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Dusty Springfield bio touches a pained truth

February 14, 2008|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

Dusty Springfield was an unlikely celebrity. Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien in London, she started life as an Irish-Catholic schoolgirl, yet she gained renown as a sultry singer of soul, a "white girl singing black music."

Springfield's throaty voice was so distinctive that it's difficult to imagine anyone replicating her particular sound with any accuracy or authenticity.

However, Kirsten Holly Smith takes on the task with considerable success in "Stay Forever: The Life and Music of Dusty Springfield," her world-premiere show at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Renberg Theatre.

Smith's dramatic biography, which features direction and musical staging by Derick LaSalla, additional material by Patricia Cotter, and a book co-written by Smith and Aaron Coleman, is an in-depth look at a troubled star, whose absentee mother and perfectionist father left early emotional scars -- just one explanation for why Springfield eventually became a "cutter," deliberately inflicting wounds on herself to the point where she required institutionalization.

An intensely private woman, Springfield was purportedly a bisexual, or by some accounts, a closeted lesbian whose chief preference was women.

Her provocative allusions to her sexual habits caused a minor media sensation in her heyday, well before it became common for public figures to openly acknowledge their homosexuality.

Springfield had a reputation for being difficult, and she was certainly temperamental, as many musicians who worked with her can attest. But Smith suggests that the singer was simply a strong-willed woman standing her ground in the male-dominated music establishment.

With workmanlike efficiency and surprising humor, Smith recapitulates the highlights and low points of Springfield's tumultuous life, including her spiral into drug and alcohol dependency, her subsequent sobriety, her later-life comeback and her battle with breast cancer -- a fight she lost at age 59, shortly after receiving the Order of the British Empire.

The drama in Springfield's life is evident, but "Forever" succeeds primarily as a straight-on musical revue, a tribute to the many hits from Springfield's all-too-brief career. Steered by music director Zachary Provost, who also helms the impressive onstage band, Smith delivered slam-dunk vocals despite obvious and persistent sound problems on opening night.

Smith's renditions of "Son of a Preacher Man" and "The Look of Love" are standouts, although lesser known numbers such as "Breakfast in Bed" are sultry surprises. A note: Norman Cox's vibrant period costumes are terrific, but there are too many of them. Smith's numerous offstage changes, however quick, are a drag on the show's momentum.


'Stay Forever'

Where: L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Renberg Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays- Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb. 24

Contact: (323) 860-7300

Price: $25

Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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