The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, April 30
Bernadette Robinson is well known for her uncanny ability to impersonate singers across a range of styles and genres. Keen to extend this beyond cabaret into a theatre show, she approached director Simon Phillips who commissioned Joanna Murray-Smith to write a play to showcase Robinson’s extraordinary gift.
The result was Songs for Nobodies, which premiered in 2010, in which Robinson performed monologues by five “nobodies” each of whom had had an encounter with a famous singer: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. Naturally, Robinson gave voice to the divas too.
Songs for Nobodies was an inspired and inspiring piece of theatre and proved a huge success. Following up on it, Murray-Smith has written a new piece for Robinson called Pennsylvania Avenue, which is also directed by Phillips. Once again, Robinson leaves you marvelling at her talent but the show itself is not as engaging as its predecessor.
Pennsylvania Avenue, which premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company, is set in the White House. Robinson plays Harper Clements, a girl from the south who gets a big break as an underling at the White House where she works her way up to become a trusted aide responsible for co-ordinating entertainment events. We meet her on her final day. After 40 years of hard work, her services are no longer required and she is packing up and leaving, reminiscing as she goes.
Murray-Smith uses the fictitious Clements as a clever way to interweave historical facts and anecdotal stories about various American presidents from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with their First Ladies and the many entertainers who performed for them. (I imagine it would go down a treat in the US). In narrating the piece, Robinson voices umpteen characters, male and female.
It begins with Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday for JFK in 1962 and takes in singers as diverse as Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand, Maria Callas, Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, Peggy Lee, Tammy Wynette and even an amazingly convincing, raspy Bob Dylan singing Eve of Destruction.
Her Sarah Vaughan is arguably the least successful but overall it’s extraordinary the way Robinson conveys such different vocalists, and she had the audience bopping in their seats for Aretha Franklin’s Respect.
Harper is a no-nonsense, resourceful character who is seen dispensing advice to everyone from Marilyn Monroe on knicker lines to Ronald Reagan on his famous Berlin Wall speech. However, her personal story is less interesting and the final revelation doesn’t have the emotional impact it is clearly supposed to.
The set by Shaun Gurton is a plush, upholstered room called The Blue Room with six large framed portrait of early presidents on the wall, which prove to be screens on which historical photographs are shown. Blue drapes at the back occasionally become transparent under the lighting to show the three-piece band sitting behind them. It looks suitably stylish but Robinson rattles around it a bit, shifting from chair to chair, moving her box of things or pouring a drink to keep her busy.
Often it looks as if she is moving for the sake of doing something. Nonetheless, she is a fine actor as well as an exceptional singer and she holds the stage in commanding fashion as she moves with quicksilver ease between numerous characters.
Running 90 minutes without interval, Pennsylvania Avenue feels a touch long but it keeps you entertained and is a lively showcase for a unique performer.
Pennsylvania Avenue plays at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until May 22. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777