Dory Previn was a fascinating figure as both an artist and a human being: weathering a childhood in which she was victimized by both her father and the Catholic Church, she emerged into an adulthood marked by tremendous creative output and marred by struggles with schizophrenia and the infidelity of her husband and songwriting partner, André Previn. It was André’s relationship with Mia Farrow, whom he impregnated while still married to Dory, that spurred the most significant break in Dory’s life and inspired the song “Beware of Young Girls” that gives this evening its name.
Kate Dimbleby, a British cabaret singer, fell in love with Previn’s music from a thrift-store LP. She first recorded an album of Previn tunes in 2012 before collaborating with playwright Amy Rosenthal on the stage version. The album, also called Beware of Young Girls, is a beautiful evocation of Dory Previn’s voice as both a writer and performer. So why then does the stage version feel like more of an impersonation than a performance?
One major difference is that on the album, the songs are allowed to be songs. On stage, they are introduced and interrupted by narration, sometimes in the voice of Kate herself, and sometimes with Kate taking on Dory’s voice in passages drawn from Previn’s two memoires. Part of what makes Previn’s songs so wonderful is their otherworldly poetry, keeping the autobiographical pathos just below the surface of divine metaphor. Literalizing these songs is like taking a dagger to them.
This show, dancing on the line between cabaret and theater, never quite settles on whether it’s showcasing Previn’s songbook or telling a story (either Dimbleby’s or Previn’s), so neither happens with great success. Dimbleby’s insistence on aping Previn’s phrasing and vocal technique – except when she instead invokes Dionne Warwick and Doris Day on songs those women introduced – further gets in the way of elevating Previn the songwriter to her rightful place in the pantheon. It would be a strong statement to hear Previn’s songs reinterpreted in Dimbleby’s own style, but apparently that was not to be. Given that the evening ends with something of a torch-passing moment from Previn’s widower to Dimbleby, this missed opportunity is keenly felt.
Dimbleby is joined on stage by musical director Naadia Sheriff, who plays piano and sings backup ably, but stumbles in her dialogue moments. The evening was directed by Cal McCrystal, better known for his work directing physical comedy in shows like One Man, Two Guvnors, and he is out of his element here. Dory Previn deserves to have her songs rediscovered and reinterpreted for both cabaret and theater, but in failing to decide which was the goal of Beware of Young Girls, it delivered neither.
Beware of Young Girls is at 59E59 Theaters through January 4, 2015.
Image: Kate Dimbleby, with Naadia Sheriff on piano. Photo by Carol Rosegg