Pennsylvania Avenue


Pennsylvania Avenue

QPAC & Duet Productions

QPAC Cremorne

March 3 – 19 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward


Bernadette Robinson tells the story of Harper Clements, assistant to the assistant to the assistant of the First Lady. Penned by Joanna Murray-Smith, the story starts at its end, on Harper’s last day at the Whitehouse. After forty years of service, she reflects on the joys and sorrows of a life well lived. She dips into her memories, which fit neatly into the last packing box, as she prepares to leave the only life she knows. But her personal story comes off second best, because the life of the Presidents.

Simon Phillips‘ direction is precise. And Robinson’s performance is astonishing. The show is perfect – too perfect – and without the heart and guts and grit of the hugely successful Songs For Nobodies. Perfectly conceived, perfectly crafted and perfectly delivered, Pennsylvania Avenue is well received by the target demographic. The pace is languid and lovely; I also enjoy it immensely, but I crave the energy of the original inspired work, which showcased across Australia and the USA, Robinson’s uncanny ability for mimicry. 


Robinson’s outstanding characters include Marilyn Monroe, Maria Callas, Eartha Kitt, Sarah Vaughn, Bob Dylan and Tammy Wynette, the latter complete with perfectly placed twang. Robinson’s knack of channelling the essence of these performers – the vocal tone, vibrato, facial expressions, gait and gesture – is rare, seen only in the likes of artists such as Catherine Alcorn (The Divine Miss Bette, Go Your Own Way) and Naomi Price (Rumour Has It, Wrecking Ball). Each character is an exact study and Robinson barely takes a breath or turns her head before transforming, and embodying each. She lacks the pure vocal power of Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin but we don’t miss their famous belt quality for more than an instant. The celebrity characters ring true; Harper’s anecdotes bring attention to the humanity and humour of each entertainer as she sees them at their most vulnerable. The songs, performed for the Presidents, mark pivotal points in the history of the world and quietly remind us that our celebrations and lamentations are most eloquently expressed and shared through art.


A brilliant live band led by Ian McDonald remains unseen behind a curtain within a simple static set replicating the famous Blue Room (Shaun Gurton), complemented by warm lighting, and the clever incorporation of Chris More‘s AV. The American presidents peer down on Harper from their gilded picture frames and then disappear, making way for tabloid photos of subsequent presidents, their First Ladies, and the popular singers of each era, invited to visit the Whitehouse. Harper was there when Marilyn had a moment over unsightly knicker lines, when Babs asked for JFK’s autograph, and when Sarah Vaughn cried backstage… There are some wonderful tender moments in these stories but there’s some heart missing. It’s as if this production has been so carefully shaped and rehearsed that the original impulse has been left out, or left behind. Perhaps at this stage of the tour, everyone is simply going through the motions, much like a blockbuster musical that we might leave thinking we need to see done again with feeling.


I love Robinson’s ‘Harper’ voice. Some of the most stirring moments are contained sweetly, sentimentally, within the hymns from her younger years in Thunderbolt, Georgia. Robinson’s Amazing Grace for example, is unassuming, just superb. Like Happy Birthday, this is one of the most often sung songs in the world and one of the most difficult to sing convincingly. In order for us to care more though, the detail of Harper’s story needs to be revealed earlier. Having said that, surprisingly, even though we see it coming, it’s a genuine shock to learn that the great (“liberal”) love of her life abandons Harper when he learns the truth about her past, which from my perspective at least, is no big deal. Bastard! So on many levels, despite its lack of…spark, the show works. The Brisbane audience loves it, leaping to their feet to offer a generous standing ovation. I applaud warmly, because despite the production not meeting my expectations, Robinson is a gifted performer. I’m in awe of her talent and I appreciate the premise, the musical arrangements, and the completeness of this production; everything is so nice and precise and quite perfect. But I’m unmoved and I’d like to see Robinson really challenged now in terms of storytelling. 


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