REVIEWS: They Say She’s Different

Reviews for the directorial debut of Kenneth Moraleda – They Say She’s Different – Gasworks, Melbourne Fringe 2015 Photo by stuheppell.com

The immersive live music/theatre/cinematic experience They Say She’s Different created, written and starring Cecilia Low, directed by Kenneth Moraleda with Cameron Zayec’s Cinematography, is currently playing at Gasworks in Albert Park as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival 22 -26 of September.

A fantastic vibe was had by all on opening night and the crowd and critics were hooked!

TOM BENSLEY @ TheatrePeople.com

Reality returned and I left on the kind of high Betty herself might have had, the one that kept her away from the stuff that killed her friends—the high of an exhilarating performance.

Before I saw Cecilia Low’s They Say She’s Different I’d never heard of Betty Davis. I had no idea what to expect. Luckily, walking into the elegant Big House theatre at Gasworks was like stepping into a time capsule. Low and co. had captured the atmosphere of the 70s and brought it to the 2015 Fringe Festival.

The band’s equipment is splayed out on the stage. Leroy Ramone, bass player and occasional narrator (Tony Kopa), greets us as we walk in. “Hey, brother,” he murmurs, shaking hands. “Get yourself a drink.”

Guitarist Philly Ray (Phil Cebrano) is banging out a funky jam. A guy and girl dressed in aviators, headbands and colourful, loose fitting clothes are slow dancing, with a bit of arse-grabbing for the audience to see. Afros are the hairstyle of choice. I start to feel positively un-groovy amid this magnificent recreation of a 70s soul/funk concert.

A disco ball hangs above and red, blue and yellow lights splatter all over venue. Smoke slowly spreads and hangs in the air. At this point, the doors leading to the outside world are feeling distant, as the transformative performance works its magic.

A few seats to my left, a concert-goer in a hippie getup lets out a squawk of laughter and tumbles back in her chair. Leroy yells out and she starts to stumble around, drink in hand. She lunges at the camera op, his film displayed on the projector screen up the back, and she tackles him down. Other stage hands run in to cart her off as she laughs and cheers in their arms. Leroy apologises with a laugh. “She can get a little crazy sometimes.”

Now I’m sure of it. I’ve time-travelled to the 70s. Smack dab in the middle of a Betty Davis concert.

Betty Davis was a funk and soul singer throughout the 60s and 70s. She produced only three albums during her career but her influence has rolled like a wave throughout musical history. You can hear her primal, raunchy voice inspiring artists as diverse as Erykah Badu, Sasquatch and the late Amy Winehouse.

Briefly married to Miles Davis, she introduced the jazz king to her friends Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. Davis also encouraged Miles to call his album Bitches Brew, instead of the lukewarm “Witches Brew”.

Betty Marby took Davis’s name and stuck with it after their short marriage, but she’s nobody’s other half. Song writer from the age of 12 and spinning records in trendy New York club “The Cellar” before she was twenty, Betty never needed a guiding hand. She wrote and produced all her albums and stayed clean despite the narcotics that pervaded the 60s. “When everybody started to get high,” Betty said in one of the only interviews she ever gave, “I’d just leave.” Her connection to the 60s was a musical one.

Cecilia Low, creator/writer/producer/costumer/genius embodies the history and explosive soul of Betty Davis perfectly. The moment she struts onto the stage, clad in a silver, winged suit like some uniform from a 70s science fiction movie, the stage is transformed into Betty’s personal pedestal. Low’s screeches and growls aren’t merely an impersonation, she revives the queen of funk and shoves it right in the audience’s face (to our delight). Her onstage moves celebrate the sexual revolution of the time, with high kicks and gyrations. Her swaggering walk oozes sex appeal and fierce power simultaneously. This is Cecilia Low’s show, and she knows it.
The band’s repertoire includes Betty’s first song with The Chambers “Uptown in Harlem”, popular Davis number “They Say I’m Different” and plenty of hits from her first album like the controversial “Your Man, My Man (it’s all the same)”. Behind her, bass player and drummer (Thom Mann) keep tight grooves while the guitarist overlays with wah-pedals and screaming solos. Keyboardist and saxophonist Blind Gee (Glen Reither) is a revelation, as if they snatched a keyboardist straight out of a Woodstock performance.

