Let’s be frank with each other. Vika Bull is amazing. She’s a powerhouse of strength and talent. And I want her shoes.
Together with The Essential R&B Band, Vika brings the tumultuous life story infamous jazz and blues singer Etta James to life. The show had its world premiere in 2013, and has since toured all the major cities in Australia, had 2 sold out seasons at the Sydney Opera House, and even jumped across the ditch to play at Auckland’s Aotea Centre in 2014.
Now it’s back for a short time only, and you don’t want to miss it.
Written by John Livings, the script about Etta’s life, loves and music meanders its way through a selection of 22 of her huge catalogue of songs. Livings hasn’t shied away from the various drug additions that Etta suffered and all of the problems that came with them. There are some poignant moments, and some very funny ones too, which Vika executes with perfect comic timing.
However, the narration, while necessary to the form, is a little lacklustre compared to the sizzling songs. The intensity and passion with which Vika and the band perform are rapidly diffused the moment the narration starts. I can’t offer a solution to this, other than to have actors join Vika in the narration, rather than the musicians. Perhaps a little more spontaneity in the script would help lift the energy — one of the most memorable moments happened when Vika came out on stage for one of the final numbers with bare feet. She shrugged and pointed downwards. “I’m Tongan. It’s not natural,” she said. Brilliant!
The multi-talented band is led by the dextrous John McAll, Musical Director and pianist. Tibor Gyapjas joins Vika in narrating Etta’s life, and also enthrals on the trumpet. Ben Gillespie displays some groovy dance moves throughout, and some impressive singing skills when he and Vika perform a duet. He’s also an excellent trombonist. On bass is Chris Bekker, joined by John Watson on the drums. Together the two form a solid backbone for the numbers. Dion Hirini is on guitar, also sporting some impressive vocals, lighting-fast fingers and a stylish chapeau. Dashing saxophonist Anton Delecca is the final member, recreating perfectly that iconic, seductive sound in Etta’s music. All of the members have been with the show since its premiere, and you can tell — they execute their solos with perfect skill, and their passion for Etta’s music is obvious and infectious.
Vika’s voice is astonishing, chilling and thrilling. She performs with passion, honesty and integrity, much like Etta, as do the entire band. The key to success here is that Vika isn’t trying to be Etta. Although her vocals are remarkably similar, it’s made clear Vika is giving a heartfelt tribute to an incredible woman who has so obviously influenced her life and musical style.
There are so many great songs packed into this show that it’s hard to pick highlights. W.O.M.A.N. is a perfect display of Etta’s feisty nature and incredible writing skills. She co-wrote this with her mother Dorothy on a rare day that they weren’t fighting, and Vika gives it everything. Beginning a cappella, Something’s Got A Hold On Me showcases Vika’s powerhouse vocals, and It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World could not have been more spectacular. I’d Rather Go Blind is a wonderfully moving song, and Vika filed it with emotions and desperation, and the iconic At Last was performed with a gentle reverence by the whole ensemble.
Despite a few technical wobbles on opening night, At Last: The Etta James Story is bound to delight. In the audience there were more than a few heads bobbing and shoulders shimmying! Packed full of little-known facts about Etta and her family, it’s educational as well as entertaining. Vika and The Essential R&B Band give audiences a heartfelt tribute to a musical legend whose music continues to influence and inspire artists today, and probably always will.
Playing at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 17th July.
Alana Kaye – Theatre Now