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Off Broadway Reviews

Smart Blonde

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 26, 2019

Andréa Burns
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Smart Blonde, Willy Holtzman's sketchy by-the-numbers bio play about the much loved actress Judy Holliday, gets one thing right in the production opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters. It leaves us wanting more.

Holliday (née Judith Tuvim of Queens, NY) is best remembered for two iconic roles: as Billie Dawn, the maybe-not-so-dumb-after-all blonde in the stage and screen productions of Born Yesterday, and as Ella, the kind-hearted meddler in the stage and film musical Bells Are Ringing. Her career was sidetracked when she was accused of hobnobbing with communists and was called to testify during the ugly days of the House Un-American Activities Committee. She managed to avoid getting mired in the mess that led to so many actors and writers being blacklisted by going into her Billie Dawn persona and proclaiming her naiveté. It worked, but, sadly, life had other plans for her, and she passed away of cancer in 1965 at the age of 44.

Sad, too, is the fact that the previous paragraph pretty much sums up the bulk of the content of Smart Blonde, directed at a fast pace but without much ingenuity by Peter Flynn. The play is made up of short scenes about Holliday's life, framed by a session at a recording studio. Throw in a few songs, mostly foreshortened versions of standards (though none from Bells Are Ringing), sweetly sung by the play's star Andréa Burns (Gloria Fajardo in Broadway's On Your Feet!), add a sprinkling of biographical notes, and there you have it.

Ms. Burns is joined by Mark Lotito, Jonathan Spivey, and Andrea Bianchi, all of whom gamely play multiple roles that unfortunately are not sufficiently differentiated by changes in costume or performance style, so that they or someone else has to identify their characters by name whenever they appear. For her part, Ms. Bianchi does show some real comic chops and mimicry skills, and her few moments as Ruth Gordon are quite funny in a Forbidden Broadway sort of way.

All in all, Smart Blonde touches upon much that begs for a richer and fuller treatment than what we are getting here. There are brief bits about Holliday's interactions with her interfering mother; her marriage to and divorce from clarinetist and classical music producer David Oppenheim; her long-term relationship with jazz great Gerry Mulligan; and her friendship with Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein. There are also the infuriating things she had to deal with, like being typecast, harangued over her weight, and being pawed by Hollywood producers, as well as facing her personal demons. So, yes, there is plenty of material to command a strong play or musical about Judy Holliday. Regrettably, this isn't it.

Smart Blonde
Through April 13
Theater B at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: