Friday, 22 February 2013

At Last: The Etta James Story, Feb 21, 2013 ***

Written by John H. Livings
Athenaeum Theatre, Feb 21 to March 3, 2013

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

 Review published in Herald Sun online on Sunday, Feb 24, then in print after Mon Feb 25  KH
 Vika Bull Photo by Chrissie Francis

It is astounding that American singer, Etta James, not only survived her chaotic, drug-addled life, but her distinctive vocal style became a major influence in Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Pop music.

Australian singer, Vika Bull, known as part of a duo with her sister Linda, sings Etta’s music with passion and commitment, and narrates Etta’s turbulent life story in this ‘narrative concert’.

However, there is a missed opportunity to make this show more than just a concert with awkward introductions to songs.

Bull is accompanied by The Essential R & B Band, a tight, seven-piece ensemble, led by John McAll, that brings blistering brass, guitar, keyboards and rhythm section to Etta’s music.

Bull’s voice has a powerful, bright, brassy upper register that does justice to Etta’s songs, although she cannot replicate the idiosyncratic, smoky quality and dark, heart-rending undertones of Etta’s vocal style that echoed Etta’s hectic lifestyle of booze, weed, pills and the needle.

She sings Etta’s numbers with passion, opening the show with the sassy Tell Mama, Tough Love and a sleazy, silky version of I Just Wanna Make Love to You.

She continues with It’s A Man’s World, Come to Mama, Sunday Kind of Love, Good Rock’n Daddy, Sugar On The Floor and W.O.M.A.N., ending with Etta’s magnificently sultry hit, At Last.

Bull has great control in her upper register but there were moments on opening night when she slipped off the note in her lower register.

The musical component of this ‘narrative concert’ – as it is described – is successful, but the clumsy narration lets the show down with both its delivery and its Wikipedia-like, information overload.

Bull and trumpeter, Tibor Gyapjas, who share the narration, look awkward and uncomfortable delivering their dialogue, which ultimately diminishes the impact of Etta’s story.

Producer-director, Simon Myers, underestimates the skill required for effective narration, and he and writer, John H. Livings, could take pointers from Ross Mueller’s show, When I Fall In Love: The Nat King Cole Story, and Dean Bryant’s Britney Spears: The Cabaret.

This static stage show is screaming out for a theatre director to polish the delivery of the dialogue and provide some stage action to enhance the musical elements and make this a more compelling show.

By Kate Herbert

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