CAMBRIDGE — By the end of “Who Is Eartha Mae?,’’ Jade Wheeler’s cabaret-style portrait of the glamorous singer and actress Eartha Kitt, you don’t really have a satisfying answer to the tantalizing question posed in the title.
That may strike you as a problematic takeaway from a biographical solo show. I would normally agree, but for a couple of things. First, Wheeler turns in such a magnetic and self-assured performance as Kitt that it merits that overworked noun “tour de force.’’
Second, I found myself wondering whether Wheeler’s script is fragmentary by design, meant to illustrate by its patchiness that Kitt — who was born Eartha Mae Keith in South Carolina and died in Connecticut in 2008 at age 81 — was simply too elusive, too enigmatic, to get a clear fix on. It could well be that Wheeler, like her mysterious subject, wants us to leave her show asking: Who was Eartha Mae?
Whatever the reason, Kitt shimmers just beyond the reach of our comprehension in the Bridge Repertory Theater production of Wheeler’s play-with-music, directed by Cailin Doran and choreographed by Jenna Pollack, with music direction and able piano accompaniment by Seulah Noh.
There are hints that Kitt was one of those larger-than-life figures who essentially became her showbiz persona, whose stage self was in some sense her true self. (“There was this other person I got to be,’’ she says of launching her cabaret career in Paris in the 1950s. “Eartha Mae could hide behind this strong, sexy, confident woman.’’) Accoutrements of that persona are within arm’s reach as Wheeler’s Kitt sits at her dressing table, gazing into an illuminated mirror: a pair of wigs, several flowing scarves on a rack, a silver bucket containing champagne, and a single rose. The year is 1989, and Kitt is in a London theater for the final tech rehearsal of her one-woman show. (Shortly before that show Kitt had made a splash in a West End production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies’’ that my wife and I happened to see during a visit to London. I still vividly recall Kitt’s scorching rendition of “I’m Still Here.’’ What Brooks Atkinson wrote of Kitt in 1952 — that “she can make a song burst into flame’’ — was still true in the late 1980s.)
Wheeler is no slouch herself as a singer. She skillfully channels both Kitt’s distinctive voice and her sly worldliness in numbers like “C’est Si Bon,’’ “Santa Baby,’’ and “An Englishman Needs Time,’’ while twisting the heart with “Thursday’s Child.’’ Those vocals Wheeler matches with some dynamic dance moves that might perhaps have inspired the admiration of the famously exacting Kitt herself.
Wheeler ranges across some of the biographical particulars of Kitt’s life and career: the troubled upbringing in abusive homes; the big break as a teenager when Kitt landed a spot in a dance troupe and embarked on an international tour; the launch of her nightclub career; her friendship with Orson Welles, who called Kitt “the most exciting woman on earth”; her love affairs with rich men who showered her with jewelry and furs; a brief marriage that resulted in a daughter; her denunciation of the Vietnam War at a 1968 White House event where she confronted Lady Bird Johnson. (Some baby boomers may also remember Kitt as a slinky Catwoman in the 1967-68 season of the campy TV series, “Batman’’ — a stint to which Wheeler makes the briefest of nods with a couple of playful cat-scratch gestures near the start of “Who Is Eartha Mae?’’).
There were times when I wished that Wheeler probed deeper into the meaning of certain events in Kitt’s life and got beneath her subject’s psychological armor. For instance, Wheeler’s Kitt says that in the United States she was “berated for not being black enough,’’ then airily dismisses that with: “But I’m not black and I’m not white and I’m not pink and I’m not green. Eartha Kitt has no color and that is how barriers are broken.’’ You’re left with the feeling that there was much more to say on that subject, especially since later on Kitt cites her race when comparing the significant harm to her career from her antiwar comments compared with white actresses like Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen.
But perhaps some of the first words Kitt says in “Who Is Eartha Mae?’’ ultimately stand as the last word, at least as she saw it. Noting that someone once asked her “Who is the real you?,’’ she then furnishes her answer to us in the audience: “The me who happens to be in front of you this moment. That’s the real me.’’
WHO IS EARTHA MAE?
Created and performed by Jade Wheeler. Directed by Cailin Doran. Music direction and piano, Seulah Noh. Choreography, Jenna Pollack. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater. At Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge, through Feb. 23. Tickets from $14, www.bridgerep.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin