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How Do You Describe Musical and Theatrical Perfection?“AT LAST: The Etta James Story”

Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre Until February 9

Reviewed by Ron Lee, CSP

If you didn’t catch AT LAST: The Etta James Story at the Opera House in April last year, you have another chance to witness one of the most incredible musical experiences ever!

Etta James was an American singer-songwriter. Her style spanned a variety of music genres including blues, R&B, soul, rock and roll, jazz and gospel. Starting her career in 1954, she gained fame with hits such as "The Wallflower", "At Last", "Tell Mama", "Something's Got a Hold on Me", “It’s A Man’s, Man’s World” and "I'd Rather Go Blind". She faced a number of personal problems, including drug addiction, before making a resurgence in the 1980s. James is regarded as having bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, and is the winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Grammy Hall of Fame in both 1999 and 2008 and Rolling Stone ranked James number 22 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and number 62 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists. Her work is said to have inspired the careers of Christina Aguilera, Amy Winehouse and Adele.

So to play a character like Etta James in a narrative concert, you need not only an exceptional singer, but a performer who has massive stage presence (at one point, James weighed a substantial 180 kilos) and the necessary depth, compassion, life experience and the voice to carry off the whole thing. Enter Vika Bull who has worked with Paul Kelly, John Farnham, Tim Finn, Bob Dylan, Sting, Joe Cocker and Billy Joel (just let me pick up those names). But does she have the goods for such a task? Can a backing singer succeed as a solo act? Bull not only has the presence but she also has more than the talent necessary, and what a set of pipes! I can’t remember the last singer I saw who could belt out songs like that, and her range is astonishing. She is accompanied by The Essential R & B Band. Each of the seven band members clearly enjoys his involvement; they all look like they’re having a great time. I can’t recommend AT LAST: The Etta James Story highly enough. The narrative coupled with the songs works beautifully. Vika Bull is an amazing talent who deserves global recognition which she could well achieve in the not-too-distant future if this vehicle is taken overseas. On the night that I attended she received two thunderous standing ovations, and there would have been more had she performed more than one encore. Have I used enough superlatives? Still not enough. AT LAST: The Etta James Story only runs until Sunday, February 9.

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