Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Say Goodnight, Gracie
It is likely that Say Goodnight, Gracie the solo play by Rupert Holmes has been continuously on stage since it was produced on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre in September, 2002. Performed originally by Frank Gorshin, Gracie ran on Broadway for 364 performances. Gorshin performed the role (with a break resulting from illness) around the country until his death in 2005.
Joel Rooks, who is currently performing the play at Morristown's Bickford Theatre, was with Gracie from the beginning as Gorshin's understudy, and John Tillinger is the director as he was on Broadway. So this is as authentic a presentation of the 2002 Broadway hit as one could ever see. Fortunately, Rooks' performance is lively and involved, and the production elements look and feel fresh.
The framing device for this re-telling of the lives of George Burns and his beloved marital and professional partner Gracie Allen finds Burns in limbo in a foggy waiting room to Heaven after his death at the age of 100. The Almighty (we hear only his voice) wants George to give a performance in order to prove that he is worthy of entry. At George's request, the Lord provides him an audience to work withthat is us. At the end of George's performance, Holmes brings the Lord and the fog back for George's exit to Heaven. There is no need for this creepy frame. This is particularly so for the senior audience for whom this show is catnip. Which reminds me that Gracie originated at the Broward County Center for the Performing Arts in Florida.
More felicitously, for most of his performance, Burns lovingly reminiscences on the highlights of his long and rich life. He talks about his days growing up as the son of immigrant parents on New York City's Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century (he was Nathan Birnbaum then), his introduction to show business in his early adolescence, and his early days in vaudeville capped by his meeting and partnering with Gracie Allen, who at the time was performing in her Irish family's vaudeville act. Their act in which George played the amused, tolerant husband to the sweetly scatterbrained, brilliantly written, comic illogic of wife Gracie, led to thirty-five years of stellar success in vaudeville, film, radio and television. Because of ill health, Allen retired in 1959 while the pair was still at the pinnacle of success. After Allen's death, Burns continued to work in television, miraculously returning to the top of the heap starring in four major movies beginning in 1975. A wonderful raconteur, Burns continued to work on television, in concert, and in major club rooms until he was ninety-nine years old. A fall prevented him from fulfilling a planned concert on his one hundredth birthday in 1996.
In addition to projected photographs (mostly of Gracie), Say Goodnight, Gracie is studded with a generous sampling of clips from an extensive series of Burns and Allen film shorts and one of their feature films, and excerpts from their iconic radio shows. Didi Cohn recorded re-creations of the radio routines for the Broadway production. I assume that those recordings are being employed here, but when viewing the play I believed that I was listening to the originals. This hilarious, ever fresh material provides the biggest laughs in this informative, nicely staged and performed, pleasantly nostalgic play.
Say Goodnight, Gracie continues performances (Eves: Thursday 7:30 PM (except 2/13); Friday and Saturday 8 PM/ Mats: Thursday (2/13), Sundays 2 PM) through February 16, 2014 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, New Jersey 07960, Box Office: 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.
Say Goodnight Gracie by Rupert Holmes/ portions adapted from the reminiscences of George Burns/ directed by John Tillinger.
George Burns................Joel Rooks