The title is "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me," but its star makes room for plenty of other celebs in his show.
There's Judy Garland and Andy Warhol. Liz and Dick. Bob Fosse. And is that Joan Rivers?
If that crusty lineup doesn't strike you as the freshest party mix in 2006, that's the nagging thing about this loopy stew of a revue, which opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, some ingredients are stale.
Sure, there are laughs - lots of them. With his zany face and elastic body, Short is built for funny. He and everyone work their butts off. One guy even flashes his. But a lot of the material feels far too familiar.
The show (Short wrote it with Daniel Goldfarb, and it got tweaks from Alan Zweibel) is meant to spoof Broadway solo confessionals like Billy Crystal's, with songs by "Hairs pray" duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who coconceived and directs.
A plucky, wildly talented ensemble - Brooks Ashmanskas, Mary Birdsong, Capathia Jenkins, Nicole Parker and Shaiman - gives great support, each acting out several roles in Short's birth, childhood, career, marriage and even his death. Characters from his TV past - from Ed Grimley to Jackie Rogers Jr.- show up, too.
But, of course, this is no bio. "Fame Becomes Me" is a heaving pupu platter of sketches filled with burlesque humor (boob jokes, farts and off-color limericks), sight gags (scene-stealer Ashmanskas towers as Tommy Tune), cartoony sets (by Scott Pask) and comical costumes (by Jess Goldstein) - everything you'd expect from "Forbidden Broadway" or a TV variety show like, say, "Saturday Night Live" ... or "Hee Haw."
At its best, the show comes off as surprisingly silly. A Paris Hilton-cabala punch line has zing. And a kamikaze Q&A between Jiminy Glick, Short's inept celeb interviewer, and a semi-unsuspecting audience member – Cynthia Nixon, the night I saw the show - had an element of anything might happen. "So where were you when the Queen killed Diana?" A crazy question out of left field that got a huge audience response.
On the other hand, the show trots out tired retreads like a "Wicked" sendup, plus faded bits about Britney Spears dropping her kid (old), Celine Dion being an egomaniac (older) and Rivers (Jurassic). And it would have been great if Short got a bona fide big number, instead of the satirical show-stopper starring the fabulous Jenkins, which she nails, near the end of the show.
Short calls it "a party." But before you RSVP, just know some of the refreshments are past their sell-by date.
They lie to you. They tell you talent is enough. But it's never enough. Even genius is not enough. You need something called material.
That was shown - or rather not shown - abundantly last night at the Bernard J. Jacobs Theatre, where the show "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me" seemed buried neck-deep in talent. And I don't mean just the phenomenally gifted Short himself.
The entire blissfully supportive supporting cast - Brooks Ashmanskas, Mary Birdsong, Capathia Jenkins, Nicole Parker and Marc Shaiman - stood almost as tall in the talent bracket.
There is even a variable guest celebrity slot - at the performance I saw it was filled by Tracy Ullman - following the precedent of an earlier Broadway venture, "The Play What I Wrote." (If you ask "What?" to that, don't worry, I understand - it wasn't around for too many guest celebrities.)
Yet all the King's horses and all the King's men don't help if the damned wall doesn't stand up.
The show - conceived by Short and Scott Wittman - trades on Short's own delicious brand of fatuous irony, daring absurdity and beautifully self-destructive egotism.
Wait, that makes it sound better than it is.
For despite Short's edgy charm, which is considerable, the evening itself is simply a series of revue vignettes hung on a kind of autobiographical clothesline from the hero's unexceptional birth in Hamilton, Ontario, to his modest stardom in Hollywood.
The music and lyrics by Shaiman and Wittman - of "Hairspray" repute - are essentially unmemorable and certainly unhummable, leaving the highly talented cast rubbing shticks together in the hope of igniting some kind of theatrical fire.
Too many, unfortunately, are simply damp squibs.
The dance pastiches of Tommy Tune and Bob Fosse - in both of which Ashmanskas is hilariously cleverand some of the sly impersonations, such as Parker undulating horrifically as a demented Ellen DeGeneres, or Short both as a raspy voiced, cruelly trembling Katharine Hepburn and a plummy-toned Richard Burton, have the right pungency and bite.
