national Arts Festival Banner

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Miss this class act and you’ll lose out on a very special theatre experience. (Review by Caroline Smart)

If musical theatre – on film or stage – is your favourite form of entertainment and you can recognise the vocal attributes of a line-up of top Broadway female stars down the years, then get on the phone immediately and book for Great Dames which has just opened at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre for a short run.

Despite the fact that there are only two performers (an actress and a pianist) on stage with no set - bar a grand piano and a microphone stand - or fancy costumes, this show is a reminder for Durbanites of the kind of highly professional and well-structured productions associated with the late Geoffrey Sutherland and Joseph Clark, who is thankfully still with us.

American entertainer extraordinaire Christine Pedi knows her great dames! In her two-act programme, she honours the great ladies of the stage and screen and legendary female characters real and imagined. This love affair with musical theatre started at an early age when she saw Julie Andrews – “an honest to God Great Dame”, she quips, referring to the star’s title. She then goes on to give a highly accurate imitation of Julie Andrews and very funny jazzy send-up of A Spoonful of Sugar from Mary Poppins. Then it’s time to look at another Dame – this time Judy Dench, bemoaning the fact that Americans don’t “speak properly” with a fun rendition of Why Can’t The English?, Professor Higgins’s lament from My Fair Lady.

Continuing this accuracy of singing and speaking voice, Christine then leads audiences on a hilarious, skilful and musically-challenging programme as she wanders in and out of personalities – you name them: Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bette Davis, Lisa Minnelli, Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, Doris Day and Eartha Kitt! – as well as in and out of songs … and in and out of subjects. Her send-up of Sarah Brightman had me in stitches and her closing sequence which mixed ABBA classics with a Broadway standard was simply inspired.

No production like this would survive without Herculean support and this is amply provided by Matthew Ward. Seated at the piano, he accompanies her every holler or whisper. There is an impressive rapport between performer and accompanist. Both are seasoned and respected performers in musical theatre on Broadway and their working association goes back many years.

At the start of the show, I wondered whether two people on a bare stage would hold an audience for a two-act production, despite the evocative lighting. This concern was dispelled within minutes and by the end of the show, the audience on the night I attended would have happily followed Christine wherever she led them, so entranced were they by her performance.

She hits the nail on the head every time - Judy Dench’s gravel tones, Ethel Merman’s stridency, Judy Garland’s velvet quality and Julie Andrews’ distinctive elocuted vowels. Or the whacky Bette Midler, outrageous Joan Rivers and growly Eartha Kitt. At times, she can be lovable, endearingly vulnerable, hilarious or toweringly majestic. Not to say, over-the-top when it comes to Lisa Minnelli or speed talk with Barbra Streisand.

The essence of Great Dames is not just a sense of lampooning but a large dollop of respect to these the legendary female stars. In an amusing sequence, she even goes back in history to wonder what kind of work Jane Austen would have produced, if she was a songwriter?

The arrangements are splendid – particularly one which sees Christine singing When You’re Good to Mama while Matthew Ward is doggedly pursuing the opposite perspective with My Heart Belongs to Daddy. Her tribute to her “greatest dame” – her mother – moved me to tears, it was so beautiful.

Miss this class act and you’ll lose out on a very special theatrical experience.

Great Dames runs at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from November 4 to 15. Tickets R125 (Tuesday specials of “buy–one get-one–free”) booked through Computicket. - Caroline Smart)

If you want a quick preview, visit and have a look at the clip of a performance in which she impersonates a number of stars including Julie Andrews, Katherine Hepburn and Lisa Minnelli! After her Durban season, Christine Pedi sets off on a world tour