Camille O'Sullivan's La Fille du Cirque: Unfocused Talent

"Nobody knows exactly what direction I'll be going in, and that's frustrating for the band.But we drink throughout the show to get through it," says Camille O'Sullivan a few numbers into her American cabaret debut at the South Street Seaport's Spiegeltent.

Lack of direction seems to be the key problem with this Irish chanteuse's eighty-minute show, La Fille du Cirque, inspired by the dark and dangerous spirit of Weimar Kabarett.  She certainly shows talent, confidence, playfulness and a desire to challenge her audience, but working without a stage director or music director, the evening is repetitive, clichéd and lacking in both originality and clarity.

With a set composed primarily of songs by Jacques Brel (English lyrics by Mort Schumann and Eric Blau), along with selections by Nick Cave, Tom Waits, David Bowie and others, she tells the audience she chooses material that tells great stories and allows her to play different characters.  But the limited emotional range she displays consists mostly of loud, abrasive anger that garbles up lyrics and betrays any attempt at storytelling.  Her ballads are generally sung with a glazed stare and sloppy diction that trails off the ends of phrases.  The sound system heavily echoes her vocals and jolts the audience with sudden blasts of volume, creating a wall of sound that blocks listeners from anything that might resemble an honest emotion.  I lost count of how many times she ended songs by collapsing onto the floor. 

Her black fishnet stockings, sexy red dress and cleavage-enhancing bustier look too much like a costume one would wear if attending a party dressed as "subversive kabarett singer."  There's no water on stage.  She drinks dehydrating red wine during the performance that may have contributed to the harshness in her voice by the evening's end and the noticeable flattening of her pitch.

Her artistic choices for the work of Jacques Brel are often baffling.  She seems in her own world bouncing across the stage, climbing atop a table and stomping her feet as she screams what I assume to be the lyrics of "The Middle Class."  She swivels her hips like Jayne Mansfield in a hipster arrangement of "Jackie" and plays "Amsterdam" so soused that I doubt many newcomers to the song would get its meaning.

And yet there are moments when O'Sullivan is quite good.  She's suitably snarky and funny for "In These Shoes?", Dillie Keane's comic rejection of romance when it leads to discomfort.  And though her staging of Lieber and Stoller's classic "Is That All There Is?" contains multiple clichés (the disappearing band, the disgusted final gesture, the trance-like exit through the audience), she plays the emotional detachment very well.

Her arrangements are by Feargal Murray and she's joined on stage by David Bates (piano), Chris Biesterfiel (guitar), Scott Morehouse (drums), Larry Russell (bass) and Sam Morrison (alto and soprano sax/flute).

Camille O'Sullivan is not without her fans.  She comes to New York having been awarded Best Music at the 2005 Brighton Festival, Best Cabaret Artiste at the 2005 Melbourne Theatre Awards and playing three sold out weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  And given her exuberance and stage presence, she could find a fan in me if she ever found a director who could channel her skills into a show that emphasizes lyric phrasing and puts song interpretation over attention-hungry bursts of emotion.

Photo credits:  Top: Mark McColl, Bottom: Mark Marnie

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From This Author Michael Dale

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