Stevens is well-known through appearances on TV’s The Voice and Australian Idol, and in musicals. This show, however, presents material focussed on female performers via their familiar blues songs. While carefully scripted, Stevens also offers a natural pleasure in performing at the refurbished Queens Theatre.
The show borrows its title from the eponymous Billie Holiday song, also used for a biography and later biopic starring Diana Ross, so you know Holiday will be a key feature. Stevens expands Holiday’s world to include other voices, such as those of Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé. Thus we get love songs, heartbreak, pride, and the sorrow of racial prejudice all in 60 minutes.
Where would a show like this start if not with “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (James Brown and Betty Jean Newsome)? The song immediately reflects two aspects of contemporary Australia: women’s often unacknowledged contribution and their frequently poor treatment at home and work. It was a strong opening that was followed by the prayer-like “God Bless the Child”, originally sung and co-written by Holiday.
That Christian outlook was reinforced by the hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” (Civilla Martin and Charles Gabriel), which began tenderly and was then cranked up to gospel. Plenty of woo-hoos ensued from the audience, who also appreciated the contributions of local musicians Alex Wignal (piano) and Shireen Khemalani (double bass).
Whitney Houston, Ella Fitzgerald, Toni Braxton and Beyoncé songs were competently delivered but a little less convincing. Suddenly then it was a delicious “At Last” (Etta James) before a brief excursion into Holiday’s compelling and rightly famous “Strange Fruit”. Stevens was right on top of this song and it could have been given longer exposure.
“My Island Home” saluted indigenous peoples and acknowledged Stevens’ own Polynesian heritage, receiving a warm welcome. The beautiful highlight was a joyful encore rendition of the Carole King/Gerry Goffin song “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman”. It was a winning feel-good moment that leavened earlier solemnity without robbing the set of its central message. A fine ending.
Lady Sings the Blues is being performed again at The Chamber (The Queens) in Gilles Arcade, Adelaide, on March on 5, 6 and 7.
Read more Adelaide Fringe reviews and previews here.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.