And it wouldn't be a Short show if our hero did not introduce one or two of his TV alter-egos, such as that fearless interviewer, the chin-challenged and otherwise obnoxious Jiminy Glick, and the cigar-chomping Broadway producer, Irving Cohen.
The talent is there. But what "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me" needed was a real producer/director who could trim and edit, prod and probe, and make a proper vehicle for these people, rather than an ambling hobbyhorse for the hard-working and infinitely adorable Short.
Here - through no one's fault but his own - Short is very much short-changed.
Like some crazy mixed-up house pet — part pit bull, part lap dog — the Broadway musical has taken to biting and licking simultaneously the hand that feeds it. A blend of poison pen and love letter to the traditional song-and-dance show, spiked with the backstage knowingness of an obsessive theater queen, has been the formula for hits like “The Producers” (the rakish father of the trend), “Spamalot,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
A suspended Martin Short, and a more earthbound crew of, from left, Mary Birdsong, Capathia Jenkins and Brooks Ashmanskas.
The latest entry in this sweet but snarky category is “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me,” the eager and amiably scattershot “comedy musical” that opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. It has to be said that Mr. Short, an appealing and immodestly modest (or is it modestly immodest?) performer, arrives a little late at the table for such parody to feel very fresh.
Still, credit the production — which includes songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (of “Hairspray” fame) and is directed by Mr. Wittman — for coming up with one of the bravest moments of insider satire that this self-conscious subgenre has yet provided. This joyous raspberry is sounded toward the end of “Fame Becomes Me,” which is a musical sendup of another expanding Broadway subgenre: the stand-up memoir, à la Elaine Stritch, Suzanne Somers and Billy Crystal.
Mr. Short, aided by a bouncy supporting cast, has unfolded a spurious autobiographical tale about a dysfunctional childhood, a Broadway-gypsy youth, a descent into drugs and public misbehavior, a glorious comeback and an untimely death. (The script is by Mr. Short and Daniel Goldfarb, with additional material by Alan Zweibel.)
Even though Mr. Short has been tireless, morphing into the most famous alter-egos of his television career (the übernerd Ed Grimley, the talk-show host Jiminy Glick et al.), the show has not sustained the momentum it needs to soar.
Enter one dea ex machina, named Capathia Jenkins. Broad of beam, with an even larger voice, Ms. Jenkins is also African-American, which would normally be beside the point. But as she says while she hustles Mr. Short (now in the guise of a geriatric songwriter) out of a sketch set in heaven, her race is a crucial part of the showbiz package she represents. She sings her explanation with rafter-rattling gusto:
If your plot’s running thin
And the ticket sales are slow
Let a big black lady stop the show.
The song, called “Stop the Show,” goes on ruthlessly to dissect an overexploited entertainment stereotype, a variation of which is found frequently, amid increasing controversy, on television commercials. (Ms. Jenkins wonders why songs for this stereotype, whether gospel or blues, are usually written by “gay white Jews.”) The inclusion of this number is all the gutsier when you realize that just such a show-stopper is used more than once in “Hairspray” (the popular Wittman-Shaiman musical) and was desperately trotted out in “The Goodbye Girl,” the notorious 1993 flop that starred Mr. Short.
But something strange happens as Ms. Jenkins keeps pumping up the volume. The audience, having first laughed a little uncertainly at the joke, starts to revel in the gospel beat, clapping along and bobbing its collective head. Sure enough, “Stop the Show,” alone among the production’s 20-some numbers, stops the show.
Talk about having your red velvet cake and eating it too. “Stop the Show” is the most successful embodiment of the contradictory desires to soothe and sting that propel “Fame Becomes Me.” As befits the comic persona of Mr. Short, who always seemed like the friendliest of the “Saturday Night Live” alumni who made it big, it’s the urge to ingratiate that wins out. “Fame Becomes Me” longs to appeal on so many levels that it winds up twisting itself into a pretzel: the soft kind, sold at malls, that practically melts in your mouth.
