Chatting over a light lunch at Joe Allen, a well-known spot for Broadway regulars, the soft-spoken Kirsten Holly Smith bears no resemblance to the brash, swaggering singer Dusty Springfield, Smith’s alter ego in “Forever Dusty,” playing off-Broadway.
Smith’s onstage transformation is stunning as she evokes the fierce determination — and underlying vulnerability — of the late groundbreaking performer who embodied the mod 1960s. But then, Smith has been a life-long fan of Springfield, and for the past eight years a student of her persona, gestures and vocal style. “What drew me to her was the unique sound of her voice, with so much soul, grit, rawness,” Smith said. “I also loved how she presented herself — the beehive and black glasses. But I knew nothing about her. When I learned about her life, it was a bolt. She has so much resonance for today’s audiences, gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights in a male-dominated music business. She brought Motown to England and arranged to perform for an integrated audience in South Africa.”
Co-written by Smith’s husband, Jonathan Vankin, the bio-musical is largely factual, with some fictional elements thrown in. Smith’s performance straddles the line between impersonation and interpretation, favoring the latter.
“If I tried to be her, of course I would fail,” Smith said. “My big challenge is that my audiences are either obsessed fans who are very protective of her, or don’t really know who she is and I have to introduce them to her.”
Smith boasts a handful of unsurprising credits — indie films, regional theater — but they are only one facet of her journey. Ten years ago, the Catholic-born Pittsburgh native converted to Judaism. Her husband is Jewish, but Smith’s conversion pre-dated their marriage. She describes herself as a proponent of “conservative egalitarianism, meaning men and women are equal.” Smith attends services and observes the Sabbath whenever she can, though her flexibility does not extend to Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, two holidays she observes religiously. “There’s no zealot like a convert,” she said.
Smith said that before each performance, she strolls around the auditorium, blessing the whole house in general and each seat individually, asking God to be with her. Indeed, she and the other actors clasp hands, forming a prayer circle prior to curtain. “The theater is a sacred place,” Smith said. “The interaction with the audience comes from a spiritual place.”
A confluence of events led to her conversion. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma, she moved to Los Angeles, struggling and performing intermittently. She felt sorely tested, an experience made all the worse when she contracted a serious ailment. (Smith refuses to specify the illness.)
She began to think about Judaism when a Jewish doctor literally — and metaphorically — saved her life. Smith had been a lapsed Catholic, but she never lost the need for a spiritual life. So she explored other religious paths, from trans-denominationalism to Buddhism. She ultimately attended the L.A.- based University of Judaism, though her decision to convert took five years. She says that for the most part, her Christian family has been supportive, simply relieved to see Smith so totally comfortable in her own skin.
As Smith tells it, she found herself in Judaism’s emphasis on the here and now. “Every year, you atone to make life better now, not in the after-life,” she said. “Judaism is about the present, and so am I. Tikkun olam — to heal the world. That was also a big part of Dusty. She was all about understanding, grace and compassion. She bridged the divide between people. Those are the values of Judaism, and that’s why I chose it.”
Simi Horwitz writes frequently about theater for the Forward.