Broadway Reviews

Say Goodnight Gracie
The Love, Laughter and Life of George Burns

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 10, 2002

Say Goodnight Gracie Say Goodnight Gracie: The Love, Laughter and Life of George Burns by Rupert Holmes. Frank Gorshin as George Burns. Directed by John Tillinger. Scenic Consultant John Lee Beatty. Lighting design by Howard Werner. Sound design by Kevin Lacy. Multimedia design by Howard Werner and Peter Nigrini. Technical Supervision by Larry Morley.
Theatre: Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM. Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM. Sunday at 3 PM.
Ticket prices: $65 and $60. A $1.25 Facilities Fee will be added to the price of each ticket.
Tickets: Tele-Charge

The curtain at the Helen Hayes Theatre rises on a stage full of . . . what? Knowing that the play, Say Goodnight Gracie, is about George Burns, it's not a stretch to believe it's the smoke emanating from the trademark cigar of one of the funniest and most enduring entertainers of the 20th century. And when the man himself appears amid the billowing clouds, the question seems to be answered for you.

The answer author Rupert Holmes provides - it's the fog of limbo - is the only thing about Say Goodnight Gracie that feels even a bit labored. Burns having to audition for God before being allowed entrance into heaven is a rather silly, unnecessary conceit, but Holmes wisely uses it only as a springboard into an evening of joyous reflection and some of the funniest jokes ever.

Embodying this comic legend is Frank Gorshin. Though his voice may lack the familiar gravelly timbre of Burns's later years, and his physical resemblance is little more than an excellent approximation, Gorshin has so well defined Burns's essence that any real doubts about Gorshin are likely to fade away within the first few minutes. Gripping a cigar, waiting for a laugh to subside, or stumbling over words, Gorshin has done his homework in fashioning an accurate, sensitive, and very funny portrayal of Burns.

Gorshin's work is particularly striking during the early parts of the show, covering Burns's humble beginnings as Nathan Birnbaum, the young boy who decides to be his family's breadwinner after his father's early death. Nathan moves from occupation to occupation, finally learning the joys and rewards (occasionally financial) that can come from performing, and starts up his own singing group, the Pee Wee Quartet. Gorshin is remarkable in finding the youth and innocence in those moments exactly as one could envision the older Burns doing it. Watching Gorshin portraying the older Burns portraying the younger Burns is a sublime example of the theatricality and vaudeville sensibility that made Burns so unique.

Holmes and Gorshin find that same energy and balance perfectly throughout, though much of the script feels like exposition (albeit highly entertaining and enjoyable exposition) until Burns meets Gracie Allen. The loving detail with which their relationship is delineated, from being others' vaudeville partners, to being their own partners, and then being partners for life, shows that the real goal of Say Goodnight Gracie is to be a pure, flowers-and-candy valentine to Allen. And since the story is being told by Burns, it all makes perfect sense.

Just as Burns and Allen found their greatest success and notoriety together, Say Goodnight Gracie is never better than when charting the loving, comic relationship between the two. Learning about how Burns moved from funnyman to straight man in their act is enlightening, a valuable lesson in listening to and learning from your audience. Watching their vaudeville act at the Palace Theatre, performing "Tea for Two" interspersed with comic bits is like a history course in the essence of stage comedy. Burns's heartbreak when Gracie dies from a heart attack is touching, a sad end to an almost epic entertainment love story.

Gorshin handles all his moments with energy and finesse. Though he is occasionally aided by Gracie's voice (provided in a darn good approximation by Didi Conn), he's always a one-man dynamo, working within the boundaries established by Holmes and director John Tillinger, but always allowing just enough of Burns to shine through to make the fast-paced Say Goodnight Gracie and enlivening and heart-warming theatrical experience.

But Gorshin, good as he is, is still playing second fiddle to the show's real stars, Burns and Allen themselves. It's impossible to accurately assess their career without their memorable film and television work, and Tillinger (with the help of multimedia designers Howard Werner and Peter Nigrini) have provided that. This is both an inestimable asset and an insurmountable liability - the clips show how much Gorshin and Holmes have accomplished, but still display onscreen for the audience why their achievements can never replicated. The clips, which also feature Burns's longtime friend Jack Benny, are unbearably funny, the type of writing and performing that has long gone out of style.

Though Say Goodnight Gracie will perhaps appeal most to those who remember seeing Burns and Allen the first time around, the film and TV clips - and the show itself - make it clear that this is a show anyone of any age should see. There might be some comic talent around today, but it's not the same. Let Holmes, Gorshin, Benny, Burns, and Allen show you how it's really done.



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