Bernadette Robinson – Divas

Director Simon Phillips. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 15-17 Feb, 2024

Reviewed : 15 February, 2024*

Photo : supplied

Only a performer as skilled and versatile as Bernadette Robinson could possibly hope to inhabit the diverse lives of ten of the most famous musical divas of our time. From Maria Callas to Amy Winehouse; Judy Garland to Miley Cyrus; Dame Shirley Bassey to Amy Winehouse; along with Piaf, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton and Karen Carpenter, Robinson takes her enthralled audience seamlessly from opera to pop, contemporary pop star to war time chanteuse.

She needs only a few silent seconds after freezing in characteristic pose on the final clear note of one carefully balanced and controlled evocation, to prepare herself for another. Even before the applause dies, the transformation is made. The spot picks up a different stance, a suggested toss of the head. They are re-enforced by a few notes from the guitar, or the piano, a gentle beat from the drum – and suddenly Kate Bush has been replaced by Dame Shirley and the flicks to falsetto of “Wuthering Heights” become the steamy introduction to a Bond movie or the ringing self-assurance of “This My Life”.

Photo : supplied

There is a richness in her voice that allows her to find the husky sexiness of Édith Piaf, (complete with beautifully rolled ‘Rs’) as she evokes the dark streets of war-torn Paris or the cabarets of the 1960s. And clear, classical control as she faultlessly takes on the operatic arias made famous by Callas.

Yet she just as effortlessly vamps a little as Dolly Parton proving that the blonde “weren’t nobody’s fool”! As soon as the intro to “Jolene” begins, there is a little bump of the hip, a lift of the chin, and Parton is there on the stage.

Similarly Robinson moves effortlessly into more contemporary ‘divas’, beginning with the gentle, sad Karen Carpenter, the “drummer who became a singer” and whose long fight with anorexia Robinson makes sweetly poignant in “Rainy Days and Mondays”.

She finds the contemporary eclectic range of Amy Winehouse’s contralto, her plaintiveness in “Back to Black” and her misguided strength in “Rehab”. When she evokes Miley Cyrus, she finds the power of that comes with confidence and maturity in the words of “Wrecking Ball” and her 2023 hit “I Can Buy Myself Flowers”.

Photo : supplied

The divas wouldn’t be complete without Streisand and Garland – and Robinson inhabits both: the quizzical realisation of the first, who found she could still be an actress when she sang; and the husky ‘s’ of Garland’s voice as her story took the audience “over the rainbow”.

Robinson augments her evocations with titbits of the divas’ lives: the bits that everyone knows about – and her understanding of how they were manifested in their songs. It’s a clever way making her interpretations much more personal than just an ‘impersonation’ – but one that only someone as multi-talented and versatile as Robinson could so well.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening performance