Accompanying Davis on vocals is Miss HuffnPuff (Eliza Wolfgramm). Smaller in stature to the towering Low, HuffnPuff is no minor presence. The two harmonise together sublimely and when she wants to, HuffnPuff can hold her own on the stage.
In little snippets framed like stage banter, Betty tells her story. She signals to the audience, fictionalising us to become part of the fantasy: “Oh hi, Mr Clapton. I do hope you can stay a little longer this time.” The Miles Davis romance is a sly anecdote, a wink to the audience because Betty knows we know about it already. She tells us he liked her because, “She had her shit together.” An instrumental rendition of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child comes midway through the show to pay tribute.

Cecilia Low doesn’t just stick to Betty’s stage persona. On the projector screen—a great storytelling technique deftly handled by cinematographer Cameron Zayec—we see Betty go backstage to apply makeup, where she admits she’s not attracted to Hendrix (something Miles Davis didn’t believe). In interviews Betty is soft-spoken, shy and describes herself as an “introvert”. She brushes off compliments, but her voice lights up when she talks music.
The show took a darker turn with the death of Jimi Hendrix and later Devon Wilson—played on screen by Zahra Newman—at which point the music became a nightmarish, psychedelic mash accompanying the chaos: Leroy tried to hook up with Betty and was pushed away and Betty left the stage, distraught; the lights fell into darkness and the band was immobile. These moments kept the show versatile and showed Low’s acting chops. Kenneth Moraleda’s direction in this scene was subtle, with the camera op continually trying to film Betty up close while she pushed him away. This showed up on the big screen, an angle from bottom up emphasizing our diva’s ordeal.

There was so much going on in They Say She’s Different, but at no point was it overwhelming. Cecilia Low is a brilliant, vicious performer who has summoned the spirit of early Betty Davis. The show is a masterpiece, a perfect example of every player doing their part, passionately engaged with the material.

At the end, the handsy dancers from earlier came back, coaxing audience members to get up and boogie. A standing ovation closed the show as credits rolled the band was introduced with instrumental solos to accompany each call-out. Reality returned and I left on the kind of high Betty herself might have had, the one that kept her away from the stuff that killed her friends—the high of an exhilarating performance

Chris@ THE CITY LANE

They Say She’s Different, performed at Gasworks in Albert Park for the Melbourne Fringe Festival, tells the largely unknown story of funk and blues legend Betty Davis during the 60s and 70s. The show plays Tuesday 22 September to Saturday 26 September 2015.

Presented as part concert, part documentary, They Say She’s Different works as a kind of live rock concert film being played out for the audience with songs interspersed with both pre-recorded film and on-stage performances depicting the artist’s life. The use of differing styles, interludes and camera angles throughout from director Kenneth Moraleda deftly reflect the different eras and moods of the lead character and work well to encompass the immersive documentary style. This is accompanied by a very strong band lead by musical director and bass player Tony Kopa, who keeps the band focussed heavily on the rhythm section with Thommy Mann on drums, with ample support from Phil Ceberano on guitar and Glen Reither on keys and saxophone.

As with a show of this type, the singing from both the lead, Cecilia Low as Betty Davis, and vocalist Eliza Wolfgramm, is clear and tenacious, tackling the difficult source material with the right power and gravity. Low, who is also the show’s creator, writer, and producer, shines as the funk musician giving both real depth and a very healthy dose of funk to her performance.

Stepping back from this, the show made clever use of the venue with the band warming up and jamming as we walked in, and a host of characters in full 60s dress milling around the stalls and at the front of the stage. While the set was minimalist, depicting a stage that would be common in a small club, the combination of this with the pre-recorded cinematic from cinematographer Cameron Zayec, provided an immersive atmosphere before and during the show.

Unfortunately there were occasions where the vocal mix wasn’t quite right in our performance, leaving it difficult to hear the lyrics clearly when the band was in full flight. While this wasn’t a detraction from the overall show, it did at times prove challenging.

