Few Americans will be familiar with the subject of this cabaret biopic. Pat Kirkwood appears to have had middling success and an inordinate amount of bad luck. She’s an odd choice for concerted effort by the talented Jessica Walker. Moving through dated placards, we get a sense of changing entertainment mores with songs the vocalist actually performed, others illuminating dramatic moments, and anecdotes. We also listen to a detailed first person history filled with resentment, jealousy, bitterness and anger.
Walker can both act and sing. Omnipresent tension is a testament to the first. Unfortunately, Director Lee Blakeley offers next to no respite. Even “Goody Goody” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” ostensibly performed as a child, are offered with purposeful stridence. We rarely see joy in work to which Kirkwood was devoted.
“Crash! Bang! I Want to Go Home,” a wonderful 1939 London Blitz number is an exception. Walker is infectiously funny groping her way in the dark, segueing from lower class accents to her own posh enunciation: I collided with a tailor, a soldier and a sailor… When Kirkwood recalls the only one of four husbands with whom she was in love, the actress is haltingly expressive, moving. “You’ve Done Something to My Heart” which is directed not at a romantic interest, but rather the character’s audience (us) is palpably, heart-on-sleeve- warm. Otherwise, material is colored by bad feelings.
“Love on a Greyhound Bus,” which illustrates Kirkwood’s arrival in America=Hollywood begins with anticipation but is sliced and diced by tales of being cast in second rate vehicles, force fed drugs to unnecessarily lose weight, “I had a body like Lana Turner,” and, as a result, time in a sanatorium. “Hold It Joe,” replete with a spot-on Spanish accent, rolled rs, and “ai yais” (the lady moves like sexy mercury) is great fun until quashed by lack of opportunity attributed to the Duke incident (see bio below). “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” (a response to initially meeting a later husband) begins besotted, then, in the face of betrayal, is consumed by anger. You’ll never hear “There’s No Business Like Show Business” sung with such consummate bitterness.
Walker has a strong, careful voice which can manifest music hall, musicals, or operetta with equal skill. Its hardest edge is most often utilized here. The show is well constructed, if too long. There’s a segment describing Kirkwood’s bad experience on the television tribute “This Is Your Life” which features a large number of people with whom no one will be familiar. This could be easily cut without loss to narrative.
Accompaniment and arrangements are excellent as is piano vamp beneath dialogue. Lighting Designer D.M. Wood manages mood changes with attention and intricacy. Though part of the blame rests on the director here, one hopes that Walker’s next choice of subject is more worthy.
Pat Kirkwood (1921-2007) came to the stage in children’s variety shows, cabaret, and pantomime (in which she excelled at the boy parts.) At the start of World War II, she made her mark singing at the London Hippodrome. Kirkwood was the first woman to have her own (short lived) BBC television series, made a handful of films in England and the U.S., performed on The West End, and recorded. According to the show’s writer/performer and through her, Kirkwood, the artist is unjustly best remembered for a trumped up scandal involving a single youthful date with the Duke of Edinburgh. Tabloids had a field day indelibly shadowing her name, preventing due recognition. Years later, the Duke sent a written apology which was followed by a formal note of from palace authorities declaring impotence.
Performance photos by Carol Rosegg
Pat Kirkwood Is Angry by Jessica Walker
Directed by Lee Blakeley
Musical Director- Joseph Atkins
Musical Arrangement- James Holmes
59 East 59th Street
Through June 29, 2014