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Evil Woman 101 : Eartha Kitt's Blend of Humor and Style Is Perfect for the Intimacy of the Cabaret, Where She's Teaching the Course. . .

August 23, 1995|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I want to be evil!"

Eartha Kitt, dark eyes narrowed, impales a hapless stage-side listener with a penetrating gaze as she sings.

"I want to crush flies . . ."

The young man smiles nervously, looking from side to side as she fixes him with her ray-like focus. Caught up in the drama of Kitt's Sunday night performance at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, the audience watches closely as her musical accompaniment suddenly fades to a pianissimo.

Kitt, elegant in a black, slit gown that provides elusive glimpses of her shapely dancer's legs, moves slowly toward the edge of the stage, continuing to stare at her prey.

The listener, now completely at her mercy, awaits his fate.

Then, at precisely the right moment, Kitt releases her subject, the crowd and the moment, instantly shifting emotions as she tosses her feline head back and utters a loud, growling laugh.

Her audience takes a collective breath and the listener leans back in his chair to relax.

Bad move.

Kitt frowns, her wide smile disappears in a flash, and the steely gaze returns.

"I want to be evil . . ."

The listener surrenders.

"Eartha," he says, "I adore you."

Kitt stops the music cold. She stands directly on the lip of the stage, hands on hips, in front of the listener. Several long beats pass before a small, sly grin crosses her face and the 67-year-old singer responds:

"Well, young man. Next time, bring your father with you!"

*

The sold-out audience, loving every minute of the brief vignette, breaks into applause. Kitt acknowledges the reaction with a broad smile and a gesture of affection for her now totally mesmerized victim.

Just another night at the office for an artist who is pumping new life into the too-often moribund arena of nightclub entertainment.

Most cabaret performances these days consist of vapid satires of '50s lounge acts, hastily assembled showcases for actors, or outlets for former pop stars in search of revived careers. But Kitt's rich blend of humor, drama and style--perfectly sized for the intimate, face-to-face environs of the nightclub--reminds us that, done well, cabaret can be a vibrant mini-theater filled with rewards for both the creative entertainer and the receptive audience.

Celebrating her 50th anniversary in show business this year, she is still a definition of feline intensity. Trim and powerful looking, with the cat-like eyes of a vamp and the body of the Katherine Dunham dancer she once was, Kitt can dominate a room with the mere flick of a long, manicured finger. For the last month, she has been stalking the stage of the Cinegrill, setting a record for sold-out performances that has not been matched since Mary Martin opened the venerable Hollywood nightclub in 1935.

In addition to such time-honored Kitt items as "I Want to Be Evil," "An Old Fashioned Girl," "Santa Baby" and "C'est Ci Bon," she sings "Usaka Dara," one of her hits from the '50s, and a set of standards ranging from Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin' " to Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" and Artie Butler's new classic "Here's to Life."

Demand for tickets has been so strong that Kitt's run, originally scheduled to end Sunday, continues this week with eight more performances (at 10 p.m. tonight and Thursday, and at 10 p.m. and midnight Friday through Sunday).

The Cinegrill run has returned Kitt to the attention of the entertainment community. Fran Drescher, star of "The Nanny," is reportedly looking for an opportunity to have her guest on the CBS sitcom. And Claudio Segovia, who created "Black and Blue" and "Tango Argentina," plans to build a new Broadway musical revue that will showcase Kitt in a Josephine Baker-like setting. Other projects--including a new recording, a possible TV series and a title song for a James Dean biographical movie--are in the works.

In her suite after a performance, Kitt, appearing smaller and gentler without her high heels and dominatrix manner, emerges in a long, yellow, hand-embroidered shift. Still charged with energy, her hands busily scamper over a large piece of colorful needlepoint.

Although the intensity persists in Kitt's deep, luminous eyes, it now seems to trace to intelligence and mature wisdom rather than the electric sensuality of her onstage characterizations.

She speaks of her act with the pride of an artist who overlooks no detail.

"I like the vignettes that I do the best," Kitt says, "and I think they may be the strongest parts of the show. Like the exchange I had with that young man. A lot can be said with just a look, or the way the body moves. Each song is a different character. So each song takes on a different movement of the body. And the body has to go with the subject, and the attitude that you have toward that subject.

"I don't see that kind of thing happening all the time with some performers," she continues. "They just sing the song, without thinking about where the song is going, what it's saying and what attitude they have about it."

And her devastating stare--the gaze that almost suspends time when she turns it on?

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