Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me - A Comedy Musical Book by Martin Short, Daniel Goldfarb. Music and arrangements by March Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman. Conceived by Martin Short and Scott Wittman. Additional material by Alan Zweibel. Directed by Scott Wittman. Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Chris Lee. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Orchestrations by Larry Blank. Featuring Brooks Ashmanskas, Mary Birdsong, Capathia Jenkins, Nicole Parker, Marc Shaiman.
Put away your tear-resistant finery, ladies and gentlemen, you won't need it tonight. Yes, you'll be spending your evening at the Bernard B. Jacobs in the company of a major star undertaking his first solo effort, but the plethora of personal details he'll reveal will not induce crying. Even though the star in question is Martin Short, he'll see to it you're in no danger of welling up due to excessive laughter, either.
How can this be? Put simply, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me is one of the most curious celebrity solo outings of its kind. This is not because Short, a Second City veteran who tumbled to stardom on Saturday Night Live and properly managed its ensuing attention, shares the stage with five other performers. Or, for that matter, because he admits upfront that you can't trust anything he'll tell you. What sets Fame Becomes Me apart is its headliner's ability - and apparently preference - to be a second banana in his own vehicle.
Only true stars can get away with this, and even then they had better have a darn good reason. Short does, and he does. Unfortunately, that's not enough to make most of this 95-minute vaudeville-variety hour more than mildly pleasurable. As written by Short and Daniel Goldfarb, composed by Hairspray duo Scott Wittman (who also directed) and Marc Shaiman, and boasting sets (by Scott Pask) and crazy costumes (Jess Goldstein) that variously recall The Carol Burnett Show and the musical Gypsy, nothing ever occurs in more than two dimensions.
This is intentional. Though Short is an agile comic actor, his pathway to performances typically leads through his characters' insecurities. Depth, or the simple illusion of it, would shatter his ability to make anyone believable. So, in Fame Becomes Me, he applies this technique to playing the character of Martin Short: He makes his entrance atop a staircase built too tall to keep his face out of the flies; a sound "malfunction" reveals a money note to have been prerecorded; he defines his true goal for the evening in terms of many actors' innermost desires: "All I ask is you love me," he sings, "And like me as well / I'm desperate for approval / And needy as hell."
It's an auspicious, correct beginning, if one seldom matched by the stories he subsequently spins. He starts at the beginning, the hospital nursery, where he spent his first minutes trying to acquire as many mammaries as possible. We then meet his family, headed by Canadian film star Shim O'Short; learn how his desire to act was fostered by the horrifying day his father called for the belt (because he didn't want to wear suspenders); follow him to New York City, where he becomes involved in Off-Off-Broadway theatre and meets his future wife; and eventually watch him ascend to hyper-stardom, if not without the requisite bouts with addiction and self-importance that first send him on a life-changing trip to heaven.
Short has little troubling making all this amusing, but the thin score (which, much like Hairspray's, is an amalgam of homeless styles in search of a mansion), and thinner premise wear out their welcome long before this faux-confessional runs its course. There's no lack of tornado-breezy cleverness, but Wittman's staging never builds any of it into hilarity, and Christopher Gattelli's choreography is similarly (and bafflingly) anonymous.
So, for that matter, is Short. Even for a show intent on illuminating nothing about its subject, it's not a good sign when that subject derives no visible comfort from playing himself. Short is only completely at home when portraying his trademark characters Ed Grimley and Jiminy Glick (who briefly conducts an impromptu interview with a visiting Guest Star, a radiant Cynthia Nixon at my performance), and - in the climactic, overlong heaven sequence - lesbian-loving jokester Irving Cohen. The rest of the time - goofily energetic magnetism and firm singing aside - it's hard to tell just who Short is supposed to be.
His costars, however, suffer no such problem: Brooks Ashmanskas, Mary Birdsong, Capathia Jenkins, and Nicole Parker have rarely found better showcases for their prodigious talents than are provided them here, and they offer up some of the sharpest, funniest portrayals of their careers.
During "Martin Auditions for the Greats" sequence, Ashmanskas delivers a screamingly funny Tommy Tune (walking on riotously rickety stilts) and a dangerously indulgent Bob Fosse. Birdsong adroitly channels celebrities ranging from Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli to Joan Rivers, while Parker ecstatically essays Celine Dion, Ellen DeGeneres, and an elegantly degenerate Britney Spears. Jenkins compensates (and how!) for a general lack of stage time with a titanic 11-o'clock number in which - as she sings - the "big black lady stops the show." (And, might I add, stops it thoroughly.)
It's as close as the composer gets, too. The shameless Shaiman, bizarrely tapped to act as well as play piano in the nine-man band, overacts distractingly enough to make the historically outsized Ashmanskas look restrained. Shaiman's googly eye movements, lumbering physicality, and whiny, affected voice ought to relegate him to the pit, or somewhere he can compose in private.
Everyone else ought to stay firmly put - they're the real reason to see Fame Becomes Me. Short even seems to know this, and makes himself look more impressive as a result: Someone of his stature so often ceding so much of the spotlight to little-known but exceptionally gifted stage actors, as if to help make them household names? Whatever his show's other failings, that alone proves that Short is a star by any definition, and that fame truly does become him.