Anne Steele’s vocals dazzle in Welcome to the Big Top, but I’m unconvinced this seasoned performer’s overly-sentimental patter entirely translates for British cabaret audiences.
For us Brits at least, New York-based cabaret performer Anne Steele’s repertoire is refreshingly ‘poppy’. Haunting and/or anarchic arrangements of Nick Cave, Bowie, Radiohead and friends have become the norm on our shores (the velvet-clad parts, anyway) – and it’s safe to say Welcome to the Big Top (which marks the singer’s first expedition to London) is unashamedly offering something a little more ‘ITV’. The setlist’s populism is no bad thing though – there’s something genuinely invigorating about hearing renditions of Britney, La Roux and The Greatest Showman from someone other than a drag queen. We’re just not that used to it over here.
Belting through her numbers with the sort of effusion and sincerity you only tend to associate with ‘Broadway’, there’s something nostalgic about Steele’s act; her infectious energy (and unwavering ‘happiness’) underpins the 80-minute duration. Her vocals are consistently powerful, commanding (and demanding) your attention – and are heightened further by Crazy Coqs’ intimate surroundings. Steele is clearly MT-trained and influenced, slipping in a (country-ified) Avenue Q number and Greatest Showman showstopper – two of the night’s highlights, for me – for good measure.
Proceedings start without a great deal of ambiguity, given the Welcome to the Big Top title, though with Britney’s ‘Circus’ and Steele in full ringleader-attire (whip and hat included). These props get almost immediately discarded and forgotten about – and the throughline, and links back to her Carnivalesque theme, equally feel a bit surface-level. Steele explains that she frequently sees her life as akin to a ‘three-ring circus’, juggling roles and responsibilities with the need and want to have a good, happy and healthy time.
Any cabaret solely focusing on ‘the performer’s own life’ is always a bit risky and presumptuous, in my opinion – it hinges on whether that ‘life’ actually turns out to be interesting enough for an audience (particularly when they likely have no preexisting relationship to, or with, the artist) to care. Steele’s clearly led an interesting life, but I’m left unconvinced whether we’re really ‘allowed in’ to its most interesting bits. We hear of her auditioning for the original Broadway production of Cats, but the story’s punchline (which involves a homeless man shouting abuse at her) is far less gripping than I imagine hearing amusing tales about what Broadway, and the overall life of an auditionee, was like in 1982.
As a gay man, I’m fascinated – also – to learn more about her experiences, pitfalls and achievements as an out-lesbian artist over the years. I know she must have some fascinating, meaty stories to tell, but are never quite treated to anything quite as substantial as I feel should underpin a cabaret of this nature. Welcome to the Big Top‘s creator mentions that she doesn’t think anyone wants to hear anything other than ‘happy stories’, but I’d disagree – the anecdotes we’re treated to all amount to the sort of inspirational, but frothy, quotes that permeate some people’s Instagram feeds. Links are overly-sentimental, often building to a slightly generic, almost High School Musical-esque moral and patter is often just quite gushy. Perhaps it’s entirely because of my Britishness and the cabaret I’m normally surrounded by, but I crave a bit more edge, subversion and anarchy. Meaning I greatly enjoyed Steele’s vocal performance, but left wanting something with more shape and structure, more attention paid to the writing and more magnitude.