Review: ‘Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story’ by UrbanArias

Getting audience attention these days with a title few likely know is no easy task. So know that once again UrbanArias has found a terrific little musical gem: a chamber opera called Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story to thoroughly intrigue those with a spirit of adventure for the new.

Ben Peter and Keith Jameson in Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story has a contemporary, jazzy, edgy score with lyrics to match. It dives into the muddled mind of a character named JB Williams, a greyish kind of blend-in-with-the-crowd man obsessed with a very new, younger lover and art world star named Joey Cocteau.

As the show unfolds, Williams wobbles on the brink of a breakdown. He is in the middle of an old-fashioned murder mystery, but with plenty of contemporary twists that center on an ultimately unrequited love affair, then some stalking, eventually finding himself “somewhere in Queens.”

In just under an hour, the savory, full of sharp edges score of composer Jeffrey Dennis Smith, libretto by David Johnson, and some wily direction by Sam Helfrich take an audience through a monodrama as a marvelously winding confessional.

In his arias, Williams (sung with the fine tenor voice of Keith Jameson who never waivers or quits and who rarely has a moment’s rest) sings of first spotting Cocteau (portrayed with vigor and wit by Ben Peter, who has nary a line of dialogue) on the cover of a gay magazine. Williams decides to make Cocteau his lover. He discovers all sorts of minutiae about his lover through Google, of course. It is a bumpy relationship, to say the least, with more than just hints coming in spoken dialogue.

Along the way in Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story, Williams deliciously sings that his life is in danger from the long dead icon and cat woman, Eartha Kitt. And Eartha Kitt does make a number of appearances in many disguises including one little black dress with appropriate heels thanks to Costume Designer Lily Prentice. There is also one humorous spotting of Orson Wells from his “The Third Man” days.

Keith Jameson in Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

As the show progresses to its ending, when asked by an investigating detective if he knows anything about how the young hunk Cocteau is now dead on a side-walk after a suspicious fall from a Queens, New York apartment building, Williams claims his innocence over and over In this scene Peter once again has no lines of dialogue, but plenty of authority.

So you say you don’t much like opera or even sung-through musicals? Well with six members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Robert Wood, Why Is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story is an excellent way to dips one toe(s) into contemporary opera with a subject matter that is not from some distant land or distant century. And the show is short in time, about one hour.

The score, composed by Jeffrey Dennis Smith, is vivid and dissonant. It is far from sweet, melodic, romantic, or gassy. Rather than using some musical reference as a point of comparison, let’s try this metaphor: the score is of a manic intensity connected by frayed intervals of lesser intensity, with little quiet moments.

For me, it was like what I think of as the firing of unseen neurons and synapses in the brain. It was the inside “noise” of a person (in this case character JB Williams) under enormous stress with no place to hide. There are sparks that flair up, then a bit softer but still loud, then more high-intensity sparks that grow brighter and brighter. It is of a person that people “see” one way, but inside the brain is talking to itself, spitting and shuddering.

Even when the story moves to a different location, the sounds can be of a city scape, a city that never sleeps. But not of the Gershwin romantic sounds of honking taxi horns building into a crescendo of love for a place. After all, the place is ultimately a police station interrogation room “somewhere in Queens.”

So, let me give due credit to the Inscape Chamber Orchestra members of Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story. So much color and emotion come from the chamber orchestra as conducted by Robert Wood, a founder of UrbanArias. The musicians are: Violin: Sandy Choi; Cello: Kathryn Hufnagle; Bass: Michael Rittling. Clarinet/Bass Clarinet: Evan Ross Solomon; Guitar: Mark Sylvester and Percussion: Daniel Heagney. The group also plays a short piece entitled “Rinky Tink,” a rhapsody for piano and chamber ensemble as an appetizer to the main music of the evening. By the way, the orchestra is visible to become part of the allure of the production. They are seated at audience left on the small stage space created by Ika Avaliani.

Crazy? Over the top? Who cares? Innocent or guilty, it doesn’t matter. The UrbanArias production of Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story is a vision of what opera might be in the future. And that would be a good thing.

The UrbanArias production is of a topsy-turvy internal world gone mad and made visible through disorienting music with wry lyrics to match. It may not be for everyone. But, for the adventurous soul, take it in as you sit around cabaret round tables in front of the minimalist set created by Avaliani, with drinks allowed. When the show is over walk over to the many restaurants that Shirlington has to offer to keep up the conversation. Why Shirlington? Since UrbanArias is a sometimes nomadic troupe, the production is in the ARK at Signature Theatre.

Do let me know what you think, please.

Note: Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story was first developed by American Lyric Theater, under the auspices of the Composer Librettist Development Program. It had a 2015 concert performance at the famed le poisson rouge in New York City.

Running Time: 60 minutes

Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? A Love Story runs through July 14, 2018, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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