By Niki D’Andrea
Better Than: Inventing a time machine.
Eartha Kitt is 81 years-old. But you’d never know it by the way she sang, joked, teased, and pranced around the stage at Phoenix Symphony Hall on Saturday Night. Perhaps best known for her role as Catwoman on the Batman TV series in the 1960s, Eartha Kitt proved herself to be a consummate performer. And she showed that she can still pull off the sex-kitten shtick with startling aplomb, repeating showing her shapely leg (the slit in her dress was longer than the Wall of China) and grinding her hips like something out of Grandmothers Gone Wild. It was hot; I won’t lie. I know that sounds weird. Eartha Kitt seduced me -- she and her 76 wingmen, in the form of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Ensemble.
There’s so much more to Eartha Kitt than Catwoman.
The concert started with the symphony, sans Kitt, performing half an hour of medleys, including “A Tribue to Frank Sinatra” and “A Tribute to Big Bands.” The atmosphere was so suave and casual, with simple light color changes matching the moods of the various songs (blue for “Strangers in the Night,” red for the wicked Big Band-boogie of Tommy Dorsey, yellow for the moseying brass of “Pennsylvania 6-5000”). Unlike rock concerts, where stack amplifiers and PA systems blast electric instruments at the audience front-on, the orchestral music at Symphony Hall moves over the audience and settles all around them. It’s a much more intimate experience.
Kitt took the stage after intermission, joining the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and her longtime band – pianist Daryl Waters, Jon Burr on upright bass, and Brian Grice on drums. She began her more than hourlong performance with “I’m Still Here” (from the musical Follies) and establishing right away that her sultry, sexy growl is still intact – along with her commanding stage presence, soulful wail, and wit.
Eartha Kitt’s been performing since the 1940s, when she made her film debut with the Katherine Dunham Company in the 1948 movie Casbah, and she’s done a lot since then. Her first starring role was as Helen of Troy in Orson Welles’ staging of Dr. Faustus in the 1950s. Before she was professionally exiled from the U.S. for ten years after making anti-Vietnam war comments at the White House in 1968, she starred opposite Sidney Poitier in the movie Mark of the Hawk and landed the Catwoman role. During her extensive touring of Europe in the 1970s, she further established herself as an exciting, cabaret-style performer.
With so many notches under her belt, Kitt clearly has volumes of songs to mine for her shows, but she made sure to deliver the hits everyone wanted to hear, including “Santa Baby” (the encore), the Kitt-penned “I Want to Be Evil” (packed with great lines like “I've posed for pictures with Iv'ry Soap/I've petted stray dogs, and shied clear of dope”), “An Old Fashioned Girl” (packed with great lines like “I'll ask for such simple things when my birthday occurs: Two apartment buildings that are labeled 'Hers' and 'Hers'”), and “C’est Si Bon” (“It’s So Good”).
By the end of the night, I was so enveloped in the sounds of the orchestra (so closely following Kitt’s lead), and wrapped in the magic of charming songs and wisecrack banter that I felt like a spell had been broken when the lights came on.
Random detail: Kitt speaks several languages, including French and Spanish, and incorporates them into her act.
Personal bias: None. Really.
Check out the June 12 issue of Phoenix New Times for an in-depth look at the Eartha Kitt show in "Niki at Nite."
Just for kicks (and purrs), here’s some vintage footage of Eartha Kitt performing “C’est Si Bon” in 1962: