Big-Hair Julia! Welcome Back! … A Singer, A Songwriter

Big-Hair Julia! Welcome Back!

In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts finally hits pay dirt. Most of her movies are about bra straps. This one is about a great deal more. Oh, there are still plenty of bra straps, and big hair, six-inch stiletto heels, a slut wardrobe that looks like it came right off the rack at a garage sale the day the hookers turned 42nd Street over to Disney, and teeth the size of Tom Sawyer’s white picket fence. But the character of Erin-former beauty queen, twice-divorced mother of three, with no job, no education, no skills, no prospects and $17,000 in debt, who ends up fighting a monolithic industrial corporation and winning the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in American history-demands the presence of a star with her own guts, charisma and indestructible energy. With the “pretty woman” in the role, Erin Brockovich becomes a rare example of the perfect combination of the time, the place and the girl.

The story begins when Erin, without funds or insurance, is broadsided in an auto accident, loses the case and desperately throws herself on the mercy of Ed Masry (gruffly and wonderfully played by Albert Finney), the aging, incompetent lawyer who represents her, to hire her at his law firm. He reluctantly does, aghast at her cleavage and cussing, then fires her, then hires her again when it becomes obvious that there is more to Erin than her centerfold dimensions. With no experience as a law clerk or paralegal, Erin comes across a routine real estate case mysteriously containing medical records, questions the connection, and on further investigation uncovers a monstrous coverup in which the citizens of Hinkley, Calif., are being poisoned by their utilities company, a $28 billion industrial complex called Pacific Gas & Electric that is contaminating their water supply with toxic wastes.

Using people skills she never knew she had, Erin charms her way into the homes of families suffering from myriad diseases, wins them over by talking their own language, and amasses a lawsuit signed by more than 600 plaintiffs. Before you know it, she’s up to her lip gloss in geologists, toxicologists, cancer surgeons and corporate attorneys, trespassing on private property to take water samples and even using her sexual flirtations to invade the files at the local water board. “What makes you think you can just walk in there and find what we need?” asks her flabbergasted boss. “They’re called boobs, Ed.”

This is the kind of sass that wins over the people of Hinkley and the audience, making Erin (and Ms. Roberts) an instant heroine for the underdog. It’s a noble role in the David-versus-Goliath tradition mined by Sissy Spacek in Marie , Meryl Streep in Silkwood and John Travolta in A Civil Action , and it never fails. Although the story is true, it sometimes takes on a fairy tale sheen when Ms. Roberts climbs down into water storage tanks and treks across dusty ditches in six-inch dagger heels with the brio of Bomba the Jungle Boy. But scriptwriter Susannah Grant and director Steven Soderbergh keep both the action in the field and the domestic dilemmas on the home front moving in such a linear fashion that nothing seems surreal. They’ve even given her a most unusual love interest in an unemployed neighbor who loves Erin’s kids as much as his Harley-Davidson (the usually preppy, clean-cut and sun-kissed Aaron Eckhart, masquerading as a hirsute, ponytailed and tattooed Hell’s Angel with a warm heart). Balancing Erin’s courage and determination with her personal sacrifices, they have managed to tell an equally compelling story in the way she neglects her kids, ignores her boyfriend and risks her life to discover that self-fulfillment comes at a high price indeed. Cherry Jones, Marg Helgenberger, Peter Coyote and Veanne Cox are just a few of the exemplary talents who lend credibility to a powerful story, and if you look closely, you will see the real Erin Brockovich as a waitress patiently taking orders for cheeseburgers.

At a time when news stories are breaking daily about industrial pollution (700,000 people in New Jersey are currently drinking water contaminated with arsenic-causing cancer, according to a recent study in The New York Times ), Erin Brockovich has a timeliness that surpasses its obvious entertainment value. An excellent film of real substance, with a star performance empowered by unfailing material, Erin Brockovich provides a marvelous surprise for Julia Roberts fans and detractors alike. She’s a bit like the title character herself: sparky, forceful and triumphing over her limitations in order to prove her value and reinvent her life.

