Just over four years to the day that MTC debuted its phenomenally successful production of Songs for Nobodies, the same team responsible for that show have launched Pennsylvania Avenue as another star vehicle for the extraordinary talents of Bernadette Robinson. It’s once again a one-woman show written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Simon Phillips, so inevitably comparisons are going to be drawn and to a certain degree this production does stand in its predecessor’s shadow.
This time around Robinson is Harper Clemens, a White House Social Office staffer whom we meet walking through the Blue Room on her last day of work in 2001 as the George W. Bush administration is taking position. Having worked at the White House since the Kennedy administration, forty years of walking the halls of the most distinguished and significant building in the United States have awarded Harper with a list a mile long of celebrity encounters, and she’s more than willing to share her anecdotes – especially those that feature singers.
Kicking off with Marilyn Monroe’s infamous rendition of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’, we learn of how Harper wasn’t too shy to tell the blonde bombshell what was wrong with her outfit and thereby adding an additional element of sensuality to the tragic star’s performance. Robinson’s incredible vocal mimicry is on display from the outset as she switches from Marilyn’s breathy tones onto a gorgeous Maria Callas aria and then to the dulcet sounds of Ella Fitzgerald; all performers at JFK’s 1962 New York Birthday Salute.
Robinson nimbly hops from one impersonation to the next with remarkable ease, like a female version of Rich Little, who not only sings like the stars but mimics their voices and physicality too, making for complete transformations as she slides in and out of characters like a woman possessed. The degree of difficulty on this performance is extraordinary as Murray-Smith even finds a way to get Peggy Lee (another of JFK’s Birthday ‘saluters’) covered off by having Robinson reproduce her rendition of ‘Fever’ later in the show.
A year after that birthday event, JFK is serenaded by a young Barbra Streisand at a White House Correspondents dinner and according to Murray-Smith’s version of events, Harper provided her dry cleaning docket so that her Jewish heroine could obtain the president’s signature. To back up this story we get a wonderful rendition of ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ and it’s here that the hair-line fractures in Pennsylvania Avenue begin to show.
Robinson is doubtless an extraordinary singer and her impersonations are nothing less than astonishing at times – certainly when it came to the five singers she mimicked in Songs for Nobodies. But the sheer number of chanteuses she is expected to emulate in this script, along with creating a personality and voice for every person Harper meets in her forty-year career, stretches the boundaries of what any performer could convincingly pull off. So it’s not a surprise that some of the imitations aren’t as strong as they were in that last show.
That’s not to say they aren’t highly enjoyable nonetheless, but we are invited to believe we’re hearing the voices of those women (and in a couple of cases, men) and many just scrape through as caricatures, rather than highly accurate impersonations.
It seems like Murray-Smith has become so enamoured with Robinson’s mastery that she felt her skills would be able to convince an audience of anything she wrote for her, but unlike Songs for Nobodies, many moments become very hard to believe, not only impersonation-wise, but plot-wise too. Harper’s speech writing influence over President Reagan comes off as a bit of an unintentional joke when combined with Robinson singing ‘Wind of Change’. One assumes that now we’re watching Harper singing an 80s power ballad in a state parlour, rather than an impersonation of Scorpions lead singer Klaus Meine? When combined with the weird omission of the entire George Bush Snr administration in favour of a Hillary Clinton anecdote about her reference to ‘Stand By Your Man’, to allow for a Tammy Wynette number, and the seams start to show. The script never fully jumps the shark, but there are certainly moments where Robinson is metaphorically expected to water-ski in a leather jacket.
But Murray-Smith’s book is certainly funny, giving Harper a delicious skill in turning a witty analogy (“quicker than a knife fight in a telephone booth”), and considering we’re regaled with impressions not only of the aforementioned singers, but no less than Sarah Vaughan, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Eartha Kitt and Bob Dylan as well, we’re certainly not left for wanting.
Musical Director Ian McDonald and his four-piece band skilfully capture the gamut of styles required by the eclectic mix of singers covered and bubble along wonderfully all night. Simon Phillips’ direction makes good use of the elliptical space and French Empire style furniture that adorn Shaun Gurton’s emulation of the Blue Room to visualise the many settings and stories Harper has to tell. Chris More’s video designs within the paintings of the early presidents do much to help illustrate Harper’s stories, certainly when displaying photoshopped pics that put Robinson into historical shots.
A certain amount of over-strained showiness in Phillips’ direction, no doubt required to play this small show out to the back of the Sumner Theatre, does suck some of the charming warmth out of the concept that was achieved by Songs for Nobodies, and a lack of research into the way in which Barbra Streisand prefers her surname pronounced, betrays the character somewhat.
Nevertheles, it’s the season of women at the MTC as 2014 draws to a close, considering both productions currently on stage are one-woman shows – that also both focus on Babs Streisand at one point or another. Perhaps comparison is exactly what they’re inviting? Well, if that is the case, Robinson can easily stand beside Miriam Margolyes for her commanding stage presence and ability to amuse and entertain. This mightn’t be everything Songs for Nobodies was, but it’s certainly still very enjoyable.