'Christina Bianco: In Divine Company' review — a musical revue honours a dizzying array of divas
Read our four-star review of Christina Bianco: In Divine Company at the Menier Chocolate Factory, running for 10 days through 20 May.
I initially came across Bianco in Forbidden Broadway, the Off-Broadway satirical revue that has had various stints in London, including the Menier engagement in 2014 that marked her local debut. But going it alone as a singer who specialises in impressions is different from forming part of an ensemble devoted to skewering the great and the good of the musical stage.
The happy news is that this latest show more than sustains two acts, plus an interval, even building to the sort of emotional release that you don’t always get from such ventures. Describing herself as an only child from New York (like myself, in fact) with “very tolerant and supportive parents”, she delivers a dizzying array of divas, often matched to unexpected music: Julie Andrews crisply enunciating her way through Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”, for instance.
But when she reminds us late on that it’s respect, affection, and love that fuel her unusual skill set, you entirely believe her. Impressions of Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and the mother ship of such endeavours — namely Liza Minnelli — are nothing new, but Bianco gives each of these singular artists a sly vocal salute, pausing now and again to let rip as herself. It’s important amidst this immersion in others to assert your own identity, as well.
“Liza with a ‘Z’” prompts Bianco’s own entry into the self-definition sweepstakes, as she firmly asserts herself as “Christina with an ‘A’” lest there’s no confusion there. While I can’t quite imagine the Oscar-winning star of Cabaret having ever done Shakespeare, as is suggested in passing, Bianco marries Ms. Minnelli to “I Cain’t Say No” from Oklahoma! and her Judy Garland gets the inevitable look-in, too: at one especially deft point, Bianco slides directly from Garland into sounding just like her daughter.
Everyone will have their favourite moments, and there’s room on occasion for elasticity, so some of the women to which Bianco gave renewed voice the other night may be substituted with other names at other shows. Men figure, too — Bianco’s affection for Sammy Davis Jr tallies exactly with my parents’ devotion to that same inimitable song-and-dance man.
Some of the nods pass so quickly that you risk missing them: did I actually hear Jane Horrocks from Absolutely Fabulous, or Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara? I’m still chuckling at Bianco’s characterisation of Jennifer Aniston in a constant state of surprise, and Keira Knightley greeting the world through distinctively clenched teeth. A James Bond medley switches on a dime between Adele, Carly Simon, and Shirley Bassey, to name just three of the women who have brought signature vocals to such a testosterone-charged franchise.
Her summertime gig as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium — a role she previously played at the Leicester Curve — gets a few plugs. It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, when her repertoire expands to include Kristin Chenoweth, Broadway’s original Glinda in the Oz-inspired Wicked, with Chenoweth’s Tony winning co-star Idina Menzel noticeably pointedly referenced several times, as well.
More casual playgoers may not grasp a delicious jab in the direction of Broadway’s Betty Buckley, the original New York Grizabella in Cats, and you understand why Bianco mixes her heady immersion in the theatre with songstresses from other fields, from Dolly Parton to Celine Dion. Ryan MacKenzie (marking his birthday during the run) is on hand as the invaluable pianist, lending smiles aplenty from one side of the stage alongside the protean musicianship needed to ease Bianco into the task at hand.
When Bianco late in the show knocks “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, from Sunset Boulevard, out of the park, I found myself thankful for a performer who very much had us at hello.
Christina Bianco - In Divine Company is at the Menier Chocolate Factory through 20 May. Book Christina Bianco - In Divine Company tickets on London Theatre.
Photo credit: Christina Bianco (Photo courtesy of production)
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