Ruth Rogers-Wright takes Nina Simone's brilliant songs, stories and charisma and brings them down to earth and up-close. This Brixton come Melburnian diva pays a wonderfully personal tribute to the High Priestess of Soul with her own storytelling talents and personal responses. Simone inspired Rogers-Wright to "sing her heart", and that she does.
She mixes her performance with stories about seeing Simone live, and the oddities of Simone's life and personality. She takes on Simone's character, bringing her physically into the performance, then sitting Simone at the back as her guardian and mentor.
A curiosity about Ruth Rogers-Wright (please, let's just call her RRW, I hope she won't mind) is that her vocals are not very strong. She has a wonderful, husky lower register, but she struggles in the upper, and avoids it. However, while this may bug you for the first song or two, you are soon too caught up in her stories to notice. As a performer, she is fantastic. She seems wonderfully down-to-earth, and relates comfortably with her audience, teasing her pianist and dedicating a song to her dresser, Georgie – who by the way, did do an fantastic job. She works well with her accompanist, Daniel Gassin, and graciously shares the spotlight for his enjoyable solo moments. She even slips in a Doctor Who joke towards the end, and everyone enjoys her playful personality.
A surprising inclusion in the show is a poem/prose piece she wrote for Nina, which she performs as a kind of rap/spoken word creation. This piece has a great effect and offers a great contrast to the music. We really see RRW's spirit and zing and enjoy hearing her own words of tribute to Simone, the sad and very eccentric diva who struggled with life and everyone in it, especially herself; "We wipe her tears with applause" were some of RRW's words that most struck me. Later in the show, she leaves us with the touching tones of Fodder On My Wings, one of Simone's own songs that tells of her battles with what was probably bipolar disorder.
RRW really comes to her own at the end of her show. Throughout the show, she took on the character and emotion of the songs, but dropped them whenever she wasn't singing. In the last two songs, she embodies them, finally fully comfortable with her audience and her show, in her first performance of the short festival season. Her I Loves You Porgy is brilliantly performed, as she falls completely into the song and takes us along.
This hugely enjoyable performance can only get better as RRW really eases into each song's character. She is a wonderful performer who fits perfectly into the intimate, direct and quirky atmosphere of the Butterfly Club.
The Butterfly Club presents
Fabulous Diva – The Music of Dr Nina Simone
Venue: The Butterfly Club, 204 Bank Street, South Melbourne
Dates: 17 – 21 July, 2012
Tickets: $30 – $26