Pennsylvania Avenue | Melbourne Theatre Company
 Catherine Della Bosca
Monday, 01 February 2016 07:31
Pennsylvania Avenue | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Bernadette Robinson. Photo – Jeff BusbyIn a promotional clip for Pennsylvania Avenue, star,Bernadette Robinson says of her artistic collaborators, playwright, Joanna Murray-Smith & director, Simon Phillips, “that Joanna challenges me and Simon, simply draws the best out of me.”And that’s precisely what they’ve done in this one-woman show. A show whereby Robinson commands the stage for 90 minutes with no interval and no costume changes.

Pennsylvania Avenue is a personal story intertwined within the context of the White House. Harper Clementsfrom Thunderbolt, Georgia, starts off as an 18 year old “assistant to the assistant to the assistant” and chronicles the halcyon days of JFK, through to the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Clinton’s indiscretions and eventually concludes at the start of George W. Bush’s administration (when she’s nearing 60.)

Harper’s story is one of vulnerability and grief and through her point-of-view, we meet the people she meets – both the politicians and singers, all of whom had a ‘connection’ to the White House, and all of whom, Robinsonmiraculously reincarnates.

Factually, they are the performers who sang for the presidents – Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Dianna Ross, Eartha Kitt et al and are complimented by other influential singers of that era, whose songs also provide a social commentary.

As a singer and actress, Robinson is a great storyteller. She has the amazing ability to channel the voices of these iconic singers coupled with the genius to translate the minute particulars of the lives she portrays into a performance that demonstrates the torments of the heart – the suffering, the nostalgia, the longing and the sacrifice.

Not only is she a brilliant singer but such a convincing actress, that she adopts mannerisms and recreates iconic moments etched in our collective memories with such incredible respect and authenticity.

The monologues that accompany the singing, her stage presence, her beautiful phrasing (and how it moves the narrative forward) are flawless.

Her dramatic interpretations and the sheer breadth of her repertoire seamlessly marry the words, music & actions.

As we delve into 40 years of her memories & mementoes, symbolised by one box that she (intermittently) hauls around on stage, it allows Robinson to convey Harper’s reliability and discretion, all the whilst increasing the emotional intensity.

Murray-Smith’s text is so witty, telling and incisive. Like when Marilyn Monroe says of Maria Callas, “now there’s a dame that can hold a tune” or the way Harper describes Barbra Streisand, “as the epitome of bohemian glamour just with the absence of that ‘a’”. I was particularly tickled when she quotes Hillary Clinton from that infamous 60 Minutes Interview in 1992, “you know, I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” and then says, that was “kind of ironic, seeing Tammy had been married 5 times!”

And yet it also has the ability to imbue such humanity and empathy – the Sarah Vaughan incident, the Eartha Kitt furore and the Aretha Franklin inspired epiphany; “I am not a victim…I don’t need God’s judgement or forgiveness, but my own.”

It seemed to me that what transpired on stage was the truth – and I found it hard to distinguish “Harper’s reality” from real life. Robinson seduces you and makes you feel like she’s talking just to you, which in an 800+ seat theatre is an incredible feat in itself.

It’s a compelling drama, it received a standing ovation and audiences should flock to the Playhouse.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Joanna Murray-Smith

Director Simon Phillips

Venue: Playhouse | Melbourne Arts Centre
Dates: January 21 – February 14, 2016

Venue: Cremore Theatre | QPAC, Brisbane
Dates:  March 3 – 20, 2016 | 136 246

Venue: Playhouse | Sydney Opera House
Dates: March 25 – May 22, 2016


Pennsylvania Avenue

BERNADETTE Robinson is renowned for her versatility and charisma as a singer, but in Pennsylvania Avenue she reveals that she is also a fine character actor.

Kate Herbert, Herald Sun 2014

Robinson plays Harper Clemence, a woman from Georgia who, over 40 years, worked her way up from invisible assistant to Social Secretary for the East Wing of the White House, where she planned entertainment for First Ladies and Presidents of the USA.

Pennsylvania Avenue is a solo play with songs, written by Joanna Murray-Smith, deftly directed by Simon Phillips and with impressive musical direction by Ian McDonald and an accomplished band.

