BWW Review: BRITNEY SPEARS - THE CABARET, The Other Palace
When it comes to the chronicling the extraordinary unpredictable events in the life of pop princess, Britney Spears, one might ask, "How was I supposed to know?" As Australian star of musical theatre, Christie Whelan Browne, proves, all you need to do is listen to the songs.
At first Whelan Browne plays Britney as a caricature Southern dumb blonde, a lip-synching fraud who was an vessel for ambitious parents, music moguls and unsuitable men - I was all set to write about the parodic unfairness of such a portrait, of its sexism and its sneering contempt of those from humble backgrounds whose education was acquired on the hoof.
Fortunately, things changed - and rapidly - into a more nuanced development of Britney Spears' personality, the jibes give way to sympathy, the sheer impossibility of living anything like a normal life under so bright a spotlight made explicitly clear. By the end of the hour or so running time, we're left wondering not why Britney could appear to be unhinged at times, but how she could ever appear to be sane, given the life she led.
Whelan Browne also develops her singing from a kind of badly autotuned Britney into something that belts out the songs which, stripped back to just Mathew Frank's excellent piano accompaniment, carry much more weight than in the over-produced, shamelessly commercial studio versions. The lyrics too, though never as searingly honest as BrIan Wilson's "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times", capture the torment and the cruelty of her life, cushioned though it was by money and the double-edged sword of popular adulation. As is also the case in the spoken interludes between the songs, Whelan Browne's singing does not shortchange her subject - nor us.
There are plenty of laughs too, the butt of the jokes turning from Britney herself to Liza and Patti advising on cabaret and to the men who did so much to harm a young and naive woman - (read more about that rather sordid subculture here). We never slide into tabloid TV territory though, the discourse of "cabaret" is maintained and the show is all the better for it.
About 15 years ago, I wrote and delivered an undergraduate module called "Scandalous Behaviour". It attempted to use political and showbiz scandals to show the power of the media (and its limitations) and to shine a light on how popular culture can vilify young and vulnerable people considered "fair game", chewing them up and spitting them out in a version of a Victorian freak show made all the more nauseating by the hypocritical moralising that so often accompanies such exposés. The media's demand for new blood and feverish promotion of young stars before the vicious chopping down of such tall poppies continues to this day.
I don't know whether I succeeded in my objective, but, no matter - Whelan Browne (and her writer, Dean Bryant) get there for me, in this entertaining and thought-provoking show.
Britney Spears - The Cabaret is at The Other Palace until September 9.