Theatre Review: Spiegelworld Presents "Empire" - Under the Spiegeltent at Entertainment Quarter, Sydney (10.01.13)

As we speak, there are three Spiegeltents doing the rounds (pun intended) in and around Sydney. Two are for Sydney Festival - The Famous Spiegeltent in Hyde Park you're probably already familiar with, and the newer addition, The Idolize Spiegeltent, sits in Parramatta (and was also part of the Darwin Festival last year). The third comes straight from Broadway, currently sits at The Entertainment Quarter (I'm not the only one who still just calls it Fox Studios am I?) and exclusively houses Empire, a New York* cabaret from Spiegelworld, the folks who previously produced Absinthe (which you can now see in Las Vegas).

The idea of the cabaret/variety show is something that doesn't always hit the mark - if you've been to the Moulin Rouge you'll know what I mean. But over the last few years, Sydney has seen its fair share of shows that have definitely walked that fine line between entertaining and trite, hilarious and cringeworthy or painful, almost always coming up on the former. Hits such as La Clique, La Soirée and the aforementioned Absinthe (which unfortunately never made it to Australia) are just a few such examples. And now we can add Empire to that ever growing list.

From the moment you step foot into the surrounds of the Spiegeltent, the crowd is cleverly groomed to get into the mood for the performance. In the garden, one of the show's players sits in a hammock atop a custom built metal structure, eyeing us all as we're going in - like something out of the Waterworld performance at Universal Studios Hollywood (say what you will about the movie, but the Universal show is great value). Meanwhile, a voice comes over the speakers and says something along the lines of: "if you have the urge to stand up during the show, don't - sit the fuck back down!". And with that, the precedence for a raunchy show is set. At its outset we are also reminded that "this isn't fucking Cirque du Soleil" and we should just sit back, relax and enjoy. And this was by no means at all a difficult task. It was the sort of show where, by the time it ends, you can't believe ninety minutes has passed. It's simply that engrossing and entertaining.

Part of this has to do with the setup - the aforementioned Spiegeltent allows for the performance to be done in the round, on a rotating, rising and falling stage no more than two metres in diametre. It puts the performers in amongst the crowd, and us in amongst the action. The performers give plenty of eye contact and even collaborate with some members of the crowd (I wouldn't recommend front row seats if you're not keen for a close up view of the male genitalia... or female nipples for that matter - yep there's a bit of both in here). They are also always working to engage with us; making sure we're enjoying themselves - an integral part of the show a lot of the lesser cabarets forget to include. They've definitely done everything right here in those regards.

As you can see from the points made so far, the show is very much "adults only", but this doesn't mean it takes itself too seriously or tries too hard to push the boundaries for the sake of a "shock" or a laugh. Everything that sits under the tent is a genuine performance of skill, craft and is meant to do little more than amaze and entertain (and perhaps slightly arouse) - all of which it does in its stride - but of course there were the highlights; those truly awe-inspiring moments. The father and son duo (or man and boy duo... whatever it might have been) which sees the boy flipped and spun around like Cobb's totem in Inception, was one act that brought the crowd to their feet (even though we were told to "sit the fuck down") - as did the show's closing balancing act that literally had the crowd on the edge of their seat.

There's also a fantastic soundtrack behind the performance. A live guitarist and vocalist help render much of the score, though there are also recordings from artists like Gotye (the incredibly appropriate "Smoke and Mirrors") where the live music may not have worked as well. A times the vocalist would just perform ethereal background music, such as in the closing act, and at other times she would be singing classic tracks such as Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan".

Poster girl Elena Lev's opening act in a dangling ball - part contortionist, part acrobatic, part hula hoop performance - was something truly spellbinding, and worked terrifically to draw the crowd in as they got used to the not-so-comfortable seats (a typical feature of the Spiegeltent). And she wasn't the only mesmerising feature of the show. There were a bounty of beauties - both male and female - who put the Moulin Rouge to shame, performing acrobatics and more, all-the-while showing a fair amount of skin, which saw more than a few wide eyes in the room.

Our hosts of the night, meanwhile, were a husband and wife duo who were fantastically hilarious and deliciously talented - from the wife's contortionist skills to the husbands... ahem... banana catching skills (I'll leave it at that) - they helped hold the production together elegantly. Although, as they are responsible for the full frontal nudity in the show, "elegant" mightn't be the right word to use here... but I digress...

Beyond this, I'm not going to get into specifics because I don't think these sorts of shows can be enjoyed quite as much if you know the exact details of what you're in for. What I will tell you is this: Empire is everything you hope it will be - and more. A fantastic and fun evening that you won't want to end. If you're a fan of a good cabaret, then you need look no further. Don't miss it!


Empire continues its season in its Spiegeltent in the Fox Studios / Entertainment Quarter Showring until the 17th of February, before heading onto Melbourne in March and Brisbane in May. Tickets and more details are available HERE.

Spiegelworld's previous production, Absinthe, now sits at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and it, along with the Cirque de Soleil production of The Beatles Love, might just be worth the flight over alone. But in the meantime, those on the East Coast don't have to travel that far at all... at least for the latest Spiegelworld show!

*Though Empire debuted in New York in May 2012, Melbourne born Ross Mollison is the man behind both Empire and its predecessor, Absinthe, as is Australian Director Wayne Harrison. Coincidently, it's also a predominantly Australian creative team behind La Clique and La Soirée.