Say Goodnight, Gracie
Helen Hayes Theatre, NYC - October. 2002
Review by John Kenrick
I expected to enjoy Say Goodnight, Gracie, but not this much. What a delightful show! It's not a musical, but it covers George Burns experiences during the golden years of vaudeville, radio and Hollywood all of which matter deeply on Musicals101.com. So it is a pleasure to report that Say Goodnight, Gracie offers tons of fun, with smiles and belly laughs galore.
The premise is a bit obvious, but serviceable having just breathed his last, George Burns finds himself in limbo, and he must convince God that he deserves to enter heaven. Burns is more than willing to do his act, so long as he can have some lights and an audience. God obliges, and Burns proceeds to recall his life. An impoverished childhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side, struggling as a vaudeville song and dance man until he teams with actress Gracie Allen. Their stage partnership gradually leads to marriage, then fame and fortune as Burns and Allen conquer film, radio and television. After Gracie's untimely death, Burns finds new success in his 80's as a character actor in The Sunshine Boys and other hit films.
Tony winning playwright and songwriter Rupert Holmes (Drood) has shaped a very workable ninety minutes from Burns' reminiscences, assisted by solid direction by John Tillinger, a simple set by John Le Beatty, and creative lighting and back projections by Howard Werner and Peter Nigrini
Those of us who were weaned on the 1960's ABC-TV series Batman will always remember actor Frank Gorshin as the devilish Riddler, but he is also a veteran stage performer and gifted celebrity impersonator. He goes beyond impersonation here, bringing the late George Burns to delicious three dimensional life. The familiar vocal and physical mannerisms are all there, but with abundant heart and soul. At some moments, the resemblance to Burns is uncanny but it is Gorshin's triumph as an actor that all this makes for a moving, yet wonderfully funny evening. Not since Robert Morse in Tru has an actor pulled off such a satisfying solo performance on Broadway!
Gorshin performs a bevy of classic Burns and Allen bits with a superb invisible assist by Didi Conn (Frenchy in the film version of Grease) as the voice of Gracie. We also get a few well-chosen vintage film clips of Burns, Allen and their longtime friend Jack Benny. Before you know it, George simply has to say, "Gracie, how's your brother?" to set the place laughing. How good it is to fall in love with these classic routines all over again, and to hear the rollicking laughter of a theater full of people doing it right along with you.
If you are looking for an enjoyable reminder of what classic show biz comedy was all about, Say Goodnight Gracie is just the ticket. Bravo, Frank Gorshin!
(PS - A footnote to business end of Broadway: it took thirteen producers to get this one man show into the Helen Hayes. At least they have the satisfaction of having labored to bring forth a quality production.)