Harper is retiring after her decades of dedication and, surrounded by portraits of past presidents in the famed Blue Room, she packs her last box of memories while she reminisces about her life in the White House.

Murray-Smith’s script layers Harper’s personal story with her narration about the history of US presidents, her encounters with some of those powerful men and her recollections about the bevy of celebrated women who sang for them.

Robinson brings a vulnerability and charm to Harper, balancing her playful wit and bold, southern demeanour with her melancholia and her secret shame about her past.

Murray-Smith’s witty dialogue gets plenty of laughs, as do Robinson’s smart comic timing and delivery as she fires off barbed comments about those in the White House.

But it is Robinson’s consummate singing and audacious vocal impressions of divas that illuminate this production; she lights up the stage when she sings.

Snatches of songs are cleverly interpolated among the dialogue, but when Robinson sings entire tunes, she brings the house down.

She does a breathy Marilyn singing Happy Birthday to Kennedy, an hilarious version of Barbra Streisand’s warped vowels and nasal quality in People, she conjures Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan then channels the idiosyncratic Eartha Kitt singing If You Go Away.

Cry Me A River is taut, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is poignant, and Stand By Your Man is funny when sung about Hillary Clinton standing by Bill after his infamous infidelity.

However, the thrilling moment is when Robinson celebrates Harper’s 50th birthday by belting out Aretha Franklin’s Respect, a rendition that brings the crowd to its feet at the curtain call.

The problem with this play is that there is too much expository dialogue explaining the history of presidents and the minutiae of the East Wing and its personnel.

This factual material is not balanced well with Harper’s own story, so the whole feels not quite cohesive and lacks some dramatic tension until later scenes when Harper’s story becomes more emotional.

Because the action is restricted to one room, the staging feels static when Harper can do little more than move from chair to chair or take things in and out of her packing box.

The assured band is upstage behind a curtain, but it would be an asset to have them more visible on stage so that Robinson could interact more effectively with them.

However, Robinson makes this a night worth seeing.


Memories from the mundane to the sublime

Alison Croggon, The Australian – 12/11/10SONGS_5555 low res

Songs for Nobodies is a simple conceit: the great singers of the 20 century are summoned, with a kind of theatrical voodoo, though the recollections of the anonymous people who loved their songs. And with the miraculous voice of Bernadette Robinson as her medium, Joanne Murray-Smith is on a winner.

This play is an evolution of Murray-Smith’s hit one-women show Bombshells, a series of monologues by women on the brink of emotional disintegration that exploited the pyrotechnic talents of Caroline O’Connor.

This time Murray-Smith has Robinson’s uncanny vocal abilities at her disposal, which permits the introduction of some of the greatest songs ever written.

Each monologue recounts a story of how the lives of the singers evoked in the show – Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas – briefly brushed against the ‘nobodies’ of the title.

What’s impressive in the writing is its wit and exactness; each character is vividly realised. Like their songs, the singers represent a dazzling freedom, a possibility beyond the mundane, even a strange blessing, that is briefly granted in otherwise unremarkable lives.

The show opens with a disquisition on happiness – defined as the absence of fear that something bad will happen – by Bea Appleton, toilet room attendant.

Disappointed in life and love, Bea has learned to cut her cloth according to the measures given her.

Her shining memory is of Garland coming into the ladies to find Bea crying.

The story segues into Garland’s rendition of Come Rain or Come Shine:

‘We’ll be happy together, unhappy together. Now won’t that be fine’.

Murray-Smith plays the variations on this theme with a diverse cast of characters – an usher, an English librarian, an Irish nanny and a New York Times journalist desperate to get off the women’s pages.

The variety of accents and characters permits Robinson to demonstrate her virtuosic acting skills. But the real draw of this show is her voice, which shifts from the smoky blues of Holiday to the vibrant contralto of Cline with starling ease.

Her performances of Piaf and Callas, however, strike another chord altogether: they rise beyond virtuosity to the sublime. In these moments, she is doing more than imitation. The baroque  composer Lully is supposed to have said that music was a way of speaking to the dead, and Robinson makes you believe it.


