The City Festival in Hong Kong is an event awaited eagerly every year by denizens of the Fringe Club and by the lovers of anything on the fringes of the arts scene here, but it is paradoxically fast turning cabaret into a mainstream Hong Kong event. For the last three years the Festival has invited Rick Lau up from Australia to wow Hong Kong audiences with his mixture of comedy, pathos and music. This first series of cabaret performances (one a year over these three years) introduced him to a growing number of Hong Kong enthusiasts. The series explored both his own predicament, growing up queer in Hong Kong, emigrating to Sydney, finding himself as an Asian actor in Oz and as a gay man and falling and out of love there (it was around these themes that he built his shows SunRice and How Now Rick Lau), and the wider predicaments of other men in love, both gay and straight (which was the idea behind his last year's show, Men in Love).
Hong Kong audiences have taken so enthusiastically to Rick's shows that he emigrated back to Hong Kong (the place of his birth) last year and expanded his one man revolution in the Hong Kong art scene by putting on a second series of three, one man cabaret shows at the Fringe last Autumn. These, Rick at the Fringe, were staged somewhat quicker this time, one a month from September to November. There is no exaggeration here in the use of the word 'revolutionary'; not only was there, till Rick arrived on the scene, no gay cabaret in Hong Kong, there was almost no cabaret at all. The only other cabaret artist in Hong Kong is the German amateur singer, Eva Meier, wife of the current German Consul, who started singing German songs from the days of Weimar, Brecht and Marlene Dietrich about the same time as Rick brought SunRice up here from Oz. Her show Illusions is featured in this year's Festival. But until Rick's return she was looking pretty lonely here. The idea that anyone could actually make both a name and a living from cabaret had not, until now, crossed anyone's mind. Except Rick's, that is.
Rick at the Fringe seems to have set things off. His shows included other local talent, openly gay singer-song writer Chet Lam on one night, on others Pichead Amornsomboom (one half of Hong Kong's very successful dramatic duo, Two on Stage - the other being the amazingly glamorous Tony Wong) and visiting pianist Warren Wills. Two of these have been encouraged to develop their own brand of cabaret for audiences in Hong Kong. Pichead, silky Thai singer, actor and director, whose hugely successful and lavishly, flamboyantly camp show Homo Superus has run twice now in Hong Kong and is scheduled to stage again this year, gave his own highly successful cabaret show at the Fringe last December. Once more Chet Lam was a guest star. Warren Wills, a pianist of international repute, is appearing in two shows of his own in this year's City Festival, as well as supporting Rick in My Queer Valentine.
This year, the City Festival, always unafraid to push the envelope, invited Rick to investigate how gay song writers of the last century had written songs about their loves, their lives and their struggles. Many of these had written from the closets in which the music industry, so hypocritically, had confined them till not so long ago. So it was an interesting exercise in musical detection. My Queer Valentine is the result of this search.
It is also the result for Rick of two hugely fruitful collaborations, one old, one new, the more recent of the two being the partnership that he has developed in Hong Kong with Warren Wills. Warren is a jazz pianist, a virtuoso capable of going off script and score during a show and who best accompanies an artist as poised in front of an audience as he is himself. The bond with Rick is evident. They strike chords and comic sparks off each other. Warren has played so far in two of Rick's shows whilst Rick has returned the honours once, last year singing a number in Warren's one man show at the next door Foreign Correspondents' Club, probably the only time that a hymn to gay love has lifted the rafters off that establishment. Wills, who tours all over the globe, will be back in Hong Kong during the next year and there is talk of further collaboration.
The older and more crucial of Rick's partnerships is that with fellow Australian Tony Taylor, the mentor with whom he began his musical career and who has sustained and fostered its development. Rick took Tony Taylor's drama course when he was a student at Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art. They met again in a Sydney call centre where they were both temporary workers, Rick having just given up a career in IT and Tony resting from teaching. Tony is a director as well as a performer in his own right (who has appeared in shows including Little Shop of Horrors and The 39 Steps, and is about to take part in a new production of the latter in England). He initially encouraged Rick to go on the stage and then helped persuade him to switch to one-man shows. Tony came to Hong Kong to direct Rick in Men in Love last year and is back directing him for this year's show. According to Rick, Tony is one of the forces behind his move from mainstream musicals into the more demanding and exhausting discipline of cabaret.
