The life of British pop goddess Dusty Springfield gets put through the blender in the 90-minute biotuner ”Forever Dusty ‘‘at New World Stages, and the final concoction is like a semi-successful smoothie: often tasty but sometimes difficult to digest. Star Kirsten Holly Smith is an on-stage talent to be reckoned with thanks to her uber-powerful vocals (which strongly resemble Springfield’s sound) and considerable skill as an actress, but the often clumsy script she’s concocted with co-writer Jonathan Vankin does her — and Springfield — no favors.
The piece – like many a docudrama — plays a bit fast and loose in covering four decades of Springfield’s turbulent life, including inventing characters and rewriting history. What the show does depict accurately is Springfield’s deportation from South Africa in the 1960s, for performing in front of an integrated audience in Capetown; her living as a closeted lesbian until the 1970s; her struggles with addiction and battle with breast cancer, which she later died from in 1999.
Such an existence clearly doesn’t need to be saddled with some of the melodrama found here to make her story more interesting, especially the scenes in which Springfield seems to be imitating the life of Judy Garland. Nor is there much subtlety in the work of director Randal Myler, who has helped create similar (and far superior) pieces on Hank Williams and Janis Joplin.
For the most part, Springfield’s music is performed in concert settings and Smith’s renditions of such signature tunes as “Son of a Preacher Man,” “I Only Want to Be with You,” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Have Love Me,” are small miracles. (Smith’s vocals do sound almost as if they’re being mixed and augmented, but who cares!) She also does a beautiful job late in the show with Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager’s “Quiet Please There’s a Lady on Stage,” which Springfield sang during her concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
When the show attempts to integrate the music into the story, however, the results are not always as felicitous. Having Springfield sing “I Just Don’t Know What to Do Myself” as she attempts to commit suicide after a break-up with long-term lover Claire (the fabulous Christina Sajous) is simply maudlin; using both “Little by Little” and “Crumbs off the Table” to illustrate problems in the pair’s relationship is problematic, despite Sajous’ killer vocals; and having the very young Dusty – nee Mary O’Brien — and two friends sing Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Wishin’ and Hopin'” years before it was written is just plain silly.
Smith definitely deserves credit for being willing to share the stage not only with Sajous, who often steals the spotlight through her sheer talent, but three other very fine performers, Colleen Sexton, Benim Foster, and Sean Patrick Hopkins, each of whom bring their various characters to vivid life. Costume designer Nancy A. Palmatier, projection designer Richard DiBella, and master wig designer Paul Huntley, also make extremely valuable contributions in creating layers of reality into the proceedings.
Though I hope Dusty Springfield’s music lives on forever, it’s ultimately more satisfying to listen to her CDs than see her life reenacted in this shaky vehicle.