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A CurtainUp Review
Bruce Vilanch-- Almost Famous

By Brad Bradley

A surprising delight coming at the tail end of the season is this wickedly witty and yet charmingly refreshing solo turn by Bruce Vilanch, longtime gag writer to the stars. The intimate and festive cabaret atmosphere at Westbeth Theatre Centre is perfect for Vilanch' irreverent and considerably autobiographical confessional.

In what must seem like centuries ago in show biz time, Donny Osmond, who produced his television show in Utah in order to get "away from the evil forces of Hollywood," once said to writer Vilanch, "You look like a Muppet." Vilanch's (hilarious) retort is unprintable here, and Osmond' rude remark was't half wrong. Yet in contrast to Donny, I mean it with the utmost of respect for Vilanch's unusual looks and talent. Both come naturally to him, and his entire show is such natural fun that you instantly forget that you are spending the evening with a writer who, even while a child model for chubby boys' clothes, wasn't much of a performer.

Vilanch has written a treasure trove of Sophie Tucker material, spawned from her original vaudeville routines, including the Ernie and I stories that he long ago made a staple of Bette Midler's act. Vilanch gets more response from the material than anyone, both the "Divine Miss M" and the "last of the red hot mamas" themselves included. His anecdotes from his work on television variety and awards shows are uniformly laugh-inducing, from recollections of the Brady Bunch and the Manhattan Transfer to Cher and Whoopi Goldberg, the latter his longtime friend and now frequent fellow "Hollywood Square" on the perennial jokey quiz show.

Like Dame Edna, his nearest rival for camp champ of the season, Vilanch includes in his very personal show a few songs and a on-stage pianist. What Vilanch lacks in glamour, his pianist (also musical director, Dick Gallagher) makes up for in spades, and Bruce's songs are far funnier than Edna's, certainly earning him an award for funniest lyrics of the season. Also like Dame Edna, Vilanch is a supreme social satirist, yet he refrains from using his ticket-holders as fodder for material, and instead relies entirely on his own real even if unbelievable life, including an early stint as writer for a Chicago newspaper, where he participated in a writers' competitive effort to get the word "smegma" published in the paper out of any medical context. Another unforgettable convulsive incident recalls the unlikely meeting of Tallulah Bankhead and Helen Hayes in Nyack, home turf of the then reigning "first lady of the American theater." Vilanch's principal territory for work and humor is Hollywood. As he is quoted in his show's press release, "I love Los Angeles. If you can't be a star, at least you can be a star witness."

Almost Famous is scheduled only until June 10, apparently owing to the jokemaster's west coast commitments, so there are relatively few chances to catch the best theatrical mood elevator in the city. A wise theatergoer will be arranging tickets before looking at another page on the web.

Conceived and written by Bruce Vilanch
Directed by Scott Whitman
With: Bruce Vilanch
Set Design: James Schuette
Lighting Design: Josh Monroe
Musical Director: Dick Gallagher
Running time: About 1 hour, 50 minutes including intermission. Westbeth Theatre Centre, 151 Bank Street (Greenwich Village), 307-4100
Performances from 4/25/2000-6/10/2000; opened 5/11/2000
Extended to 7/01/2000

Reviewed by BRAD BRADLEY based on May 8th press preview
©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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