Club Review: Quinn Lemley’s “Rita Hayworth: The Heat Is On!”

November 15, 2021 | By


Quinn Lemley (Photo courtesy of Century Artists Management Agency.)

A highly theatrical production, singer Quinn Lemley’s thrilling “Rita Hayworth: The Heat is On!” is an extravagant look at the life of the eponymous Hollywood sex symbol, the glamorous World War II pin-up girl dubbed the “Love Goddess.”  Sporting stunning costumes (by Wendall Goings and Michael Louis) and backed by a slick four-piece band, Lemley transforms wondrously into Hayworth and tells the star’s story via fascinating first-person dialogue (by Carter Inskeep, who also directed), marvelous vocal renditions of standards, and wowing dance breaks.  Yes, full-out dancing in a cabaret show!  Not only is it surprising to see such substantial choreography on a cabaret stage, but it’s Lemley’s expertise as a mover that makes her portrayal of Hayworth especially convincing.

Born Margarita Cansino, in Brooklyn, in 1918, Hayworth began her career as a dancer.  Her father, Spanish dancer Eduardo Cansino, moved the family to Hollywood, set up a dance academy, and trained his daughter, hoping she would become a star and he could get into the movie business as her choreographer.  From the age of 12, Hayworth and her father performed in nightclubs as “The Dancing Cansinos,” a re-creation of Hayworth’s parents’ vaudeville act.    

While Lemley is a skillful actor, and she certainly resembles Hayworth–with her long, wavy red hair, slender torso, and shapely legs—it’s her sophisticated understanding of dance technique that makes Lemley so completely believable in her portrayal of the accomplished-dancer-turned-movie star.  And it happens right from the get-go.  As Hayworth may be best-remembered for her titillating performance of “Put the Blame on Mame” (Allan Roberts/Doris Fisher) from the 1946 film Gilda, the show opens with a frisky staging of this signature number, in which Lemley shimmies—properly.  She clearly realizes that a shimmy is all about forward-backward movements of the shoulders, not about trying to shake one’s chest.  

Lemley’s full, deep singing voice is gorgeous.  Ballads are her forte, and her show proffers plenty of them, as it includes not only songs Hayworth performed on screen (often dubbed by other vocalists) but also selections reflective of sentiments Hayworth experienced in her personal life.  Lemley shines in heartfelt renderings of “That Old Black Magic” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer), a song we are told represents how Orson Welles (one of Hayworth’s five husbands) managed to captivate her, and “Bewitched (Bothered and Bewildered)” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart), purportedly a reflection of how Hayworth felt about a later husband, the Prince Aly Khan.  The expressivity of Lemley’s performance of “That’s All” (Alan Brandt/Bob Haymes)—served up as an example of the kind of song sung by Hayworth’s husband Dick Haymes—is enhanced by an affecting saxophone solo that brings out pleasing similarities between the instrument’s tone colors and those of Lemley’s warm, jazz-inflected vocals.

While the show’s up-tempo numbers call out for a flashier singing style, Lemley embellishes her performance of those tunes with impressive choreography.  Her singing in “The Lady is a Tramp” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) is punctuated by tiny percussive gestures juxtaposed with slow smooth lifts of an outstretched arm.  She embodies the contrasting movement qualities beautifully.  When Lemley lifts her arm, it appears to float up weightlessly, as if propelled by rising air underneath, rather than effortful muscular force from above.  And the way she throws her head back, with just the right calibration of speed and accent, allows her long tresses to fling spectacularly, and draws focus to her hair, unlike the awkward chin movements one is often blinded by from less-practiced performers attempting “hair moves.”  But it’s Lemley’s use of her pelvis that really marks her as a master mover.  She does bumps with correctly uneven timing, not to a steady beat, but with a quick retreat, as if from hitting something hot.  In swinging her hips side to side, she doesn’t draw flat, horizontal lines, but rather carves a three-dimensional figure eight, generating kinesthetically felt, not just visually suggestive, sensuality. 

Sadly, in her rendition of “Zip” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart), the witty striptease song Hayworth performed on screen in Pal Joey (1957), Lemley spends too much time twirling, wrapping, and otherwise fiddling around with a long piece of material.  Perhaps this number could be re-staged (the show’s press materials give no choreographer credit) to make greater use of Lemley’s body movements in evoking the song’s sardonic spiciness.        

With compelling musical numbers interspersed amid gripping delivery of a wealth of information about Hayworth and 20th century Hollywood, Lemley’s show is likely to interest, not only Hayworth fans, but also film buffs, as well as those less familiar with the iconic performer.  Undeniably entertaining, the show is also emotionally weighty and socially relevant, as it sheds light on the ill-treatment Hayworth suffered, both personally and professionally, as a woman in the film industry.  Yet Lemley finishes on a positive note—a rousing reprise of “Put the Blame on Mame” and the reminder that Hayworth was a scrappy girl who got up and got stronger every time some man slapped her down.


Presented at Don’t Tell Mama, Sept. 21, Oct. 21, Nov. 16, Dec. 13 & 15, Feb. 24, and March 24.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Lisa Jo Sagolla is the author of "The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken" and "Rock ‘n’ Roll Dances of the 1950s". A choreographer, critic, and historian, she has written for Back Stage, American Theatre, Film Journal International, and numerous other popular publications, encyclopedias, and scholarly journals. An adjunct professor at Columbia University and Rutgers, she is currently researching a book on the influence of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County on America’s musical theatre.

Comments (1)

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  1. Roselyn Davis says:

    This review is superb and tells the story of a story with pure accuracy. I have seen this show at a larger venue & this review gives me all the intimacy of a cabaret I need to want to see this in person.