Before SunRice, Rick had followed a career in Australian musical productions, including parts in Hair, Naked Boys Singing (both of which involved appearing nude; good practice for a cabaret singer, who can never afford to be shy), Thoroughly Modern Millie and Miss Saigon. In the last, he took the part of the Engineer, the biggest role open to an Asian in the show. Cabaret started in part as a way of filling time between shows, but Rick soon saw it as a way of developing his own art, something he could never do in the cast of a big production. Tony Taylor has encouraged this by making sure that none of Rick's cabarets are the same; you never get the same song or the same line twice in a Rick Lau show.
My Queer Valentine is, typically, a new departure, a show with a good deal of darkness swirling around songs of love, loss and sorrow, yet heightened and lightened by humour, both wry and camp. Rick has a line in one-man banter, both lib and ad lib, that can take an audience by surprise and on occasion convulse them. But this is a show whose depth and seriousness are as arresting as its humour. On the night I saw it there were quite a few wet cheeks being swiftly dried by the audience as it left the Fringe. The tone of the show was quickly set at its start, with a voice over responding to Rick's questioning his own identity by listing all the pejorative terms for a queer in the English language. A sombre, stark moment that took the audience unawares and set the stage for what was to follow.
Rick and Tony had carefully researched this show to uncover both older, often well-known songs, usually by the famous, in which a gay theme is carried between the lines, as well as songs by later writers who were able to be specific about their meaning. One of the numbers shot with sadness was Tom Andersen's simple 'Yard Sale', which tells of a visit to the sale of all his worldly goods by a man dying of AIDS. The poignancy of Rodgers and Hart's 'My Funny Valentine', Rick's closing number, was increased by the realisation that Lorenz Hart, its lyricist, was writing of himself as a 'funny' (ie 'queer') Valentine, something he could not, in the 1930s, have said directly. Tugging at the heartstrings, Eric Lane Barnes's song 'Dear Dad', from the 1995 New York show, Fairy Tales, was a song about coming out to one's father. Also touching, but at the same time nevertheless very amusing, Kiby Tepper's 'And the Ship Sails On', a song from the show The Gay 90s, was the tale of two lesbian seagulls who make it aboard Noah's ark. The show was enlivened by lighter fare, for instance the classic bitchiness of Fred Ebb's 'The Boy from Fire Island', his adaptation of Antonio Carlos Jobim's 'The Girl from Ipamena'. With justice (for he was the man who gave us Chicago and the inspirational Cabaret), Fred Ebb's name appeared twice in the song list, his other piece being 'Quiet Love', the song made famous by Charles Aznavour and Liza Minelli.
At the heart of the show, and really at the centre of its message, was Jerry Herman's gay anthem 'I Am What I Am' from the show La Cage Aux Folles. Rick belted this old chestnut out so that the hair stood on the audience's heads and arms. He has a rich, powerful voice that, in the confined spaces of the Fringe Club's theatre, really needs no microphone, a dramatic voice easily able to carry the sorrows and angers of the songs sung here but one versatile enough to lapse easily into the bathos of camp. It is a voice that took him in December to Beijing to back Sandy Lam on stage and which he will show it off again in Hong Kong next in March Chung Ying Theatre's production of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, which will play at the Kwai Hing theatre (and in which Pichead Amornsomboom is also starring).
Rick will reprise My Queer Valentine in the Studio at the Hong Kong Fringe Club on February 20 and 21 (tickets from Urbtix and the Fringe at HK$150 advance, HK$180 full price). And there will no doubt be more cabaret in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Rick has as yet no idea how long he will stay in Hong Kong, but the way his career is developing indicates that it may be a good deal of time before he abandons his roots here again.
My Queer Valentine (Re-run)
The "love that dare not speak its name" is now the love that can't shut the f**k up! From Cole Porter's lyrics full of homosexual innuendo to Lorenz Hart's autobiographically anguished lyrics, to Jerry Herman's bright optimism, Stephen Sondheim's wry irony, Kander & Ebb's dark world and George Michael's and Rufus Wainwright's modern sensibility, My Queer Valentine shines a spotlight on those who skirt away from the mainstream in the often complex and dubious areas of sexuality, gender and the personal stories that define their lives.
Date: Feb 20 (Fri) and 21 (Sat), 2009, 8pm (~1 hr)
Venue: Fringe Studio @ HK Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central, HK
Booking: HK Ticketing 31 288 288 / www.hkticketing.com
Enquiries: Fringe Club 2521 7251 / www.hkfringeclub.com