Now that’s what we call Alchemy. Ali McGregor’s unique brand of magic uncovers the vein of gold in the poptastic hits of the 80s and 90s.
If alchemy is the art of turning base metal into gold, Ali McGregor’s first solo London show at the London Wonderground Spiegeltent creates magical treasure from the banal, the iconic and the just plain trashy, taking the songs of Generation X and conjuring up the ghosts of the Great Ladies of Song. As the name suggests, Alchemy is about transformation, and these wholly original re-interpretations are musical gems that leave you wondering if, lyrics aside, Barbie Girl wasn’t actually in The Great American Songbook.
Before McGregor joined La Clique in 2005, she was Principal Soprano with Opera Australia and has an impressive classical repertoire that spans more than twenty years. Stepping over to the world of cabaret, she brings with her a masterful voice that combines a jazz singer’s warmth with the control and upper register of an accomplished diva. Add to this her natural wit and stage presence and Alchemy is a show that proves, in McGregor’s own words, that although you can’t polish a turd, you can certainly roll it in glitter.
The show opens with a blistering version of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, before embarking on a personal journey of chart-topping hits of the 80s and 90s pivoting mainly around 1987, the year that Michael Hutchence and his leather trousers were making teenage girls everywhere swoon. McGregor channels both Ella Fitzgerald and Jessica Rabbit to place her own sultry take on INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart, giving Fine Young Cannibals’ Johnny Come Home more than a hint of Billie Holiday’s angst and even evoking images of The Fabulous Baker Boys – not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the back catalogue of pop band Aqua . The combination of McGregor’s advancing pregnancy and a portable keyboard means she can’t precisely replicate Michelle Pfeiffer writhing on a grand piano, but the timbre of her voice whilst singing “life in plastic, it’s fantastic”, is all that’s required to set the scene.
The narrative between songs is nostalgic and entertaining. McGregor reminds us of those pre-iPod times when to rewind a song on a Walkman took timing and commitment and how, in spite of the repeat plays of an obsessive teenager, it was still easy to get the lyrics wrong. How many of us thought La Isla Bonita’s San Pedro was a boy and not a place? McGregor sings it as if it was the former in the style of a post-war Latina chanteuse and it all makes perfect sense. Other upbeat numbers include a Miami Sound Machine inspired Push It which gives Salt and Pepa’s version a run for its money and defies you to keep still in your seat.
McGregor’s carefully studied physicality puts you in mind of the great singers of the 40s and 50s, but it is also the brilliance of Sam Keevers’ musical direction, that makes this show so authentic and beguiling. Ably supported by Julian Berry on double bass and Jonathan Lee on drums, they collectively create a version of Prodigy’s Firestarter that is so original, you’ll think they wrote it themselves.
Ali McGregor is already an international cabaret star and her uncanny ability to elevate trash into treasure makes Alchemy an uplifting show that reinvents mainstream pop in a way that goes way beyond “mash up”. Here’s hoping that 2014 will see it getting a bigger and longer encore in London.
Ali McGregor’s Alchemy. 13 September. The London Wonderground Spiegeltent, Jubilee Gardens, off Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX. www.londonwonderground.co.uk
Image taken from the official Ali McGregor gallery (no further attribution available).