A Dusty Road to Springfield
(Editor’s Note: Read on for an exclusive interview with American singer and actress Kirsten Holly Smith.)
Dusty Springfield, remember her — that sexy songstress of the swinging 60s and beyond that at her peak, had six top 20 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100? With her blue-eyed soul sound, her vulnerable, heartbreaking urgency was so singular that songwriter Burt Bacharach would remark, “You could hear just three notes and you knew it was Dusty.” Add the beehive hairdo, “panda eyed” mascara and evening gowns to take the breath away— is it any wonder then when Kirsten Holly Smith in the world premiere of Forever Dusty at New World Stages sings “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” we want to answer her with “oh, but we do, we do!”
But do we, and if so, why? From the cheering matinee audience I observed, Ms. Smith managed to give them just the right amount of Dusty’s DNA through the magic of those melodies alone — “Wishin’ and Hopin,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “I Only Want to Be With You,” the list goes on. She has a voice to reach the rafters, and the verve and versatility in pitch do justice to these hits. If that indefinable smoky sultriness of Dusty is sometimes wanting, she’s close enough.
This is — make no mistake about it — a production that weaves the turbulent and ultimately tragic story of a talented superstar, largely through song. There is a script, a pastiche of vignettes, or mini-encounters really, that are meant to carry us with the young Dusty high up, “like a bird on the wing” from the “Island of Dreams,” a song written by Dusty’s brother, Tom Springfield, to the poignantly lyrical end-game confessional of “What Have I Done To Deserve This.” It’s a stylistic choice that, if fully realized, recalls why Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company succeeded so well in revealing a single man’s rocky road to maturity.
That said, the direction by Randal Myler chugs forward like the “little train that could,” making all the local stops when the book takes over and we witness a well-meaning cast huffing and puffing their way in what feels like nano-seconds to Dusty’s enlightenment and eventual demise before the next number. Do we want the songs? Yes, bring them on, but what about Dusty’s story and its high drama potential? Certainly, there’s no lack to be found.
Publishers Weekly, reviewing the 2001 biography Dancing with Demons, had this to say: “The confidence she exuded on vinyl was a façade masking severe insecurities, addictions to drink and drugs, bouts of self-harm and fear of losing her career if exposed as a lesbian.” Dusty had a domestic partnership with fellow singer Norma Tanega and U.S. photojournalist Faye Harris, among others. In 1970, she told Ray Connolly of the Evening Standard that “many people say I’m bent…I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t”; a brave stance for the early 70s. Another relationship formed by a meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous was so tempestuous that Dusty had her teeth knocked out by a saucepan. The specter of breast cancer, which brought on an early death at 59 in spite of vigorous treatment, could be more developed. Granted, background projections supporting the timbre of the times help in moving the story forward in Forever Dusty, but we need more of the internal struggle.
Myler’s a seasoned veteran of the musical format, winning a Tony nomination for his work as director and co-author of It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. But we have a right to feel the dramatic impact of the story, however brief these connective threads may be, and the cast is up to the challenge.
The set design by Wilson Chin makes use of the proscenium stage, by giving play to the four musicians at one end, an open center space which becomes a limbo land for assorted vignettes but mainly as a focal point for solo numbers, and a sparse playing area at the other end that chiefly serves as an office for various negotiations. It’s barely large enough for Dusty’s wheelchair, when the singer’s partner reunites with the ailing star after a long absence.
But overall, the stage is roomy enough for this scaled-back production. Why couldn’t more scenes have taken full advantage of it? The show opens with a full-stage representation of the recording studio in Memphis, allowing the scene to breathe as Dusty the perfectionist struggles after 26 takes to record “Son of a Preacher Man” (this was the famous 1969 landmark Atlantic Records album, Dusty in Memphis, which is often included in lists of the greatest albums of all time). The give and take between Dusty and her famous producer, Jerry Wexler, is one of the best segments in the script. He chides Dusty, aka Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, the former Catholic schoolgirl from West Hempstead, England about her fractured slang: “Start talkin’, not flockin.” In his book, Rhythm and the Blues, Wexler wrote that out of all the songs initially recorded for the album, “she approved exactly zero.”
(And what about the name switch? That was an early combined effort, the “Dusty” part, a nickname given to her as a girl, playing football with the boys in the streets. “Springfield” was adopted by Dusty, her brother Tom, and eventually Mike Hurst. Rehearsing in a field in Somerset during the spring, they had an epiphany. That day, the newly-dubbed folk trio of Dusty, Tom and Tim Springfield was born and by 1961-62, they were voted the “Top British Vocal Group” by the UK’s New Musical Express poll.)
The problem is when you’re exploring such topics in any depth; the writing requires a build-up and tension to fit the subject matter. Perhaps a little judicious cutting of the number of musical hits or even incorporating a medley at a certain point could allow the time for a stronger book. This is an age-old problem, since the first vaudeville performer stepped on stage with a joke in the pocket and a song on the lips.
Thanks to the combined musical talents of Smith and her talented supporting cast, the production can almost stand on its own feet with Michael Thomas Murray’s invaluable help as musical direction alone. In particular, Christina Sajous as Dusty’s lesbian lover Claire, shines as a young member of the Lana Sisters, the “sister” trio Dusty joined at 19, in the delightful duo with Smith, “Just a Little Lovin’” and in a darker rendition, the bitter delivery of “Crumbs Off the Table.” Benim Foster in his incarnation as the hip, quick, record producer and star maker Jerry Wexler, who’s not about to let Dusty play the diva with him, is first-rate. Coleen Sexton as a high-energy assistant and as one of the Lana Sisters fits snugly into Dusty’s peripheral landscape as does Sean Patrick Hopkins as Dusty’s ingenuous, if bland, brother Tom.
Richard DiBella’s lighting and projection designs are notable without detracting from the performances and Nancy A. Palmatier’s costumes get the trendy times just right — imparting just the right degree of glamour and glitz that Smith requires for her transformation.
It is, finally, Smith who must, night after night, walk that dusty road that was Dusty’s own and make us believe.
Following is a brief interview with Ms. Smith, who was gracious enough to share her own experiences with “Forever Dusty” and its arduous journey to production.
GALO: Dusty is, was, for those of us old enough to remember her at her height, a fascinating character, exemplifying her time. What was it that first hit you, in deciding to play her?
KHS: I think what first hit me was her voice. And I think that I was in awe by that sound, the soulful quality, the grit, the gravel, the vulnerability that you hear in that sound. And I was looking for a project. I had met Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records — I was a big Atlantic Records fan as a singer and songwriter. Another friend of mine knew I had met him and had a copy of the Dusty in Memphis album…I’d heard some tracks from it and he had a copy of it and gave it to me. I was inspired by her, her sound, inspired by the way she looked too, her persona in general.
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