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Save It for the Stage! The Life of Reilly

Take note, Bruce Vilanch: Game Show Celebrity is all-consuming. Charles Nelson Reilly won a Tony award for the original How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; he appeared in the original productions of Hello, Dolly! and Bye Bye Birdie, among others; his acting has received numerous Emmy nominations, and his directing recently earned a Tony nomination. Nonetheless, say the name "Charles Nelson Reilly" to a roomful of people, and the first thing they think of is "Hollywood Squares."

Reilly's autobiographical show, Save It for the Stage! The Life of Reilly is, in part, an attempt to set the record straight, once and for all. Reilly is an Actor, with a capital "A," who has trained with the best of 'em, worked with the best of 'em, and damn well ought to be thought of in the same class as the rest of 'em. Then again, he is also outrageously funny, and his show delivers the full portion of laughs one expects from an evening with Reilly onstage.

Although not divided along these lines, the show can be seen as the juxtaposition of two different shows: Save It for the Stage -- the story of Reilly's formative years, so named because his mother used to answer all his youthful questions with a dismissive, "Save it for the stage"; and Life of Reilly -- anecdotes from Reilly's rich, successful, always-on-"The Tonight Show" years.

Save It for the Stage is by far the better of the two shows. Reilly has the observational skills of the most talented of actors, and these skills on full display as he recounts stories from his childhood. When he speaks of his first trip to a movie house, Reilly conjures up every detail, from the ornate doors to the decorated ceiling, and he delivers up these memories with his original sense of childhood wonderment, effortlessly slipping into the character of his younger self. Many of Reilly's memories seem tailor-made for the stage. That he was overjoyed to be given the lead in his school play at age nine is to be expected; that his mother denied him permission because she felt he wasn't up to the task is brutal; but what his teacher told his mother afterward is life-altering.

Many of Reilly's early memories are bittersweet. He can turn from comic to tragic in the blink of an eye, and he brings the audience with him on every change. He never stays in the tragic too long; indeed, sometimes he'll signal a switch into a more dramatic moment, only to pause and shoot one last comic zinger at the room. Reilly gets his laughs from many sources: direct asides to the audience; a running gag in which he "casts" the roles of all the people in his life with well-known actors; some classic one-liners; and, very delicately, in the comedy that is inherent in the tragedy of life.

The Life of Reilly sections of the show are less successful. Reilly drops names and tells humorous anecdotes from his glory days, but the stories lack the emotional power and intimacy of the tales from his earlier years. With the exception of follow-ups on the family-members and friends we met as part of Reilly's youth, the stories are strictly about famous friends; never once do we get a glimpse into Reilly's personal life as an adult. There is no denying that the tales are funny -- indeed, the biggest laugh in the show is Reilly's "casting" of a fellow "Tonight Show" guest -- but this section of the show doesn't provide nearly the insight of Save It for the Stage, and ultimately could be done without. The entire show is over three hours long; Reilly himself conceded it needs cutting -- this is the place.

Reilly repeatedly jokes that the production values of the show are cheap, but there is a difference between "cheap" and "simple," and this production fits perfectly in the latter category. The set provides ample places for Reilly to sit, lean, walk around, and play in. It needs nothing more. If anything, the show is over-produced -- we don't need someone to play the audio of a movie to know Reilly is in a movie house; Reilly's memory of the sounds is more than sufficient. Reilly's costume, a loose-fitting outfit with a long necklace which found a way to wrap itself around his shoulder, also needs to be rethought.

All in all, though, Save It for the Stage is a memorable portrait of a kid growing up in The Bronx, a youth with a passion for the stage, a man who is grateful for the friends who have touched his soul . . . and that guy from "Hollywood Squares."

El Portal Center for the Arts; Jim Brochu, Artistic Director; Pegge Forrest, Managing Director; presents Charles Nelson Reilly in Save It for the Stage! The Life of Reilly. Written by Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Linke, directed by Paul Linke. Lighting design by Paul Martin Weeks, costume design by Noel Taylor, sound design by Kenneth K. Melvin, stage manager David Mingrino, set decor by Patrick Hughes, technical director Aaron Harper, sound board operator Matt Walters, publicist Forrest and Associates.

Save It for the Stage! The Life of Reilly plays at the El Portal Center for the Arts through July 15, 2001.


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-- Sharon Perlmutter




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