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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
SMART BLONDE
at 59E59 Theaters

ILLUMINATING BRIGHTNESS
By JESSICA BRANCH

  AndrĂ©a Burns and Mark Lotito/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

Q: How many blondes does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: What’s a lightbulb?

Though she’s been replaced in the popular imagination by dozens of fair-haired flakes since her own heyday, stage and screen star Judy Holliday once both embodied and deconstructed the stereotypical dumb blonde in her short but stellar career. With the IQ of a genius and a red-diaper background, this squeaky starlet famously beat out both Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard to win an Oscar for her role as the high-pitched ditzy blonde Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, and years later won a Tony for best actress for Bells Are Ringing, triumphing over no lesser a talent than Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. And Smart Blonde, Willy Holtzman’s in-depth look at the life of this high-achieving actress, explores not only her character highlights, but the brainy, complicated woman behind the sexy screwball.

It’s always challenging to capture an entire life in a play, and Holtzman structures this biopic with music as a retrospective, beginning with Holliday (Andréa Burns) shortly before her death in her early 40s, trying to record an album with her then significant other, saxophonist Gerry Mulligan (Mark Lotito). She charms the other studio musicians by bringing them coffee, but her voice keeps cracking, as does her concentration. Cue the flashbacks to her past, told in roughly chronological order, going back to her friendship with Adolph Green (whom she says she met in socialist summer camp), his college pal Betty Comden, and their piano-playing friend Lenny (that’s Mr. Bernstein to you). As the group devises various acts to trot out around Greenwich Village, Holliday slowly but surely gets pushed to the front to deliver the songs that Comden and Green are producing. Similarly, we’re shown how Holliday gets picked up by Hollywood as a potential starlet, marries and divorces David Oppenheim (also played by Lotito – apparently Holliday had a type), and develops a deep and sometimes romantic relationship with cop Yetta Cohn (Andrea Bianchi, who also plays Ruth Gordon and Marilyn Monroe, among others).

The piece de resistance of the dumb blonde narrative, however, is not so much Holliday’s achievements or the disapproval of her politically radical Jewish family at her not making the most of her gifts, nor even her Oscar-winning star turn as Billie Dawn, though the card-playing scene is faithfully reproduced, with Burns clearly enjoying Dawn’s onomatopoeic musical meandering. Rather, it’s Holliday’s appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. As they try to get her to implicate herself and name her fellow travelers, Holliday resorts to her familiar comic character, raising her voice to her trademark squeak and adapting Dawn’s accent and mannerisms. You half expect her to pull out a pack of cards. It’s a clever tactic and a compelling scene.

What’s less clear, however, is how this early climax integrates into the rest of the play. Holliday’s learning how – and why – to inhabit the role of the dumb blonde is a strong throughline up to this point, but it falls short of effectively delineating all of Holliday’s complex life, and that structural flaw leaves this play less satisfying than Holliday deserves.

Under the direction of Peter Flynn, the cast performances, however, do much to make up for this drawback. Bianchi’s Yetta radiates tough good nature and practicality, though her Marilyn and Ruth understandably seem more caricatured – we know them better and their roles here are essentially walk-ons. Burns herself, who originated the role in the play’s premiere in 2014, creates an effective continuity for her character, though the meandering timeline and particularly the conceit of opening on a weak vocal performance don’t do her any favors. (Her renditions under more cheerful circumstances, while not true note-for-note, do effectively evoke Holliday’s, especially in the sorrowful “What’ll I Do?”) But she’s particularly strong in balancing the genius and the showgirl sides of her character – especially when the genius decides to use the showgirl to strategic effect. Her portrayal in particular leaves us wondering what Holiday would have accomplished had it not been for her untimely death of breast cancer. Blonde or brunette, her bright, though so short-lived career suggests that perhaps she was one of the entertainment world’s brightest bulbs.

 


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