Thursday, August 24, 2006

"My rock bottom is still your wildest dreams"

Or so brags Martin Short in his Broadway show, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me.

Ah, funnymen… I've always had a fondness for ’60s-style vaudeville, and Fame Becomes Me delivers a healthy dose of it. The show is good-natured fluff but entertaining, especially in the Jiminy Glick segment, when Short "interviews" a guest picked from the audience. Nathan Lane "happened" to be there when the Times' Ben Brantley came to see the show; my esteemed colleague Adam Feldman got Cynthia Nixon; we were treated to the Crying Comedian himself—Rip Taylor. The next few weeks are going to be rough.

But Taylor's cameo actually resulted in five minutes of show-biz magic because suddenly the evening, which had been ambling along nicely, turned lunatically surreal. First, Taylor readjusted his toupee (with highlights, mind you) as he was ushered on. Then Short/Jiminy Glick proceeded to unleash a barrage of passive-aggressive jokes, playing off, for instance, Taylor's bling ring. When Taylor was led back out, looking completely dazed and barely coherent as he tottered in his Mephistos, I was in comedy heaven.

Other than that, the show delivers a series of brief, reasonably fun songs written by Marc Shaiman (who's also on stage) and Scott Wittman (who directed). Several of them spoof classic musical moments: "Step Brother de Jesus" is a take on Godspell/Hair-type hippie musicals; "The Lights Have Dimmed on Broadway" underscores how Wicked's washed-out pop style is a haven for showoffy singers; the staging of "Three Gorgeous Kids" rips off…sorry, is a tribute to the "Triplets" number from Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon. And Sondheim gets a couple of nods: "Married to Marty" mimics "Getting Married Today" from Company, and the master gets namechecked for not writing black characters in "Stop the Show."

That dig feels rather rich, however, considering the song in question is typical of Shaiman and Wittman's knack for having it both ways, which I think prevents them from graduating from good songwriters to great ones. (That and the fact that Shaiman is a better composer than Wittman is a lyricist.) Powerhouse singer Capathia Jenkins is made to both deride the habit musicals have of inserting a "big black lady" who stops the show with a belt at the eleventh hour and embody that very trend. This is pretty cheeky of Shaiman and Wittman, considering that she's the only one in the supporting cast who doesn't participate in the previous ensemble songs. She's in the opening number, then is off stage for almost an hour before coming back as a nurse looking after the supposedly comatose Short, then as, well, the belting big black lady. Was she gone for an hour because she didn't, you know, fit? Sorry, doesn't fly: Parts of the show are obviously tailored to the supporting cast's various strengths—Nicole Parker gets to do the impersonations of Ellen DeGeneres, Celine Dion and Britney Spears she's perfected on MADtv for instance. And Shaiman and Wittman couldn't give Jenkins more to do? Weird.


M said...

"'60s-style vaudeville"? Vaudeville was dead by the '30s!

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

A certain kind of vaudeville was indeed dead by the 1930s, but the genre has kept evolving--I'd argue that the show Absinthe at the Spiegeltent is vaudeville. In Martin Short's case though, a more accurate description would indeed be "variety show."