Whoopi: The 20th Anniversary Show by Whoopi Goldberg. Lighting design by Benjamin Pearcy. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Production stage manager Barclay Stiff. Production supervisor Arthur Siccardi.
Don't think about her name or her previous credits - look at her outfit. A bandana, blue jeans, long black shirt, and purple shoes are hardly clothes befitting a major Hollywood star. She must still be the down-home girl she was when she first made a splash on Broadway 20 years ago, right? Or is she trying in vain to recapture the nascent energy she radiated when her material, like her personality, was fresh and new?
The answer, of course, is both: Goldberg remains now everything that she was then, while also possessing a depth and seasoning she couldn't have had when her original show, Whoopi Goldberg, opened at the Lyceum in 1984. 20 years later, and at the same theater, her new effort Whoopi is both a tribute to that original success and an effort to make it relevant for modern, younger audiences who might be less willing to bask in her raw - yet now familiar - comic aura.
As to whether she's succeeded at that, who can say? What's certain is that she connects with audiences, able to reduce them to helpless blobs of laughter one second and quiet them completely the next. What's equally obvious is that Goldberg has now acquired such stature as a contemporary comic icon that her presence all but ensures an enthusiastic audience reaction - if the raucous guffaws last too long or ring too loudly, this is no doubt part of the reason. At least audiences seem to really want what she's dishing out.
But what we want and what's best for us aren't always the same thing. While Goldberg's dual gifts of expert comedy timing and simple, unadorned acting are in full force, one senses that her judgment and sense of deference to supervising powers have shrunk as her paychecks have grown. The "production supervisor" of her original show was Mike Nichols; this time around, it's Arthur Siccardi, though his presence is never felt. From the instant Goldberg appears onstage it's clear that this is her show and hers alone. We get what's interesting to her, regardless of appropriateness.
And almost nothing about her hyper-extended first segment is appropriate at all. Goldberg ostensibly plays a philosophizing junkie named Fontaine, but delivers an anti-Bush screed so vicious that she might as well be back at the John Kerry fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall. It's a non-stop volley of jokes at the expense of just about everyone in the Bush administration, though amazingly, only one crack - questioning John Ashcroft's sexuality - steps outside the bounds of propriety. The audience at the performance I attended ate it up, though none of it has anything to do with the character Goldberg is supposedly portraying.
But as soon as Fontaine returns and settles into a reminiscence about his visit to the Amsterdam building in which Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis during World War II, Whoopi begins falling into place. Goldberg shines when working within the kind of structure provided by the show's other, more rigidly delineated characters. She's equally convincing as a menopausal southern matron musing about sex and a valley girl coping with the inanities of adolescent relationships; Goldberg's physical and vocal characterization abilities remain top-notch.
Nothing demonstrates this, or her ability to be genuinely touching, better than her embodiment of a young handicapped woman discovering love. With a twist of her arm and a slight mushing of her speech, Goldberg paints an affectionate portrait of a woman whose self-esteem is bolstered by an unexpected admirer. When, in the course of recounting her story, the woman retreats into a dream in which she suffers from no physical impediments, Goldberg slowly reappears - now speaking and moving freely - as the woman's ideal picture of herself.
It's a moving, magical, and convincing moment, and Whoopi is never better. That's a shame given its running time of nearly two intermissionless hours; though Goldberg sends you out on a high note with a tight, hilarious depiction of a self-help guru obsessed with Law & Order, most of the other sketches would benefit from judicious trimming. But who's around to provide it? It doesn't affect the work of lighting designer Benjamin Pearcy (whose "lights up, lights down, lights up, lights down" lighting plot is as attractive as possible) or sound designer Peter Fitzgerald. And one suspects Siccardi's job was mainly to get out of Goldberg's way.
As for Goldberg herself, she undoubtedly knows that even if there's too much of everything, she can make it all play. And, of course, she can. But Whoopi's unnecessary excesses make a potentially great show only good, and then only intermittently. She, her five characters, and the audiences coming to see them all deserve better.