A Singer, A Songwriter

Nighthawks are well advised to head for the Firebird Cafe, where Lorna Dallas is performing an act devoted to the seldom-heard songs of Jerome Kern and Ivor Novello that is causing something of a cabaret sensation. The American soprano traveled to London to play Magnolia in a lavishly praised production of Kern’s masterpiece Show Boat in 1971, married an Englishman, and stayed for 25 years. Now she’s home again, washed in on a tidal wave of rave reviews for this act, which combines Kern’s gorgeous songs of precision, erudition and melodic coherence with the lilting, witty and lovely songs of Novello, whose operettas were among the most popular attractions in England in the 30’s and 40’s. It’s a thrilling experience to hear a trained voice dazzling in its control and range yet resistant to the stereotypical coldness usually associated with trilling sopranos who get the notes right but not the nuances. Beautiful and humorous, Ms. Dallas has a voice that wraps itself around theatrical gems with the warmth of a mink stole.

Mr. Novello’s songs range from subjects as varied as the weak, meek, quaint and faint-with-restraint unemotional techniques of “An Englishman in Love” (all that toast with marmalade, you know, wreaks havoc on a man’s libido) to the way Napoleon met his real Waterloo in the arms of “Josephine.” From the Kern catalogue, there is “Bill,” which Cleo Laine sang in that illustrious 1971 production of Show Boat , as well as the extraordinarily moving “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” which captures the devastated emotions of Kern and his collaborator Oscar Hammerstein when they heard the news that Paris had fallen to the Germans in 1940. Despite these priceless, age-resistant treasures, Ms. Dallas nevertheless focuses on lesser-known Kern songs like “In the Heart of the Dark” and the gorgeous “Once in a Blue Moon,” one of the great Mabel Mercer’s most requested numbers from the past.

But whether she’s investigating the similarities or the differences between these two geniuses, Ms. Dallas transports her audience to an earlier, more graceful and more romantic period of songwriting before head mikes, electric guitars and earplugs. With the able assistance of Christopher Denny on piano and Bob Renino on bass, the talented and luminous Ms. Dallas calls this polished evening of class “Glamorous Night,” and it more than lives up to the title.

Act 2:Anyone who has ever thrilled to the beetle bugs zoomin’ and the tulip trees bloomin’ in “Lazy Afternoon” has heard the unforgettable lyrics of John Latouche. Now the York Theater Company has staged what music lovers have been requesting for years: an entire show celebrating the songs of one of our most gifted and elusive songwriters. Not a revue or concert, Taking a Chance on Love , named after his most successful song, is a musical profile, offering insights into his checkered career and illustrating events from his troubled, self-destructive life with the songs he wrote.

Shaking the dust from his shoes, he was a sensitive misfit from Virginia who traveled North, spending more time in the bohemian literary salons of Greenwich Village than he did in classes at Columbia. His pals and mentors were Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Vernon Duke. He smoked reefer with Paul and Jane Bowles, picked up sailors with Tennessee Williams and was an early convert to promiscuity, drugs, alcohol and the fine line between madness and genius. Somehow he managed to write scores for Cabin in the Sky , Candide , Ballet Ballads , The Vamp with Carol Channing, Beggar’s Holiday , The Golden Apple and the most famous American opera of our time, The Ballad of Baby Doe , which made a star of Beverly Sills.

Except for Bobby Short, few people perform his songs today, but to hear them again is to experience penultimate rapture. Too outré for mainstream audiences, his collaborations with Vernon Duke, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and Jerome Moross, among others, fall under the music subheading of art, and they are skillfully woven into this marvelous show with excerpts from his diaries and journals to tell the extraordinary story of a man who created miraculous music and died of an overdose of decadence in 1956. He was 41 years old.

Terry Burrell, Jerry Dixon, Donna English and Eddie Korbich complete the show’s multitalented, four-member cast, and each one has a showstopper that will break your heart. John Latouche was eulogized by Carson McCullers, adored by Ned Rorem, compared to Lorenz Hart, and was a big influence on Stephen Sondheim. His songs deserve a wider audience, this show deserves a longer run, and I feel enriched and enlightened by the entire experience. It’s one of the most sophisticated shows I’ve seen in a long, long time.