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DIVAS - Riverside Theatre (NSW)

Reviewed by Kat Pech

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta

15-17 February 2024

Boasting uncannily accurate portrayals and vocal prowess, Robinson's transformation from one diva to the next takes you on a journey through the ages

Bernadette Robinson's DIVAS was astounding. Directed and co-devised by Simon Phillips, the work is a spectacular showcasing of talent portraying array of female superstars from a range of eras; there’s something in this performance to please everyone. Riverside Theatres is always a joy to visit. Highly accessible, with a range of eateries nearby for a pre-show meal or post-show drink, with lots of public transport close by, Parramatta has truly put in a lot of work to make this area a real hub. The audience for DIVAS was of a mostly older demographic, and it was great to see how accessible the theatre was and how willing the staff were able to assist if needed. 

DIVAS spanned decades and styles, with the artists being evoked ranging from Judy Garland (1920s onward) to Edith Piaf (1930s onward) to Maria Callas (1940s onward) and Shirley Bassey (1950s onward), to Barbara Streisand, Karen Carpenter, and Dolly Parton (all 1960s onward), Kate Bush (1970s onward), to Amy Winehouse (2000s) and Miley Cyrus (2000s onward). With the focus on artists who were predominantly popular in the 1960s and 1970s, it was clear to see why the demographic of the audience were largely 60+, but as a twenty-something who grew up with a mum who loves that era of music, much of it felt familiar, and the longevity of many of the artists’ careers, as well as the inclusion of 2000s artists, made the music feel extra familiar and profound.

Robinson's range is astounding. Her top notes as Maria Callas, were jaw droppingly pure and soaring, her Kate Bush was charmingly quirky, her Karen Carpenter was heart wrenching. The mid-song transition between Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus was absolutely brilliant.  Robinson’s dynamic vocal style and keen insight into each of the artists’ being portrayed, and a very clear love for them as people, not just their music, made this so much more than an impersonation. The inclusion of excerpts from interviews was wonderful, giving the audience extra insight into the struggles and joys each woman experienced, and the depth they all brought to their music. I loved hearing how each artist talked about their journey and their music, adding an extra layer of complexity. I especially loved how the show didn’t stick to a chronological order of performers, instead bouncing back and forth, while still keeping a thread of story and unity going all the way through.  Robinson received a standing ovation at the end, and it was very, very much deserved. 

Some portrayals felt more spot-on than others; Robinson felt a little flat with Miley Cyrus’ speech and physicality, for me. Robinson’s portrayal of Karen Carpenter was wonderful, but with Carpenter and Barbara Streisand, there were a few notes that sounded flat or off, but these were minuscule compared to the rest of the amazing portrayals. The delivery, both physically and vocally, was uncannily spot on and delightful, from start to finish. 

The staging, however, did feel lacking. I can appreciate not wishing to draw attention away from Robinson’s physicality (which was mostly wonderful and gripping in its changes) and incredible vocals, the stage was empty apart from black plastic chairs, microphones and the band seated at the back. The only embellishment was a banner with each superstar’s face depicted in pop-art style, and for each transition, a spotlight was put onto the woman being portrayed. This, along with a coloured spotlight at each transition, was the only lighting effects used. I wanted a bit more visual delight, not to detract, but to enhance Robinson’s impressive performance. 

Likewise, Robinson’s costume was somewhat unimpressive. With each Diva having such a distinct style, it made sense to keep the costuming neutral and simple, and Robinson used the blazer she wore to excellent effect as she moved between characters. However, for a show representing divas, I wanted a bit more pizzazz than black jeans. A gown or skirt, or even wide-legged, dramatic pants could’ve added visual oomph without detracting. 

Regardless, the show was triumphant, and Robinson is truly breathtaking. It’s rare to have an audience exclaim in the bathrooms afterward to random strangers how amazingly talented the performer was, but this was the case for DIVAS. I watched a woman in front of me shaking her head in awe as Robinson’s voice soared and belted and shook the air, and I felt the same. It was an amazing performance thanks to the sheer power and transformative nature of Robinson’s voice, as well as her subtler but no less impressive physical changes. It was truly magical to experience.




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