Among the first of Kiki Ebsen’s original songs that became synonymous with my perception of her is that she possessed an inner beauty and honest truth with which she offered her gifts and talents to the world. My first opportunity to hear her sing in concert was from Row 7 stage right at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in Houston, Texas over 20 years ago.
Last evening in North Hollywood, California, I had another perfect seat in a packed house in Theatre West. And this time, the beauty had transcended from inside her heart to rest gently on her face as she delivered an exceptional montage of music, multimedia, and truthful memories about growing up with two talented parents, mother Nancy, trained stage actress and theatre director, and father, Buddy, an entertainment icon.
Against a backdrop of beautiful images that show the nuances of two entertainers named Ebsen, it is true that you can see an unmistakable family resemblance but one could never imagine of either performer that there would be so many parallels in their careers. It’s likely that most people assume that Buddy Ebsen’s life as “Jed Clampett” in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and "Barnaby Jones" of the eponymous TV series, coupled with portraying Davy Crockett’s best friend, "Georgie Russell" would have had, as precursor, an unparalleled series of successes.
Then, too, when you hear Kiki sing anything she chooses¬—from Great American Songbook, to slammin’ hard rock, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, then on to classical selections, or her latest favorite, jazz, her voice, as my friend next to me said, “has an ethereal, effortless tone.” I agree.
What’s different in an audience’s perception of Buddy and Kiki, from what Kiki shared last night, is that there was an honest estrangement between them for many years. Looking in from the outside, it’s abundantly clear that the two were more alike than either would realize at the time.
Fiercely independent, refusing to be “owned” by anyone, fully capable and in charge of any task given them, passionate about causes they believe in, and a generous spirit of giving that is, frankly, unique in the world of many successful entertainers. They’re also both hardheaded as all get out, and in that is their survival. No one ever, ever keeps them down for long. They’ll get right back up again when someone says, “You’ll never be able to do that.” And yet they possess the grace not to tell naysayers, “I told you so” to their faces.
Kiki shared Buddy’s beautiful life philosophy in a quote from her dad:
Remember, that of all the elements that comprise a human being, the most important, the most essential, the one that will sustain, transcend, overcome and vanquish obstacles is Spirit! ~~Buddy Ebsen
The story of how “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen” is best shared when you see the show for yourself. The music selections you’ll hear Kiki sing are from reviewing the music of Buddy's Broadway, film, and television career, and they take you back to a day when people were thoughtful, civil, kept their promises and had integrity. Your word was your bond.
Kiki makes the audience listen, laugh, sing a little, enjoy a lot, and yes—cry—as she reveals challenges in her life, particularly in the teen years in which she and her brother Dustin were formulating the kind of adults they would become. Choices—it’s all about choices you make and some are more sacrificial than others. And yet, you have each day to start anew, block out the naysayers, determine on your own to create on your own terms and to succeed, simply for yourself first, sharing your time, gifts, and talents with others as the occasion arises.
As Kiki performs her father’s composition, “Angelica,” a composite of the mischief that a little girl with red hair can get into (with six daughters, Buddy never lacked for storyboard!), one can just imagine her as a youngster who thought the last place she’d ever be was on stage. And yet, she would grow to be a performer who belongs and is easily at home on anystage she chooses. Author Charlotte Steiner wrote a popular children’s book series that revolved around a little girl, about the same age, which Kiki’s mother, Nancy, got her many books in the series.
Her first book she received was “Kiki Loves Music.” Another is “Kiki Dances.” Seeing her dance with Gregory Gast, check "Yes" to that one! Yet another is “Kiki is an Actress.” Just as the child created by a woman named Charlotte “could do anything she set her mind to,” so can the woman born Nancy Kiersten Ebsen. Versatility is key to Kiki’s happiness, never content just to reside in a world of other’s expectations. Nor can you overlook the love, support, encouragement and enthusiasm of her brother, Dusty, who was “in” for whatever Kiki dreamed up, and no prouder advocate of her brother’s achievements as a multimedia creative and father is there than Kiki.