They Say She’s Different takes on a difficult and largely unknown story and it delivers it in a bold and interesting way that is well-beyond the traditional biographical style. The band is tight, the direction innovative, and Low’s performance as Betty Davis is a convincing and at times heart-wrenching portrayal of one of funk and rock’s shining lights.

THE MODERN CON – THE WEEKEND HUNT

What to see? They Say She’s Different – The Unknown Story of the Original Funk-Rock Diva Betty Davis

Betty Davis was a diver, rebel, sassy, sexy and a free spirit.  She possessed this beaming confidence (on and off the stage) that hadn’t be seen before – a combination of sex appeal and raw spirit that set her apart from the pack. Yet, the story of Betty Davis is also one that’s hidden, forgotten and even as far to say as being lost in the history of 70s funk. Until now…

They Say She’s Different showing at Gasworks Art Park is part music, part theatre and part film; the performance seamlessly integrates the three different medians to produce a compelling story of success and heart break, strength and woman spirit. The show immediately starts as you walk into the theatre, strobe lights flicker above as a band jams to soothing funky beats. Stage crew walk around purposely and yelling at the ‘riff-raff’, a couple romantically dances near the front of the stage and a drunk girl makes her presence known. Then the show starts, the lights dim, the audience bubbles with excitement and out comes Betty Davis – in the flesh!

The 60 minute performance is exhilarating and engaging as the visuals and sounds make you feel as though you’re a part of the 70s. It allows a genuine feeling of being in the moment of when Betty Davis makes her first initial steps in song writing and performing in New York City. The performance explores the funk career of Betty Davis through her influences of Miles Davis (whom she married), friends with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. There is also a darker side to the play, showcasing the pain that Betty experiences through loss and the long term effects of performing to the world has left on Betty soul and confidence.

There are few performances out there that can truly achieve this level of authenticity and raw emotion than that of They Say She’s Different. Visually stunning and highly entertaining, this performance is of the killer shows of this years’ Melbourne Fringe Festival.

EMMA HARDY @ THE PLUS ONES

Betty Davis is a total rockstar, and Cecilia Low embodies her feline screeching and dynamic stage presence to a tee in her fringe performance of ‘They Say She’s Different‘.

As we filed into the Gasworks auditorium it was clear that the immersive experience had already began. A woman in a penny lane coat and mile-high platforms stumbled around the sidelines, while another couple (the man in bootlegs, the woman in booty shorts) indulged in a slow dance centre-stage. Musicians jammed quietly on their instruments and the camera crew, also in character, documented the happenings.

Opening with the titular track ‘They Say I’m Different’, Betty fans are immediately in for a treat. Cecilia Low captures her sexy feline screeching and phenomenal vocals perfectly. Back-up vocalist Eliza Wolfgramm nails every high note. The performance is high energy, and the band is guaranteed to have you tapping your feet. It’s a shame that it’s seating room only, as music like that deserves to be boogied to.

If you don’t know much (or anything) about Betty Davis, don’t stress. You’re still in for a great time. Along with being part-tribute act, part-immersive experience, ‘They Say She’s Different’ also aims to tell the Betty Davis story through documentary-style reenactment. While these sections are more entertaining than informative (and we never see an image of the real Betty), they delve into her relationships with music legends Miles Davis and Jimmy Hendricks. Most importantly, the show captures the fiercely independent and ground-breaking woman she was.

If you’re already a fan, this is the show for you. And if you’re not yet a fan, you will be afterwards. Head down to Gasworks for a funky, sexy show about a woman who knew how to rock.

– Emma Hardy
Emma is an avid reader, writer, and teller of tall tales. Her hobbies include petting dogs and sipping red wine; ideally at the same time.

THEY SAY SHE’S DIFFERENT
The unknown story of the original funk rock diva
GASWORKS Albert Park
Sept 22-26 2015
Starring Cecilia Low with the band Tony Kopa, Phil Cebrano, Glenn Reither, Thommy Mann, Eliza Wolfgramm
Cinematography by Cameron Zayec, SM and Vison Keira Lyons, Sound Nigel Swifte, Publicity Leticia Brown

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