Entertainment » Theatre

Forever Dusty

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Thursday Jan 3, 2013
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Kirsten Holly Smith and Christina Sajous
Kirsten Holly Smith and Christina Sajous  (Source:Joan Marcus)

One could make a case that, having exhausted all of the A-List rock acts out there (Elvis, Dylan, Lennon, Four Seasons) for jukebox musicals, producers are working their way down the line. The producers of "Forever Dusty" may be a case in point.

Their previous shows were about two American icons, Hank Williams and Janis Joplin. So why a bio musical about a British singer-songwriter who composed some pop standards, sang some others, but generally falls below icon status for those of us on this side of the pond?

I should clarify the above statement. Although you may be asking yourself, Dusty Who?, I grew up worshiping the sultry voice and upbeat music of Dusty Springfield. While in her early 20s, she had her first hit with "I Only Want to Be With You," an iconic mid-’60s single. She kept churning them out for nearly three decades.

If her early songs and their arrangements reflect the Philadelphia Sound that Phil Specter was perfecting for the Ronettes, that’s probably no coincidence: The Anglo-Irish Springfield (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien) worshiped the emerging American R&B sound that crossed over to mainstream audiences, most notably with Motown acts like the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas.

"Forever Dusty," however, begins in medias res as they say, in the middle of things, in this case the recording of the 1969 album generally considered her masterpiece, "Dusty in Memphis." In this retelling, Springfield felt uncomfortable in the cradle of rock-and-roll and the blues, and could only complete the album in New York.

This is one of the snippets of information the audience will glean from "Forever Dusty," whose book is nothing more or less than a series of episodes from the time Springfield formed a group with her brother Dion, himself a talented singer-songwriter. (Among his works was the great theme song to the film "Georgy Girl," performed by the Seekers.)

The book writers, Kirsten Holly Smith (who also plays Springfield) and Jonathan Vankin, in a Playbill note, admit that the characters and situations are mostly composites, or as they put it, "true, but in fictional form." This would have worked better if they had given these brief episodes, interludes really, more context.

With her blond beehive and poured into sequin dresses, Smith has a more-than-passing resemblance to the real Dusty -- although she needs waaay more eyeliner to approximate the famous "panda eyes" that made Springfield a style setters of Swinging

Mostly, the vignettes serve as intros to the songs, and fortunately, the songs have held up nicely over time. With her blond beehive and poured into sequin dresses, Smith has a more-than-passing resemblance to the real Dusty -- although she needs waaay more eyeliner to approximate the famous "panda eyes" that made Springfield one of the style setters of Swinging London.

If her acting comes off as wooden at times, I suspect it’s at least as much from the demands of a British accent as from her own standard-issue dialogue. With only two other women and one man to stand in for all of the people passing through Springfield’s life, the show suffers from a paucity of actors.

So it’s a good thing that one of them is Christina Sajous, whose character is a stand-in for Springfield’s string of girlfriends but especially Norma Tanega. While Smith does OK with the songs, Sajous has a terrific voice that really does justice to Springfield’s blue-eyed soul.

That "Forever Dusty" doesn’t gloss over Springfield’s sexual identity is to its credit. While never hiding behind male dates, Dusty Springfield more or less came out to a reporter in 1970. Today, that may seem like no big deal, but for a big-time female pop star, that was revolutionary, and it’s something for which she should get more credit from historians of gay rights.

Unfortunately, Springfield’s life took a "Behind the Music" downturn in the 1970s, when she began a spiral of addiction and recovery. Springfield memorably took up with the Pet Shop Boys, a remarkable partnership that resulted in some great songs, one of which, "In Private," is sadly missing from this show.

If the real Dusty Springfield’s life ended in the agonies of cancer at age 59, "Forever Dusty" ends on a high note that leads the viewer to assume that Springfield came out triumphant in the end. Alas, it wasn’t so. But the recordings she left behind stand as a tribute to one of the great female singer-songwriters of the ’60s.

If you’re a fan of Dusty Springfield’s music, you’ll enjoy hearing her songs performed live and put, more or less, into a biographical context. If not, you may become a convert. See it and judge for yourself.

"Forever Dusty" is in an open run at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., between Eighth Avenue and Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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