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Smoke Signals

ae_LORISIZZLES8Lori Rivera wears Multiple Personality Disorder well in sizzling “Smoke”

Humans are multi-faceted creatures, ruled by diverse and often contradictory impulses. Each of us has a sweet side and a cruel side, a brave face and a cowardly face, a capacity for smoothness and sophistication as well as for clumsiness and gullibility.

As the star of the one-woman cabaret “Smoke,” local vocalist Lori Rivera is a living portrait of humanity’s composite nature. Throughout the show, she rapidly switches back and forth between two different characters: a passionate but somewhat guileless woman named Celeste, and a sensual older woman named Francesca, who mentors Celeste in the ways of love.

“We each have the part of us that wants to believe in love and possibilities and wants to greet every day fresh, and then there’s a part of us, for those of us who have lived long enough, that is a little jaded, a little manipulative,” observes Rivera, a former member of the San Francisco vocal group The Bobs. “The story of ‘Smoke’ is really about bringing those two into balance and finding where they can both survive in one body.”

When playing the role of Francesca, Rivera adopts an Eastern European accent and uses such props as a scarf, cigarette and fortune-telling cards. Also helping the audience differentiate between the two characters is the music itself: The tunes sung by the character of Francesca, all of which feature the clarinet, have a Middle Eastern flavor and are generally in lower keys than the jazzier, more upbeat tunes sung by Celeste, putting Rivera’s voice into a deeper register that lends itself to a darker, more exotic coloration.

Joe Ortiz, composer of all music and lyrics featured in the show, notes that in the early stages of writing the songs for “Smoke,” melodies that he calls “gypsy circus tunes” began to bubble up from his imagination. “I don’t know where it came from—probably a former life,” he muses. As the show evolved, this emerging musical personality became the character of Francesca.

In contrast to the worldly, exotic Francesca, the character of Celeste exudes an innocence that Rivera envies. “She has a real naivete that I don’t really have anymore: a sense of possibility and wonder, and a youthful approach to things,” the singer notes wistfully.

Interestingly, Smoke was originally a two-woman show, with Juni Bucher playing the younger, more impressionable of the two women, and Rivera playing the more mature mentor figure.  The production has also gone through an incarnation as a three-person play that included a male character. It wasn’t until the beginning of this year that Ortiz called Rivera to ask if she thought she could handle the task of performing the entire show herself. “It seemed really challenging and really intriguing, and those are two of my favorite things,” Rivera says.

Ortiz, also the co-owner of Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola, has been working with Rivera since the late ’90s, when the two collaborated in Ortiz’s musical “Bread.” “Lori is so egoless, very willing to try things,” he comments. “We were changing things right up till a couple of weeks before we opened [with “Smoke”], and coming from her background as a jazz singer and being able to improvise has really helped her in this process and made my life easier.”

After a highly successful performance by Rivera in a concert titled A Universal Worship in Song, which took place at First Congregational Church this past August, Ortiz speculated that Rivera, a deeply spiritual person, might decide to quit performing in bars and devote herself to singing exclusively in churches and at spiritual events. Rivera recalls, “Joe was really adorable: He called me and said, ‘Listen, if you just want to sing spiritual music, I totally understand, and I’ll release you from “Smoke.”’ I was like, ‘How is this [cabaret] not spiritual? If one couple who would not ordinarily have made love that night goes home and because of what we’ve done onstage, they go home and make love, I consider it an amazing victory.’ That’s the coolest thing: People connecting.”

“Smoke” has indeed aroused extra-friendly feelings in many of its viewers. “There’s this point in the show almost every single time when you start to see people rubbin’ up against each other, and that’s when you know it’s working,” Rivera notes playfully.

Directed by Greg Fritsch and woven into a narrative by playwright Kathryn Chetkovich, the show, which has been performed at such venues as Carmel’s Carl Cherry Theatre, Capitola Village’s Cava Wine Bar, Capitola’s Paradise Beach Grille and Martuni’s Piano Bar in San Francisco, comes to The Kuumbwa on Friday, Sept. 25. Rivera’s husband, David Jackman of Chocolate, serves as guest chef for the occasion. Accompanying Rivera are drummer Steve Robertson, accordionist Art Alm, bassist Bill Bosch, horn player Brad Hecht and pianist Marshall Otwell. According to Ortiz, there’s an exceptional level of communication between Rivera and Otwell, the latter of whom has also played with Carmen McRae and Ernestine Anderson. “They hardly even have to talk to one another; they both know what one another are thinking,” he says. “It’s just magic to see it happen—so effortless. Two pros!”

Friday’s presentation will be a stimulating study in the many-sided nature of humans, sexuality and love. As Ortiz puts it, “‘Smoke’ is about exploring erotic desires and also our spiritual desires about connection with people. In a way, that’s what Lori does: You can be lusty and spiritual at the same time.”

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