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Let's Put on a Show!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There's something comfortable and appropriate about Mickey Rooney naming his new musical autobiography Let's Put On A Show!. As an idea he espoused in a number of the films that made him famous, it's certainly as good a title as any he could have chosen. Unfortunately, the show's conceptualization apparently ended there.

The result is a show of the creaky, barely structured variety that reminds you just how much is really achieved by the more successful entries in this genre. This production is so steeped in Rooney's congenial personal nostalgia that you'll likely find yourself gasping for oxygen after the first half hour. Rooney's billed collaborators - his wife, co-star, and co-author Jan, and musical director Sam Kriger - don't help him breathe much fresh air into the proceedings.

Instead, this is mostly a grab bag of gags, songs, reminiscences, and film clips, organized in a loose and frequently slapdash way. You know what you're in for from the first moments, when Rooney launches into a vaudeville-style series of jokes (complete with drum fills) spoofing his many failed marriages - "You know, I've been married so many times I have rice marks on my face," goes one typical crack. While he improves later, with his stories about growing up in show business and meeting and eventually marrying Jan, the tone of evening generally varies little from his opening set.

Worse, he no longer seems ideally equipped for a show of this nature. It doesn't help that the show isn't well-enough written to mask his weaknesses and better point up his strengths; you're far more likely to enjoy Rooney's work here if you don't go in expecting a performance of the type that Barbara Cook, Bea Arthur, and especially Elaine Stritch delivered in their recent shows. Rooney comes across as infinitely more gentle and, sad to say, his abilities have not aged as well as those women's have.

As he wraps his now gravelly voice around standards and original tunes of his own composition, and performs a few carefully measured dance steps, it becomes obvious that he's lost more than a little of his once brilliant sheen. At least he remains highly likable, and has an unquestionably engaging manner and a fine sense of humor about himself, and his impish grin is still capable of putting a smile on your face. That's one of the few things in the show that appears effortless.

Much of the rest of it, particularly the humor, feels pushed, straining against not only the audience's expectations but Rooney's own. And the clips from his film and television appearances, including a lengthy tribute to Judy Garland, while nice, tend to stop the show in its tracks. (Jan's first appearance in the show, singing a lengthy and patter-less series of songs, has much the same effect; it's solid cabaret, and feels totally out of place.) This all cries out for the type of framework or throughline that a director or a theatrically astute bookwriter would be able to provide.

A few redeeming moments shine through: Rooney's songs are unmemorable but amiable, melodic, and attractively arranged by Kriger and Frank Collette for the onstage three-piece band; Rooney has a winningly warm rapport with his wife, and if their scenes together are cornily scripted (one eye-rolling bit involves the Lerner/Loewe "I Remember It Well" defining their first date), they're fun to watch; he does a superb job playing the piano in a surprise jazz segment near the end of the evening; and his story about his tenure entertaining troops on the frontlines of World War II, and his subsequently receiving the Bronze Star, is genuinely moving and inspiring.

That's one of the few times Let's Put On A Show! elicits a real emotional reaction. Rooney has proven in the past that he's capable of much more, and it's a little disappointing to see him operate at less than his best. Nothing can erase the decades of fine entertainment that Rooney has provided America and the world, but it's a shame that someone who was so eager in his films to put on a show couldn't put on a better one now.

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Irish Repertory Theatre
Let's Put on a Show!
Through September 12
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.727.2737