Maria De Marco in M.A. | Newtown Theatre

Yea, verily: it’s a dubious name. A verily dubious name. It reminds one of Homer’s pronunciation of ‘saxomophone’, which he breaks down into syllabic synergy with Beethoven’s 5th. Perhaps that’s the idea.

But doubts about the title notwithstanding, Maria De Marco’s CabaMAret is, nonetheless, well worth the price of admission, methinks. For this graduate of Theatre Nepean (’92) is a thoroughly seasoned, polished professional. She’s a Jill of all trades, too, having toured Australasia and well beyond, mainly featuring in new Australian plays. Her acting skills are nuanced and very much in evidence in M.A. The MA isn’t an upgraded arts degree, but stands for Motherholics Anonymous. Yes, the premise for this cabaret is her addiction to her mother: can’t live with her, can’t live without her. Sound familiar? Coming from an Italian family probably ups the ante, just as the Jewish genes in mine do.

De Marco has written it herself and rather well. Even when the script isn’t quite optimal, her performance pulls it over the line. And she’s chosen an unusual bunch of songs, without stooping to the obvious or hackneyed. In fact, it looks like she’s really sought out material she can reinvent as her own, rather than take the lazier path and just trot out tried-and-tested faves. In this, and in her (at least outwardly) self-assured and surefooted, unfaltering performance, her courage shines through.

Her readings are confident, rather than outstanding or memorable, but slick and the overall effect and impression is one of thematic integrity, which is more than some cabarets can boast, as they lurch clumsily from one genre to another, with the thinnest of narrative links. But there are a couple of problems.

The lighting is all over the place and even faded to black at one point. Mid-performance.

The director Markus Weber, who has outstandingly multifarious credentials on paper, isn’t up to playing the (imaginary) 12-step group director, Dr Sigmund. His intro was peculiar, but not necessarily funny-peculiar. His diction was poor and level of speech almost inaudible. And he was shaking like a leaf. Moreover, I don’t think this was due to any organic cause. On the one hand, any propensity to stage fright ought probably to engender sympathy, but the apparent lack of experience was strangely out-of-step with De Marco’s Mr Sheened delivery. Worse still, while it could’ve worked, the Siggy schlock was, essentially, superfluous.

The final blow is that recorded backing arrangements make it clear how invaluable is a live musical director. Even with the best sound (this wasn’t), one misses the trad rapport between star and arranger: it may be formulaic, but there’s a reason for it. And some of Michael Summ’s orchestrations were a little dicky and overdone, to the point of club karaoke.

Come to think of it, there’s one last bummer. Newtown Theatre is, as became apparent, no place for cabaret. The profile of the tired seating lifts most of the audience too far above the stage, resulting in another broken connection.

These things said, it’s a good show, on the way to potential greatness. Among other songs, De Marco has acutely adapted a couple of Sondheim numbers: You Could Drive a Person Crazy, lifted from Company, becomes She Could Drive A Daughter Crazy and opens the show. William Finn’s I’m Breaking Down challenges both performer and audience, but both come out unscathed, while Billy Joel’s almost sublime Summer, Highland Falls caps it all off.

You can’t do cabaret on the cheap, even if financial necessity deems it all one can do. Live music and professional lighting (otherwise, a steady state would be preferable) are non-negotiable. Bring these to bear and subtract the director’s verily dubious acting contribution and Maria De Marco could have one hell of a show on her hands. I can see it finding its way to a city that still appreciates and supports cabaret and has the venues or festivals to prove it. I’m not just tasking Adelaide either. I’m talking New York, mama!

The details: M.A. was at Newtown Theatre until July 10.