Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Look Mom, I'm Swell! and Go, Dog. Go!
In Look Mom, I'm Swell!, local actor Tony Braithwaite sings, dances and jokes his way through the story of his upbringing in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd (which, he claims in jest, is "an Indian phrase which means 'inhabited by Jews'"). Braithwaite displays plenty of the charm and wit that has helped to establish him as one of the region's most dependable comic actors. (He won a Barrymore Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 2005, beating out Bronson Pinchot for the honor.)
In his opening song, Braithwaite quips that he'll do routines he "stole from Martin Short," and later he openly compares his own (excellent) performance as Pseudolus in the Arden's 2006 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Nathan Lane's turn in that show's 1996 Broadway revival. If, like me, you're a fan of Short and Lane, you'll probably enjoy this turn by their genial disciple Braithwaite. But if a little of their go-for-broke, please-love-me style goes a long way for you, this 75-minute show may seem like a long night.
Braithwaite's stated purpose here is to pay tribute to his late mother Sally, a frustrated actress who instilled a love of performing in her son. With Sally, nearly every occasion was an excuse for a party where "everyone performed and most people sucked but it didn't matter." When Tony decided to become an actor himself in high school, Sally was his coach, even teaching him how to waltz for the role of Higgins in My Fair Lady. (The story of how Sally met Rex Harrison during the 1956 Philadelphia tryout of that show is a real charmer.)
The tales of his beloved mother are interesting in a you-had-to-be-there way. On the night that I attended, it sounded like a lot of people in the audience really had been there. (When Braithwaite told the story of the one time he accidentally cursed while talking to his mother, a woman near me gasped "To Sally?!") The theater was stocked with Braithwaite's friends from Saint Joe's Prep, where he attended high school and later taught, and where he still directs plays ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood opens May 8th!"). The crowd seemed predisposed to love everything about Braithwaite's act, even though when he recreates his earliest triumphs as a performer (a Stanley Holloway monologue he learned to recite at age seven, and a speech from Julius Caesar that won him a national acting award when he was a teenager), he treads very close to being an insufferable show-off. Then there's a song in which Braithwaite, a gifted mimic, reels off a rapid-fure series of impressions - a number that fails because the impressions are either too obvious (George Burns), too obscure (Bradley Whitford) or too quick (a bunch of voices I failed to identify).
The most interesting aspects of Braithwaite's show were not the stories about his mother but the stories about his flings with big-time success. There's the tale of how, at the age of 13, Tony became the youngest comedian ever signed as a regular performer at the New York Improv. And then there's the saga of how, just after graduating from Georgetown, Tony went to Hollywood and became a protégé of Disney mogul Michael Eisner - yet found that his connection to the most powerful man in show business had its up side (hobnobbing with stars like Glenn Close) and its down side (an inability to land acting jobs).
What makes the Eisner story so fascinating is watching Braithwaite turn angry. He clearly hasn't forgiven Eisner for his callous behavior, and he pays Eisner back with a withering impression. (Braithwaite also does a swishy impression of Eisner's son Breck, which is troubling because he never quite specifies what Breck did to hurt him other than be the son of a superficial tycoon.)
Returning home, Braithwaite then deals with Sally's death from cancer - but the story is more uplifting than mawkish. You're left with a feeling of warmth for Tony and his mom, because Tony comes off as a (mostly) sweet guy, and his affection for his mom and her legacy are quite touching. Even when he's less than uproarious, he can't help being likable.
Braithwaite concludes his show by reaching into a fishbowl and pulling out cards filled out by audience members, then encouraging them to come onstage and share their talents (in the tradition of Sally's parties). On the night I attended, the first contestant was a woman who claimed her talent was whistling the National Anthem (staying on pitch was not one of her talents). The last contestant was one of Tony's former students from the Prep, who came onstage to sing a Ben Folds song to his girlfriend. At the end of the song, he pulled out an engagement ring and proposed marriage to her. She said yes.
You know, I wasn't crazy about every part of Look Mom, I'm Swell! - but I have to admit, I love a show with a happy ending.
The Arden's new production of Go, Dog. Go! is terrific, turning a simple book of skits and non-sequiturs ("Do you like my hat?") into an enchanting comic romp.
The book is pretty short, and adaptors Allison Gregory and Steven Dietz haven't added many words to it; yet at an hour's length, Go, Dog. Go! never seems padded. That's because what's been added are some inspired comedy routines. The opening segment, which runs about five minutes, depicts a theatergoer who takes a seat and suddenly finds himself turning into a dog against his wishes. He takes off his Phillies cap and finds droopy ears sprouting from his head, then takes off his coat and finds a tail has appeared - a tail that, as a dog, he has no choice but to chase. And then there are the roller skates that appear on his feet as if by magic. It's a brilliant slapstick performance by Doug Hara, one that will introduce kids to the magic of clowning better than any circus could hope to.
The whole show goes like that - we see dogs working, driving cars, and playing baseball. There's no plot; instead, each scene is just an excuse for some outstanding silent movie-style physical humor by a gifted cast. (Chris Faith, whose barely controlled comic frustration is reminiscent of Edgar Kennedy, is another standout.) Matt Pfeiffer's direction is exuberant, and even gets the kids in the audience involved in the action. And there are some versatile sets by Brian Sidney Bembridge and clever costumes by Lisa Zinni.
Go, Dog. Go! is meant for kids under 11, but grownups will probably enjoy it too. There's a lot of inventiveness invested in this effort that will make both kids and grownups smile.
Look Mom, I'm Swell! runs through May 3, 2008. Go, Dog. Go! runs through June 1, 2008. Both shows are at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.