This theater image released by The O + M Company shows Kirsten Holly Smith as Dusty Springfield in “Forever Dusty.” (AP Photo/The O + M Company, Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — In “Forever Dusty,” Kirsten Holly Smith’s ambitious and stylish musical about iconic soul singer Dusty Springfield, the star cycles through a kaleidoscopic collection of ’60s-style wigs, minidresses and gowns, often gazing out at the audience with eyes obscured by a seemingly impossible abundance of eye shadow and mascara.
The frequent costume changes and heavy makeup reflect the challenges Smith faces in her wide-ranging portrait — an obvious labor-of-love that she co-wrote with Jonathan Vankin and performs with impressive attention to detail.
In the writers’ valiant if flawed attempt to show every divergent side of their subject, Springfield is something of a moving target — an Irish girl from London who rose to international stardom but remained an elusive figure in the public eye and a contradiction in her private life.
The basic story arc of Springfield’s life resembles what has become an all-too-familiar boilerplate for the biography of a troubled rock star. A young visionary, enraptured by the music of her heroes, spins uncommon natural talent and romantic determination into a meteoric career that is ultimately cut short by drugs, alcohol and hubris.
Smith’s portrait digs deeper than the typical star-gone-bad formula, touching on a broad swath of personal and social aspects of Springfield’s life, like how she opposed segregation in apartheid South Africa, her management of public perception with respect to her sexuality, an implied split personality and serious health problems that included bouts of self-harm.
It’s a lot to cram into a 90-minute musical, particularly when you’re stopping along the way for love songs by Burt Bacharach and Carole King.
Unfortunately, certain dramatic elements of “Forever Dusty,” which opened Sunday at off-Broadway’s New World Stages, feel like they’ve been squeezed together for the sake of propelling an ambitious narrative that struggles to touch all the bases in a coherent way.
As a result, many of the scenes between musical numbers fail to gain much traction and at times become a hindrance, if only because they don’t measure up to the superb singing of Smith and her co-star Christina Sajous, who plays Dusty’s lover Claire, among other characters.
Smith bears a striking physical resemblance to the title character and displays a nuanced command of Springfield’s unique vocal style, performing standbys like “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” ”The Look of Love,” and “Son of a Preacher Man.”
Accompanied by a funky, four-piece band, the singers complement each other neatly, with Dusty’s smooth, subdued approach contrasting Sajous’ hard-hitting voice and energetic presence.
Sajous leaves a lasting impression — and a blur of sequins — in her electric rendition of the soul classic “Tell Him” by the Exciters, a high-energy, danceable tune that opens Dusty’s ears to the American sound.
The play breezes through a famous chapter of Springfield’s life in which her tour is canceled and she is deported from South Africa for performing for racially integrated audience.
Benim Foster plays legendary record producer Jerry Wexler and also a British journalist who first reports Springfield’s romantic interest in women, a revelation the singer had avoided for years because of the potential fallout it would cause in her career.
In covering the entire span of Springfield’s life and career, the show even recreates a 1980s collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, a musical number that probably wasn’t necessary.
While Smith has embraced her subject with unquestioned thoroughness as an actor, singer and writer, her script could benefit from some tinkering to hone its focus and strike a better balance between its theatrical and musical elements.
At the very least, “Forever Dusty” is sure to give Springfield fans a rare, richly developed revue of her music, if only a skin-deep reading of her life and place among her contemporaries.