At Last: The Etta James Story

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Dear Dad

“You can’t fake this music. You might be a great singer or a great musician but, in the need, that’s got nothing to do with it. It’s how you connect to the songs and to the history behind them.” — Etta James

These words, quoted by Room 8, were those of the American singer-songwriter who is recognised for “bridging the gap” between rhythm and blues and rock and roll and admired as the winner of six Grammy awards.

It is partly based on this conviction that the production house has created the narrative concert At Last: Etta James Story.

Etta James, named Jamesetta Hawkins before musician Johnny Otis reversed it, had a difficult childhood. Born to a 14-year-old mother, she was fostered to different families. When her natural mother finally returned to bring her to San Francisco, the rebellious but highly talented 12-year-old James took to the streets until she came to impress Otis who groomed her and kickstarted what was to become a 57-year career.

Here, director Simon Myers has interwoven snippets of James’ story with songs the soul legend’s best remembered for. In between narrations, vocalist Vika Bull and a seven-piece live band perform a tapestry of numbers such as Spoonful, Lovesick Blues, A Sunday Kind Of Love and tracks like I’d Rather Go Blind, Something’s Got A Hold On Me, In The Basement, All I Could Do Was Cry, and her signature hit At Last.

With judicious care, tunes are chosen for where they’re best suited: when we’re told James is dating her first boyfriend Harvey Fuqua, a playboy, Bull belts out Fool That I Am; after we learn about the singer’s 17-month ordeal in Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital, struggling to be rehabilitated from drug abuse, the high-energy band offers the heart-rending Out On The Street Again; and when her husband Artis Mills comes looking for her following a 10-year prison sentence, accepting full responsibility for heroin possession whilst absolving hers, we feel her pain in Sugar On The Floor.

So, against Georgie Pinn’s backdrop of a mid-2oth century American cityscape, projected on a giant screen, gradually zoomed out as we move along James’ life, as if gaining increasing perspective, Bull (alternating with trumpeter Tibor Gyapjas) relates and croons of a life riddled with tumult, anguish, and suffering.

The kernel of the idea is tremendous but what surrounds it is less inspiring. Perhaps because of the light-hearted lilt of Gyapjas’ recital, perhaps because Bull is describing the artiste’s life while playing her, there is a dearth of poignancy, and feels weirdly inauthentic, given how intensely poignant James’ biography is, and the authenticity of feelings it wants to explore.

With little subtlety, the style also elbows out any room for the audience to get close to James and her inner thoughts. It leaves one lamenting the lost opportunities that could have made the staging a lot more nuanced and emotionally complex.

That said, one suspects producers Moira Bennett and Myers may be speaking to James’ personality we know as effervescent, straight-talking, impertinent, with an unflagging sense of humour. Problem is, they end up walking a tightrope between tribute and ridicule, trading pathos for bathos.

The production is worth watching, nevertheless, for the band’s virtuosity, notably pianist John McAll, saxophonist Anton Delecca, guitarist Dion Hirini, and Bull’s boundless verve, that earned them a standing ovation on review night.

I come away with a raucous introduction to a song sensation even if not feeling a whole lot connected — well, probably a little to the songs, but not the history.