Monday, December 29, 2014
Beware of Young Girls: Kate Dimbleby Sings the Dory Previn Story
Beware of Young Girls sounds as if it might be a sinister show, but don’t let the title fool you. The subtitle, Kate Dimbleby Sings the Dory Previn Story, lets you know you’re in for a biographical performance, one that just happens to be an engaging 80-minute, two-act journey into the life of a woman who triumphed over mental illness and being dumped by her famous husband for a younger woman, creating a successful career for herself as a songwriter and singer in the 1970s. You will find yourself liking Dory Previn and cheering her on as Dimbleby brings her to life onstage at 59E59 Theaters.
Dimbleby, who created the show with writer Amy Rosenthal, is a marvelous storyteller with a golden voice. A British singer, she had never heard of Dory Previn until several years ago when she discovered “Lady with the Braid” and was so taken with it she included it in a cabaret show, “I’m a Woman,” celebrating women singers. Her UK audiences loved it so much that Dimbleby and her pianist, Naadia Sheriff, began researching the woman who penned it and discovered a wealth of wonderful songs.
She also found a fascinating story of the woman who wrote those songs, a woman who battled schizophrenia and was severely jolted when a certain predatory young girl named Mia Farrow made a play for her husband and won him.
Directed by Cal McCrystal (One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway), the show also features Sheriff as accompanist on piano, as harmony vocalist and occasional storyteller. Sheriff has a gorgeous voice and playful personality and she and Dimbleby work perfectly together. Excerpts from Dory Previn’s autobiographies, Midnight Baby and Bog Trotter, are included in the show, which has been performed in England and is making its United States premiere at 59E59. A CD by the same name was released in 2012.
At the start of the show, Dimbleby asked how many people knew Dory Previn’s work. Fewer than half the audience members raised their hands. I was not one of them. While we might not have known her name, plenty of the top singers of yesteryear did. Stars such as Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day included Previn’s songs in their repertoire.
She also recorded her songs, with “Mythical Kings and Iguanas” being her most successful album. That title song is the first of more than 15 Dimbleby sings in the show. The song I was most familiar with, and have always loved, was “Valley of the Dolls,” which she wrote with Andre for the movie, and was a hit for Dionne Warwick.
As Dory, Dimbleby tells the up side of fame for the former Dorothy Langan, who was born in October 1925 to rigidly religious Irish Catholic parents. It was while under contract to MGM that she was assigned to collaborate with a young pianist/composer named Andre Previn.
In creative partnership with Andre, she began to find the success that had eluded her alone. Before they wed, she made a vague reference to having had a nervous breakdown, but when Andre seemed uninterested in the details, she said no more.
“Marriage to a well-known composer would open the high world to me. The tap dancer from New Jersey still had problems getting off the ground. But a peasant wife is able to squat in the shadow of her glorious lord. He spoke three languages. It was thrilling to be distantly related to those beautiful creatures who fly.”
The couple became an established writing team, receiving several Oscar nominations. But their public and private lives were at odds, with “more crises euphemistically referred to as breakdowns.” Eventually, Dory’s illness was given a name — schizophrenia.
This experience with mental illness became the creative inspiration that propelled Andre and Dory’s writing of the soundtrack for “Valley of the Dolls.”
“Andre wrote a circular melody with a broken-up feeling that mirrors the artificially tranquilized state of mind,” Dimbleby tells us. “Dory complemented it with lyrics. Both gained wisdom through Dory’s illness and addiction to pills, but neither ever mentioned it.”
Dimbleby then sang the title song, conveying all the pain and emotion of the story behind it. The song brought Dory and Andre their dreamed-of million seller, but it was the last song they would write together. A certain young girl saw to that.
Enter Mia Farrow.
“She had come all the way across Hope and Alan Pakula’s patio just to meet us,” Dimbleby as Dory says. “The natural surroundings conspired to enhance the luminous youth. Her delicate hands clung to a square of tapestry. The skin was translucent, as though she were still wrapped in the gauze of her placenta. The voice had been gently buffed by good schools and privilege. She would never need to raise her tone to get something she wanted. She came of a film director father and a movie star mother. No pig-in-the-parlour, she. This was lace-curtain Hollywood. She was second generation MGM. And the newly famed waif wanted to be our friend.”
Of course, she went on the be more than friend to Andre. She became his wife, after becoming pregnant. Andre wrote to Dory asking for a divorce, but expressing his interest in continuing their writing collaboration. She said yes to the divorce but no to the creative partnership.
In what could be a Hollywood ending, she went on to have a successful career on her own and to find love. A friend of Andre’s whom she bumped into in a restaurant many years after her divorce introduced her to the man he was meeting, an artist and one-time Hollywood heartthrob called Joby Baker. The two married in 1984 and lived happily on a farm in New York’s Hudson Valley where she wrote the last volume of her autobiography and he illustrated it. She died on Valentine’s Day nearly three years ago and Baker continued to live at the farm.
I love stories of hardship overcome, triumphant women and happy endings. Beware of Young Girls has all of those. It continues at 59E59 Theaters through Sunday, Jan. 4.