Bernadette Robinson has one of those voices that can sing just about anything, with a repertoire embracing the blues, reggae and rock ’n’ roll, alongside folk and country and western through to music theatre, opera and even the distinctive and penetrating sound of French artist, Edith Piaf. Her extraordinary vocal range has featured in many acclaimed and sold-out one-woman shows including Songs for Nobodies, Pennsylvania Avenue and The Show Goes On.
Returning to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) for a limited season of her new show DIVAS, a work co-devised with her long-term collaborator and director Simon Phillips, she has added some new singers to her previous voices. The choice of 10 singers to emulate is far-ranging – from Kate Bush to Shirley Bassey, Karen Carpenter, Edith Piaf, Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Barbra Streisand, Maria Callas, Amy Winehouse and Judy Garland.
The singers being as diverse vocally as they are physically and culturally, Robinson impresses with her ability to move easily from one to the next. She not only sings their songs in their own distinctive vocal style, she also inhabits their personas in spoken text reflecting on their individual lives and art. On stage solo for two hours, giving each artist three songs plus a narrative in their distinctive accents, this is an astonishing tour de force performance.
The written script for each artist is cleverly integrated and woven around and within their songs, with similar explorations of individual journeys centred unsurprisingly on music and performing, personal ups and downs, heartaches and successes. There are light, fun moments, as well as serious and sad memories in their stories, given a number suffered untimely and often tragic deaths.
With a powerful voice, terrific vocal range and impressive top notes, Robinson is at her most successful delivering the full-throated chest vocals of artists such as Bassey, Streisand, Cyrus and Winehouse. ‘Diamonds are Forever’ and ‘My Life’ are blasted out, uncannily emulating Bassey’s voice alongside characteristic hand movements. Cyrus’ rock ’n’ roll ‘Wrecking Ball’ and ‘Flowers’ are spot on, as are the fabulous renditions of Streisand’s ‘The Way We Were’ and ‘Being Alive’. Her interpretation of the blues and soul sounds of Amy Winehouse in ‘Rehab’ and ‘You Know I’m No Good’ are also first-rate.
She is less convincing in some of the lyrical ballad-styled repertoire, such as Karen Carpenter’s ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ or ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’. Parton’s ‘Jolene’ is well-managed, less so the ballad, ‘I Will Always Love You’. However, she gives us the glorious piercing quality of Edith Piaf, in excellent French, with ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ and also nails Kate Bush’s distinctive vocals in both ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Running Up That Hill’. Perhaps the most astounding of her presentations is that of celebrated opera singer, Maria Callas. In a quite remarkable performance, managing trills, coloratura and top notes with aplomb, she sings arias from two of Callas’ great roles, Rosina’s ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville and Tosca’s heartfelt ‘Vissi d’arte’.
Robinson’s extraordinary prowess notwithstanding, with staging and production kept to the bare minimum, it is down to her in a plain black suit to imbue each character with life over two hours. There are no costume or wig changes, just a few chairs or stools to enhance delivery of the songs and little movement away from the mics. Fortunately, she is supported by an excellent live band, with Musical Director Mark Jones on piano/keyboards, Jonathan Skovron on guitars/bass/ keyboards and Bryn Bowen on drums. For three musicians, they manage to create a fulsome orchestral sound with great musical arrangements and orchestration. They contribute also as backing vocalists on some songs. However, a few female backing singers could really round out Robinson’s performance and add some variety.
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Sound design by Nick Reich is very good with a range of techniques effectively defining the various singers and sound levels. Occasional hiccups between coordinating the radio mic, used for spoken text, and the hand-held mic used mostly for singing, were not unduly distracting on the night this reviewer attended. Lighting design by Matt Cox helps to create stage atmosphere, delineating songs and characters.
Despite Robinson’s enormous achievement in playing these remarkable women, the show could benefit from some judicious cutting. Perhaps two songs per singer or a more tightly controlled narrative would help as there starts to be a sameness about the formula, the delivery and especially the script. It helps when accents are clearly defined such as the whimsical tones of Kate Bush and the North London accent of Amy Winehouse, Edith Piaf’s Parisian accent, Dolly Parton’s Tennessee drawl and Barbra Streisand’s distinctive Brooklyn delivery.
Cleverly leaving Judy Garland as her last Diva, Robinson delivers a beautiful ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ in a voice that appears as fresh and clear as if she has not been singing for a full two hours. It is breathtakingly good. Followed by ‘The Man That Got Away’ from A Star is Born, written especially for Garland, Robinson ends with a bright and breezy rendition of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ to have the audience on its feet and humming on the way out.
DIVAS was presented in the Playhouse, QPAC from 20 to 23 July 2023, before touring to Sydney Opera House from 3-13 August and Fairfax Studio, Melbourne from 24 August to 3 September 2023. Created by Simon Phillips and Bernadette Robinson.
Performed by: Bernadette Robinson
Director: Simon Phillips
Musical Director: Mark Jones
Musical Arrangement: Martine Wengrow and Mark Jones
Orchestration: Martine Wengrow
Lighting Designer: Matt Cox
Sound Designer: Nick Reich
Band: Mark Jones (Piano/Keyboards), Jonathan Skovron (Guitar/Bass and Keyboards), Bryn Bowen (Drums)