Britney Spears, once a juggernaut of pop music, now has little more than ironic value in many circles. Tell someone that you’re going to see something called Britney Spears: The Cabaret and they’re going to look at you strangely and ask “why?”. There’s still a draw for old fans (that is, largely women roughly the same age as Spears herself), and she still sells, but the incredibly public life led by Britney has rendered her a modern curio.
Britney Spears: The Cabaret is not a tribute to Spears as such, but rather an examination of a fragile personality that has been buffeted from all sides and repeatedly pushed to breaking point and back again. As Spears, Christie Whelan begins her act tongue in cheek, eventually affecting a complete nervous breakdown in front of the audience.
It’s something special.
Britney Spears (Christie Whelan) takes the stage and says that she’s glad to be here as part of Mardi Gras. She may be from the South, but she loves the gays. She tells us that she stipulated that she wouldn’t do the show unless her “court appointed pianist” (a deadpan Matthew Frank, who also provided the show’s musical arrangements) was a gay himself; apparently he is. Britney tells the audience about the various ways in which her life has been derailed, by both herself and the various people who have had control of her across her short but tumultuous thirty years. It’s not a happy story.
Whelan, last seen in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s storybook production of The Importance of Being Earnest, plays Britney with an initial lack of self-awareness that allows for easy laughs – she explains why lip syncing is a valid artistic choice for her performances (she’s got to dodge furniture flying at her all over the place), but why it’s not so important for Madonna (“she don’t care if she sounds like shit”).
Replicating auto-tune and the various other tricks that make much of modern music sound so artificial with her voice, Whelan is capable of reducing the audience to tears with renditions of “Stronger” and “Circus”, but she’s more than capable of performing the songs with sincerity and revealing something that many have probably never bothered to think about: Britney Spears is a peddler in human misery. The majority of these songs are about girls and women crying out for help, mired in their loneliness, desperate for the men who don’t stand a chance of saving them from themselves.
This isn’t even subtextual, but rather the lyrics themselves; they’ve always been there. “Hit Me Baby One More Time”’s main refrain informs us that “my loneliness is killing me”. Because of the bare faced nature of these lyrics, the version of “Lucky” presented, listing the various ways in which Spears’ mental instabilities have manifested across the years, is slightly too obvious. This is probably the only even slightly dud note in the show’s compact running time, and it’s nowhere near a deal breaker.
Whelan’s strength is that she strips away the artifice and parody used to draw the audience into Britney’s world and becomes completely disarming in her frankness and vulnerability. This is the other side of a personality that has been famously observed and dissected from the outside, and it’s obviously mere conjecture, but there’s a certain credibility afforded to Whelan and her script, reaching one of its early peaks when she discusses her betrayal at the hands of Justin Timberlake. Certainly, the damage done by Timberlake seems slightly exaggerated and long-lasting, but otherwise everything falls within the realms of the completely believable, including Spears’ love for her children and her disappointment with what she’s become relative to who she once was.
The definite article that we can take away from this is that Britney Spears is a woman who has been robbed of her agency by various people in her life and has become a figure of fun. Whelan’s portrayal of a plainly damaged woman is remarkably never once cruel, even when she makes Spears seem more than a little dumb. This is comedy, but it darkens into tragedy until even the laughter is tinged with sadness almost to a point beyond bearing. Whelan’s performance is definitely a revelation, and anything but one note.
I had assumed that Whelan had written the show herself; I was surprised to see on the poster a writing and direction credit for Dean Bryant (strangely, there were no programmes available). While obviously different from something so obviously manufactured as the 14 year career that Britney Spears has led, this plays into the whole control aspect that is so apparent in the show. With something as intimate as Britney Spears: The Cabaret, the reality is most likely that this was a three-way collaboration; indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone else but Whelan in the title role – and the way that we have structured our cabaret in Australia makes it likely that no one else will try to claim the crown.
Britney Spears: The Cabaret is an entertaining evening, but one with a dark heart. It’s difficult to come away from it not feeling at least slightly disquieted. That’s the mark of a good show: like a song that has claimed real estate in your head for twelve years, you take it outside of the theatre and into the world with you. Britney Spears: The Cabaret may not be a one hundred per cent accurate reflection of the reality of Spears’ situation, but it’s close enough.