by Andrew Poretz. . .

The gorgeous Quinn Lemley returns to the scene of the crime – if breaking men’s hearts is a crime! Lemley is back at Don’t Tell Mama with her long-running fab-cab show that tells Rita Hayworth’s life story in words and music.  With a new script written by director Carter Inskeep and emphasizing Hayworth’s journey from “Goddess to Bombshell,” the latest rendition of her show does not disappoint.  For several years, Lemley, with her promoter husband Paul Horton, has mounted this show in various cities in much larger venues, even selling out 2,500-seat concert halls.  Originally set as a survey of songs from Rita Hayworth’s movies, Horton and Lemley have grown the narrative and the spectacle bringing various iterations of the show to both large and small rooms. The show just works, whether it’s on a small stage like Don’t Tell Mama, with quartets, or on a larger performing arts center stage, with an 11-piece big band.  After the long hiatus imposed by the pandemic, Horton decided to bring it back to Don’t Tell Mama where it all started in 1994, with a limited monthly staging of the latest version. Audiences flocked and Rita Hayworth – The Heat Is On!  A Life in Concert completely sold out in its second of six shows.

Lemley’s quartet played a jazzy overture of a medley of Hayworth’s most memorable songs before the grand entrance from the back of the room in a stunning red gown.  With her back to the audience, Lemley turned her head to the crowd, giving us that famous Rita Hayworth pin-up poster from the 1940s and looking the part to perfection.  Her opening song, “Put the Blame on Mame” bookends the show.

The premise of the revised show is inventive.  Lemley is entirely in character as Hayworth, speaking from the great beyond, appearing here to tell what she described as a “Whodunit” of what became of her (Hayworth).  A great beauty herself, it is easy to suspend reality and really believe that the actual Rita Hayworth has made a special ghost appearance for this capacity crowd.  (In that spirit, Lemley will henceforth be referred to as “Rita.”)  With the clever device of an ornate wardrobe screen, stage left, Rita changes outfits a number of times while speaking to the audience. She regales us with a sad tale of an impoverished, Depression-era family, with a patriarch who used young Rita’s dance skills and good looks to his own ends. Using subtle language, the tragic tale of her well-documented sexual abuse by a father who treated her as his wife from the age of 12, is grievously exposed.  

Ripping off her Velcroed gown to reveal a skin-tight red dress, she was now a living Erté etching, with much sex appeal.  We learned that Rita, a black-haired beauty, became a redhead when she landed a role in “Cover Girl,” Columbia’s first Technicolor picture.  This little change rocketed her to fame, where she remained a “ginger” for the rest of her career.  After disclosing her public and private abuse, she sang the steamy “Blue Pacific Blues,” appropriately in a turquoise outfit with a sparkling top.   This is a number in which Lemley’s sultry lower register and curvy figure conjure a “Jessica Rabbit” vibe.  Rita confesses, “I’m pretty good at getting what I want.  It’s just that I’ve wanted the wrong things.”

The temperature in the room went up a good ten degrees after Rita slinked onto the piano to sing “Don’t Kiss Me,” ending up on her back, legs in the air.  David Milazzo’s superb sax solo made it even hotter.

Rita tells of her five disastrous marriages, including one to auteur Orson Welles, as well as crooner Dick Haymes, and Prince Aly Khan, glossing over her final marriage to a known con artist.  Wearing opera-length purple gloves, she performed the strip-tease number “Zip,” from “Pal Joey,” a movie that took so long to get produced, she was seemingly too old for the ingenue part she coveted.  Yet, Rita got top billing alongside co-star Frank Sinatra who insisted because, “Rita Hayworth made Columbia Pictures!”  

Lemley, as Rita, could only speak cryptically when talking of her long, sad battle with Alzheimer’s.  The last part of the show was somber.  Rita, now in a black negligee or house dress, sat on the intentionally empty table in front of the stage, with a soliloquy about her life, finally realizing that the perpetrator of the “Whodunit” was, in fact, herself.  Singing a ballad reprise of “Put the Blame on Mame,” she pulled herself to her feet, returned to the stage, threw off her top, and finished the song, and the show, as the Rita we all knew and loved. 

Musical director/pianist:  Tom Wilson

Bass:  Perrin Grace

Sax:  David Milazzo

Drums:  Patrick Carmichael

Gowns by Wendall Goings, shows by Michael Troy Brown

Photos: Jeff Harnar

Four shows remain:

November 16, 2021; December 13, 2021; 

February 24, 2022; and March 24, 2022

Don’t Tell Mama

343 West 46th Street