By TIM WATKIN



"We've worked hard for it. It's been pretty hectic," she says in the midst of a working day packed with 10 scenes playing cynical Shortland Street head honcho Sofia Martinez.



"And I'm sick, too. It's a bit scary."



This week it's off with the power suit and on with the ... dress, revealing another side to the diminutive Aussie actress. Cruz is an accomplished mezzo-soprano with a belt voice — meaning she can belt out a tune — but we've only had a glimpse of that when she sang at the on-screen wedding of Moira and Dean (Geraldine Brophy and Greg Johnson).

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"I had this idea when I was at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. I was thinking, 'what can I do when I leave to showcase my talents?' I thought, yeah, I can put together a one-woman cabaret show."



Developed with leading Australian cabaret producer/director Tony Sheldon and called I'm a Stranger Here Myself, it's a semi-autobiographical mix of songs and speech which she has performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney.



"With cabaret I think it will only work if there's a dramatic content otherwise the audience wouldn't be able to latch on to it. In cabaret you've got to reveal yourself. The songs I've chosen are very personal."



Accompanied only by pianist Matthew Brown on stage, she performs show tunes, old standards and some R&B and they follow a certain theme.



"When a Man Loves a Woman, The Man I Love, Can't Help Loving that Man ... ," she says, then pauses. "It's all about love isn't it?"



It's also about giving an honest performance, so the audience can "see themselves singing that song." Cruz is always surprised that people expect tap-dancing and glitter when she says she's doing cabaret.



"It's not that. It's just presenting yourself and the songs as simply and truthfully as you can."



Cruz, born in the Philippines and raised in Australia, earned her singing spurs in rugby league clubs.



"Hell, you have to battle with the poker machines. But it was a great experience."



Considering her surname, the next step seemed inevitable — she got a job singing on a Russian cruise ship with old passengers but a young crew.



"It was fantastic because we were paid quite a bit of money and we only had to do three shows. I partied with the crew," she laughs.



A life singing on the seas beckoned when an American cruise line was keen to sign her up. But then came Shortland Street and the sailing life was sunk in favour of a different kind of turbulence — life on a nightly soap.



* Lena Cruz plays the Classic Comedy & Bare, Auckland, Wed 8 Nov and Thurs 9 Nov. Tickets $35 from Variety (Ph 09 520 4111). All proceeds go to sick, needy or disadvantaged children in NZ.