Pennsylvania Avenue (Duet Productions)
QPAC, Cremorne Theatre
March 3 – 19
After forty years of loyal service as a White House social secretary, the fictitious Harper Clemence (Bernadette Robinson) finds there is no room for her in the Bush administration 2.0. With her final cardboard box of mementos packed, she stops to reminisce about her life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The result is a nostalgic recollection of stories of its presidencies and celebrated guest performers of the Marilyn Monroe and Sammy Davis Jrn sort, interspersed with the regrets of her personal narrative as a once naïve young girl from Georgia.
Despite spanning decades, the story takes place within just one setting – the White House’s East Wing Blue Room state parlour. It is an impressive, imposing set of reproduction French Empire style furnishings, sheer blue curtains as backdrop (behind which the show’s live band is situated) and six dominant framed portraits of American Presidents. From this ‘engine room of the free world’ Harper has witnessed and sometimes taken unexpected role in many pivotal times in presidential history. And, as the portraits become moving canvases of archival stills from JFK’s to Clinton’s terms, audience members are easily whisked along for the ride. This device enriches the show’s many contexts, with images also taking audiences along on the tour of time from display of Life Magazine covers of the Vietnam War to news images of the Berlin Wall being brought down.
Bernadette Robinson is a hugely talented performer with a natural stage presence. She is a skilled character actor, which is seen not only in her delivery of the show’s witty dialogue but in her uncanny, idiosyncratic mimicry of celebrities such as Barbara Streisand and Eartha Kitt. From a sultry Peggy Lee ‘Fever’ to a poignant Roberta Flack ‘The First Time Ever I See Your Face’ and a sassy Aretha Franklin ‘Respect’ (in celebration of Harper’s 50th birthday), Robinson crafts her voice to extraordinary effect in impersonation in song also.
While songs such as Streisand’s ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ and Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’ add some upbeat humour to the work, it is the moving moments of numbers like Maria Calla’s ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ from “Carmen” and Sarah Vaughan’s ‘Cry Me a River’, sung in summation of the end of Kennedy’s bright and shining Camelot, that serve as standouts. Robinson illuminates the stage when she sings, and her mimicry of the sounds of artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Diana Ross is perfect.
“Pennsylvania Avenue” is a well-written, engaging display of clever comic timing and fabulous musical performance, all from the one accomplished, versatile and charismatic performer, sure to fly by as quickly as ‘a knife fight in a phone booth’ as Harper herself would say. Like the overhanging chandelier over which she gushes in the opening scenes, this multi-layered, entertaining cabaret is a glittering gem, sure to illuminate your theatre experience through its perfect combination of substance, skill and style.