DIVAS – ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland: Wednesday 11 October 2023

DIVAS is so much more than a tribute act show: it’s high level cabaret, showcasing the incredible talent of Australian Bernadette Robinson and the songs of ten diverse divas, alongside insights into their characters.

Robinson is a classically trained performer with an amazing ability to adapt her vocals to mimic other singers – in this show, ranging from Maria Callas to Miley Cyrus. She supports the songs with snippets of spoken narrative, with dialogue taken from interviews each of the stars have given throughout their careers. This adds an incredible poignancy to the performance, when (for example) “Shirley Bassey” interrupts My Life to tell of her response to her daughter’s death; “Karen Carpenter” talks about the start of the diets which would lead to her early demise and “Amy Winehouse” admits to her lack of control and alcohol abuse.

DIVASThe set is minimal; a cabaret set up with various chairs, stools and microphones to provide Robinson with options as she moves around the stage and between different characters. A stylish mural featuring portraits of the divas highlights whichever singer Robinson is playing at any one time, creating anticipation and a guessing game about who will be embodied next. The transitions between characters was smooth and assisted by the impeccable three piece band, led by musical director Mark Jones on piano and keyboards.

After an instrumental intro, the set began with “Kate Bush” singing Wow!, with its pertinent lyrical opener “We’re all alone on the stage tonight” cleverly referring to the one-woman nature of Robinson’s performance. Following on (of course) with Wuthering Heights and recently-revived hit Running Up That Hill, the next diva introduced was Shirley Bassey with Diamonds Are Forever.

Moving on from anecdotes about life in the Welsh Valleys, “Karen Carpenter” detailed how she was only 19 when the Close To You album was released. Robinson replicated Carpenter’s voice beautifully in renditions of We’ve Only Just Begun and Rainy Days and Mondays, which were well appreciated by the audience.

DIVASA shift of the spotlight heralded a short set of Edith Piaf’s works. I suspect that this original diva is a favourite of Robinson’s, as she seemed to enjoy herself immensely in performing Non, je ne regrette rien and La vie en rose. It was also the first real opportunity to see the full range of her voice; whilst “Bush” was pop, “Bassey” had power and “Carpenter” poignancy, “Piaf” had a real transcendental musical beauty.

After taking her jacket off and comedically hitching her boobs up, Robinson morphed into Dolly Parton. She nailed the accent and humour and covered Jolene, Dumb Blonde and I Will Always Love You, before reminding us that Parton is Miley Cyrus’ godmother and giving a snippet of Wrecking Ball. It provided a neat segue into Cyrus herself as the youngest diva of the night, with a full version of Wrecking Ball followed by We Can’t Stop and Flowers.

How many performers would have the chutzpah to consecutively impersonate legends Barbra Streisand and Maria Callas? Robinson tacked them both with grace and ease, following up The Way We Were with a short trip into musical theatre with Funny Girl’s I’m The Greatest Star and Sondheim’s heartfelt masterpiece from Company, Being Alive. Callas was clearly included for at least two reasons – to cover off the epitome of the term “diva”, and to showcase Robinson’s impressively full operatic range. For many in the audience it was a highlight, triggering extended applause.

Jacket off again, the American-Greek soprano was transformed in the blink of an eye into Londoner Amy Winehouse, with a massive stylistic and genre change for Back to Black, Rehab and the doo-wop vibes of You Know I’m No Good.

The final diva of the night was Judy Garland. Robinson nailed the voice and the mannerisms, with a cool mini-set which interspersed “Judy” talking about her loneliness with her much-loved hits Somewhere Over The Rainbow and The Man That Got Away. The night finished with There’s No Business Like Show Business – presumably a sentiment with which all of the ladies portrayed, despite their woes and issues, would agree.

There’s something for everyone here and if you’re a music fan whose taste spans a wide range of performers and eras, you’ll love it. In her guise as Barbra Streisand, Robinson says “Performing is not about perfection”; maybe not, but this show comes pretty close. Be prepared to be transported from waterfront Auckland to what could easily be a Vegas cabaret – classy, creative and compelling. Bravo, Bernadette – thanks for bringing these Divas together and bringing them to us!

– Carin Newbould

“Divas” is at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland until Sunday 22 October.
Tickets are available from www.atc.co.nz