Flitting through post-“S.N.L.” television series and movies of varying quality and success, the Canadian-born, immensely talented Mr. Short has become a wandering star in search of a galaxy. As his performances in the limp 1998 revival of “Little Me” (for which he won a Tony) and the even limper “Goodbye Girl” attested, he’s a natural for live musicals, a limber singer and dancer who exudes a fiery energy that makes you want to reach for your sunglasses.
“Fame Becomes Me” was supposed to be the custom-made vehicle that finally took full advantage of Mr. Short’s stageworthiness. But instead of being pure pleasure, it’s merely pleasant, rather like a decent summer-replacement comedy sketch series on television.
That may be because the show wants to do too much, at the expense of letting us get to know its star. Now of course part of the point of “Fame Becomes Me,” which was conceived by Mr. Short and Mr. Wittman, is that you don’t get to know Mr. Short.
The show is a goof on the theatricalization of the celebrity autobiography in a time, as the opening song puts it, when “everyone’s vagina’s got a monologue.” Mr. Short explains that since his life has been so happy, he’ll have to invent a scandalous history. “A lot of what I’m telling you tonight will be true,” he says, “a lot I’ll be making up. See if you can tell the difference.”
But though there’s a vague (and only vaguely witty) bio-narrative, “Fame Becomes Me” is essentially an old-fashioned revue with serviceably melodic songs and the gear-stripping rhythms of a jittery stand-up comic. It keeps throwing out one joke after another to see which will stick.
Some of these jokes are good, some moldy. But Mr. Short never settles into one routine or character long enough for us to savor it fully. (A nifty “Wizard of Oz” riff, in which Mr. Short appears as a singing picket fence to Mary Birdsong’s spot-on Dorothy, comes and goes all too quickly.) And when he’s being the real Martin Short, commenting wryly in song on the whole shebang, he seems inchoate, like a chameleon without a skin, or — given his trademark impish look — a little boy waiting hopefully to grow up.
As its title promises, the show caters to and makes fun of the American obsession with fame. This allows Mr. Short to appear entertainingly as the fatuous celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick. (The changing cast of guest-star interviewees are real; the one I saw was an unflappable Nathan Lane.)
The ensemble members — Mr. Shaiman , Ms. Jenkins, Ms. Birdsong, Brooks Ashmanskas and Nicole Parker — show up as an assortment of bold-face beings: Joan Rivers, Andy Warhol, Celine Dion, Liza Minnelli, a baby-dropping Britney Spears and (most devilishly) the choreographers Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune, for whom Mr. Short says he once auditioned.
There are also lots of references to other musicals, from Ms. Stritch’s one-woman show about surviving alcoholism and stardom (Mr. Short’s version is called “A Dry Martin, Straight Up With a Twist”) to the pop musical “Godspell” (here reincarnated as “Jesus’ Stepbrother”).
The problem is that every other musical in town, starting with the evergreen “Forbidden Broadway,” is trafficking in similar material, often with considerably more bite. Mr. Short twinkles beguilingly throughout the hit-and-miss farrago that is “Fame Becomes Me.” But, bless his heart, he has yet to find a show that lets him shine as he was meant to.
In an age when nothing piques popular curiosity quite like a glimpse of Suri Holmes Cruise or a fresh Brangelina development, it's appropriate that the new Broadway season's first entries are both concerned with celebrity mythomania. But the two shows couldn't be more distant in tone. "Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway" ferociously airs the gnarled cabaret duo's jaded view that we're all going to die, so bring it on. But in his winsome musical showcase, "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me," the comic cheekily embraces his own death as an avenue to greater glorification.
Essentially a solo show with sparkling comedic and vocal support from an additional cast of five -- including composer and co-conceiver Marc Shaiman, an engaging stage personality, bouncing and squirming with glee at the piano -- Short's wildly embellished self-celebration makes a virtue of the glib smugness that's almost a prerequisite of the form.
Despite a similar fascination with fame, his faux sincerity is entirely different from, say, Sandra Bernhard's -- the style here is more benign and ingratiating, less sardonic. But that's not to say it's a toothless session of ego massage and celeb satire.
