UrbanArias debuts a quirky tale of obsession in “Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me?”

Sun Jul 08, 2018 at 3:39 pm
By Grace Jean

Keith Jameson (with Ben Peter) in UrbanArias’ “Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me?: A Love Story.” Photo: C. Stanley

Read the synopsis of nearly any opera and you are sure to find numerous characters intertwined in complicated story lines that require multiple-hour productions to do justice to the libretto.

Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me?: A Love Story turns that convention on its head by featuring a single protagonist in a linear plot that runs its full course in an hour.

UrbanArias, an eight-year-old organization with a mission to produce and champion contemporary operas, gave the one-act opera its staged premiere Saturday night at Signature Theatre in Northern Virginia. A well-cast tenor, supported by a strong silent actor, an energetic seven-piece orchestra–along with the ghost of the title singer-actress–carried this musical whodunit with equal parts levity and gravitas.    

With a libretto by David Johnston and music composed by Jeffrey Dennis Smith, Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me? is about a 46-year-old man named J.B. Williams who is being interrogated by detectives in Queens, New York. There he reveals his twin obsessions: one is the late Eartha Kitt, perhaps best known today for her 1953 novelty Christmas hit “Santa Baby” and for playing the Catwoman in the 60’s Batman TV series. The other involves a young artist named Joey Cocteau, whose magazine cover shot captures J.B.’s infatuation. Haunted by visions of Eartha at a Broadway theater, at a Manhattan laundromat and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, J.B. fantasizes about Joey and eventually meets his object of affection face-to-face at an art exhibition in the eastern borough. But their rooftop encounter ends in tragedy.

Directed by Sam Helfrich, the UrbanArias production was clever and watertight. In the lead role, Keith Jameson played a convincing J.B. Williams, singing with a versatile and expressive tenor. He sang his lovestruck arias with conviction and a muscular vibrato, Jameson’s obsessive-compulsive stalking of Joey hit a home run in “Google is how I know,” which had a humorous, saccharine-sweet yet creepy quality.

Making his UrbanArias debut, Ben Peter was the quintessential silent supernumerary who played the opera’s roles of the ill-fated artist Joey, the unnamed police detective and, of course, the ever-present spirit of Eartha. With quick backstage costume changes and sporting a variety of stage props, Peter gave life to the visual representations of the disturbed J.B.’s imagined world – all without uttering a word.

Members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Robert Wood, provided a zippy musical backdrop for the production. Performed on violin, cello, clarinet, guitar, bass, piano and percussion, the score was a deft blend of jazz, Broadway and Minimalism with hints of torch song. As the opera unfolded, the score became a character unto itself, representing elements synonymous with the Big Apple: vehicular traffic jams, the daily urban grind and even the laundromat.

Written when Smith was resident artist with the American Lyric Theater in New York City, Why is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me?: A Love Story received a concert premiere there in January 2015. UrbanArias’ vivid production, with set design by Ika Avaliani, lighting by Stacey Derosier and costume design by Lily Prentice, is an offbeat show worth experiencing.

The production will be repeated July 13 and 14 at Signature Theatre. www.urbanarias.org.


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