Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Fringe 2011 Review: The Toughest Girl Alive! (Candye Kane)

Posted by metaphorical on 25 August 2011

The Toughest Girl Alive!

1h 50m
VENUE #15: Le Poisson Rouge
Performance seen: Tue 23 @ 9:15
Remaining performances: Fri 26 @ 5:45 Sat 27 @ 7:45

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

For most of her life, singer and sex star Candye Kane was told if she would just slim down she’d be perfect. As a longtime aficionado of the female form, I beg to differ. As a longtime aficionado of theatre, however, it’s pretty much dead on when it comes to her autobiographical show, “The Toughest Girl Alive!”: if the last half hour could go on a diet and exercise regimen, the show would be just about perfect.

Photo of Candye Kane by Marco HermanHere are some of the elements of her perfect show: Great singing (both country and western, and blues), great honesty, and a great story of genuine aspirations and enormous obstacles in the way of achieving them. Candye’s desires aren’t so unusual; she wants a singing career, and she wants love. Nor are the two unrelated. She explains (twice, for some reason) that when she was 6, she learned she could get people to like her by singing.

What’s unusual is two things. First, she’s almost completely uninhibited. She starts working at a young age on a sex phone line and soon is posing for girlie magazines. (I may have the order wrong—Candye unfortunately jumps around chronologically without much in the way of signposts along the way. I asked the three people I sat with, and they all had the same problem I did.) Second, she’s overweight, normally a problem in building a career in show business. She perseveres, however, and helps create a niche within the porn industry for large women.

The obstacles in Candye’s twin paths to music and love are epic. An abandoning father, an alternatingly loving and cruel step-father, exploitive photographers and producers, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, a suicide attempt, the premature birth of her son, drug dependencies, prostitution, abusive boyfriends, a music manager with a conflicting and unrealistic vision of her career, more pregnancies, and throughout, a psychologically abusive mother and physically abusive men.

There are also high moments as well—her first magazine cover (Juggs Magazine), high-paying stripping gigs, the health of her low-birth-weight son, relationships that work out, at least for a while, great friendships, and the way Candye gets closer and closer to a record deal with a major label, which provides a much-needed narrative thread through the ups and the downs. Also helpful were the many photographs of Candye throughout her varied career. Her extremely public life is documented in way that is common only now that we have cellphone cameras, blogs, and Facebook.

Toward the end of the show, unfortunately, Candye begins to preach to the audience, against the censorship of large breasts, the anti-choice movement, and the criminalization of sex work (“We should outlaw poverty, not prostitution”), to name just three occasions when Candye breaks faith with the particulars of her story. It’s not only untheatrical and counterproductive, it also serves no purpose. The audience has no trouble drawing these lessons from Candye’s wayward life.

This represents the only major flaw in an otherwise stellar show. The minor flaws include the hard-to-follow chronology, and a similar difficulty in sometimes understanding who is who. Scenes from Candye’s life are enacted by her with the aid of two excellent singer-actors, Robert Kirk and Bethany Slomka. They necessarily represent many people over the course of Candye’s life story, but the two women in particular jump from person to person like body-snatchers being chased through a crowd. In one scene, for example, Candye plays herself until Slomka says, “Your mother and I,” at which point we’re supposed to understand that Slomka is Candye’s grandmother and Candye is now her own mother. (At least, that’s what I think happened.)

Kirk and Slomka have beautiful voices and do an excellent job of distinguishing by gesture, volume, and accent the many people they’re portraying. The live band (bass and lead guitar, drums, and keyboards) was excellent as well. Much praise is also due Javier Velasco, who wrote the story. It’s common in publishing that an autobiographical story is written by someone else, but rare in theatre. Here, as there, it seems to be a good idea. The story is well shaped and has a powerful arc.

Candye is a terrific singer in both her genres, and something like this show would easily work well as cabaret with the story reduced to patter—especially easy to imagine in the lounge atmosphere of Le Poisson Rouge. As a full-blown narrative, though, it’s perfect for the Fringe.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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