If you must question the effect television has on children, go ahead, but there's no need to think twice about how it affects Michael West. In his show Almost Live From the Betty Ford Clinic, now playing at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre on Thursday nights, the effect is that it brings his demented, twisted comic vision of celebrity out for everyone to enjoy.
As realized here, that vision is one of a never-ending episode of The Merv Griffin Show, during which a constant parade of America's biggest stars provide their trademarked entertainment for captivated (or maybe just captive) home audiences. The large-screen television prominently positioned upstage always keeps its influence at the forefront, and it features prominently in the action; but aside from the show's brief introductory sequence in which West, alone late at night, flips through the channels to see his favorite stars, all the roles - Liza Minnelli, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, Liberace, Carol Channing, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis, Jr., and more - are, of course, played by West himself.
And he displays a fine facility with all of them, a talent he's obviously honed over his long tenure in various editions of Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway series (which also plays in the Douglas Fairbanks). In mimicking the speaking and singing voices and mannerisms of these stars, he frequently is able to get at the heart of the uniqueness that makes them stand apart, and his cleverness and energy never flag.
The show itself does occasionally. That can't be precisely attributed to director Carl Schmehl, as he never lets West rest on his laurels, or musical director Bill Stanley who keeps West on his toes musically throughout. But the show itself doesn't always have the right energy to effectively capture how short attention spans are what television best thrives on, leading the show to occasionally fall into the trap of carrying one joke on for too long.
Predictably, West's best work is usually of the "quick hit" variety. His portrayals of Lawrence and Gormé - including an onstage transformation from one to the other to the tune of Jerry Herman's "A Little More Mascara" - come and go before you can digest how funny it really was; West's bitterly hilarious work as Jerry Lewis during a telethon is much the same. He's concocted a clever character of his own called Pee Wee Merman (draw your own conclusions - they'll be right!), and his outrageously coiffed and dressed Ella Fitzgerald, who can't stop scatting to save her life, is one of the funniest things I've seen onstage in months.
But the stars who don't come and go in the blink of an eye often tend to wear out their welcome. "Mister Liberace's Neighborhood" is an interesting idea that never quite gets off the ground, and Pearl Bailey - to whom West makes a dazzling transformation from Fitzgerald - is broadly drawn enough to not capture that great star's inimitable talent. His idea for Carol Channing being reduced to touring in a version of Hello, Dolly! running less than two minutes is good, but his full performance as Channing runs much longer. The one of his extended engagements that works the best is his lengthy tribute to Minnelli, who takes the audience on a tour of her rooms at the Betty Ford Clinic. Her foibles are on constant comic display, yes, but like his other work here, it's a heartfelt tribute at its core.
It was wise of West to ground the show by ending it with a thoroughly serious "I'll Be Seeing You" to lovingly salute the bygone stars who have given him so much work and - like so many millions of others - so much pleasure. The impersonations, songs, and comedy are the stated draws of Almost Live From the Betty Ford Clinic, but it's the affection we all have for them that make the show as funny and emotional as it ultimately is.
Almost Live From The Betty Ford Clinic