Whoopi Goldberg begins her 20th anniversary show shuffling onto the stage as Fontaine, the junkie with a literary degree. She greets the audience and asks for a response.
Listening to them, she jokes, "There are white people in the audience."
It actually doesn't require such fine tuning to hear that, since easily 75% of the audience consists of white people.
As the Good Book tells us, by their hooting you shall know them. These upper West Siders are desperate to show how cool they are.
Whoopi reprises some of the characters she did in her first Broadway show, like the Valley Girl who gets a coat-hanger abortion and the physically misshapen woman who dreams of being normal. This character, perhaps her deepest creation, demonstrates Whoopi's abundant gifts for physical comedy.
Her new material, however, is not about character. It's mostly standup comedy.
She begins with a political rant delivered - sort of - in the voice of Fontaine. It's something of a blessing, since it replaces much of the earlier, saccharine material about how eager Fontaine is to visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.
Occasionally her comments are fresh ("Gay marriage was a huge issue in the middle of the country - the people out there were afraid gay people were trying to marry them.") But much of the tirade seemed recycled from The Longest Campaign.
Later, she has a lot of jokes about menopause, which includes a whole sequence on flatulence. Tastelessness, I'm afraid, is not as novel or funny as it seemed 20 years ago.
If Whoopi felt compelled to make a comeback, perhaps she should have devised some characters as unusual as the ones she did back then, rather than just offering comedy-club riffs.
Twenty years ago, a young and unknown comedian with the unlikely name of Whoopi Goldberg stormed Broadway, vastly assisted by superstar director Mike Nichols.
Last night at the Lyceum Theatre, an older, possibly wiser and certainly very much better-known Whoopi returned to retrace those fledgling steps. Happily, she didn't trip.
A lot has happened to her over the past two decades, and it shows.
What remains totally unchanged is her levitating gift for spontaneity: She creates her own reality moment from moment.
At the start, she announces that there is no invisible fourth wall in her kind of theater - she addresses her audience face to face, often talking directly to innocent, or nearly innocent, patrons.
(Audience advisory: Unless you're as tough as crocodile hide, don't come late - or, if you're really late, cut your losses and just go home.)
In the grand old stand-up tradition, Whoopi taunts offenders mercilessly, with humorous but scathing mockery. You might find yourself agreeing with her when at the end of a gentle tantrum she suggests, "The only time you want to come late is in bed."
It's typical of a theatrical approach that raises off-the-cuff naturalness to an almost uncanny level of audience intimacy.
Her entire performance is acting that is brilliant in its sense of identification and commitment, and she constantly displays a geniality that could disarm even the fiercest ot her political opponents.
The first segment of her intermissionless show is forthrightly (actually, forth-leftly) political: a blue activist addressing a very blue audience in the bluest city in the nation.
As Fontaine -a dope fiend and college professor she's played before - she typically muses, "If Jesus came down today, he wouldn't be able to get into the United States."
Then, politics tucked neatly away, she moves on to another of her characters, Lurleen, and her torrent-of-consciousness riffs on a middle-aged woman facing menopause.
Waggling a fan like an out-of-control rudder, Lurleen announces, "I sweat, sweat. . . I could drown somebody."
From there, she's on to the trials and tribulations of aging. Inspired by "Sex and the City," Lurleen decides, with predictably disastrous results, to get a bikini wax.
From then on, it's only a small step to contemplating Botox and the dire possibilities of "needles in my face to freeze it."
Whoopi takes on a few other characters, including a sweet-natured paraplegic unexpectedly finding sexual love.
Finally, in a tour de force, she repeats her celebrated Valley Girl sketch of 20 years ago: a 14-year-old who finds herself pregnant and tries to terminate the pregnancy, horrifically, with a metal coat hanger.
Now the 20 years fail off the woman as if they were a cloak, and Whoopi seems exactly as she was on our first encounter with that strange, unique talent. Whoopi, indeed!
In her two decades of work in Hollywood, Whoopi Goldberg must have met a lot of directors. The place is positively lousy with 'em, right?
But scan the program for Ms. Goldberg's solo show, which returned to the Lyceum Theater on Broadway last night for a 20th-anniversary engagement, and you'll find none listed.
The movie star, television personality, ex-Slim-Fast spokeswoman and opponent of the current presidential administration chose to dispense with a director in mounting her semi-new collection of monologues, just as she did when her career-igniting solo show made its debut on Broadway in 1984. Twenty years ago, the omission could be forgiven as the boundless confidence of a bright young talent. And the brilliance of her gifts did indeed prevail: the show was a hit.
At 49, Ms. Goldberg is now an established, successful performer, and this time the oversight looks more like folly. She remains a spirited, engaging presence, but this is a show in desperate need of a stringent theatrical intelligence. Mike Nichols, who famously discovered Ms. Goldberg and ''supervised'' the original Broadway production, is among the producers of this newfangled ''Whoopi'' and has apparently offered some input. (The surname that once shared the Lyceum marquee is no longer necessary.) But there's little evidence that he -- or anyone else, for that matter -- has helped Ms. Goldberg shape this intermittently funny but sluggish evening of comic portraiture.
