Quinn Lemley: Rita Hayworth – The Heat is On!

Quinn Lemley puts on a helluva show. This cabaret/theater piece takes a deep dive into sex goddess Rita Hayworth’s life and career with gusto, research, and multiple (excellent) costumes! “Sex is a sweaty business. It’s a heavenly job, but there’s hell to pay when they turn you into something you’re not.”

Margarita Carmen Cansino (1918 –1987), born to two dancers, was quick marched into the craft from childhood. “From the time I was three and a half … as soon as I could stand on my own feet, I was given dance lessons.” Setting his sights on Hollywood, her father, Eduardo Cansino, moved the family out west and created an act with his 12 year-old daughter. He dyed her hair black, made-up and dressed Margarita as if considerably more mature. Poppa began to believe the illusion and, according to Lemley’s sources, treated the child as he might her (adult) mother. He was the first of many to sexually abuse and control her.

Famous songs, beginning with “The Heat is On” and “The Lady is a Tramp,” are choreographed sharply. Hayworth was supple. Lemley manifests so much sexual innuendo (at which she’s masterful) at the top of the show, I wonder what will distinguish the iconic, ersatz strip song  “Zip” when it arrives. The performer, who resembles Hayworth, vibrates with energy and exuberance.

While she narrates trials and tribulations of Margarita Cansino in sympathetic first person, Director Carter Inskeep chooses to personify an almost cartoon Rita Hayworth in musical numbers. Lemley has a strong voice and lets fly at the same magnitude throughout almost the entire piece. (A few ballads are moderate exceptions.) These are directorial decisions.

Intermittently taking it down a notch would give us a more rounded look at the subject who exhibited grace and class after her fiery Latin box office period. Remember the three films with Fred Astaire? Hayworth would become the perfect choice for Vera Simpson, a former burlesque queen who married into elegant society in Pal Joey. (Later, for a small role in the wonderful Separate Tables, she was the personification of sophistication.)

The story is well told, ably integrated. We learn how Margarita got a film contract out of the act (at 16) when poppa did not, how she turned down the casting couch only to be fired and was then represented by 40 year-old Eddie Judson with whom she’d elope. “I’m pretty good at getting what I want. I just wanted the wrong things.” Under Harry Cohn, she changed her name, lost 20 pounds, and raised her hairline only to be cast as successive ethnic stereotypes.

Songs like “I’ve Been Kissed Before” and “Blue Pacific Blues” illuminate real life situations while others come directly from her films. “Dream Dancing” introduces WWII and pride in being soldiers’ most popular pin-up. Her next husband, Orson Welles, was exciting, passionate, something of a Henry Higgins with the uneducated young woman, and unfaithful. Lemley deftly selects descriptions of love interests.

The film Gilda exploded Hayworth’s popularity. Curiously, a 40 year on-off affair with Glenn Ford didn’t lead to marriage. When Elsa Maxwell set her up with Prince Aly Kahn in Cannes – “Wear white, come late, make an entrance,” she was told – the actress entered a fairy tale. Unfortunately, “He went to bed with Gilda and woke up with me.” The Prince was another controlling womanizer.

Hayworth took her two little girls back to Hollywood. “Accentuate the Positive,” Lemley sings. The next spouse, Dick Haymes gave the actress a black eye and a pile of debts. Her last, producer James Hill, was divorced for “mental cruelty.” Notable films are cited. “Old Black Magic,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and “That’s All” arrive with chiffon twirl. The latter is delivered effectively sitting on a table among patrons, eye to eye.

“Zip” finally emerges more burlesque than flirt, the latter being the film’s approach. I miss the film’s breeding. Lemley channels her best Hayworth in “Put the Blame on Mame.” Gestures are spot on and she seems to be having fun.

The Heat is On is a tremendous undertaking, its star very talented.

Caveats: The microphone was way too hot over amplifying an already larger than life performance. Without suffering, the piece could be cut (starting with an unnecessary overture) by at least fifteen minutes. Singing a song made famous by Fred Astaire doesn’t fit with others from her point of view.

Photos by Jeff Harnar

Quinn Lemley: Rita Hayworth – The Heat is On
Directed by Carter Inskeep
Arrangements by Tedd Firth
Musical Direction/Piano – Tom Wilson

Bass-Perrin Grice, Drums- Patrick Carmichael, Sax- David Malazzo
Evocative Costumes by Wendall Goings & Michael Louis
Beautiful Handcrafted Shoes by Mike Brown

Additional Dates: Tuesday Nov. 16, Monday Dec. 13, 2021, Saturday Dec. 15, 2021. Thursday Feb 24, Thurs March 24, 2022.

Don’t Tell Mama 
343 West 46th Street

About Alix Cohen (1186 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.