Pennsylvania Avenue

The Playhouse, April 29


Penn res
Bernadette Robinson. Photo supplied.

Five years ago Songs for Nobodies was a near perfect confluence of music, script, performer and director. The same performer (Bernadette Robinson), writer (Joanna Murray-Smith) and director (Simon Phillips) then reunited to exploit Robinson’s gifts as a singer, mimic and actress in Pennsylvania Avenue, now touring a second time. As with Songs for Nobodies this is a piece of music theatre (offering a context for Robinson to play multiple singers) rather than a cabaret with dialogue links.

Robinson’s linchpin character is Harper Clements, a White House aid for 40 years who feeds us juicy titbits about presidents, first ladies and the stars who came to sing for them. Murray-Smith’s text has wedges of history cunningly propping up the fictions of Clements’ life story, as supports do cardboard cut-outs. Meanwhile a set depicts the White House’s Blue Room, and a hidden trio provides accompaniment.

Almost inevitably the show starts with Robinson as Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to Jack Kennedy. An impersonation of Barbra Streisand (without quite enough oomph) is followed by a failed attempt at capturing Sarah Vaughan, despite the poignancy of the surrounding story of African Americans visiting the White House.

Thereafter the quality skyrockets. Robinson is utterly convincing and compelling as Eartha Kitt singing Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas in English. We have a flash of Fever oozing out of Peggy Lee as Clements’ love life heats up, and a creditable Diana Ross delivering I Hear a Symphony. She whistles up a delicious impression of Reagan, before a charming Tammy Wynette singing Stand By Your Man. Even better is Aretha Franklin scorching her way through Respect, which is done astutely, potently and very musically.

As witty as some of the dialogue is, the soapy-sad elements of Clements’ life tend to keep the character at arm’s length rather than endearing her. This and the brief impersonation miscues hold back a show that wants to burst at the seams with Robinson’s brilliance. Perhaps it suffers a little sequel syndrome.

Until May 22.