Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, June 9
B-Girl begins in silence with a jumpy young woman sitting nervously at a kitchen table. Suddenly musical chords crash and roar and iOTA appears silhouetted in blue light: an androgynous, glam-rock god in all his strutting glory. Talk about an entrance.
Since bursting onto the theatre scene in 2006, iOTA has established himself as a bona fide star with gender-bending performances in the cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, his concept show Smoke & Mirrors, and the Rocky Horror Show.
You can certainly see why director Craig Ilott (who collaborated with him on Hedwig and Smoke & Mirrors) might come up with the idea of a show, featuring iOTA as a fantasy glam-rocker.
As you’d expect, he’s phenomenal: sexy, enigmatic, commanding attention whenever he’s on stage. However, the show itself is a strange hybrid between a concept album and a theatre work, with a clunky structure and flimsy plot.
Co-written by Ilott and iOTA, with original songs by iOTA, B-Girl is about troubled young woman called Rachel (Blazey Best), who uses music to escape the grim reality of life with an abusive husband (Ashley Lyons). Dreaming up the glam-rocking Clifford North (iOTA), he gradually becomes more than just a figment of her imagination, giving her the strength to pack her bags and leave.
Nicholas Dare’s set design is pure rock concert, with the band on stage, a walkway over their heads, and a back wall of LED lights. Matt Marshall’s stunning lighting and the sound levels are equally rock ‘n’ roll.
A standard lamp and a table and chairs on the corners of the stage represent Rachel’s home. However, the domestic scenes feel sketchily simplistic and aren’t convincingly integrated into the show. You find yourself wanting more of Clifford instead – so much so you can’t help wondering whether it would be better if he had just told a similar story about abuse, domination and freedom through song alone in a solo show.
That’s no disrespect to Best (who also performed with iOTA in Hedwig). Though her character isn’t given much dramatic complexity, she brings a powerful emotional rawness and strong vocals to the part, while Lyons is suitably menacing in the thankless role of her violent husband.
But it’s iOTA’s show. Costumed by Heather Cairns, he is a vision in electric blue Lycra with platform boots, feathers and silver sequins. You can’t take your eyes off him. And his voice is better than ever.
He’s written some sensational songs, ranging from dirty, thrusting rock to soulful ballads and he sings the hell out of them, powering in rock mode one minute then the next, caressing gentle melodies in heart-breaking fashion. Backed by a fierce four-piece band, led by Joe Accaria on drums, the show really fires musically.
So, B-Girl is a strangely mixed experience, let down by some under-developed dramaturgy. However, iOTA’s fans won’t be disappointed by his electrifying performance.
B-Girl plays until June 21. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777
A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 14