So, it’s only natural that a show would come from a beautiful album, “Scarecrow Sessions” released in 2014. The story behind the album is beautifully shared by Kiki in her show. For those who are attending performances tonight and tomorrow, let them find out for themselves what they have to look forward to.
Director Steve Feinberg is a gift from above as he has vision, patience, wisdom, and talent as theatre director equal to his abilities as author and playwright. The sound system which made the evening an aural joy was made possible thanks to Bryan Frieders, with expert engineering by Steve Wallace, talented in his own right with numerous years of sound design for Grammy-winning artists in his prior carer, and also proud husband to Kiki.
The music for the evening is another gift from above—Jeff Colella playing Theatre West’s piano—a generous loan from Lee Meriwether of her mother’s beautiful instrument—made it even more special to hear. Granville “Danny” Young on bass, Kendall Kay on drums and Kim Richmond on woodwinds are a quartet with such synergy and talent, you just have to hear them for yourself—they accompany Kiki with precision, joy, and grace.
Moreover, the amazing team Theatre West is understated, yet brilliant. They are prolific in productions they offer as well as those they host for audiences to enjoy. Publicity specialist Sandra Kuker made Hollywood sit up and take notice of this special engagement, and the night’s opening performance—a benefit for Theatre West—was deemed a major success by Executive Director Spike Dolomite Ward.
Board members functioned in so many roles, just consider them the engine that flies the plane, as to how vital and dynamic their contributions were. I witnessed this personally as I had a chance to watch them all in action during final rehearsal for the show. I’m convinced that Linda Rand was the inspiration for creating Lindsey Wagner’s hit, “The Bionic Woman” as she was in nine places within two minutes, accomplishing 17 things and made it look easy!
No matter how much behind the scenes viewing I had, though, nothing had prepared me for the newly expanded performance of “To Dad with Love.” I only thought I knew what I was going to see and hear, but I was not expecting to be so impacted by Kiki’s sharing her truth that I’d break into tears five times during the show. And yet, the tears were unstoppable to hear what challenges she’d been through. The story ends happily though as the irrepressible Kiki is, and always will be, able to face and conquer any challenge life may present her with. She deserves the greatest respect for her revelations, and the standing ovation she received and numerous show interruptions to applaud and embrace her gifts and those of her musicians were beautifully deserved.
We only get one life and we have every day to live it to the fullest or fill our time with unproductive lamentations of “coulda, shoulda, woulda.” Kiki and Dusty Ebsen, and all those who love them love them even more after seeing “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen.”
And as the thunder held forth above Theatre West last night, and the rain came flowing down to the surprise of everyone, it was as though the sky had opened and shed tears of joy for the healing felt by all who heard her story and could identify with times in their own lives.
From Kiki’s own composition she performs in the show, from “The Beauty Inside” reflect her:
“Are we not beautiful in all of our brokenness And do you still love me when I am crying out loud? Can you see that I was not put here on this earth Just to make you so incredibly proud?“ ~~Kiki Ebsen
She played and sang the song she wrote so long ago from her album, “The Beauty Inside” and as you saw her and heard her, you could feel the pain she once felt. By the end of the show you could revel in the healing that she led for all of us. As I studied the image of a beautiful Audrey Hepburn last night staring into the eyes of a handsome, debonair Buddy Ebsen, with his trademark beautiful blue eyes, some quotes attributed to Audrey Hepburn” flew into my mind and I wrote them down as soon as I got home.
“The beauty in a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carried, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty in a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides. The beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It’s the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows, and the beauty of a woman only grows with passing years.” ~~ Audrey Hepburn
And so, with this latest offering of talent and inspiration, from the heart, soul, and mind of Kiki Ebsen, and the loving gifts of her brother Dustin, we all experienced a great and glorious healing last night. Kiki Ebsen: the real deal. The beauty inside, indeed.
[Special thanks to Sheryl Aronson, Arting Around for the beautiful photos taken last evening at Theatre West.]