The Blonde in the Thunderbird Alan Hamel presents Suzanne Somers in The Blonde in the Thunderbird. Written and directed by Mitzie and Ken Welch. Conceived by Suzanne Somers. Based on 'Keeping Secrets' and 'After the Fall.' Set and lighting design by Roger Ball. Sound design by Robert Ludwig. Technical supervision by Overlap Productions/Tony Hauser. Music direction/orchestrations by Doug Walter. Music coordination by John Miller. Original music and lyrics by Ken and Mitzie Welch.
The rumors must be immediately put to rest: Suzanne Somers's one-woman show The Blonde in the Thunderbird is not a worthless piece of trash. It may in fact be one of the most beneficial shows to open on Broadway in decades, at least as far as crisis centers are concerned. Expect the next couple of weeks to be filled with news reports about major upswings in attendance, because demand among New York theatergoers will soon vastly exceed supply.
This isn't to say there's not an audience for the show, but whether they'll pry themselves away from Somers's show on the Home Shopping Channel long enough to make an official pilgrimage to the Brooks Atkinson is anyone's guess. And collectors of the most unique of theatrical experiences will be delighted, probably to the point of being reduced to quivering piles of orgiastic glee, by the crampy campfest Somers has to offer.
For the show begins - and ends - with her. Say whatever you like about her talent, but Somers is a world-class basker. She makes being appreciated into an art form: She knows just the body-hugging black outfit to wear, just at which angle to stand while wearing it so that her audience may gasp in delight and astonishment at her physical assets, and just the proper moment to reveal her age - 58 - so that the ensuing wave of approval dwarfs most tsunamis by several orders of magnitude. She can even get show-stopping applause merely by pulling out a Thigh Master at an opportune moment.
With skills like these, you might wonder why she ever bothered to take acting lessons. Believe it or not, she didn't - she learned the old-fashioned way: By being the daughter of an alcoholic father and learning to stretch the truth to cover up for him. "I guess all those lies were my acting lessons," she states matter-of-factly, secure now in the knowledge that she's in control of her own life.
There's no denying she's come a long way. After suffering a violent and booze-drenched upbringing, a teenage pregnancy and early divorce, years of near-poverty, the indignity of being fired from Three's Company, and a bout with breast cancer several years ago, she's facing the world healthy and on her own terms, as a star of essentially her own making. To discount her many legitimate, personal accomplishments would be folly.
But do those accomplishments - which she's already chronicled in two books - entitle her to the full-frontal assault on the audience's intelligence that she's trying to pass off as a show? Perhaps, in some mystical way known only to the biggest of stars. But that doesn't put the result in the same strata of successful solo efforts like Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays or Elaine Stritch At Liberty, nor does it make it theatrical. Or even tasteful. The show more closely resembles something Somers might do during one of her Las Vegas engagements, if the city's sense of propriety and artistic integrity suddenly bled away.
What's not melodramatic or outright farcical is generally told with music (there is, apparently, a live band), though many of her song choices might strike some as at best odd and at worst ridiculous. (Though one admires her courage to sing "If I Only Had a Brain.") Some musical theatre lovers even run the risk of being downright offended by her self-indulgent appropriations of "She Loves Me" (Bock/Harnick), "Fifty Percent" (Goldenberg/Bergmans), and "Self Portrait" (Kleban), though Somers makes every song her own, if usually by dint of performing them in ways that will make the writers or their estates want to disown them.
Her singing voice is passable, hardly embarrassing (she'd be great in She's the Sheriff: The Musical), but it's the renditions' hokey inappropriateness at issue here. Frank Loesser's "Take Back Your Mink," for example, is interspersed with anecdotes about being viciously abused by her father. The original songs, written by Mitzie and Ken Welch (who also wrote the script and directed), are no better, though at least they have no reputation to destroy. (If they did, lyrics like "Inventory / I'm taking / Inventory" and "But I love my hair" would certainly do the trick.) Thankfully, sound designer Robert Ludwig has obscured most of the lyrics - and everything else - by blasting Somers's voice at an obscene volume.
You are, however, guaranteed to see her clearly: Roger Ball lights Somers obsessively, and has designed a set replete with flying grey panels and a drab recliner that always keep her at the center of your focus. In addition, two gigantic projection screens broadcast live footage of her (in close-up, thank you very much) so that you never miss a single mischievous smile or pained frown.
The logic is unassailable: Give Somers the screen star a way to always be shown in the best possible light. Why the creative team didn't deduce that the best way to accomplish that would be to not do this show is anyone's guess. It was certainly clear to me within the first 10 minutes, but was proved again repeatedly as she distributed more and more of the nuggets of wisdom she's mined from her life, including the evening's capper, "The key in all our stories isn't so much what they are as what we do with them."
Personally, I'd prefer that didn't involve sullying songs by greats like Kern and Fields ("Pick Yourself Up") and Meyer and DeSylva ("If You Knew Susie," and no, I'm not joking), or watching her prance about the stage in a waist-high model Thunderbird. That moment is the climax of a dream sequence in which she ponders the best way to say the three words - "I love you" that constituted her entire role in American Graffiti, the film that first thrust her into the spotlight (and provided this show its title).
In the end, Somers explains, director George Lucas decided it better that she mouth the words and say nothing at all. That advice would have greatly improved The Blonde in the Thunderbird, too.