Review: Jenelle Lynn Randall Enchants Audiences in I WANNA BE EVIL: THE EARTHA KITT STORY at Fringe
From the moment Jenelle Lynn Randall appeared at the top of the Studio C staircase, there was magic in the air as she descended with great style and bravado to share the life, music, and oversized personality of Eartha Kitt. As the writer, creator and executive producer of the Fringe 2019 show, it's easy to realize you are watching an incredibly talented artist perform her dream role from start to finish!
As Randall shares in the program, she has not worked onstage since 2016 when her manager died, and this project "came out of my womb to create work for myself where there was none. So I decided to bring you a completing 'comeback' story of an artist who paved the way for women like me." No doubt her masterful re-creation is destined for a long run at a theater specializing in cabaret shows before making its way to Broadway. It's just that good!
For those, unlike me, who may be too young to remember the scandal Eartha Kitt created in 1968 when she publicly criticized the Vietnam War in the presence of Lady Bird Johnson during a White House luncheon, which led her career into a severe decline for 10 years, this show will open your eyes to how the actress previously best known as Catwoman on the late 1960's Batman TV series overcame the odds due to her sheer Will Power and belief that speaking the truth was her right in a true democracy. It's a lesson that women are still learning to this day as our rights are yet again being threatened by an out-of-touch government.
Randall shares Kitt's life story beginning with her birth on January 17, 1927 to a unwed African American mother and white father (who she never knew). From the age of 8, she grew up with relatives in an ethnically diverse section of Harlem where she was often tormented for being too "yellow" by family members. Stories of the torment she endured as a child was bone-chilling, thanks to Randall's heartfelt re-telling tales of abuse. But at age 16, the once shy child joined Katherine Dunham's dance troupe and toured internationally to rave reviews. Choosing to stay behind in Paris where she felt accepted and a sense of personal equality, the multilingual Kitt won immediate popularity as a nightclub singer.
One night in 1949, she was seen by an awestruck Orson Welles who went on to offer her the role of Helen of Troy in a show he was producing which notably featured his own version of Faust which premiered in 1950. Welles is famously quoted as calling Kitt, "the most exciting woman in the world." Media fame followed Kitt from there with her appearance in the Broadway review "Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952" and her early 1950s recordings of "C'est Si Bon," "Santa Baby," and "I Want to be Evil," all of which are performed to perfection by Randall embodying Kitt during the Fringe show with just the right amount of love, attitude, audience interaction, and reverence to the sultry-voiced "sex kitten."
After discovering she has been labeled as a "threat" and had been under surveillance by the U.S. Secret Service in the 1970s, Kitt finally returned to the USA in 1978 after a 10-year hiatus to again take the media world by storm by never being afraid to speak her truth as she shared her triple-threat talent on Broadway, in nightclubs and films, on recordings, television and voice over work. Her tale will encourage everyone to never give up on your dreams, as the only one who can stop them from happening is yourself.
As the "host" of I WANNA BE EVIL: THE Eartha Kitt STORY, Darrell Philip shares the stage with Randall, portraying interviewers to whom she shares her life story, as well as the men who played important parts in her life, both professionally and personally, including her affairs with Charles Revlon and Arthur Loew (the love of her life), with voiceovers by J. Patrick Wise (as Willie) and Carolyn Hennesy (as Ladybird Johnson). Cinematographer Ingrid Abrams shares photos from Kitt's life during the performance, adding a real sense of realism to the struggles Kitt faced and obstacles she overcame.
Along with Ms. Randall, major kudos go to her accompanist Ron Barnett and director Yvans Jourdain for their contributions to the magnificence of this world premiere production. Jourdain's program notes include quoting Eartha Kitt as saying, "My recipe for life is not being afraid of myself, afraid of what I think or my opinions." That is a great insight into the formidable talent that was Eartha Kitt, as well as her incredible, heartfelt portrayal by Janelle Lynn Randall in I WANNA BE EVIL: THE Eartha Kitt STORY.
Just one more performance remains during Hollywood Fringe on Thursday, June 27 at 7pm, which is already SOLD OUT at the 38-seat Studio C, 6448 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. Hopefully this marvelous show will receive encore performances, then get an extended run at local theater before making its way to Broadway!
More information on the #HFF19 site at https://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5829
Photos courtesy of Jenelle Lynn Randall (on Facebook)