When I first heard about DIVAS, I questioned whether it was a tribute act. Now, having seen it, I can confirm that it is anything but. The show is a unique blend of theatre and concert, brought to life in an extraordinary showcase of the incredible talent of Bernadette Robinson, directed by Simon Phillips.
Robinson, a classically trained performer, possesses a remarkable ability to mimic singing and speaking voices with uncanny precision. Her journey into impersonating artists began at a young age when, due to family and friends' reactions, she discovered her ability not only to sing but also to sound like Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland.
The show's title, DIVAS, is aptly named, as she effortlessly channels Streisand, Garland, Maria Callas, Kate Bush, Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Edith Piaf, Karen Carpenter, Shirley Bassey, and Amy Winehouse. Each diva brings her own story to life, cleverly woven together by Robinson using interviews they've conducted throughout their careers as linking dialogue between the songs she performs. This is not Robinson's first venture into the world of one-woman shows about remarkable singers. She's famously known for "Songs for Nobodies," which received acclaim in Australia and graced the West End. She has a knack for earning standing ovations, and she does so with a humility that's truly refreshing. She genuinely values her audience and doesn't take their appreciation for granted.
One of my favourite elements was the large mural at the back of the stage, which displayed the diva Robinson was embodying at any given moment. This visual aid helped the audience connect with the performance. As she moves effortlessly from one diva to another, spotlights shine on each artist she portrays, making it clear who she's channelling at the moment. The transformation is so convincing that there are many moments where, if you closed your eyes, you could believe it is the diva herself singing.
I had the opportunity to speak with Robinson before the show, and she shared that operatic numbers, like those of Maria Callas, come naturally to her due to her classical training. Surprisingly, she finds technically challenging songs easier. Karen Carpenter, for example, posed more of a challenge, but Robinson absolutely nailed it. She seamlessly transitions from Carpenter’s rich contralto to Edith Piaf’s unmistakable nasality, before moving from Miley Cyrus’ grit to Barbara Streisand’s smoothness without batting an eyelid. The juxtaposition of these voices with stark contrast in the program order is no accident, Robinson admits with a smirk.
One of the show's strengths is its ability to transition smoothly between characters. The simple device of a blazer coming on and off and the strategically placed microphones, seats, and tables on stage help the audience understand that Robinson is moving from one character to another. DIVAS doesn't follow a narrative but instead celebrates the incredible diversity of all ten women and explores the complex relationship between them and their audiences, delving into the stage fright of Barbra Streisand, the personal struggles of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey losing her voice due to the grief of her daughter’s drowning, and of course, the struggles of Amy Winehouse and Karen Carpenter that ultimately resulted in their untimely deaths.
The interviews Robinson has used as source material provide rich context and authenticity to her portrayals. Her ability to capture not just the singing but also the speaking voices of these divas only adds to the performance. For every poignant moment where a diva reveals her troubles, there is another where the audience is enticed to chuckle along.
The applause between songs was unceasing, and the audience remained engaged, guessing what comes next. It's almost like a game, challenging yourself to anticipate which diva Robinson will flawlessly bring to life. With a fantastic selection of well-known songs, DIVAS is accessible and enjoyable for all.
DIVAS is at ASB Waterfront Theatre from October 11 to 22.
Photos, video and review by Braydon Priest.
Braydon was hosted in Melbourne by Auckland Theatre Company, ASB Waterfront Theatre, and Duet Production Pty Ltd.