Tune in Tenfold

Kate Herbert, The Herald Sun – 12/11/2010SONGS_3597 Low res

Bernadette Robinson’s performance is theatrical alchemy. She mysteriously and instantaneously transforms before our eyes into 10 different women: five nobodies and five famously talented damaged singers.

She is remarkable and compelling, her singing thrilling and her characters diverse and sympathetic.

The deceptively simple structure of Joanna Murray-Smith’s script, directed with style by Simon Phillips, allows Robinson to populate the stage with exceptional and ordinary women, and perform songs that epitomise each singer.

The collaboration between writer and performer is impeccable and MurraySmith’s monologues create a complex credible emotional landscape.

The five somebodies are Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. Each chanteuse is accompanied by a nobody whose life she touched. The range, versatility and perfect control of Robinson’s voice are exemplified in her version of Puccini’s Vissi D’arte.

Robinson is a consummate performer with impeccable vocal skills and a riveting stage presence. Bravissima!


Songs for Nobodies

Jason Whittaker, Curtain Call– – 15/11/10SONGS_3749 low res

An evening with Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas? Yes please.

Just impressions, sure, but impressions of such authenticity and sheer vitality as to be completely transportive.

Close your eyes and you could just as well be in Carnegie Hall, 1961, listening to Garland’s iconic concert; or in some honky-tonk hall in America’s deep south toe-tapping to Cline’s country twang; or some Smokey New York blues bar and the unmistakable cry of Holiday. Piaf’s growling French anthem Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien stirs the soul; Callas’ soprano reverberates around the world’s greatest opera houses.

And yet each voice – some of history’s greatest – comes from the same mouth in Joanna Murray-Smiths jukebox drama Songs or Nobodies. Like Bombshells, the playwright’s one-woman tour de force for Caroline O’Connor, Murray-Smith has created an exhausting and enviable role to showcase a nolonger-unsung female talent.

There have been more emotionally resonate performances on the Melbourne stage this year, perhaps – these short vignettes can’t penetrate character all the deeply — but there surely hasn’t been a performance of such breathless versatility than Bernadette Robinson here. She is, quite simply, astonishing.

The seasoned cabaret performer is the heartbroken bathroom attendant who mends Garland’s hem the night of her celebrated Carnegie gig; the backing singer who lives a dream with Cline the day she’s killed in a plane crash; the ambitious New York Times reporter assigned to interview Holiday at her peak; the Irish nanny who witnessed the fraying relationship between opera star and shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

Nobodies, with stars in their eyes and hope in their hearts to experience, however briefly, a moment of magic.

They are minor character studies woven together, absurdly with moments of history. There’s a Forrest Gump-like implausibility here that you’re just going to have to go with. For each encounter is impossibly charming, written with trademark wit and tremendous affection for her subjects by Murray-Smith.

Songs For Nobodies is unashamedly crowd-pleasing entertainment, as we’ve come to expect from our most successful female playwright. As irresistible as anything she’s done, surely.

What ‘mainstream’ theatre should be – what it has failed to be in other Melbourne Theatre Company plays this year.  They could have sold many more tickets at a larger venue — the season

finale, from the company’s most bankable playwright, is already a sell out — but the Fairfax Studio envelops the audience in each intimate encounter. It’s simple and effectively staged by director Simon Phillips, with set/costumes from Andrew Bailey and Kerry Saxby’s brooding lighting design, revealing a swinging four-piece band led by musical director Ian McDonald as the divas strike up.

Robinson brilliantly executes what amounts to a performance masterclass.  She’s sung these songs before, in acclaimed one-woman tributes and pops orchestra concerts, but to summon each so convincing in an hour and a half – with just a word, sometimes; a notes, a gesture – often in furious conversation with others, is a gob-smacking routine. (Callas, the prodigious Greek soprano, proves unsurprising the biggest vocal stretch – and as a finale to the play it’s probably Murray-Smith’s weakest characterization, to be fair. But the thing glides so seamlessly to that point it hardly seems to matter.)

But there is more that technical proficiency here. Robinson creates living, breathing portraits in just a few short moments; genuinely funny and moving portrayals of women trapped in the spotlight, for a moment or a lifetime, converted or not, and the very human connections they make, Robinson and her multiple personalities simply dazzle.