While Me, Myself and Rita starts quite slowly, it gathers to an intensity and variety of performance and narrative that is genuinely engrossing, and which does a real service in reviving memories of an important star while also posing questions about the manipulation and exploitation of women in Hollywood that are sadly still all too pertinent. Broadway success surely beckons, and perhaps beyond that a return to London on a larger and more elaborate scale. If you make the trip out to Little Venice during this brief run you will not be disappointed.
When they went to bed with Gilda, they were surprised to wake up with me.
This musical revue celebrating the life of Rita Hayworth takes place on the edge of the Regent’s Canal in the heart of Little Venice. It comes to London after a successful New York run. It is also the London debut of its creator and performer Almog Pail. The format is simple. A pianist in Rat Pack gear enters, followed by Pail wearing a similar strapless outfit to the one Hayworth made famous in Gilda. We are taken through the significant steps in Hayworth’s career illustrated or underlined by fourteen songs, some of them period staples, and others written by music director Logan Medland, in a clever pastiche of various styles.
While Rita Hayworth was a huge star and media presence from the 1940s to the 1960s her legacy of completed work is comparatively slight, and one therefore has to wonder how much resonance she has today among younger audiences. It is very much to Ms Pail’s credit that she intuits this and balances her artistic impersonation with a large amount of discreet back-story material. This makes the opening ten minutes or so a bit slow, but this is a necessary price to pay with real emotional rewards later in the show.
In one way this show is suddenly more pertinent than could have been known when bookings were made. With the current worldwide focus on the spectrum of sex-ploitation in all its various depressing forms, the story of how Margarita Carmen Cansino was refashioned by various manipulative men as Rita Hayworth is both poignant and still instructive.
Pushed around first by an ambitious father, then by Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, and a final total of five less than edifying husbands, in a sense her whole life was a search for space in which to create her own identity. It was a journey that was to end in powerfully oblivious symbolism in first alcoholism, then early-onset Alzheimer’s and a premature death.
Ultimately and against her will she became imprisoned by the studio’s presentation of her identity as a copper-haired femme fatale, the vamp who slinkily removed her gloves in Gilda, or the pin-up attached to one of the first atomic bombs, rather than the dark-haired, shy, homebody who wished to improve herself, who practised her routines for Astaire endlessly in an attic, and who longed for training in singing to go with her accomplishments as a dancer.
It would be easy to play this narrative as narrowly tragic and gloomy, but these elements are well balanced by a sequence of songs in which feisty defiance and comic brio dominate. We begin with a neat rendition of the Rodgers and Hart standard, Zip, and segue through a group of songs that advance the story with a more or less continuous underscore. Sometimes there are echoes of others’ shows (a large dollop of Kander & Ebb, for example, in the harmonies of Rita, Who?), but there is a delightful tribute to her work with Astaire, one of the few wholly beneficial influences on her life, and a mordant analysis of her five unsuitable husbands, performed by selecting five unfortunate men in the audience, including – full disclosure – your reviewer!
The emotional heart of the evening is an extended scene devoted to Put the blame on Mame!, not just a fine performance of this evergreen, but also a powerful exploration of how this song came to define and imprison her in the very moment each silkily suggestive glove is removed.
Almog Pail has a flexible voice and is clearly a good mover, whether in flamenco or ballroom. Hayworth was not a singer and that is the only real break with the historical record, but there is no other way to give her back her voice. The physical resemblance is not that great, but this is a psychological portrait above all, so this is not a major issue. Medland’s accompaniments are apt: discreet when they need to be, but colourful elsewhere.
At times the material bursts at its confines. The performers need a bigger stage than this pub theatre can provide for both the acting and the dancing. Moreover, the abrupt switches between Hayworth and other characters in her life can be a bit confusing and suggests that expanding the scale of the work to meet the demands of the story would help fill out important areas that remain blank. We heard very little, for example, of Orson Welles, her second husband, and nothing at all of The Lady from Shanghai, their most famous collaboration, nor of her two daughters.
It is encouraging therefore that this creative team are planning to enlarge this show into a full-blown musical theatre piece for four performers. The variety of larger-than-life characters and the power of the story demand a broader concept and the focus on dancing within the evening evokes a broader stage on which Pail can strut her stuff with some partners.
Given that Hayworth’s films with Astaire and Kelly were in many ways her best work it would indeed be useful if audiences could see and hear more of her in this material. If it is true that Hayworth was Astaire’s favourite dance partner then that should form an even more salient part of her story.
While the piece starts quite slowly, it gathers to an intensity and variety of performance and narrative that is genuinely engrossing, and which does a real service in reviving memories of an important star while also posing questions about the manipulation and exploitation of women in Hollywood that are sadly still all too pertinent. Broadway success surely beckons, and perhaps beyond that a return to London on a larger and more elaborate scale. If you make the trip out to Little Venice during this brief run you will not be disappointed.