There’s no question Doris Day was a formidable talent. Relentlessly wholesome with all American-girl freckles and a pneumatically perky smile, Day was a huge movie star in her time (Pajama Game, Pillow Talk). Before that, in the 1940s, she was successful swing-band singer.
Yet by the 1960s, with baby boomers embracing rock music and free love, Day’s girl-next-door image seemed hopelessly dated. She came off as a prissy throwback. With Day after Day, a new song-stuffed stage tribute, Victoria playwright Sarah Murphy aims to shatter the stereotype by showing her as an independent, strong and resilient woman.
The one-woman show, directed by Brian Richmond, stars Linda Kash. Fluffy and often fun, Day After Day was commissioned by Blue Bridge Repertory and had its premiere Thursday at the Roxy Theatre. Doris Day is cast as a salty show-biz survivor whose candy-floss image was mere Hollywood illusion. When Kash isn’t narrating Day’s potted biography, she sings such numbers as Embraceable You, Lullaby of Broadway and Que Sera Sera backed by a proficient quartet.
The two-act production samples an impressive 25-plus songs. Many unfamiliar with Day’s life may find it entertaining. Others may find Murphy’s script a touch glib. And — while this is a defensible creative decision — some will be surprised Kash doesn’t particularly resemble or sound like Doris Day.
The show’s conceit is that Day is now struggling to make a living after learning her husband, Marty Melcher, squandered her $28 million fortune, unbeknownst to her. It’s 1968 and she’s forced to literally sing for her supper.
On this particular night, Day, on tour, is booked at an adult film cinema, The Fox. (The Roxy actually did serve this purpose, briefly, in the 1960s.) The premise is both amusing and improbable. After all, Day once turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate on moral grounds and once hosted a show on a Christian network.
Kash, a veteran Canadian stage and screen actor, is perhaps most recognizable as the Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese lady from TV ads. A solid stage presence, we first see her in a black dress with white gloves, white sunglasses and a blonde wig. (One quibble: In Act I the hair-piece should have been tweaked so her dark hair didn’t poke out.)
“How’s everyone tonight, pretty good?” says Kash defiantly. This declaration suggests Day is a brassy broad who’s seen it all — a characterization that continues throughout. There’s something decidedly campy about this good ol’ gal persona; one could imagine a drag queen tackling the role.
In Act II, Kash trades her black dress for a glittering pink gown. She announces she’s just read a letter conveying more bad news: the late Marty (again unbeknownst to her) signed her up for a TV series: The Doris Day Show. It’s an unwelcome turn of events and a blousy, distraught-looking Day now seems slightly under the influence, even popping a couple of pills. Clearly, this pharmaceutically-enhanced, porn-house Doris Day has an edge.
Assisted by projections of vintage photos and more, Kash lobs biographical snippets between songs. We learn Day’s teenaged dreams of being a dancer were crushed after she was injured in a car accident. Later she married a series of louses. One was a musician who physically abused her. Another, also a musician, was an insecure jerk who dumped her for fear of becoming “Mr. Doris Day.”
Playwright Murphy, self-described in the program as a “30-something queer feminist,” underlines Day After Day’s central theme most bluntly when Day complains of having been manipulated “mostly by men” throughout her life. This was doubtlessly true, not only for Day but all female entertainers — and re-examining history through this lens is a good thing. (Lucia Aniello offers a similar point-of-view in the excellent HBO series Hacks, following the misadventures of a Vegas comic played by Deborah Vance as a hammer-tough survivor.)
Day After Day isn’t a complex examination of the film star’s life. That’s not its intent. Nonetheless, it does contain at least one intriguing scene that scratches beneath the surface. It’s when Day explains that, while Marty was a fool who left her penniless, she still loves him — they even had a secret way of holding hands. This paradoxical detail somehow shakes Day After Day to life. Kash particularly impressed with an appropriately tender reading of I’ll Never Stop Loving You that followed.
And then came a goofy rendition of Que Sera Sera. The chirpy tune was supposedly not one of Day’s favourites. That said, equipping Kash with hand puppets to sing it didn’t help.
Day After Day continues at the Roxy Theatre to Aug. 15.