Gripping, glamorous, and remarkably funny
By Narelle Wood
When I read the release for this, it sounded to me like The West Wing crossed with a musical, which would be awesome. But what the collaboration of playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, director Simon Phillips and actor Bernadette Robinson accomplished in Pennsylvania Avenue was something far better than I could have ever imagined – and my expectations were pretty high.
Set in the Blue Room of the White House, famously directed by Jackie Kennedy, Harper Clare Clements (Robinson) takes us through her 40-year journey working in the entertainment department. This fictitious character, Harper, laments her personal narrative, interspersed with stories of musical greats whose performances are as much entrenched in the history of the White House as the ‘great’ men who held office. The tails begin with Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy era and meanders all the way through to the Clintons and Aretha Franklin, all the while Clements describing her part in the musical as well as the political history.
Clement offers a unique and intriguing perspective of the power, privilege and unexpected perks of working adjacent to the Oval Office. And while Clement’s haunting past often acts as a conduit for the music, moments of political struggle and significance are also captured in dialogue and song: JFk’s assassination, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, to name but a few.
Anyone could be forgiven for thinking Harper Clare Clement and her exploits to be true. The story is so compelling and plausible: the historic events are portrayed so accurately and Clement’s tale seems an all-too-familiar one in an era that placed such little value on a woman’s voice. The movement of narrative from the ordinary, tragic, and joyous to the extraordinary would perhaps in other setting be unbelievable, but in The White House, anything seems possible. The plausibility is further facilitated by an array of still photographs that appear in the background, capturing and reinforcing the narrative as it moves along. But ultimately the believability factor must be contributed to the combination of Murray-Smith’s punchy writing, Phillip’s direction and Robinson’s embodiment of every character she plays. So accurate is Robinson’s mimicry in both voice and movement of the great musicians that after a Sarah Vaughan number the band broke into applause.
This production deserves every accolade it receives and more. Laugh-out-loud funny, charming and heartrending, Pennsylvania Avenue has all the ingredients for a killer political drama with a killer soundtrack to boot.
Venue: Playhouse, The Arts Centre, Melbourne
Season: Until 14th February, Tue – Thu 7.30pm, Fri – Sat 8pm, Wed & Sat 2pm, Sun 5pm
Tickets: From $65