Not Quite Peggy

Despite great songs, Peggy Lee remains hidden in Reflections.

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Reflections: Peggy Sings Lieber and Stoller Peggy Lee Beck Center Lakewood Cleveland theater Through October 7 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.
Laura Theodore brings her smoky voice to Beck Center as sultry songbird Peggy Lee.
Laura Theodore brings her smoky voice to Beck Center as sultry songbird Peggy Lee.
Almost everyone knows Peggy Lee's signature sexy voice, which crooned famous tunes such as "Fever" and "Mr. Wonderful" It's said that she came up with her soft, libidinous growl when a dinner-club crowd was making too much noise during her show. She kept lowering her voice until the room got very quiet, and all the patrons were hanging on every whispered phrase.

Whether that story's true or not, it illustrates how unique Peggy was in the pantheon of jazz-pop singers, most of whom never missed a chance to belt at full volume. And that sultry, teasing voice is clearly on display in the world-premiere production of Reflections (Peggy Sings Lieber and Stoller), now at Beck Center.

Co-written by director Tom Fulton and Laura Theodore, who also portrays Peggy, the production attains some musical high points. But pedestrian writing and some questionable staging decisions -- including some curiously gratuitous dance sequences -- ultimately leave the real Peggy Lee, whoever she was, largely inaccessible.

Based on an album called Mirrors, which Peggy recorded in 1975, this show presents moody and often downbeat songs penned by Lieber and Stoller -- a team that, a couple decades earlier, was responsible for the rock hits "Hound Dog" and "There Goes My Baby." But there's not much toe-tapping in the Reflections songbook. The goal of the authors is to link these dark and brooding songs to the bumpy road Peggy traveled.

Set up as a memory play, the first act begins in Peggy's dressing room a couple of minutes before a concert, as she is flooded with recollections of her youth. That sends us on a trip back to North Dakota, where Peggy -- born Norma Egstrom -- was raised on a farm. Plagued by an abusive stepmother (Erin Bunting) and an emotionally distant father (Don Irven), Norma blows out of town after graduating high school and makes her way to Hollywood. In her early 20s, she's signed by Benny Goodman to be the vocalist for his band.

That's a pretty good start for any story, but the authors decide to place young Peggy (Lisandra Stebner) on stage with the middle-aged and elderly versions, often all at the same time. The first two are represented by live actors, while the prerecorded third hovers on a screen above the stage. Although uncredited in the program, the elder Peggy is also played by Theodore, and an eerily accurate impersonation it is. But her constant presence hobbles the dramatic flow, since golden-age Peggy knows all and shares many of her insights, making it impossible for the audience to discover things on its own.

Fortunately, Theodore is spot-on both in appearance and in her vocal mannerisms. And she hits a few of the songs out of the park: She nails the well-known "Is That All There Is?" with world-weary, hedonistic fatalism. Her version of "The Case of M.J." is haunting. And she infuses "Some Cats Know" with a ton of feline charm, purring the lyrics as if she's licking up sweet cream.

But as good as she is, Theodore can't overcome a script that keeps the famous singer safely behind the shatterproof glass of everyone's continual praise, including a few segments delivered in video clips of Peggy's friend and guitarist Joe Beck. This Peggy is virtually without fault, unless you count her musical perfectionism and a fondness for male companionship. Even if she were an angel, it was incumbent upon the playwrights to find a way to humanize her. They didn't.

Another weakness of the script is clichéd dialogue that deals in creaky comedic structures: When Benny Goodman stuns Peggy into silence with his job offer, he advises, "Just say 'Yes,' Miss Lee." To which she predictably replies, "Yes, Miss Lee." And when her first and true love with David Barbour (Jeffrey Grover) goes awry because of his drinking, her plea to him ("We'll beat it together!") sounds like it was lifted from a B-movie dustbin.

Tom Fulton is one of the most talented theater professionals around, but this show could benefit from a director with a more distant and objective approach. Also, some songs are woefully overproduced, which distracts the audience from engaging fully with the music. "Little White Ship" is accompanied by screen images of -- wait for it -- little white ships. More egregious is the quirky ditty "Professor Hauptmann's Performing Dogs," during which photos of puppies in cute costumes morph into a weird Fellini-esque circus scene, with flashbacks to the evil stepmom.

With all its pretensions, Reflections actually manages to paint a less interesting image of Peggy Lee than Peg, the sassy kennel-bound Lhasa Apso voiced by Peggy in Disney's Lady and the Tramp. And that's not saying much.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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