Plop the Judy Holliday bio down in the middle of Greater Tuna, add in some beautiful, breezy show tunes, and you get City Theatre’s smart, blonde and ambitious show, “Smart Blonde.”
Actress Judy Holliday was a leading lady who went from a singing in dives like the Village Vanguard to full-on star in a matter of years. In Hollywood, she was the closest thing to an overnight success playing un-credited extras in the 40s in a small number of films and winning the Academy Award in 1950. Born (a lot longer ago than yesterday) in 1921, Judith Tuvim pursued her interest in show business with vigor. We even get to see the moment when Tuvim changes her name to Holliday. The actress was blonde, beautiful and full of life (she even starred in a movie called “Full of Life” with Richard Conte).
“Smart Blonde” opens in a day in the life of Holliday, as she’s laying down tracks for an album. Suddenly, we flashback to her earlier life. It’s a tumultuous tale of triumph and tragedy spinning around in the recording studio set. It’s a retrospective of some of the best days and worst days of her life.
It is sort of a musical. A more apt description would be “drama with music.” Don’t look for the happy ending most musicals tack on. It also isn’t an overly-dramatized E True Hollywood Story, but a lovingly rendered glimpse into the relatively short life of the star. Death takes a Holliday in her early forties from breast cancer.
Holliday was famous for being typecast by Hollywood as a dumb blonde, but she was smarter than she looked. The eponymous blonde had an IQ of 172. She resented being pigeonholed, but it worked in her favor when she outfoxed HUAC (the House Un-American Activities). She was the only person ever called before the McCarthy era committee who was neither blacklisted or compelled to name names.
Andrea Burns deftly plays Holliday with gusto. Her co-stars Adam Heller and Jonathan Brody play everyone else, both male and female; hence the Tuna reference. You just haven’t lived until you’ve seen Brody cavorting around as Gloria Swanson, complete with turban.
Burns so immerses herself in the role. A star is re-born! She is a veritable reincarnation of the famous blonde bombshell.
It’s a smart script from playwright Willy Holtzman, but it is enhanced by kinetic direction of Peter Flynn. Flynn makes the most of the tight space of the Hamburg Studio theatre, even on a cluttered stage; looking like a replica of the aforementioned 60s era Manhattan studio where the actress recorded “Holliday With Mulligan.”
Holtzman and Flynn are an excellent combination. Add Burns, Brody and Heller and you have a magical evening.
SMART BLONDE continues through December 21st at City Theatre. www.citytheatrecompany.org