It's not often a night at the theatre can begin with a starlet of the local arts scene crooning in German and end with a drag queen spitting on your table. But then most nights aren't part of Auckland Live's Cabaret Season.

The mini-festival entertained theatre-goers with a programme that promised to return the Civic Theatre to its "scandalous youth", though actor and musician Jason Te Mete, serving as one of the comperes at free-for-all Piano Bar, told the audience this is partly to get New Zealanders familiar with cabaret.

And what a taster it was. There was a smorgasbord of options, ranging from intimate solo shows to fiery drag acts that ranged from the local to international. Jennifer Ward-Lealand stunned in the headline event Delicious Oblivion, but her take on the Weimar songbook was just one of the many shows of note.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand stunned in the headline event Delicious Oblivion.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand stunned in the headline event Delicious Oblivion.

A highlight had to be Yummy, a barn-raising tour-de-force from the internationally in-demand Melbourne-based drag ensemble. This was their Auckland debut but it felt like they were local regulars, the crowd whooping putty in their hands. This crowd-pleasing romp perfectly blended comedy, music, dance and circus acts, all held together by delightful MC Karen from Finance, in an hour that was comically broad yet richly queer.

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Unfortunately, in a festival this disparate and diverse, not everything can hit those same notes. The Piano Bar, a free event running throughout the season, was indicative of that. Walking in on the Thursday night felt instantly awkward, with only a handful of patrons willing to partake in some highbrow karaoke.

It was only when those better linked to the season arrived that the room came alive. A fleeting cameo performance by the acclaimed Reuben Kaye packed more filthy comedy and rapturous vocals into five minutes than the rest of hour-long stop had managed.

Kudos to those who were bold enough to give it a crack, but it couldn't shake the feeling of being an industry event, a party the rest of us had crashed while those who were meant to be there – the professionals and their associates – flourished in what was a relatively niche experience.

It hardly dampened the thrills of the other shows, but it does suggest that, if this season is meant to serve as some form of theatrical education, organisers will need to find a better way of convincing the general public to join in on their private fun and games.