The Whistling Girl

Honor Heffernan

 

 

 

by Carole Di Tosti

 

 

Dorothy Parker was a dark wit and sardonic philosopher about love, relationships and the mundane routines of living as a depressive, forever seeking adventure. She could be acerbic, humorously ironic and whimsical, all at the same time. Some of Parker’s inimitable, devastating humor is highlighted in the song selections presented in The Whistling Girl currently at The Irish Arts Center. The presentation is in its US Premiere and it is a must-see for the exceptional music inspired by Parker’s lyrics.

In reading the fine playbill article by Desmond Morris, I learned that Parker, whose works encompassed poetry, short stories, articles and screenplays (A Star is Born) was a champion of the underdog and advocated for justice when oppressors trampled the “little people.” She became infamous during the McCarthy era; J..Edgar Hoover assembled a thousand page dossier on her. She had founded the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936 and the paranoid Hoover was convinced that this was a front for Communists. Though she was blacklisted, she forged on embracing civil rights and animal rights causes. She continued writing for publications until her death.

The Whistling Girl presents selections that constitute the arc of Parker’s poetry and even include excerpts from an article she wrote visiting Madrid during the Spanish Civil War (late 1930s). This is not only an evening of music inspired by Parker with vocalist Honor Heffernan, it is a deeper look into the soul of Parker, conveyed by the songstress and the musicians who accompany her. Special kudos go to composer Trevor Knight (who also directed). His searing and strikingly stark music intuits the pageantry and soul poverty that Parker experienced on her chaotic ride through life.

Actress, jazz singer Honor Hefferman succinctly, adroitly portrays Dorothy Parker’s inner bitterness and drink-induced, depressive, insightful humor. With booze by her side, a drink in her hand and erstwhile cigarette when not sipping down the whiskey neat (though Parker purportedly drank martinis and gin), she sweeps through her feisty fun-house observations with harshness that modulates to more melodic renditions. As other song/poems require and as Knight’s music commands, she belts out the punning lyrics with electricity and power. All the while we feel Parker’s intensity of sadness and respect her successful attempts to march past her emotional brokenness with self-mutilating quips, and self-deprecating quick-wittedness.

Heffernan as Parker grimly smiles. We note the beauty and soulfulness of the real Heffernan as she thanks the audience for their applause with a beaming, sweet and pleasantly broad grin. The contrasting smiles reveal so much about Parker’s sense of despair and strivings to overcome it as Heffernan reveals her. Heffernan’s portrayal convinced me I needed to inform myself about this writerly American woman whom I underestimated.

The musicians and Knight’s wonderful dark melodies effecting the sometime wild, carnival- like, weird “fun house” inner and outer world Parker inhabited sparks fire and doldrums. The tones are predominately dark and those that are lyrical and light twist away through melodies that end sometimes on major keys then modulate again to the minor in the following songs. The range is broad, the melodies alternate in the set list.

Trevor Knight leads the band expertly on keyboards. His mates are integral and exceptional. Garvan Gallagher is on bass guitar. Ed Deane is on guitar and Tom Jamieson provides the feral beats and the steady hammering that proves beautifully relentless and infers the through-line of determination ever-present in Parker’s intellect that so burned through her work.

I particularly enjoyed the staging of the production into three segments. Heffernan changes from initial traveler donning black hat, coat and carrying a suitcase. She makes herself more and more comfortable (taking off her coat and hat, in a black dress) in this life with her accoutrements: the alcohol, a table lamp for writing and her cigarettes. And in the final segment, her hair is down, her dress is elegant; she takes out a stuffed dog (Parker adored dogs) and we note that she has come into her own. Indeed, Parker’s legacy and quote attribution continues to this day and you may find her works online and her time with friends on film.

I thoroughly enjoyed this evening with Dorothy Parker (the excellent Honor Heffernan) and her musician’s “Vicious Circle” of band members. You will too.

 

You will find them one more night at the Irish Arts Center (553 Fifty-first Street between Tenth and Eleventh).Purchase tickets at: http://irishartscenter.org/event/the-whistling-girl or by phone: 212-757-3318. This presentation certainly should extend.

 

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