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.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Cafe Society Swing

Cafe Society Swing is a strange show, perfect musically from every singer and musician, but confused in its efforts to place their songs within the context of a story. I felt I was watching a split screen onstage at 59E59 Theaters, with powerhouse entertainers on the left and personified program notes playing out on the right.

Written by Alex Webb and directed by Simon Green, the two-hour show attempts to bring to life Cafe Society, the legendary jazz club that launched the careers of Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, Count Basie, Zero Mostel, Sid Caesar and Carol Channing. As the first racially integrated club in New York City (and possibly the United States), it was considered "the wrong place for the right people.” It couldn’t, however, survive the Red Scare of the late 1940s.

All of this would have made Cafe Society Swing a good play, but it’s not a play. It’s a revue, with the club’s history told through narration by Evan Pappas stationed on the right. In the first act he is a reporter investigating the suspected Communist ties of Barney Josephson, the venue’s owner who once described his goal as creating “a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.”

Woven between his accounts, the show’s marvelous singers, Cyrille Aimée (in photo), Allan Harris, Charenee Wade and Pappas, sing the hits made famous by Horne and the like. It’s Dec. 15, 1948, the nightspot’s 10th birthday, and the reporter’s editor wants an attack story, but the more the reporter investigates, the more he is charmed by the club.

When Pappas reappears in the second act dressed as a bartender and working at the club, I laughed because I figured he had lost his reporting job. It took a few minutes for me to realize he was supposed to be a different person. That was a large part of the problem — he wasn’t developed enough to be a character in a play, because this isn’t a play, it’s a revue. To me he was more of a distraction, a narrator giving facts that I would have been much happier to have read in the program. I wanted to get back to the songs, which are wonderfully brought to life by the singers and the eight-piece jazz ensemble onstage.

Even without the singers I could have been happy with just the band — Joe Boga (trumpet), singer Harris doubling on guitar, Mimi Jones (bass), Lucianna Padmore (drums) Camille Thurman (tenor sax), Bill Todd (alto sax and clarinet), writer and musical director Webb on piano and Brent White (trombone).

Many of the songs are well-known, such as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “All of Me,” “Stormy Weather,” “Where or When” and “Lush Life.” Others, like “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’” and “Red Scare,” point to the club’s political slant. I thought of my mother when Aimée sang “Hurry On Down” as Nellie Lutcher. My mother loved Lutcher’s “Fine Brown Frame” and used to put nickel after nickel in jukeboxes to hear it back in her youth. Lutcher’s name hasn’t survived as well as that of Holiday, Vaughan and Horne, so it was nice to have her included. My mother would have been happy!

One of the notable songs, “Strange Fruit,” about lynched black men hanging from trees in the South and made famous by Holiday, was first sung at Cafe Society. Oddly, this song closes the show. While it is powerfully sung by Wade, it is a real downer for sending an audience out of the theatre after a musical afternoon. When Wade finished and the cast came back on stage, I expected an encore of something more upbeat, but no, they took their curtain calls and that was it.

Was this meant to be some kind of statement about the current day killings of black men by white police officers? If so, it is out of place, tacked on like that at the end. I was talking with a fellow critic at the E Bar after the show and he also questioned this ending.

The director, British singer Simon Green, is known to me for his cabaret shows at 59E59, with just himself and an accompanist. These engagements have charmed me over holiday seasons past with his lively themes — “Coward at Christmas,” “Traveling Light” and “So, This Then is Life,” each smoothly integrating songs with his recitals of writers on the subjects. That integration is missing in his directing efforts of Cafe Society Swing, which continues through Jan. 4 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues).

Ease up on the narration and let the music carry the show, which it easily can. Then Cafe Society will really swing again.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Truer gifts

The whole world (it seems)
is soaring into Christmas
meeting the cold with such proper spirit
hanging up pines with bulbs and best wishes,
meaningless to minds set in tradition
and premature weariness for celebrating routine.
(I never understood it either):

Being fond of dolls then
I got a new one every year
packaged in paper and parent-love.
I ripped away wrappings
and months of anticipation
to touch my own just born babies,
more real than any mangered child
mysteriously coming in the very olden days.
 They cried faucet water tears
(not salty but still strong)
I laughed at their damp faces
 No one ever told me that santa made money
by stuffing himself in a red rented suit
or that the cookies I left hot for him
were munched by the dog
as I buried my head in a pillow
white with dreams.

It alway ended too soon:
hopes flickered away as colored lights blinked
into black
brittle needles left trails behind the retreating tree
and the nativity surrendered the TV top to magazines.
Songs fled the streets and people forgot to smile
snow melted
and dolls lay broken on a closet shelf.

I shall make no neat list this year
(carefully itemized from Sears' catalog);
needing nothing in the way of plastic infants
I ask for truer gifts:
that I might glow sharper than any tinseled star
showing God's good love to every innkeeper
and all astonished shepherds.

 -- Lisa Leafstrand