Sunday, September 16, 2007

Reflections (Peggy Sings Leiber and Stoller)

Underwhelming REFLECTIONS at Beck

Frank Sinatra once said of Peggy Lee, who is the subject of ‘REFLECTIONS (Peggy Sings Leiber and Stoller)’, now on stage at Beck Center, that "Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm."

Norma Deloris Egstrom, better known to the world as Peggy Lee, was born in 1920. Her mother died when she was young. Her alcoholic father abandoned the family, leaving the children to be brought up by a verbally and physically abusive step mother. Eventually, Norma Deloris left home to pursue a musical career. Her march toward fame took off when she was offered a singing gig by band leader Benny Goodman. Lee, who is often recognized as one of the "classy" vocalists of the century, alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, was noted for her soft, sensual and cool singing style.

She was not only a stage and night club singer, song writer and recording artist, but appeared in numerous films including ‘PETE KELLY’S BLUES’ for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She contributed to the score and was heard in the soundtrack of Disney’s cartoon feature ‘LADY AND THE TRAMP.’

Lee’s life was not a bed of roses. Besides her miserable childhood, her marriage to guitarist Dave Barbour, the one man she really loved, ended in divorce, as did several other marriages. In an attempt to hide from her pent-up emotions she became a workaholic and in the 1950s the intense work load took its toll. She suffered a long period of illnesses. In spite of her poor health she continued to perform into the 1990s, often seated in a wheel chair. She died in 2002, at the age of 81, of complications of diabetes.

‘RELFLECTIONS’ is not the first play that has been written about her. In the early 1980’s she appeared in ‘PEG,’ which was a flop.

Over the years, Lee, noted for her perfectionism, repeatedly used the same songs over and over. This tended to make her shows predictable. Her laid-back sexuality and teasing neuroticism eventually became, in the opinion of one critic, “underwhelming.”

The Beck show is also “underwhelming.” In spite of a fine performance by Laura Theodore, who has perfected Lee’s vocal and oral sounds, there is a flatness to the evening. Much of the problem is the script which glosses over and underplays the trials of Lee’s life. Yes, Lee was self-contained, rolled with the punches, and that doesn’t necessarily make for good theatre. So, maybe Lee wasn’t the best choice about whom to develop a musical drama. Maybe a musical review highlighting her many hit songs would have been a better decision. As is, there is little in the way of drama, little to no comedy, and little to any action in ‘REFLECTIONS.’.

The exclusive use of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s music, is also problematic. Much of the music, at least in the arrangements used, tends to sound very much alike. The orchestrations, even to such songs as “I’m a Woman” and “Is That All There Is?” are understated.

The script, by Tom Fulton and Laura Theodore, is sometimes confusing and lacks texture and fails to create the needed emotional levels to engage an audience. There is a lack of emotional highs and lows, a lack of the needed creation of empathy. Time jumps back and forth. Conflicts are glossed over. Even death is understated.

The use of multi-media often distracts the flow of ideas. To add to the problems is that the quality of the videos is sometimes poor. The sync between the spoken word and the visual image is occasionally off. Our attention is unnecessarily drawn away from the stage by the inserted audio-visual.

The sound of Larry Goodpaster’s orchestra is outstanding. Martin Cespedes’s choreographed segments provide some of the few exciting segments of the production. Bravo to dancers Jose Ayala and Devon Shriver.

The cast is good. Given the weakness of the script, they do extremely well. Jeff Grover is fine as Dave Barbour. Erin Bunting is properly nasty as the stepmother. Tween-aged Lisandra Stebner makes for a believable young Peggy. Don Irven is a pathetic father.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck should be praised for attempting to mount a world premiere production. Unfortunately, the script, or maybe it’s the subject matter, just doesn’t allow for the quality production that we have become used to at Beck. The experience isn’t bad, but one must ask, in the words of one of Ms. Lee’s signature songs, “Is That All There Is?”