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A CurtainUp Review
Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me
by Les Gutman
It's hard to say what one should believe in Martin Short's summer entry in the celebrity retrospective genre of Broadway entertainment. We can start with the show's subtitle, Fame Becomes Me. Which definition of "becomes" should we accept? Does fame make Short look good, or does it simply come to be him? What's the chicken and what's the egg?
Fairly early on, Short tells us that the life story he's presenting consists of truth and lies. Later, he'll insist he was "lying about the lying". The answers to the existential questions posed by the title must await another day for resolution.
We are also left to wonder about less abstract considerations and, as it turns out, that is the show's principal defect. Short is a gifted performer. He can sparkle as a Broadway showman, and he has an immense facility for ad-libbing and improvising. Both of these talents are on display here, so it's perplexing that much of the show is bogged down with predictable and hackneyed humor and sketches that seem to have a funny premise, only to die on the vine.
The basic gestalt is that of a variety show, and it certainly qualifies as a musical as well. (Short calls it a "comedy musical".) That said, the book for the show doesn't do a very good job of pulling the pieces together, starting with the framing device built around the song "Another Curtain Goes Up" at the top, and "Another Curtain Comes Down" at the end (not counting Short's coda, "Glass Half Full," which is as close as the show gets to a moment of sincerity). The opening number doesn't quite set the stage, and the backside bookend doesn't really match it. A bit more structure in between would have been much appreciated as well.
Short's premise, sticking a thorn in the side of the confessional one-person show genre, is that his life is not interesting enough for such treatment, so he conjures up a more titillating version of the facts. One blatant lie used to perpetrate this fraud is that we have met the four other cast members even before Short appears for the first time.
Although some of these faux vignettes are fun (a Canadian version of The Wizard of Oz, putatively one of Short's early gigs in the theater, finds him playing a singing and dancing fence and is great), the best sections seem to be those that have the least to do with the "plot". Included in these are visits from several of the characters for which Short is known from "Saturday Night Live" and Comedy Central. The highlight of these (and indeed of the whole performance) is his generously-padded Jiminy Glick, who arrives for a deathbed visit with Short, and ends up interviewing a member of the audience in the hospital room. (Some nights, the audience member is a celebrity -- it was Cynthia Nixon on the night I attended -- and other nights it is not.)
The songs for the show were written by the Hairspray team of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. They don't rise to the level of their other work and, though intermittently quite good, they have too much of a slap-dash sensibility to rise above that level. For reasons that aren't especially clear, we have Shaiman onstage as well, playing the piano among other miscellaneous chores. (Charlie Alterman gets the musical directing duty in the pit, conducting a seven piece band.)
The remainder of the cast, Brooks Ashmanskas, Mary Birdsong, Capathia Jenkins and Nicole Parker is both strong and game, no matter how foolish they are asked to be in fleshing out Short's saga. Ashmanskas gets the most such requests, the creme de la creme of which is his donning of stilts to render Tommy Tune, one of scores of celebrities whose names get dropped in along the way. Ms. Jenkins is terribly underutilized, though she makes the best of her one especially banal spotlight song, "Stop the Show".
The design elements are are well done. Scott Pask's sets, which include an impressive staircase and some excellent drops, are particularly impressive, as are Jess Goldstein's costumes, which include a high number of quick changes for Mr. Short and others.
Short's ardent fans will no doubt find plenty to enjoy here. Everyone else will have a fairly good time. What I found most dispiriting about the work was not the age-old question of whether it is appropriate for Broadway, but whether it's good enough. It makes you wonder what really is motivating it.
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