Short's irreverent riffs on stars past and present are matched by a refreshing refusal to take himself too seriously. Given that you can't switch on an awards show without someone gushing, "I am so-oo blessed," it's funny to witness a star conceding upfront that a life of success and happiness is a yawn for everyone else. Hence the need to invent a dysfunctional past and concoct a brush with mortality. "A lot of what I'll be telling you will be true," Short offers. "A lot I'll be making up. See if you can tell the difference."
Despite some memorable film appearances, Short was arguably at his best on "SCTV" and "Saturday Night Live." That background is apparent in the sketch-based nature of his book for this show, co-written with playwright Daniel Goldfarb ("Modern Orthodox") and with additional material by vet "SNL" scribe Alan Zweibel, who undertook similar duties on Billy Crystal's "700 Sundays." As in all skit shows, the material is inconsistent, but here it's on the mark more often than not.
In the song "Babies," we get Short's birth and instant breast fixation; in "Don't Wanna Be Me," he escapes his supposedly abusive father (shades of Suzanne Somers' embarrassing solo show) into the fantasy of TV talkshow stardom. In "Ba-Ba-Ba-Bu-Duh Broadway!" he leaves Canada to conquer the Great White Way; in "Sniff, Sniff," he succumbs to the coke-fueled hedonism of the Studio 54 era; and in "Twelve Step Pappy," he emerges from rehab as a showbiz survivor, with an explicit nod to "Elaine Stritch at Liberty."
The outrageous fabrication taking place is exposed when Short's brother, Michael (Brooks Ashmanskas), objects from one of the theater's boxes during a family Christmas recollection that father wasn't an actor, mother never smoked, they didn't have a sister, and they're Jewish. "His own meshpucha!" he fumes. (In reality, Short is a Catholic of Irish descent.)
More than revealing anything about Short, these setups often serve to lampoon musicals in "Forbidden Broadway" style or send up celebrities. Short's alleged triumph in a show called "Step Brother de Jesus" skewers "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Hair," complete with mock full-frontal nudity. His abortive auditions are recalled, first for Tommy Tune, then Bob Fosse. Covering both roles, Ashmanskas is especially hilarious as Tune, wearing stilts and white bell-bottoms, affecting a fey Texan drawl as he struggles to cross his elongated legs atop the piano.
Among Short's star takes, his Elizabeth Taylor is just OK, his shaky Katharine Hepburn is better and his sonorous-voiced Richard Burton is best of all. He frequently and generously allows the spotlight to linger on his co-stars, giving ample space, for instance, to priceless Mary Birdsong's spot-on Judy Garland in ersatz "Wizard of Oz" pic "The Farmer's Daughter."
Birdsong and Nicole Parker score some of the biggest laughs with a roster of impersonations, nailing Jodie Foster, Renee Zellweger, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Ellen DeGeneres and Joan Rivers, among others. Some of these figure in the search for a replacement star when Short ends up in a lightning-induced coma after inviting God to strike him dead.
While the show has been tightened into one act since its first tryout stop in San Francisco, this exploration of Short's demise and contemplation of the ensuing tributes are stretched a little thin. Despite developing something closer to a narrative, this section marginally deflates the show's balloon after a buoyant first half. It does, however, serve to accommodate Short's fawning interviewer Jiminy Glick, who descends on the hospital like a celebrity ambulance chaser. (The audience recruit for this seg at the performance caught was a very sporting Tracey Ullman.) Another of Short's stock characters, Irving Cohen, appears as a bawdy angel in heaven.
Songs by "Hairspray" team Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who does a tidy job directing) are witty and tuneful, capped by Capathia Jenkins' "Stop the Show," which neatly ribs the musical trend of "a big, black lady" bringing down the house with an obligatory 11 o'clock number.
Mirroring the inflated cast, production values also improve on the standard solo-show look. Scott Pask's sets alternate cartoon backdrops with a Jerry Herman-esque staircase, affording Short an entrance both vainglorious and self-deprecating. Jess Goldstein's costumes are entertainingly daffy, as is Christopher Gattelli's pastiche choreography.
If there's a slight feeling of insubstantiality since the show never really abandons jokiness to expose the man behind the performer centerstage, Short nonetheless delivers a good time. He keeps tongue planted firmly in cheek while offering celebrity self-love and shamelessly insincere soul-searching.