A whole lot more than the girl next door – Ali Harper as Doris Day at Circa in Wellington

Ali Harper – A Doris Day Special
Written by and starring Ali Harper
Voiceover Actors – Michael Keir-Morrissey, Ravil Atlas, Tom Trevella,
Stephanie McKellar-Smith, Phil Vaughan

Director – Stephanie McKellar-Smith
Musical Director – Rodger Fox
Musical Arrangements – Michael Bell
Set Design – Brendan Albrey/Richard Van der Berg
Technical Operator – Deb McGuire

Circa Theatre, Wellington
Saturday, 16th September 2017

(until October 14th)

To my surprise, a friend I was recently speaking to about my theatre-going plans said, “Doris Day? Why would you want to go to a show about her?” It was a generational thing, I suspect – I counted myself lucky to have “caught” Doris Day at the end of her active career during the 1960s, whereas my friend, a dozen years younger, thought herself fortunate – obviously by heresay –  that she’d missed out on nearly all of it. What Ali Harper’s one-woman show at Circa Theatre makes quite clear is that Doris the performer was a veritable force to be reckoned with, somebody who turned to gold practically everything she touched by dint of her blazing singing talent, natural and unspoiled loveliness, and unflagging determination to succeed at whatever she did. Ali Harper, in fact, for an hour and twenty minutes on the Circa TheatreStage, for me WAS Doris Day!

Since I’ve never seen Doris Day perform live, and don’t claim to have seen all of her films or listened to all of her songs, one might think my claim for Harper’s stunning characterisation of the star is a questionable one. But, as I noted during the previous stage appearance of Harper’s I’d experienced featuring her characterisation of a number of great female singers, Legendary Divas, she has that indefinable but overwhelming star quality which seems to fuse with whatever song she is singing, and whatever persona she is presenting. Even in one or two places in this latest show, A Doris Day Special, where her inspiration as a scriptwriter for me seemed to strike the occasional fitful patch, she was able to carry the theatrical “charge” of the singer’s character through the hiatuses and back into the juicy, blood-pumping stuff once again.

The Show’s presented as a “live” television special, complete with audience (us), cameras, a film/television screen (used most effectively in places), a sizeable wardrobe gracing a voluminously groaning clothes-stand, the voice of an unseen director, the occasional barking of a pet dog, and of course, the star herself, freely moving between the apple-pie naturalness of the “real” person, and the various “characters” projected with each song by the polished performer. Harper and her director, Stephanie McKellar-Smith used the songs mostly chronologically, and almost always incrementally, letting the music build onto what had gone before, what was being talked about or what was about to come.

Particularly moving in this respect was Harper’s singing of “Make Someone Happy” as an adjunct to her alter ego’s disastrous loss of her earnings at one point at the hands of her husband/manager, the star’s qualifying comment being “There’s more to life than money”, a sequence whose essence I thought the song most fittingly expressed. Its homespun equivalent was the song “Powder your face with Sunshine”, which grew from the compliments Day received early in her career regarding her “natural beauty” and her possible “secret” – which Harper then steered in the direction of a kind of “commercial break” during which we were treated to Doris advertising Vaseline – “This is how I protect my skin” – I’m not sure whether the ad was genuine or not!

Whether clearly connected (Day’s first big hit “Sentimental Journey” featured Harper’s singing alongside a black-and-white film of a steam train making its trek across America’s vast spaces to towns in the middle of nowhere, a sequence I thought worked brilliantly well) or merely providing entertainment (the extremely silly but entertaining song “I said my pyjamas”), the music sat so well in each instance’s context. For that reason I though it a pity that Harper’s “leading men gallery” (a veritable galaxy of talent, incidentally!) was so under-characterised, for me, the weakest and most static part of the show – instead of a “whirl” of jaw-dropping names and images, everything becalmed as the faces appeared, none with any particular or distinctive context – Harper sang “You do something to me” as the images came up, but I would have preferred to see at the very least “stills” from each of the films showing interaction between the actress and the men who were “doing something” to her. The film/television screen was ideally placed for us to enjoy a recap of these scenes (incidentally, nothing from “The Pyjama Game”, which I thought was an opportunity missed) – I wonder if there were copyright issues which might have prevented Harper from doing something like this?

Apart from this, the “show” sizzled and zinged as it ought to have done – I was divided regarding the use of an obviously “miked” voice for Harper throughout – initially it did give the presentation an illusion of a television broadcast, but long-term I found the effect a little wearying. What I really did like (and wished we had had more with some of the other songs) was Harper’s synchronising of her singing with the Rodger Fox Big Band on the television screen – absolutely brilliant in effect, especially the dovetailing of the band members’ vocalisations with the singer’s (the bantering “dig it” responses from the players came over splendidly!). A pity we didn’t have a similar scenario for the “Choo-choo Train” song, intead of the (for me) faintly, but stll embarrassingly infantile cartoon-like realisation we were given on the screen – “Chacun en son gout”, as the French say!

As well as providing entertainment, Harper’s show gave us an understandably once-over-lightly, but still welcome resume of the life of the phenomenon called at birth Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff! – we were told of her early car accident which effectively changed her career trajectory from dancer to singer, and then how the name “Doris Day” originated, complete with a performance of the life-changing song “Day after Day”; we caught glimpses of her versatility – her performance of just one instance of this quality, the song “I just blew in from the Windy City” was a tour de force for both the performer and her subject, (another example of the fusion between the two that we experienced); and we got a sense of the intense rapport between Day and at least one of her leading men, Rock Hudson – again, some sequential film images would have captured our stardust-prone receptivities even more readily (the recent “Jacindarella effect” nonwithstanding!). Then, not least of all (and helped by some sequences enacted behind the clothes-rack involving canine noises and soothing-owner blandishments!) we were given a sense of the star’s life-long love for animals, reinforced amusingly by her involvement in a dog-food commercial, but more profoundly, by references to her later involvement with animal welfare.

Linked with those “There’s more to life than money” sequences already referred to, were the moments in which Harper conveyed, deeply and warmly, the singer’s love for her only child, Terry Melcher. The latter’s disturbing initial involvement with and narrow escape from the attentions of the psychopathic killer Charles Manson and his “family” I didn’t know anything about beforehand, which couldn’t help for me give this part of Harper’s show an added edge of shock. Of course celebrity murder ought to be no more horrifying that that of any “unknown” person, but there was no denying the dramatic and theatrical tensions generated by the bizarre connections between forces of light and darkness.

Though not quite as consistently focused or realised by Harper as was I thought her “Legendary Divas” show, she resolutely got the “Doris Day magic” working to a sufficiently engaging and involving pitch. There were moments when an exra notch or two of momentum and vigour could have been injected – I wondered at times whether another onstage presence, a music- or show director, or even a wardrobe mistress-cum-confidant might have given Harper a kind of character foil against which to bounce and resound, providing her with some synergy, as it every now and then seemed something of a lonely haul. Alternatively, a more dynamic and varied use of the film/television screen could have helped to project even further the Doris Day that Harper was living out for us so passionately and with such energy and commitment.

Those comments aside, I enjoyed being, once again, “galvanised” by Ali Harper, by turns basking in and further energising the fulsomeness of her commitment as a performer and communicating that same energy to her fortunate audiences. Obviously, the world was, and still is, a better place for the presence of Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, ninety-five years young, still, at the time of writing, and better known to us as Doris Day – and Ali Harper put across that same conviction with life-enhancing certainty.

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