The striking change in Ms. Goldberg's celebrity status over the years poses a minor problem. When she oozed onstage in the persona of Fontaine, the talkative junkie we first met 20 years ago, an energetic voice called out from the balcony: ''We love you, Whoopi!'' A wary eyebrow rose above the Ray-Bans. ''When I see her I'll let her know,'' came the cool response.
Fontaine, a street philosopher and scam artist, has been watching the political scene through a haze of pharmaceutically induced acceptance. ''It gives me a false sense of security,'' he admits, ''but I like it.'' As he expounds at length on recent headlines, he still manages to serve up plenty of outrage, amusingly tempered by the distance that only a benevolent chemical can provide.
Fontaine's subject matter is nothing new. He laces into the Bush administration and its policies, but the raw, expletive-ridden vocabulary is vivid and the perspective is fresh. Fontaine's solution for capturing Osama bin Laden: ''Get child services on the case.''
This sharp-tongued, silken-voiced smoothie may well be the most engaging of the half-dozen personalities Ms. Goldberg introduces, or reintroduces, in the course of her 95-minute show. But even his monologue would benefit from judicious editing. Fontaine's amiably casual rap session gradually evolves into a preachy lecture, and long before its conclusion the pretense that we are being treated to the character's opinions rather than the performer's has become transparent.
Most of the other monologues similarly come unmoored from their roots in gently observed comedy, swerving suddenly into portentousness or sentimentality. Fontaine's rap ends, as before, with a heavily meaningful visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. The new character Lurleen, a menopausal woman who provides a personal history of feminine hygiene products, concludes her bawdy soliloquy with unexpected reflections on a suicide attempt. Another returning visitor, the chattering Surfer Chick with the Valley Girl voice (she's, like, so 80's!), describes a self-administered abortion with a coolness that is meant to chill us but is mostly just unconvincing. (And why did Ms. Goldberg excise this segment's best line, addressed with snooty superiority to a nun dispensing advice about sex: ''Penguin, how would you know?'')
The show's flaws were noted by some critics when it made its premiere back in the day. Writing in The New York Times, Frank Rich observed that all the segments dragged on and conformed to the same ''primitive dramatic formula.'' They remain guilty on both counts.
But the weaknesses are now more noticeable because Ms. Goldberg's grasp on the specific mannerisms and vocal inflections that define her characters is looser than it was two decades ago. Her current interpretations compare unfavorably with the incisive portraits of Sarah Jones, a bright newcomer to the monologue métier, whose ''Bridge & Tunnel'' was one of the theatrical highlights of the year. If Ms. Jones's characterizations have the clarity and focus of digital photographs, Ms. Goldberg's now resemble pictures drawn in sand.
Ms. Goldberg has, in the two decades since the original show appeared, become justly popular for her own naturally wry and earthy persona. This familiarly lovable Whoopi, who keeps poking through the texture of her fictional personae, is good company, to be sure. ''Whoopi'' will surely delight Ms. Goldberg's most ardent fans, and it may also charm audiences who did not see its far sharper first incarnation.
But as anyone who has observed her eclectic career knows, Ms. Goldberg is perhaps not always the best judge of material -- hers or anyone else's. How else to explain the bewildering speed with which she rappelled from Oscar winner to Hollywood Square? ''Whoopi'' offers further evidence that innately incandescent though she may be, Ms. Goldberg's gifts shine brightest when they are smartly -- and strictly -- harnessed.
She arrived at her Broadway debut with the endorsement of no less a theater giant than director Mike Nichols. A malleable little figure with a radiant smile and a deft sense of mimicry, the newcomer with a weird name - Whoopi Goldberg – stood alone on the Lyceum Theatre stage in matted braids, old cowboy boots and a black jacket over a T-shirt.
Twenty years later, she is back on the same stage - not quite so tiny, less eager to please, a pop-culture icon whose career ups and dumps are as familiar as the characters she created.
How you feel about "Whoopi: The 20th Anniversary Show" will depend, in huge part, on the feelings you have accumulated about her through the years. This is a loose, pretty shapeless, 90-minute opportunity to hang out with a battered but still charismatic old friend while she rants on about post-election politics, post-estrogen womanhood and other familiar indignities.
We've found ourselves heading against the wind on the Whoopi issue through the years. Although we recognized her personal magnetism in her 1984 breakthrough showcase, her material struck us as a flabby, self-righteously naive set of manipulative character-monologues. On the whole, it was indistinguishable from a decent night at a comedy club.
The anniversary-show material isn't any fresher: on the contrary! Her attempts at audience participation and her scolding of latecomers just make us more nervous about the Vegas-ization of Broadway this season.
And yet, Goldberg has worn better than we expected. Despite her iffy career choices and occasional public blunders, we have grown fond of her bawdy Moms Mabley persona, respected her social activism and admired her talent.
