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STAGE REVIEW : Nichelle Nichols’ One-Woman Show Salutes Singers

Eartha Kitt, in outrageous leopard-skin tights, sinuously curls over a leopard-skin divan and purrs: “I’ll even be your alley cat.” Lena Horne, a white stole draped over a gold lame gown, rocks her head and uncorks a withering ballad. Josephine Baker loops around the stage in a palm frond headdress. Pearl Bailey stomps and entreats: “Move it easy.” Ella Fitzgerald scats. Billie Holiday laments.

That’s not even half the show. We haven’t got to Sarah Vaughan, Leontyne Price, Ma Rainey and other legendary singers. They are vividly re-created, vocally and physically, by performer Nichelle Nichols in a wickedly witty and original solo cabaret format called “Reflections” at the Westwood Playhouse.

The freshness here is not the impersonations--as risible and diverse as they are--but the music and lyrics. No old standards here. What Nichols and composer-lyricist Jim Meechan have done is incorporate original compositions and words into the singing styles of 14 lustrous female performers.

Nichols, whom most of the public knows as communications officer Lt. Uhura from the “Star Trek” TV and movie series, isn’t a musical novice. She began her career singing with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. And, as she tells her audience, the singing stars visible in photographs behind her “made an indelible impression on me and affected my life and career.”

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Nichols has a four-octave voice, and it allows her to boom in her Mahalia Jackson number, soar as Ethel Waters, and alternately turn bluesy, jazzy, or mellow as Bessie Smith, Florence Mills and Sarah Vaughan.

It’s her Vaughan, in fact, with Nichols rhythmically rocking her elbows in classic Vaughan style, that knocks out the house for its uncanny sense of reflection in a Vaughan-saturated, Meechan original called “Every Time.”

Nichols is fronted by a live, six-man pit band led by arranger Rahn Coleman. Two of the musicians join Nichols on stage in a momentary Afro-Cuban percussive tribute to Katherine Dunham.

The two acts breeze by in under two hours. And the show has everything: humor, history, panache. The light book by Nichols and Meechan animates space between vocal numbers with incisive chat (such as Nichols’ story of Vaughan enduring and then conquering racial catcalls at her first performance in a Chicago theater).

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The material never descends into satire--although the array of wigs and flamboyant costumes (the latter by Greg Bolton and Nichols) could be mistaken for it. But in fact, that’s how these ladies looked.

Even Eartha Kitt’s explosive get-up is no exaggeration. The trademark Josephine Baker adornment is on the mark (here Nichols sings in French).

The Florence Mills number captures Mills’ Broadway flapper in her scampy, pixie glory and imaginatively ends with Mills yelling, “Take that, Jo Baker!” And Ma Rainey, tough as in August Wilson’s “Black Bottom” play, almost snarls the lyric ". . . and when he’s with you, baby, I’m always on his mind.”

The creators did their research from books, films and memories. They looked at film footage of Baker in her ‘20s Paris heyday; and Nichols once saw Baker perform in the United States after World War II. For that matter, Nichols’ mother used to take her to see Mahalia Jackson when Nichols was growing up in Chicago. Some of the singers (half of the 14 are living) are friends of Nichols.

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The one-woman musical is booked into the Westwood Playhouse on the dark night of the Yiddish-English revue, “Those Were the Days.” These “Reflections” have a future.

At 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, Fridays only, 8 p.m., through March 2. Tickets: $17.50-$25. (213) 208-5454.


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