On Sunday night, on the set of Blood Brothers at the Hayes, Geraldine Turner made her Sydney cabaret return after at least a decade away. She walked onto that stage and she started with a bang, with the most improbable choice, with a startling choice: “Rose’s Turn.”
On the one hand, it’s bold and uncompromising, like Turner herself, and she delivered it with gusto, and it led into some quick stories about her showbiz past, and the three Gypsies she almost starred in and never did. She has a poster from one of them, which she plans to put on the wall in her nursing home, and when theatre fans flock to visit her and tell her how amazing she was in the show, she’ll never correct them.
On the other hand, the choice is a poor one. Even in a cabaret that builds a narrative by using songs from shows out of context, we have to be sufficiently invested in someone and their journey before their singing “Rose’s Turn” has any impact whatsoever. This is indicative of the larger problem with Turner’s Turn: it’s riddled with poor choices.
It’s also poorly structured beyond the opening number, which, on its own, could be a compelling if divisive choice. Directed by Caroline Stacey in a mash-up of sequences that don’t quite connect, the show is stacked with ‘big sings’ and eleven o’clock numbers; there’s no internal journey or narrative thread to follow, and the songs don’t marry up with personal stories or particularly affecting anecdotes. Turner rarely gives us a reason to care about what she’s singing. Usually when this happens, the songs exist outside a storytelling framework and it’s the performer’s acting that pulls the song together into something the audience can invest in, but Turner’s acting is lacking throughout her numbers.
Turner is a well-liked performer with a musical theatre legacy. She was the first in the world to record a solo album of Sondheim songs; she’s played leading roles in Australian productions of Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Anything Goes, Oliver, and much more. A cabaret with Turner holds a compelling and sort of enthralling opportunity to be let inside the history of musicals in the country, and inside the mind of a great Australian diva.
We are lucky that Geraldine Turner exists; she has been good to our stages and she is an engaging, droll woman with a commanding stage presence.
The problem is that her voice is more rasp than bombast and her song choices poorly reflect her current capabilities; she strained her way through several numbers in the songbook, and in others seemed more self-indulgent than anything else; a fan of Brel, she sang “Carousel” and tears sprung to her eyes, but it all felt a little empty out in the audience.
Turner’s Turn is bigger than Turner herself; she can’t carry it off in an effective or even truly enjoyable way. It all becomes bland; when she introduces a song like “Send in the Clowns”, we steel ourselves for another dicey encounter.
Turner had her fans in the audience and they laughed as she complained about her experience in Into the Woods and gasped at the mere mention of Sunset Boulevard, and she certainly has all the kinds of unapologetic presence you could probably want from a brassy woman of theatre, but her show felt tired, a little bitter, and generally out of her reach.
If you are a massive Geraldine Turner fan, then this show is for you. If not, it’s just a reminder that Australian performers are consistently evolving their own art of cabaret, and that there are more, and better, shows out there – even the simple, career-retrospective types.
It wasn’t until after her curtain call that she introduced her pianist and musical director, Brad Miller, who kept Turner afloat with his lively relationship to his keys, especially in “The Boy From…”, and with a real sense of emotion in “Ne Me Quitte Pas”. It’s all very well to be a diva, but to ignore your musical director who you are sharing a stage with is a little too self-involved for even a reigning leading lady.