(Adelaide Cabaret Festival, 17 June, 2022)
Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s was “The Paris of the East, the New York of the West,” at least in popular myth, and in old Hollywood films: where elegance rubbed shoulders with depravity but always in a well-dressed way: glittering gowns, elegant cheongsams, dinner suits and white mess jackets, accompanied by a range of recreational poisons. And the night clubs along the Bund (the Shanghai waterfront) provided the venue, salted with the haute and the louche, and sugared by the Chinese chanteuses and hot bands playing French torch songs and shidaiqu (時代曲), a mix of Chinese folk and American jazz.
Shanghai Mimi started artistic life as a full production of music, dancing and acrobatics but on this night we had a slimmed version, more apt for the night club that is the Spiegeltent on the Adelaide ‘bund’ – Sophie Koh and her band led us through an hour of old standards (not all from the 1920s or 1930s but who cares), with the odd new bauble (Sophie sang a moving song, “Olive Tree,” for her grandmother, and a 1970s Chinese pop song) thrown in.
Sophie first appeared in a shimmering gold gown and later had a costume change, appearing in an attractive cheongsam with a fur stole that any bien-pensants present doubtless hoped was artificial. Ms. Koh looked just right, and her walk-ons and walk-offs, including sashaying among the crowd, felt authentic. She handled songs in English, French and Mandarin impressively, and had many in the crowd swaying, even singing along, open-mike / karaoke style, to a number from the old country (those that knew it). The lighting was just right, and the only things needed to complete the atmosphere were a bowl of opium and Mr. Peter Lorre. We were not familiar with some of the numbers, but they moved from French and Chinese torch songs to classics from the American songbook; fare including “Perhaps,” “Someone to Watch over Me,” “I Want Your Love” and “Miss Shanghai.”
We did fear for Sophie’s voice at times. There was the odd vocal strain/struggle (perhaps the cold weather hadn’t helped?), and the band’s volume mix and enthusiasm swamped the singing a bit too often. But overall, the warmth, feeling and effect of the show were not dimmed.
The Shanghai Mimi Band was excellent. John McAll, the musical director, was consummate on piano. And in the highlight for this reviewer, in a stomping rendition of the Benny Goodman classic “Sing Sing Sing,” Aaron McCoullough on drums (worthy of Gene Krupa, albeit looking too respectable) and Brennan Hamilton Smith on clarinet, were on fire. The whole band was impeccable.
As Sophie stated at the conclusion, all good things must come to an end. While Shanghai style even survived the tender mercies of Japanese occupation during WWII, it couldn’t breathe once Chairman Mao banned fun. However, Music and Theatre serve to remind us of the good things that pass. Sophie Koh and the Shanghai Mimi Band delivered on that.