In other words, we're feeling more indulgent about this show than it deserves. It should not be aiming at such easy targets or leaning so heavily on complaints about the aging female body. If a Martian were to come to Broadway this week and see "Whoopi" and Eve Ensler's "The Good Body," the alien would conclude that at least half the earthling population cannot see beyond their own butts.
Goldberg's show, co-produced by Nichols, brings back several of her best-known characters, creations that went from Broadway to an HBO special and, in 1985, a Grammy Award-winning record.
It seems Lurleen is now bitter about hot flashes, grateful to June Allyson's ads for adult diapers (oh, please!) and angry that "nobody said this was coming." This deluded woman thinks men have always been told what to expect from their bodies, but female changes are "things we never talk about."
Women? Not talk about their biology? On what planet?
The evening, set against the theater's plain back wall, begins with a visit from Fontaine, the self-described "dope fiend" and political commentator. Goldberg still has his uncanny heroin balance-act down. She also appears unafraid that her blunt opinions will endanger her commercial value as a product endorser. She is too valuable to be selling Slim-Fast anyway.
While the Lyceum Theater stage might be the same one on which Whoopi Goldberg launched her career 20 years ago, and three of the five character studies in her solo show might be familiar from the first time around, the star herself is an entirely different animal. The comic brilliance is intact, but two decades of celebrity from film and television roles, a talkshow and a sitcom have taken their toll on Goldberg's humility, making her a far less giving performer, less willing to shed her own persona and slip seamlessly inside another character.
And while original presenter and production supervisor Mike Nichols is again on board, the absence from the credits of a director is evi-dent throughout this unfocused return to Goldberg's roots. Like an unknotted, over-inflated balloon, "Whoopi" is loudly, buoyantly airborne for an initially exuberant spin, before sputtering with gradually decreasing energy and landing with a splat on the ground.
That's not to say the show is unfunny. Standing on a bare stage with only minimal variations in costume and subtle changes in lighting, Goldberg delivers plenty of salty hilarity, especially via the first two characters on the bill. Much as both could benefit from a script editor, they represent the show's high points.
Goldberg starts on a familiar note with Fontaine. As in the original show, the crudely articulate, crotch-grabbing male dope fiend and thief enters the stage singing "Around the World in 80 Motherfuckin' Days," proceeding to recount a sobering awakening in Amsterdam's Anne Frank House.
Not surprisingly, for a performer whose irreverent attacks on the Republican elite were deemed too strong even for Democrats at a Kerry fundraiser over the summer, Fontaine has become primarily a vehicle for Goldberg to vent against the Bush administration. The president's re-election provides new reasons for the character to alter his reality: "We had a president who lied about getting some and we impeached him. Then we had a president who lied about all kinds of shit. And people are dying. And we put him back. And I thought, 'I need more drugs.' "
Fontaine's perplexity over the war in Iraq, the hunt for Osama, Middle America's terror of gay marriage and the job of Condoleezza Rice (this before news emerged of her bump-up to secretary of state) yield steady laughs. But while the amiable junkie was a fully inhabited char-acter 20 years ago, it's now impossible to separate Goldberg from Fontaine, making much of the rant seem like politically driven material heard on standup stages everywhere.
Second in the lineup is Lurlene, an earthy, menopausal Southern woman unamused by the onset of hot flashes, cold flashes, weight gain, unwanted hair growth, memory loss and a dysfunctional bladder. A worthy new addition to the show, the character hilariously traces the evolution of sanitary protection in her lifetime, obsesses about men's bathroom habits vs. women's and uses "Sex and the City" as her guide to hook into young culture, resulting in a funny, agonizing account of a waxing appointment.
The piece is over-extended and gets off-track with Lurlene's computer phobia, but is tidily pulled together with a message about embracing rather than fearing change.
The remainder of the show includes two lazily recycled characters from the original and a one-joke new entry that makes for a disastrously feeble closer.
When Goldberg first played Broadway, she was one of very few women to follow in the footsteps of dirty-mouthed, take-no-prisoners solo comedy performers like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. And when she first gave voice to her pregnant Catholic Valley Girl surfer, there was something wickedly liberating about a black woman with a head of unruly dreadlocks playing a white California airhead. But clueless Vals have since become a staple of, like, a gazillion teen movies and women like Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes have followed with far more barbed, cutting-edge white-girl riffs.
What ages the reprise even more is that Goldberg skims through the piece, sacrificing the buildup that initially gave the character's grim revelation its impact.
The physically disabled, speech-impaired woman who unexpectedly finds love was always a weak, sentimental link in the show and re-mains so. It perhaps would have made more sense to revive the original show's 6-year-old black girl starved for TV images of herself and dreaming of being white, or the Jamaican souvenir vendor who married a wealthy American "old raisin," either of which might have more resiliently withstood the test of time.
Final character represents a complete fizzle -- a "Law & Order" fan, or "Ordery," as reverentially obsessed with the show as Trekkies are with "Star Trek."
Goldberg's rather perfunctory bows at the close of the show would seem to indicate she might be conscious of how flat the final section is, though perhaps not so aware as the premium orchestra ticket buyers who paid $151.25 per seat.