Performer delivers immersion experience musical storytelling
Songs For Nobodies by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Ross Gumbley
Musical director Richard Marrett
Centrepoint Theatre, Palmerston North
August 19 - September 9
REVIEW: Profound, ironical, funny, moving and ultimately astonishing, Songs For Nobodies is outstanding entertainment.
One performer, 10 characters, with five of those characters owning voices that helped define the 20th century, is the daunting task Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith set performer Ali Harper and director Ross Gumbley.
The premise sees Harper play five everyday women who recall their life-changing encounters with great singers, before performing one of each of the diva's signature songs.
That the women convey their stories with such clarity and eloquence, of course elevates them above the non-entity status of the show's title.
Framed in a beautifully designed and lit minimalist set, Harper effectively evokes the the multi-dimensions of times, places, periods, people, tones and terrific vocal timbres to make each of the five vignettes an immersion experience.
Her vocals and physicality combine to convey the essence of the five divas. The show opens in 1961 with Judy Garland, as seen through the eyes of Bea Appleton, a New York rest room attendant.
It's Bea who introduces a theme of happiness that runs through the play: "Happiness is the temporary illusion that nothing is about to change for the worse".
In 1963, "porch singer" Pearl Avalon recounts the time she sang onstage in Kansas City with Patsy Cline in what proved to be the country star's last concert.
Then, Harper becomes Edie Delamotte, introverted English librarian who pays an affecting tribute to Edith Piaf for saving her 19-year-old French Resistance father from Dachau, so that she could be.
Back in New York, young reporter Gwendolyn "Too Junior" Jones is sent to interview jazz great Billie Holiday. Holiday's 1939 song Strange Fruit about the lynching of Black Americans, carried an eerie echo in the wake of what just happened in Charlottesville.
Finally, aboard a billionaire's yacht in the Mediterranean, she plays chipper young Irish nanny Orla McDonagh remembering opera singer Maria Callas, and finishing the show with a bravura Vissi d'arte from Puccini's Tosca.
These snatches of song and their accompanying characters from history may be "temporary illusions" but they are wonderfully realised and sustained. The allure this transport of meaningful delight creates, is irresistible.