Force vs. farce
Sheran Keyton’s ‘Etta’ is a powerhouse; in Arlington, sex is on the plate
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
Sheran Goodspeed Keyton has a voice so big, it not only fills the small space of Tuckers’ Blues in Deep Ellum, it reverberates until you’d swear she’s singing to you in stereo. That she’s belting out the songs of Etta James only exaggerates the sound: There’s nothing quite as unleashed as a diva playing another diva. It’s like getting two performances for the price of one.
All Keyton really needs is more of an audience. Opening night for Simply Etta deserved more patrons, be it lovers of theater or just honkytonk denizens who like to groove to James’ wide-ranging repertoire: Jazz, blues, pop, standards, rock, gospel. The show — and it is a show, not just a tribute concert, with scripted banter and emotional touchpoints — recounts the life of the woman whose “At Last” will forever leave her in the annals of music.
Simply Etta is one in a long line of jukebox-style cabaret shows of soulful songs — Ella, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Ain’t Misbehavin’ among them — and like those, it depends on the strength of the performer. Keyton has enough strength to launch the space shuttle. Even referring to her script throughout the performance, she has an ease with the music and the character, from her drug addiction to her education among the gay musicians of her day. (She recounts how Etta’s platinum blonde look was given to her “by a gay boy” and how Little Richard’s fearless flamboyance inspired her with live-and-let-live joy.)
A Broadway showtune from a few years back counseled that the easy way to get patrons on their feet when you had nothing else was to let a “big black lady stop the show.” Good advice. And with Simply Etta, the lady also starts it and carries it through. Hey, you go with what works.
Oh, those silly straight French folk: Hopping faithlessly from bed to bed with farcical abandon, always worried that their spouse will discover their infidelities but not so worried they can actually control themselves. (If they really wanna know how to whore it up with an enviable sense of inconsequentiality, they should ask a gay man.)
Theatre Arlington mounts — yes, mounts — Marc Camoletti’s popular sex farce Don’t Dress for Dinner with an admirable sense of naughtiness, something you really can’t get away from in a show that wears its sex so openly.
Or rather, the suggestion of sex. This is more about ribald innuendo that outright humping, with tons of slamming doors and anxious looks. It’s foreplay, without an orgasmic finale.
It doesn’t make sense why four of the half-dozen characters, all of them living in the French countryside, speak with British accents, but the star of this show, as usual, is the saucy chef Suzette. As played by Amber Quinn, she’s edgy and smart with an offhanded tolerance for the sex-starved bourgeoisie. She also gets the biggest laughs, though Jeff Swearingen, small and wiry, gives her a run with his clowning.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 28, 2011.