Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Smart Blonde" Offers Another Kind of "Holliday" Fun

Andrea Burns as Judy Holliday in "Smart Blonde" Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover

Who’d a known? Like me, anyone who remembers the film "Born Yesterday" would probably be surprised to learn that the actress who played the role of ditzy, airhead mistress of corrupt crook, Harry Brock, had an IQ of 172.
I nearly jolted in my seat at the City Theatre when I heard this factoid included in the dialogue of "Smart Blonde," a biographical drama with music about actress/songwriter, Judy Holliday, now getting its world premier on Pittsburgh’s South Side.
Obviously no slouch when it comes to gray matter, Holliday and her life’s story of ups and downs, highs and lows, is fertile ground for sprouting an energetic play, and writer Willy Holzman manages to tap into this abbondanza of fecund material to create a vivid portrait of this star of both Hollywood and Broadway.
The play opens in a Manhattan recording studio in 1964 where Holliday is getting ready to record "What’s the Rush," a tune she co-wrote with Gerry Mulligan, a jazz musician with whom she had a long relationship.
In a flashback of the actress’ life, we then see her as a young woman living with her mother, then quickly follow her uphill climb through the jungle of Hollywood cinema and the competitive world of Broadway to earn both an Oscar and a Tony Award.
Andrea Burns has the onerous duty of not only bringing the character to life in front of the audience at the intimate Hamburg Studio but singing the  series of songs that tie in thematically to the different stages of her character’s life. There’s "Let’s Fall in Love" when she meets her husband, David Oppenheimer, followed by "What’ll I Do" when she later gets a divorce.
After her appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommitte to testify about her supposed red leanings (she outwitted her interrogators by playing the dumb blonde), she bursts out into a reenergized "Lulu’s back in Town" and returns to Broadway in the musical "Bells Are Ringing." Her role as Ella Peterson in the show won her an Emmy in 1957 for Best Actress.
Fortunately, Burns gets a good bit of on-stage relief from her two fellow players, somewhat misleadingly identified in the program booklet as Elliot, a sound engineer (Adam Heller) and Bernie Leighton (Jonathan Brody). Both actors play multiple roles that run the gamut of character types, even sexes - people that played important roles in Holliday’s life such as her mother, musical theater bookwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden, Daryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures, director Garson Kamin, even Marilyn Monroe and Gloria Swanson.
Both supporting actors have impressive theater credentials. Brody appeared in the Broadway production of "Spamalot" and "Titanic" while Elliot has a mile long list of credits in theater, film and television.
The play, commissioned by the City Theatre, is directed by Burns’ husband, Peter Flynn, who obviously has some sort of chemistry going on, not only with the wife but with the entire cast and crew.
It’s amazing to see how much emotion and biography is packed into a play that runs less than an hour and a half and includes ten songs at that. And while the glimpses of Holliday’s early family life, marriage, career, her hopes and dreams, likes and dislikes are all too brief apercu, the story line sufficient enough tolet the audience carry away from the theater a vivid impression, a fleshed out notion of what made this talented actress trick.
But what about the production, the finished product as a whole? I’ll let the spontaneous standing ovation that came at the end of the evening speak for itself. If, as the saying goes, 50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong, then neither can the couple hundred of Pittsburgh theater goers who saw the opening night performance.
"Smart Blonde" is at the City Theatre through December 21. Phone 412.431.CITY (2489).