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Chicago by John Olson

Jack Lemmon Returns
Royal George Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Juno and Hit the Wall


Chris Lemmon
It's hard to imagine any lover of movies from the last half of the 20th century (which really means most any movie lover) who doesn't have affection for Jack Lemmon or wouldn't find the promise of his return an appealing thought. Lemmon's film career began back when a successful actor was also a movie star—carrying a familiar persona from film to film, regardless of the role. Lemmon's persona was that of an everyman. Fallible and vulnerable, but with an underlying decency and goodness. The kind of guy you'd invite over for dinner or beers—approachable in a way that other stars weren't. Less glamorous than Cary Grant, not cocky like Tony Curtis, but more flawed and less saintly than James Stewart, Henry Fonda or Gregory Peck.

It's this Jack Lemmon that has returned, through the performance of his son Chris Lemmon, working under the direction of Hershey Felder. The premise of the piece, written by Felder, is Jack relating his life story to some unidentified listener or listeners, recounting events from birth up until the diagnosis of the cancer that caused his death in 2001. Though Lemmon was 76 when he died, the Lemmon on stage has the energy of a man of Chris' age (just shy of 60, according to IMDB, though he looks younger). Age-wise, the Jack onstage here might seem like the Jack Lemmon of, say The China Syndrome or Missing—that is to say, Jack as we remember him. In the early minutes of the show, Chris deftly recreates Jack's trademark vocal and physical mannerisms—the occasional stammer, the distinctive laughs and the ever-present hand gestures. He uses these mannerisms probably more than Jack used them off-screen, I'd imagine—but, hey, that's how we knew Jack. As the 80-minute show progresses, Chris relies less on those well-known tics and carries the performance with his comfortable, completely relaxed stage presence. As actor, impressionist, singer and pianist, Chris Lemmon is a thoroughly engaging stage presence and this show is notable as much for its "discovery" of Chris Lemmon as its tribute to his father.

Chris Lemmon has a strong physical and vocal similarity to Jack. This is not unexpected, but he also offers spot-on impressions of some of the celebrities from Jack's world, including the likes of James Cagney, Billy Wilder, Jerry Lewis, Gregory Peck and even Marilyn Monroe. The charm of the impressions is not only Chris' skill in delivering them, but their role in depicting that golden era of Hollywood. Jack Lemmon not only was one of the best, he worked with the best, and the anecdotes told of Jack's professional acquaintances make an engaging tour through those years. We run into directors George Cukor and John Ford (the original director of Mister Roberts on film), and writer Neil Simon. There's a great tale of a party at Lemmon's home during which James Cagney pulls the young Christopher out of bed to meet the likes of Peck and Shirley MacLaine—and an even better one of the time young Chris stole into the yard of neighbor Marilyn Monroe as she was (reportedly) entertaining Mr. President himself.

As far as tell-all stories told by children of famous actors go, Jack Lemmon Returns is no Mommie Dearest, but it does expose some unseemlier aspects of Jack's life. Most touchingly, there's the story of how Jack's first marriage, to Christopher's mother Cynthia Stone, fell apart the night Jack won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Mister Roberts. And the play is frank about Jack's struggle with alcoholism and entry into recovery. Even so, as these bad choices are retold in stage terms by Jack himself, we see Jack as a self-aware and flawed, but decent guy. Much like the sort of man he played on film.

Felder's script keeps the point-of-view as Jack's, but Chris' perspective has certainly guided the piece. The relationship between Jack and Chris is shown to be a close, loving one in spite of Jack and Cynthia's divorce. Though Jack and Chris lived apart after the breakup, we're told Jack made daily visits to spend time with the son he affectionately called "hotshot." Equal importance is given to Jack's close friendship with his frequent screen partner Walter Matthau (whom Chris impersonates quite skillfully).

There's also a good deal of insight into Lemmon's growth as an artist. Chris as Jack leads off with a story of an impromptu elementary school stage role that got Jack addicted to earning laughs, and we also hear of his performance in a production of The Playboy of the Western World at Harvard University that had a similar result. There are other events, like a chance meeting with John Ford that led to Jack's casting in Mister Roberts, that establish that Jack was a lucky guy in many respects. Still, the script shows how Jack worked at his craft. One of the most moving sections of the piece, in fact, is Jack's story of how he studied Jean-Louis Barrault's performance in Children of Paradise and sought to learn Barrault's ability to make people laugh and cry at the same time. Ironically, it's the only piece of moving pictures in the show, with movie stills used in Andrew Wilder's projections to illustrate Jack's screen roles.

Though he began his career as a comic actor, we learn that Jack had always wanted to do serious roles. Felder and Chris Lemmon show us both sides of Jack's career, with Chris re-enacting short snippets of some of the most famous scenes, like the final moments of Some Like It Hot, in which Chris mimics Joe E. Brown as effectively as he does Jack. There are anecdotes and stills from all the key moments in Jack's filmography, and they illustrate Jack's journey from romantic comedy funnyman to serious actor capable of humor or drama. We're reminded of his roles, from It Should Happen to You with Judy Holliday through Mister Roberts, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment to his dramatic breakout role in Days of Wine and Roses and leading up to his intense turns in The China Syndrome and Missing.

One of the other surprises for me is that Jack was also a music lover and pianist and introduced Chris to the piano as well. Chris earned a degree in classical piano and composition—and winningly plays the grand piano on center stage for us on several occasions in the show. A recurring theme is George and Ira Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay." It's very clear this show is a love letter from Chris to Jack and from all of us to Jack and his body of work. Fortunately, that work is here to stay as well—preserved on film and video. Netflix—get ready for a boom in rentals of Jack Lemmon's films.

Jack Lemmon Returns is playing the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago. Tickets may be purchased by calling 312.988.9000. Box office hours are 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Tickets may also be purchased online at www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.


Photo: Charles Osgood

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-- John Olson



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