Kirsten Holly Smith and Christina Sajous in “Forever Dusty.” | JOAN MARCUS
If jukebox musicals have to work overtime stringing a motley collection of hit songs into a cohesive show, then the bio-jukebox musical faces an even trickier task: How to tell the true life story of the performer, often spanning decades, without skimping on dramatic momentum. All the while showcasing the musical talents of the original artist to maximum effect.
Some efforts fail spectacularly — remember “Lennon” that flashed on Broadway in 2005? I didn’t think so.
“Jersey Boys” (the Four Seasons, still a colossal crowd pleaser), and “Love, Janis” (Janis Joplin) are two rare bio-tuners that got it right. Last season’s “End of the Rainbow” (Judy Garland, as evoked by the stunning Tracie Bennett) also was a winner, partly by focusing on a specific time period.
The latest entry into the genre is “Forever Dusty” (as in Dusty Springfield, the first big female pop vocalist of the 1960s) now playing at the New World Stages Off Broadway, which falls squarely in the middle. Creators Kirsten Holly Smith, who also plays the title role, and Jonathan Vankin are so enamored with the blue-eyed singer they felt compelled to cram in as many biographical touchstones as possible. Yet it plays somewhat like a Wikipedia entry with a sensational soundtrack.
Not that you can blame them. Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in North London, Dusty’s unlikely rise to international stardom with six top-20 singles on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart and 16 on the UK Singles Chart, is a juicy story. Her unexpected soulful style prompted the press to dub her “The White Negress.”
“Forever Dusty” dutifully chronicles her time in Catholic school, performing with the Lana Sisters and then her brother’s group, the Springfields (fun fact –– they chose the name because it sprung up so many times on a US map, prefiguring “The Simpsons”), and her soaring solo career.
We see Dusty getting deported from South Africa for insisting on only playing in racially integrated venues (she was one of the first artists to make a political statement denouncing segregation), her unhealthy reliance on vodka and cocaine, her getting sober, her comeback starting with the Pet Shop Boys, a reunion with her brother (Sean Patrick Hopkins), her tragic bout with breast cancer, and much more.
Directed by Randal Myler (lauded for “Love, Janis”), the endearing show doesn’t shy away from portraying Dusty’s intimate, long-term bond with Claire (Christina Sajous), who gave support through her early career. They hold hands, look deep into each other’s eyes, and bicker about having to hide their love from the public. After one particularly poignant duet, they kiss, passionately and full-on, one of the show’s sweetest moments.
Another touching scene finds Dusty finally admitting to a journalist, “I know that I am as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as a boy. More and more people feel that way. And I don’t see why I shouldn’t!”
The jukebox is stocked with many iconic hits like “Son of a Preacher Man,” “I Only Want to Be With You,” and “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.” Plus a few gems you may not recognize.
Smith is a worthy Dusty, belting out sultry ballads and upbeat ditties with soulful, throaty panache. With her trademark peroxide-blonde beehive, panda eyes, and mod dresses (her trendsetting look helped define the swinging ‘60s), Smith certainly looks the part. And yet, too often we sense she’s impersonating the pop star rather than fully inhabiting the persona.
Dusty was a shrewd musician who was a diva in the recording studio because she refused to compromise her art. Once she insisted on recording in a bathroom to capitalize on the acoustics. We learn she had low self-esteem and took a lifetime to accept her perceived imperfections.
Dusty’s distinctive look was not all marketing. The singer admits, “The bigger the hair, the blacker the eyes, the more I can hide.”
There are moments where powerhouse Sajous steals the spotlight, such as in the duet “The Look of Love,” which the women essentially sing to each other. In a host of supporting roles, Coleen Sexton and Benim Foster are remarkably versatile.
To evoke the myriad scenes, designers Wilson Chin and Richard Dibella have devised a backdrop alive with projected images of recording studios, apartments, concert halls, newspaper headline montages, and so on. At times, however, the images overwhelm rather than clarify the action.
A note from the creators states that their main goal was to be “as truthful as possible in bringing you the soul and spirit of Dusty, which, like her music, lives on forever.” In that regard, the ambitious “Forever Dusty” admirably succeeds.
FOREVER DUSTY | New World Stages | 340 W. 50th St. | Mon., Wed. at 7:30 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69-$79 | telecharge.com