Of West Indian heritage, Nellie Small forged a successful 40-year career in night clubs and major theatres including the Tivoli circuit, around Australia and New Zealand. Black, and proudly gender non-conforming, Small was best known as a male impersonator, but she also worked in prestige clubs as a jazz and blues singer.
This writer can recall seeing Small perform in Narrandera, sometime during the 1940’s. The image of Small in the spotlight, immaculate in top hat and tails, strutting the stage as the headliner in Sorlie’s’ travelling tent show, remains vivid. Even then coloured entertainers were a novelty but Nellie Small was a star and newsworthy.
Nellie liked to wear men’s clothes off-stage as well as on, and as a result, experienced discrimination directed at both her colour and sexuality. However Nellie Small was no shrinking violet, and stood up to her tormentors, and although her exploits were legend at the time, until this show, she has been largely forgotten.
Perhaps it has been the emergence of Elenoa Rokobaro, a power-house performer of Fijian heritage, which has inspired Alana Valentine to rework Small Mercies – a work she had written earlier about Nellie Small. Rokobaro is lavishly equipped for the task, however, despite her best efforts and those of many others, Send for Nellie does neither her nor Nellie Small justice.
One of the problems is that Send for Nellie tries to do too much. Besides expecting to be entertained, the audience has come to learn about Nellie Small, whether or not they knew anything about her previously.
Biographical cabaret is a superb medium for providing this knowledge particularly when the performer applies their talent, not to necessarily to impersonating, but rather to capturing the essence and style of the artist they are eulogising.
Send for Nellie did not take this route. The impression was that the director felt that Nellie Small’s story was not entertaining enough and needed propping up with support acts. As a result Rokobaro was frequently side-lined by Eleanor Stankiewicz in a series of guises, and even the band.
Stankiewicz’s contributions commenced at the top of the show as an aggressive red-nosed MC exhorting the audience to “Hold up that drink for Nellie” before Nellie had actually done anything. She joined Rokobaro in duets, an unfunny “I say, I say, I say” routine, and a clownish strip routine. Her most successful contribution was as Small’s manager, Edith Meggitt, but even Meggitt was portrayed as an idiosyncratic figure of fun.
The show was at its best when Rokobaro had the stage to herself supported by the excellent band which consisted of Zara Stanton, (Keyboards), Camilla Bellstedt (Saxophone/Clarinet) and Jodie Michael (Drums).
Rokobaro is a charismatic singer and the repertoire of songs, presumably sung by Nellie Small, included excellent arrangements of Sing, Sing, Sing, Sunnyside of the Street, Stormy Weather, I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl and At Last, all of which she performed stylishly, utilising contemporary vocal stylings rather than those of the singers of Small’s period.
According to entertainer, Bobby Limb, Nellie Small used her hands beautifully when she sang, likening her to Lana Cantrell and Shirley Bassey. Rokobaro used her hands beautifully also, but in a modern musical theatre style.
She looked great in her costumes, but neither the lighting design, which frequently left her in darkness, nor the sound design, which at this performance was unbearably loud, did her any favours.
Hopefully Send for Nellie will be reworked. It is a terrific idea, but in its present form, anyone hoping to be informed about Nellie Small will come away disappointed. Both Nellie Small and Elenoa Rokobaro deserve a better show.
Send for Nellie
Wharf 1 Theatre (The Thirsty Mile), 15 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay Arts Precinct
Performance: Thursday 11 January 2024
Season 10 – 14 January 2024
Bruce Gordon Theatre – Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, 32 Burelli Street, Wollongong
Season: 14 – 17 February 2024
Information and Bookings: www.merrigong.com.au
Image: Elenoa Rokobaro as Nellie Small – photo by Wendell Teodoro
Review: Bill Stephens OAM