IT is little wonder New Zealander Rhys Morgan has picked up a swag of awards for his creation Candice McQueen.
Anyone who can take the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, where a distraught lover delves into the underworld to save his one true love, and combine it with the untimely demise of actor River Phoenix — and make the audience laugh — surely deserves a gong or two.
Formerly a resident at acclaimed East London cabaret venue Bistrotheque, Morgan is bringing his acclaimed show Candice McQueen: Nasty! to Australia, first in Sydney for the Slide Cabaret Festival in May followed by the Melbourne Cabaret Festival in June.
The third festival programmed by the Darlinghurst venue, the line-up also includes an evening with actor Ben Mingay, a musical version of the world’s most popular (and campest) soap opera, and an innovative musical performance staged in a luxury hotel suite.
“I love the disco floor, the chandelier and the intimacy of Slide,” says Morgan who, with a cerise wig, a little bit of lippy and a lot of face paint, transforms into Candice, a self-proclaimed “demi-goddess” and “mister sister”.
The fierce and feisty Candice takes us on a comedy-cabaret quest, showing us how a fallen Hollywood idol melted her heart of ice and her mission to save both their lives through the power of 90s fashion and pop music.
Asked to describe his show to Candice newbies, Morgan, who is better known by the stage name of Spanky, defers to a friend’s description: “It’s like when you take drugs and everything makes sense but it shouldn’t.”
However, he adds that there was a common theme: “The line through all of Candice is love — transformative love, epic love, love in pop songs.”
An early Candice first appeared in London in an adult’s-only version of one of Britain’s traditional Christmas pantomimes.
“Our pantos were ridiculous,” Morgan says.
“Snow White and Cinderella were in a pop group together and Snow White was being fucked over by Candice as a record producer.”
Morgan describes Candice as “alternative drag”, saying he doesn’t embrace the traditional look of other performers: “I don’t shave, I don’t do nails, I don’t do breasts, I don’t do anything like that.
“I’m probably not as edgy and cool as other [drag performers] out there. In fact I think I’m quite naff. I’m a walk in the park compared to some drag.
“But I love working on a story and doing something different.”
That something different has taken Morgan places.
From intimate house parties, that just happen to include Elton John and the late Alexander McQueen, to arenas in the company of prime ministers.
“I got a phone call to perform at the [British] Labour Party conference and I’m like ‘are you fucking serious?’
“So, five trannies shuttled up to Manchester to perform.
“It was so bizarre. We ended up wrapping ourselves in Union Jacks and singing Things Can Only Get Better while [former UK Prime Minister] Gordon Brown was up the back.”
Morgan has also found success with Olympic gold-medalist Matthew Mitcham.
“Matt and I met at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival. I auctioned off his swimming trunks for $1,000,” he says.
The show, Twists and Turns, which Morgan and Mitcham will take to Melbourne in June, is based on the diver’s autobiography and takes a musical look at his sporting endeavours, sexuality and substance abuse.
“It was left field in the sense I was writing someone else’s life… in a biopic starring the real person,” Morgan reflects.
“Yet working with him is such a joy… I like the fact he’s not closed as your typical performer.”
With Morgan accompanying Mitcham on stage, he says there is more to what meets the eye with the diver.
“He is a show pony and I like the fact people get really surprised he can perform,” Morgan says.
Candice’s popularity has already led to a sequel — Dead Bitches — and Morgan plans to complete the trilogy with a show digging into his own Maori heritage, rather than Greek mythology.
By the time Candice surfaces for her third show, Morgan says she will be “the godfather, no, the goddess mother, of cabaret.”
Slide Cabaret Festival executive director Jeremy Brennan says he is in awe of Morgan and that audiences will get the opportunity “to meet one of the powerhouses of cabaret.”
The aim of this year’s festival, he adds, “is to break some boundaries… with our riskiest-ever shows and make it a festival to celebrate as much variety as possible.”
Candice McQueen: Nasty! appears at Slide on May 22. Candice McQueen: Dead Bitches and Matthew Mitcham’s Twists and Turns will appear at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival in late June.
Cabaret festival fever will also come to Brisbane, visit brisbanepowerhouse.org/festivals/queensland-cabaret-festival for details.
Jeremy Brennan’s Slide Cabaret Festival picks:
Kim Smith in Nova Noir
The New York-based Aussie conjures up composers of the Weimar era and pits them head-to-head with Kylie Minogue and The Supremes.
Uta Uber Kool Ja
Taking the festival out of Slide for the first time, actress Georgina Symes invites us into her hotel suite for a musical after party like no other.
Known for his TV and stage acting and also a talented singer and boxer, Mingay brings his first show to Slide.
Bold and the Musical
A musical version of the world’s most-watched soap opera replete with fisty cuffs, transient amnesic husbands and wives that rise from the dead.
Details: visit slide.com.au
Cabaret festival fever will also come to Melbourne and Brisbane after Sydney. To find out more, visit melbournecabaret.com and brisbanepowerhouse.org/festivals/queensland-cabaret-festival