It seems like every second cabaret that makes its way to an Australian stage is a tribute of some sort. American-Italian tenor Mario Lanza’s story – his meteoric rise to fame and success, his fall and mysterious death – hits all the right notes; a romantic 1950s Hollywood movie star enters into a restrictive studio contract as a naïve youngster, which stifles his growth and never allows him to achieve the artistic feats he wanted to. Then there’s his womanising, battle with the bulge, rebellion and early death. He even had a drinking problem.
But Lanza’s voice shone through it all and inspired generations of younger singers, including Luciano Pavarotti, who cites Lanza as the main inspiration for his career.
Blake Bowden, a young Australian tenor (best known for his performances in musicals including South Pacific and West Side Story) approached cabaret legend Phil Scott (best known for his work with Jonathan Biggins and Drew Forsythe on television and in Sydney Theatre Company’s annual Wharf Revue) to pen a cabaret about Lanza’s life. Scott agreed to write the show on one condition — that he could be in it.
Bowden evokes Lanza with a sparkling tenor that’s every bit as bright, delicate and powerful as his subject. He sings his way through Lanza’s back catalogue confidently, although the final phrase of Nessun Dorma is slightly beyond his reach, and not exactly the high note the performance should end on. But in the lighter moments like Because You’re Mine (both the title of a film and its attached song, thanks to a cunning marketing plan by MGM) it’s impossible to not be swept away into another world – one where singing “big” was king.
Phil Scott appears in a variety of guises as various father figures and men who exploited Lanza’s talents for their own means. He delivers a comedic masterclass, stepping into character after character (his performance as Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky is particularly inspired). And his musical direction and accompaniment is astounding. Scott is a fine, sensitive and technically brilliant pianist, and he evokes a soundscape so rich there’s never a moment you’re wishing he had a full orchestra. When Scott and Bowden are firing on all cylinders in Granada, it’s absolutely thrilling.
Scott has competently assembled a bio-cabaret that allows both he and Bowden to shine. Chris Parker’s simple direction does the same. Mario covers all the major tensions and achievements in Lanza’s life, but never delves as deeply as it could. A scene where Lanza has a series of outbursts over his relationship and sexual problems crudely establishes that Lanza was a womaniser, and simply makes him unlikable, despite Bowden’s charm.
One of the best moments comes towards the end of the show where the fourth wall is pulled down and Scott manages to make the most poignant statement about Lanza’s legacy and the way we remember lost stars in a fairly unorthodox way. It’s even a clever wink and nod to the deficiencies of cabaret tribute shows. Mario is a reliable, safe affair that could do with just a little more ambition. But it does what it needs to by weaving some magical musical moments together seamlessly.