Romanticized in feature films, scrutinized in books and analyzed in documentaries, Dorothy Dandridge remains a source of seemingly endless fascination in American culture.
But the latest venture about her life and career may be the most intimate, for the great performer seems to be just a few feet away from her audience in "Sepia Tones: The Music of Dorothy Dandridge," a haunting cabaret show that opened Wednesday night at Davenport's.
Though singer MaryMonica Thomas evidently has studied practically every facet of Dandridge's life, this is no mere impersonation. Thomas is too strong a vocalist and too charismatic a performer to mimic the style of a woman whose work she obviously admires.
Instead, Thomas cleverly has conceived an evening that alternates tunes Dandridge sang with spoken vignettes about her life. To hear the bittersweet story punctuated by searing performances of Dandridge's repertoire is to view (rapidly) the arc of Dandridge's life. And though the saga of a woman who goes from rags to riches to rags is a familiar one, the voluptuousness of Thomas' alto and the vividness of her presentation often galvanize a live audience as Dandridge herself must have done.
To her credit, Thomas has not fashioned this show as a lecture on the well-documented racism of the film industry in Dandridge's era (the 1930s through the '50s) but, rather, as a celebration of the star's achievements. By reflecting on the racial barriers Dandridge shattered and the glorious music she left behind, Thomas avoids the pathos that often accompanies such retrospectives. Yet Thomas doesn't censor the grim facts: the exploitative relatives, abusive husbands and callous studio system that often made Dandridge's journey hellish.
And when Thomas sings the great ballads of Dandridge's repertoire, taking tempos slowly and lingering on every phrase, the songs convey a depth of emotion worthy of Dandridge's story. Most gripping are Thomas' mournful account of "Body and Soul," phrased as elegantly as one might hope to hear it, and her soaring version of "I Loves You Porgy" (from the opera "Porgy and Bess"), sung with a panache that classical vocalists would be hard-pressed to match.
Granted, Thomas still has some fine-tuning to do. Most important, she needs to polish her delivery of spoken material and refrain from over-selling some songs in a room this small.
Yet she and her inspired music director, pianist Dan Stetzel, have devised an evening worthy of its subject, and that's no small feat.
"Sepia Tones" plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays at Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $15 and two-drink minimum; 773-278-1830.
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