At Last ‘The Etta James Story’ at the Sydney Opera House (Playhouse) presents many of Etta’s better known hits. Since its first performance in Melbourne in 2013 the show has been a huge hit in Australia and New Zealand, garnering critical praise.
Recently returned from a UK tour, the production is a well-oiled machine, and isn’t suffering from fatigue: they know they have a hit on their hands. Musical Director John McAll writes that he regards the show as the most magical and successful of his theatre accomplishments, and his passion is evident on stage.
Vika Bull and Tibor Gyapjas provide narration at the top of each song, furnishing the context from which the work arose. We guess at the psychic anguish that lurks behind Etta’s powerful voice: the narration arguably heightens the emotional power of the music. At times tears flowed liberally from the audience members around me. In other moments it was common to see people dancing in their seats, barely containing their excitement.
The show’s writer, John Livings, answers the question “Why a show about Etta?” by noting that Etta has been a constant in many people’s lives: she released over thirty albums during her more than 50 year career. The pain, abuse, and drug addiction that she continually overcame has been an inspiring story for many.
Etta’s towering musical achievements are enough justification: she won six Grammy Awards and seventeen Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll, Blues, and Grammy halls of fame. The story of her life intertwines with many other cherished musical characters, and we hear fascinating anecdotes about back stage antics with Keith Richards, among many others.
Vika Bull portrays Etta: Bull opens by noting that she is presenting Etta’s story ‘with respect.’ This is a nice touch, as it’s really impossible to assess the extent of the suffering that Etta overcame. Bull is wonderful throughout: she doesn’t imitate Etta, but delivers the show in an energetic, upbeat style that is full of passion and defiance.
Bull is one of those rare talents that instantly puts an audience at ease. She writes of her admiration for Etta: ‘She’s my gal. Powerful, brash, sassy, straight to the point, no bullshit!’ It’s been noted that Etta brought together the two worlds of rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. Bull faultlessly blends the unstoppable energy of rock and roll with the deep heart-felt tones of R and B.
Bull is supported by The Essential R & B Band – a group of musicians who have individually played with the biggest names that music has to offer. Their passion and energy feed into the toe-tapping atmosphere.
This was a highly enjoyable night out, with Etta’s music and Bull’s talent combining to provide an unforgettable and moving concert and theatrical experience.
At Last ‘The Etta James Story’ with Vika Bull
Playhouse – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Tuesday 12 February 2019 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 17 February 2019
Information and Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com
Image: Vika Bull (supplied)
Review: Oliver Wakelin