For all that she has become over her 80 years, the ever-sexy, political, theatrical Eartha Kitt must be admired above all for her incorrigibility. While delivering everything you'd want from a cabaret star - classic popular songs, sumptuous glamour and outsized personality - her manner and method have a subversive, loose-cannon unorthodoxy that feels threatening if you don't realize she's just keeping you more attentive than relaxed. Is there anybody who leaves such an indelible imprint on your consciousness?
So it was at the Kimmel Center Summer in the City gala Thursday in honor of Gov. Rendell. But whether Kitt haunts you in your dreams or nightmares is another story. Showing off her still-shapely legs in a side-slit skirt, Kitt went through her signature songs, from "I'm Still Here" (part of her act for at least 20 years) to "C'est Si Bon," with lots of patter in her pan-Continental, mid-Atlantic accent. For reasons difficult to fathom, she'd toss off a few stanzas of lyrics so casually as to suggest minimal care and attention, and then deliver a line and phrase - peering up at the balcony with a look suggesting she was about to cry - invested with a world or two of meaning. It's a fair trade.
Cabaret singers are prone to splinter melodic lines - it's a personality thing - though Kitt does it where you least expect it. The voice defies age when in full cry with a torch song; her version of "La Vie en Rose" seemed to channel Edith Piaf in her prime. But more often, Kitt went with a semimelodic form of speech song, sometimes transforming a tune into a long, serpentine glissando. That's not such a fair trade, but with her, it's a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that you'd be crazy not to take.
When flirting with the front-row audience members, Kitt's implied promises of love had a 1950s "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" mercantile ethic that might seem dated were it not transformed by her less-than-playful intensity into yet another way to work the system and maximize your assets. Love was offered without a price in a hilarious bit with an onstage waiter who appeared with a tray of champagne. She checked out his backside, asked his age (26), declared that nobody is 26 anymore (a variation on an old Judy Garland line) and proceeded to feed him the champagne with the air of a seduction.
What might seem unseemly for a woman of her certain age becomes yet another disarming event on Planet Eartha: Her unapologetic sexual magnetism trumps any conventional notions while also circumventing any condescending sentimentality that usually greets aging divas. Kitt asks for no allowances - or even for your applause. She certainly enjoys it. But as you left the show, you sensed that her party was just beginning.