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Martin Short's show, Fame Becomes Me, is a group of
enormously talented performers in search of a decent script and the laughs expected from
the veteran of Second City, Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central, not to speak
of a long list of movie credits. As of San Francisco opening night, their search is
proving to be difficult.
Fame Becomes Me is not a one man show--five other performers appear on stage during the evening plus one drawn from the audience (in this case, the obviously previously set up right wing commentator Dennis Miller, who proved to be engaging enough during a mostly forced and unfunny interplay with Short's signature character, Jiminy Glick).
The premise, though, rests on the sort of autobiographical framework such as those used in recent years by Elaine Stritch and Billy Crystal. The problem is that Short's life (56 years and counting) apparently has been angst-free--he's worked steadily, has had no drug or alcohol addictions, and he's been married to the same woman for twenty-five years. So the writers (Short and Daniel Goldfarb) use that absence of drama as the presumably funny backbone of the show. It's as flimsy as a Victoria's Secret nightgown and provides little in the way of momentum or continuity as the evening wears on.
The result is a slapdash collection of skits, musical numbers, celebrity impersonations (a sure sign of imagination run dry) much on the level of Saturday Night Live. Throw enough attempts at jokes out at the audience and at least some will draw laughs. The issue, then, becomes a matter of the percentage of success. In all fairness, the San Francisco audience laughed a great deal, but San Francisco audiences are notoriously easy to please; success on Broadway is something else again.
Real wit is in short supply here. As on Saturday Night Live, there are many attempts at humor based on ethnic and sexual stereotypes. Lesbian and gay jokes abound, including one particularly pointless and tasteless bit involving simulated fellatio on Short by a dresser. Jewish stereotypes come into play as well, including an extended and thoroughly unfunny scene involving Irving Cohen, Hollywood producer, in heaven. The nadir is reached in this scene with a Helen Keller joke. Haven't those been laid to rest some time ago?
The celebrity impersonations are skillfully performed by the cast, ranging from Joan Rivers to Kate Hepburn, Taylor and Burton to Tony Bennett, Ethel Merman to Ellen DeGeneres, Brittany Spears, and Celine Dion. Just about all of that feels like filler, attempts to flesh out a skimpy book. A Tommy Tune impersonation on stilts is equally lame.
There's potential in "Step Brother de Jesus," a parody of late 1960's/early 1970's shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, but it could use some fine tuning. The "American Idol" takeoff doesn't work, though. How do you parody a show which practically parodies itself?
On the plus side, Short himself is an engaging personality. He sings (and makes fun of his own singing), dances, and, of course, does his comedy schtick. (He gamely engages in wired acrobatics that predictably lead to a Cathy Rigby bit, flying like Peter Pan.) The presence on stage of songwriter Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) is a plus, but the show stealer of the evening is Capathia Jenkins, a singer with a big voice and a bigger personality that won her the biggest hands of the night.
The production has been imaginatively designed (Scott Pask) with especially brilliant lighting design by Chris Lee.
As with other musicals that have tried out in San Francisco en route to New York, this is clearly a work still in development. Wicked had potential, but lots of weaknesses in its San Francisco run; with the brilliant guidance of director Joe Mantello it became a smash hit in New York. More recently, Lestat was a San Francisco disaster and it appears to be equally ill-fated in New York. Fame Becomes Me director Scott Wittman might be well advised to bring in a script doctor to tighten and beef up the substance of the show en route to the Big Apple.