Michael Griffiths; Bernadette Robinson

Michael Griffiths, Sweet Dreams: songs by Annie Lennox. Slide Lounge, Sydney, June 1. Bernadette Robinson, Slide Lounge, June 4.

HOW many times have you said how much you love a particular artist, but in reality you’ve stopped listening? Not stopped hearing, but stopped listening. Much of the time perhaps. The music does its job of reminding us of where we were and with whom; it uplifts or soothes or matches a blue mood. The lyrics – well, even if they were initially heard and absorbed accurately, they can so easily become pieces of rhythmic material adrift from meaning.  Perhaps they never meant anything in the first place. Da do ron ron.

Michael Griffiths and writer-director Dean Bryant have created a matchless way of compelling one to listen and hear anew. An earlier show in this style presented the music of Madonna. The subject of Sweet Dreams is – no surprise here – Annie Lennox, 50 per cent of the Eurythmics, 100 per cent  singer and songwriter extraordinare.

Michael Griffiths. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Griffiths. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The stroke of genius is to have Griffiths speak as Annie Lennox but not impersonate her. There are all the benefits of first-person narration without there being the slightest attempt to impersonate the woman. The show simultaneously showcases Griffiths as Lennox and Griffiths about Lennox. It’s intimate and detached all at once. Brecht would have been proud.

Accompanying himself immaculately on the piano, Griffiths plays and sings arrangements that intensify the mood and meaning of lyrics so they cast light and shade on the ups and downs of Lennox’s life. Which were many and varied, including an ill-advised marriage to a Hare Krishna devotee (“Don’t mess with a missionary man”), ill-fated relationship with the other half of the Eurythmics, Dave Stewart (Who’s That Girl?)  and much more. Including, of course, remarkably fine pieces of pop.

With Thorn in My Side Griffiths manages the miracle of audience participation that is not only not embarrassing, but really rather excellent – at least on the evening I was there. Here Comes the Rain Again is sung with melancholy understanding; even better is the sad and lovely You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart, and Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) gets a particularly graceful arrangement. Indeed, there is not a false note, metaphorically speaking, nor musically speaking. Sweet Dreams is a memorable and treasurable piece of music theatre.

Griffiths appeared in Sydney as part of a small-scale but impressive cabaret festival staged at and by Slide Lounge. Bernadette Robinson, who closed the festival, has had huge success with the theatre piece written for her by Joanna Murray-Smith, Songs for Nobodies, in which she performs songs associated with Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf. In her Slide show she covered some of this ground, showing her razor-sharp ability to convey the vocal quality, timbre, style and temperament that made such singers adored.

Robinson said at the end of the show that she considers herself an impressionist rather than an impersonator. “I evoke them,’’ she said. In truth she moves between those states. When it comes to her performance of the protest song Strange Fruit she is giving a very close picture of Holiday, and one that out of the context of Songs for Nobodies seems not quite right. On the other hand, her performance of La vie en rose was much closer to a suggestion of Piaf than a copy.

Robinson’s control of her instrument is extraordinary.  She can sing with crystalline clarity, absolutely on the note and with not a trace of vibrato, or else fatten the sound with lots of harmonics. She can alter tone, weight and colour at a moment and is masterly in her understanding of the expressive power of dynamics; necessary attributes for what we might call her vocal sleight of hand. That’s not meant to sound dismissive – I admire Robinson greatly – but her skill at these impressions, impersonations, evocations, whatever, can feel like a protective shield.

Robinson gave deadly accurate and most enjoyable versions of the disparate likes of Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, Shirley Bassey and Callas, the latter giving Robinson a chance to demonstrate her operatic chops with a snatch of the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor.  (She also sang the coloratura showcase Olympia’s aria from The Tales of Hoffmann. This was an eclectic program.)

The most memorable part of the show, however, was Robinson as Robinson. Her performance of Damien Rice’s The Blower’s Daughter was magnificent. I could hear that again and again.

Sweet Dreams, Melbourne Cabaret Festival, fortyfivedownstairs, ends June 7; Festival of Voices, Hobart, July 12-13.

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