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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Just Jim Dale

And should this sunlit world, grow dark one day, the colors of my life, will leave a shining light, to show the way...”*

The lean and lanky 78-year-old man standing center stage at the Laura Pels Theatre has a story to tell. No playwright could have written a more colorful one. For 100 enchanting minutes, Just Jim Dale is a tour through the Tony-winning actor’s amazing life, told with humor and unbounded energy in this Roundabout production that opened last night for a limited engagement through Aug. 10.

The son of an iron foundry worker and shoe factory employee from the tiny English town of Rothwell - “the dead center of England in every way” — shared stories, jokes, songs and dances in his one-man show, directed by Richard Maltby Jr., with musical direction by Aaron Gandy.

Dale is a marvelous storyteller, recalling his teenage start as a comic in British music halls — “the principle entertainment for working class Brits” —, then pop singer and songwriter turned Academy Award-nominated lyricist for “Georgy Girl”, the title song from the 1966 film starring Lynn Redgrave that sold 10 million records. His portrayals of his difficulties at staying still for his recent Grammy-winning gigs as audio-book reader of the Harry Potter series, for which he created original voices for more than 200 characters, are hilarious . The colors of his life have, indeed, been "bountiful and bold."*

Young Jim Smith was 6 when he was seized by the showbiz call while watching a local variety show. The following year his father took him to London to see Me and My Girl and he declared that’s what he wanted to do. “It was electrifying. The hairs stood up on the back on my neck.”

It’s one thing to declare as a child that “that’s what I want to do,” while it’s another to actually do it, but “40 years almost to the day” later, Dale starred in the play’s revival on Broadway.

But let’s not jump ahead -- back to childhood. His father, with amazing understanding for a laboring man, told him if musical theatre work was what he wanted, “you have to learn how to move.” So he was enrolled in tap, ballroom and “the dreaded ballet” lessons for six years. “I was the Billy Eliot of our town.”

With a black and white projection of an old time music hall behind him (set by Anna Louizos), his stories are enlivened by blown-up black and white photos of himself projected behind him — the lad in black pants and white dress shirt was a dark-haired, chubbier version of the lean, gray-haired man he is today. From the beginning of his show he proves he not only learned to move back then, he also developed impeccable timing for story and joke telling and, of course, cultivated that golden voice. 

Along the way he took up the name Dale after it appeared by mistake on one of his contracts. England already had another performer named Jim Smith, and Jim Dale is nothing if not an original, so it seems right that he should have a showbiz name to himself.

No Jim Dale show would be complete without songs from his hit Broadway shows, Me and My Girl and Barnum, and he did not disappoint. His offering of the title song from the first show was enchanting, as was his “The Lambeth Walk.”

From Barnum, he not only sang “The Colors of My Life” as a tribute to his wife, Julie Schafler, and “There’s a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute,” but also gave a breakdown of all the thrills his carnival-promoting P.T. Barnum had to offer in “Museum Song”. First he had pianist Mark York play the music slowly so we could hear each enticement, a few of which are: “Armadillas, clever caterpillas, reproductions of the Cyclops' ret'na, crystal blowing, automatic sewing, Venus on a shell and other works of art.” Then he let them fly RAPIDLY, just the way they sound on my 1980 cast album. Whew! What a joy.

"No quiet browns and grays" for this performer. He’s taken his days "and filled them till they overflow, with rose and cherry reds . . ."*

 *"The Colors of My Life" from Barnum. Lyrics by Michael Stewart Music by Cy Coleman.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Experiencing Broadway up close -- ghost stories and all

I’m still high from Saturday’s Broadway Up Close walking tour of the theatre district. It’s two hours of fun, fascinating stories and in-depth histories of the theatres and the productions and actors who played —and sometimes haunted — them.

Broadway Up Close Walking Tours was started as a germ of an idea four years ago by actor Tim Dolan. While touring the country in a small bus and truck production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Tim was fascinated by the ghost stories and legends told by local stagehands at different vaudeville and touring houses each night.

When he moved back to New York City after the tour, he started to explore the history and legends that have taken place in the current 40 Broadway theatres. He did extensive research about the history of the theatres and Broadway of long ago, and has transformed this information into fascinating stories, making them come alive even more with historical photos from The Museum of the City of New York that he shows on his iPad.

Tim is loaded with personality and a born storyteller. He clearly loves what he does and I could have listened to him all day. He’s unearthed fantastic stories from more than a century ago. With his insider knowledge and experience of theatre life today, he adds to those stories backstage looks into the inner workings of the lives of actors, stage managers and other theatre professionals, creating a comprehensive tour that changes the way even a seasoned theatre writer like myself experiences the theatre district.

His hard work and enthusiasm have paid off. In the past four years Broadway Up Close has expanded from just Tim to a staff of 12 highly passionate tour guides. Their cumulative experience encompasses Broadway, Off-Broadway, national tours, regional theatre, film and television, both onstage as well as behind the scenes. In addition to their work in the theatre each is a licensed by the city of New York as a tour guide.  And Broadway Up Close is now the third highest rated tour of NYC out of 481 activities on

An added bonus at the end of each tour is a group photo Tim takes of everyone with Times Square as a backdrop. It’s a nice visual souvenir of a great time. That’s me in the sunglasses and hat behind David Sheward, with Tim on the left in the kelly T-shirt.

I want to take this tour again, as well as Act II, which moves north from where we stopped at the Belasco on West 44th (we started in front of the Nederlander on West 41st.). This fall Broadway Up Close will launch Act III, which will journey even farther north. I want to be on that one too! For details, check out Broadway Up Close Walking Tours and visit them on Facebook.