Friday, 14 November 2014

Pennsylvania Avenue, Nov 13, 2014 ***1/2

By Joanna Murray-Smith, by Melbourne Theatre Company 
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, Nov 13 to Dec 20, 2014 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***1/2
 Full review also in Herald Sun online today, Fri Nov 14. It will be in print on Sun Nov 16, 2014. KH
 Bernadette Robinson

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.

Robinson plays Harper Clemence, a woman from Thunderbolt 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 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 amongst 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.

By Kate Herbert

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