Monday, June 16, 2014

Pat Kirkwood is Angry

For the first half of Pat Kirkwood is Angry, a new play with songs that opened last night at 59E59 Theaters, I was baffled by the title. As performed solo by Jessica Walker, who also wrote the script, I would have thought perky was a more appropriate adjective than angry, even though she recounts — breezily — much about which the late British performer could have been angry. But in the second half Walker shifts tone and the show becomes more compelling.

Through monologue and song, Walker, accompanied by Joseph Atkins on piano and direct by Lee Blakeley, tells the story of Kirkwood, a popular stage and screen star in World War II England. Her voice is gorgeous and always finds the appropriate interpretation, even when her narration sounds more like cheery cabaret patter than dramatic storytelling.

Kirkwood began performing at 15, overseen by her domineering mother, and built a name for herself as a singer and actress, a name that was sullied after a youthful fling with Prince Philip. Although she swore to the end of her life that it was never sexual, it tarnished her reputation and kept her from receiving the recognition she thought she deserved in later years.

As she approaches 60, unhappily married to her fourth husband, she looks back on what she had so playfully been recounting, and finally lets the anger pour forth.

“I felt I wasn’t first choice anymore; that I’d used to be first choice and I’d let it slip through my fingers,” she says with resentment. “Made bad choices — with jobs, with liaisons, and with husbands — apart from Sparky.” He was her second husband, the only one she deeply loved and who died in his mid-40s two years after they were married and only a month after her father had died.

“I’d only done what I thought I could do perfectly, and turned down the rest, only to watch others not do them any better than I could have. They’d all kept going and overtaken me; all been honored, too, which I never could be because of the whole damn business with Prince Philip. Dame Vera Lyn, Dame Edith Evans, Dame Thora Hird, Dame practically everyone, but never Dame Pat Kirkwood. Three royal command performances, Hollywood, shows written for me by Noel Coward, Cole Porter at my feet, Desert Island Discs, my own TV series; nothing — not even so much as a CBE. And even June piggin’ Whitfield has a CBE.”  (A CBE is an order of chivalry, the most junior and populous Order of the British Empire.)

But angry or sunny, Walker knows how to deliver a song with the right emotion, from her soaring “Sail Away,” to her dramatic “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and her soulful “Begin the Beguine.”

While I enjoyed every song she sang — her voice is exquisite — the parts of the show that affected me most were the ones when she tells of her personal losses, starting with her father’s death and her regrets that she had hardly known him, touring with her mother in tow as she had.

“Sometimes years passed without me going home to dad, but whenever we were reunited, he was always kind to me, and not hurtful, as mother frequently was.”

Her father had shown up at her home unexpectedly the Christmas she was 33. He fell ill that evening, worsening quickly and died two days later. “I was with him when he went. I heard the death rattle as I held his hand, telling him it was going to be all right.”

This is followed immediately by another quietly and powerfully told story.

“I’d not seen death before. Only a month later, on January 29th, 1954, mother and I were sitting in the front room and Sparky was standing, leaning against the mantelpiece. . . Before I could blink, he was slumped down in front of us, his head in the fireplace. ‘The fire!’ I shouted, because you see I was worried that his face was near the flames, but never thinking for a minute that he was . . . well, not thinking at all because you don’t. I pulled him round away from the grate, and it was only then, as I turned his face towards me, that I saw his eyes, staring blankly, and I knew he was gone. I knew it because I’d seen exactly the same look on my father’s face only a few weeks earlier. I knew it, but I didn’t believe it. He still had his suntan. He looked so well.”

This memory leads her into a sorrowful “So Little Time.”

She also handles the show’s ending beautifully as she portrays Kirkwood’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and her death in 2007. Telling the audience she never forgot the words to her songs, she stands to sing “For All We Know” before placing the microphone on her stool and slowly walking off the stage. It was a lovely fade out, moving without being morbid or melodramatic.

Pat Kirkwood is Angry is part of 59E59 Theater’s Brits Off Broadway series, playing a limited engagement through June 29. Learning about Kirkwood’s life is interesting, but listening to Walker, who has sung roles across Europe, is even better. She offers rarities from Noel Coward as well as songs from revues Kirkwood starred in, which have not been heard since the 1940s. Other musical numbers include songs from Pal Joey and Wonderful Town, in which Kirkwood starred in London. 

Walker is a first-rate entertainer. I'm sure Kirkwood is pleased at last.

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