Love Goddess, The Rita Hayworth Musical ★★

Love Goddess, a new musical premiering at The Cockpit, London, based on the life of one of the greatest movie stars who ever lived

Rita Hayworth was once one of the biggest film stars in the world. In the 1940s. As one of that decade’s top stars, she appeared alongside James Cagney in Only Angels Have Wings, she was directed in the film noir The Lady From Shanghai by her soon-to-be ex-husband Orson Welles and as dance partner to no less than Fred Astaire in two films. Her glamour credentials were fixed by her stunning femme fatale look in the 1946 film, Gilda.

Apart from testimony from Madonna that Rita Hayworth “gave good face” in the lyrics of Vogue, perhaps Rita Hayworth’s star no longer burns as bright in 2022. Love Goddess, The Rita Hayworth Musical sets out to change that. 

All images by Roswitha Chesher

So how do you tell the story of Rita Hayworth’s life –  through the medium of song, dance and a bit of magic, of course.

The story starts when a very young Rita (born Margarita Carmen Cansino) played ably by Imogen Kingsley-Smith, is taken to the clubs to become her father’s dance partner in order to bring in the money for the family. Thus begins the narrative throughout the musical that Rita spends her life and  Hollywood career as someone controlled by men; Starting with her father, then her first husband who pimps her out and later studio bosses such as Harry Cohn.

Watching over her younger self throughout the first half is the older Rita (Almog Pail) who reminisces with regret and sadness over her rise to unwanted fame and attention, her image fixed as a glamorous woman. You get the sense of Rita wishing she could impart some sage advise to her younger self, frequently  stating “do what you love” whilst reliving her past. 

As Rita gets older, Pail takes over the main storytelling and her narrative device switches to conversations with the Hollywood reporter Jules Graham, played with wonderful comic timing by Jane Quinn. We witness the birth of a Hollywood icon as young Rita is transformed into a mirror image of Pail’s Rita during the song Rita Who?, one of the show’s better musical numbers?

It could be said that the role of Rita Hayworth is something of a poisoned chalice for Almog Pail or any actress attempting to play the woman who was dubbed “the Love Goddess”. Rita had it all: she was beautiful, could dance, act and ultimately had the that elusive “X Factor” that transforms film stars into Hollywood icons. It’s a big ask for one person to have all of those qualities to give a real taste of the scale of Rita’s talents as well portray the emotional highs and lows of her journey. It’s a sincere tribute, but not a particularly convincing one.

The four actors who between them cover thirty rolls, including Fred Astaire and Orson Welles, work hard to add colour and texture to the story through their character portrayals and a lot of dancing. A stand-out number is the high-energy tap routine with the young Rita and Fred Astaire, who make the most of the whole space (The Cockpit is set out for theatre in the round) and bring some needed Hollywood glamour to the proceedings. The songs generally evoke the period well and tend towards the competent rather than memorable. Dance While You Still Can provides an upbeat ending. Whether a musical about a star uncomfortable with the nature of her fame and who suffered for two decades with Alzheimer’s disease requires an upbeat ending is perhaps a different question. 

Perhaps a musical isn’t the best format to tell the story of Rita Hayworth, a woman whose many talents did not include singing. If a whistle-stop dash through the life of a 1940s film star is your thing, Love Goddess might be for you. If you want an exploration of an icon to dig deeper, you may leave the theatre knowing no more about Hayworth than when you went in.  

A song asks Rita Who? The Recs was none the wiser who the real Rita Hayworth was by the end – ★ (two stars)

Love Goddess Tickets

Love Goddess, The Rita Hayworth Musical is playing at The Cockpit until 23 December

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