Luminous red lanterns hang above the stage of Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre while traffic and street sounds (vehicles, horns, shouting) spill through the speakers as the audience gathers in Shànghǎi MiMi, a fictional club inspired by the Paris of the East in the 1930s, overseen by an eponymous diva.

Shanghai MimiShànghǎi MiMi at the Sydney Festival. Photo © Prudence Upton

The idea for Shànghǎi MiMi, receiving its world premiere performances at the Sydney Festival, was sparked by the discovery – in a Mumbai warehouse – of recordings from Shanghai showcasing shidaiqu music, a blend of Chinese folk music and jazz, performed in the cosmopolitan port city. Throw in the Qinghai Acrobatic Troupe, from the edge of the Gobi desert in Western China, dancers from China and Cameroon, a jazz band in glittering gold jackets and Melbourne-based Indie/pop star Sophie Koh as the club’s diva, and you have a heady evening of cosmopolitan cabaret sure to beguile and delight.

Australian burlesque performer Moira Finucane directs a smooth-flowing evening of music – with an enchanting visual aesthetic thanks to Eugyeene Teh’s set and costumes, bathed in Jenny Hector’s sultry lighting – that compliments a lively series of acrobatic and dance performances, from twirling diabolos to plate-spinning and hoops, and a beautiful duet performance on black and red silks that sees the performers twirling above the audience.

A particular highlight is a breath-taking jar juggling performance – large ceramic Chinese jars sent spinning into the air or balanced improbably on a performer’s head – in playful duet with Music Director and jazz pianist John McCall.

The band is the backbone of the show and while all are excellent – performing almost without break for the show’s 75 minutes and driving the performances in numbers like Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing – Toby Mak’s ripping trumpet solos are worth particular mention.

Shanghai Mimi, Sydney FestivalShànghǎi MiMi at the Sydney Festival. Photo © Prudence Upton

Sophie Koh is warm and imperious as Shànghǎi MiMi, her voice breathy in one moment before sliding up to a note with Bluesy grit in the next as she sings numbers in Chinese and English (including Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps in duet with Cameroonian performer Simon Abbe).

While the show is never less than captivating – and while there are only a few brief moments of story-telling, they are enough to give the show heart – the balance between song and dance or acrobatic performance swings uneasily at times, and it feels as if Koh is short a number in which to really let fly vocally. In fact, there are a number of times when she is relegated to an accompaniment role just as she’s starting to really heat up, attention diverted to the acrobats. Ultimately, this is a show with many fine moments (the audience certainly gasps at the more spectacular acrobatics) but no convincing climax.

That said, Shànghǎi MiMi is a charming, intoxicating cabaret with sumptuous visuals and a taste of music we don’t often get to hear. In the hands of these performers, the Paris of the East glitters seductively in Sydney’s West.

Shànghǎi MiMi plays at Parramatta Riverside Theatres as part of the Sydney Festival until January 20


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