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Always and 'Forever Dusty' Springfield - New York show tells tale of Irish Catholic schoolgirl turned legendary singer

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Kirsten Holly Smith as Dusty Springfield in Forever Dusty.
Kirsten Holly Smith as Dusty
 Springfield in Forever Dusty.
Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien was one of the greatest soul singers of the 1960s and ‘70s. You’ve probably heard of her legendary stage name, Dusty Springfield, but did you know she was born a shy Irish Catholic schoolgirl?

Making your way through the heady atmosphere of Swinging Sixties London required talent (she had enough for several lifetimes), but it also required nerves of steel (and she found that the way many Irish people have, via the end of a vodka shot glass).

Being a woman in the male dominated music business was challenging enough, but her own inner struggles, which included a complex and competitive relationship with her talented brother and a series of discreet gay affairs at a time when they could have ended her career, all took their toll.

In Forever Dusty, now playing at New Word Stages at 340 50th Street in Manhattan, Springfield’s talent and troubled existence are restaged for an appreciative new generation in a show that the main player and co-writer Kirsten Holly Smith absolutely puts her heart and soul into.

“I’m a singer and that’s what led me to her,” Smith tells the Irish Voice. “Alongside her talent, which is incredible, her personal story is completely fascinating. She was this shy Irish schoolgirl called Mary O’Brien who would hide behind all the makeup and wigs that allowed her to become Dusty Springfield.

“People think they know her.  I thought I did, but then I discovered how rich her life was.”

One of things Springfield was, the show tells us, was a principled anti-racist. Against the wishes of her African American girlfriend at the time (played by the remarkably gifted stage performer Christina Sajous) Springfield naively took her show to Cape Town in South Africa, insisting on performing in cinemas, one of the few venues in the Apartheid state that permitted interracial attendees.

But even this proved too much for the authorities and she was placed under house arrest, with government goons insisting she sign a letter condemning her own actions. She refused and instantly became a hero to the back majority.

How have we not heard more about this inspirational Irish life, you will ask yourself as the play progresses?

Alongside Springfield’s deep humanity is the unforgettable music: “Son of a Preacher Man,” “You Don‘t Have to Say You Love Me,” “The Look of Love” – all of these can be found on her catalogue, and her critically celebrated album Dusty In Memphis is still the greatest enduring tribute to the famous Memphis sound.

The band in Forever Dusty is the show’s secret weapon. They rock out when they need to, but their soul grooves are completely irresistible. I defy anyone to attend this captivating musical drama and fail to be transported by the soul music that lifts this performance into the stratosphere.

Be warned, though, this is not a magic carpet ride. In her storied career Springfield endured enough challenges for several lifetimes.

Among the cast of villains are musical executives who were too free with their hands, bullying producers, a brother (played thoughtfully by Sean Patrick Hopkins) who wanted her to tailor her career to his wishes, and a girlfriend who loved her but not the challenges that came with her.

The one constant in Springfield’s career was her incredible voice. It never lost the ability to transcend every challenge that life threw her and audiences (particularly those in the know) adored for it.

The biggest challenge of her life was reconciling the shy Mary O’Brien to the fabulous Dusty Springfield. The former never felt good enough to be the latter. The greatest struggle of Springfield’s life was to unite the two strands of her private and public identity and come to accept herself.

“She was a Catholic girl and she was gay and I think her religion contributed to her negative feelings about herself throughout her life. She became self-destructive and that came from somewhere, you know?” says Smith, who was raised Catholic herself before converting to Judaism.

One detail of Forever Dusty is particularly moving for Irish viewers. Toward the end of her life when she was suffering from breast cancer, Springfield insisted on returning “home” to Ireland.  Later, after she passed her brother scattered her ashes along the Cliffs of Moher, her favorite place in the world, Smith says.

“That’s how Irish she was. This legendary singer wanted to come home to Ireland,” Smith says.
For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit www.newworldstages.com.

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