabaret chanteuse Queenie Van De Zandt, as well as the presentation of archival recordings of comments from some of the important people in Mitchell's life.

The lyrical storytelling is serious and solemn, tending towards melancholic at the beginning of the show. Van De Zandt starts out with the lights set low to match the deep mood produced by the emotional choice of music. The depth of feeling is maintained throughout the remainder of the show, creating a sense of gravity, emotional maturity and a kind of sympathy for the storyteller. This sympathy, however, is undermined by ambiguity and the difficulty in assigning it to the person on stage. Van De Zandt is telling Mitchell's story – not her own – and no matter how well she may be able to connect with the material and how much emotion she conveys through her hearty singing; the story is not her own so the emotion and sympathy she creates feel somewhat out of place or disconnected.

Van De Zandt is a terrific singer, make no mistake – she had diva style like you would expect from a seasoned opera performer and the gravitas and bearing to match, as well as a soaring, expressive singing voice. The on-stage band including Musical Director and Pianist Max Lambert performed each of their roles proficiently without needless flair or arrogance and did nothing to compromise the cohesiveness of the show. The show was fine – however, its cohesiveness, or comprehensibility rather, was compromised during the spoken interludes performed by Van De Zandt in her natural accent and own voice. It was unclear in the beginning whether Van De Zandt was relating her personal feelings or anecdotes which mirrored those from Joni Mitchell’s life, or if she was just reciting prepared lines. It happened to be the latter, and perhaps it is a credit to her acting talent that she seemed so natural in speaking prepared lines that she could create this kind of uncertainty, but ultimately it would have been nice to hear more from Van De Zandt herself about her thoughts and feelings and the reasons why she responds to the Mitchell story and material so personally as she claims to do.

The best part of the show, in fact, was when Van De Zandt dropped the script and stepped away from her Mitchell character, to give us some of her delightful, light hearted thoughts and banter. She was charming, funny, quick-witted, and it was much more enjoyable when this version of Van De Zandt stepped forward with a wink and a grin and got us clapping and singing along to some of Mitchell’s cheerier popular tunes.