Theater Reviews

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Venue: El Portal Theatre, North Hollywood (Through July 20).

Like an angel from the past stepping through a fog of memory, Debbie Reynolds brings a limited-engagement run of her one-woman show to the historic El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, once a movie palace where Reynolds herself went when she was a preteen growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

The consistent threads that run through the 90 minutes are the travails of married life with "Eddie Schmuck" and her two other husbands; the joys of her two children, of whom she shows home movies; her career, illustrated with a generous number of well-chosen film clips; and her determination to continue touring with this show 42 weeks a year, delighting customers as long as she's able.

That might be for quite a while yet. At 78, Reynolds, a superstar who once matched charisma and acting chops with the likes of Bette Davis, Gene Kelly, Glenn Ford and Fred Astaire, probably remained below the median age for the audience at the opening, many of whom belonged to Thalians, the charitable organization Reynolds helped found 50 years ago.

Reynolds is still no one-trick pony. Although she no longer has the lungs, even when amplified, to belt out songs that require the kind of energy and volume once her trademarks, Reynolds consistently brings to the quiet songs the kind of intimate majesty that recalls such stylists as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Whether dressed in a gold lame outfit, slit up one fetching leg, or in a glittering, red-sequined pants suit, she even hoofs it from time to time in an adorable if cautious prancing style.

She sings bits and pieces of her own hits, plus a tribute to Garland. She talks about some of her movies, calling "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" her favorite. She banters with the crowd and drops often hilarious asides and observations ("Maybe I should marry Burt Reynolds: I wouldn't have to change my name, and we could share wigs").

The evening's highlight is a set of improvisations, including extended takes on Zsa Zsa Gabor and Barbra Streisand, the latter particularly delicious, complete with a false nose and an admittedly Jackie Mason accent.

The musical backup, from pianist Joey Singer -- who joins her a few times in sweet-toned duets -- and drummer Gerry Genuario, is spot-on without being intrusive. It's low-key in a most professional manner, allowing Reynolds to modulate the level of her own carefully paced performance as if according to how much energy she has left to expend.

At the end, after a few words of thanks and an exceptional encore performance of "Tammy" -- her one gold record and a role that sums up the stereotyping tightrope she walked during the central part of her career -- Reynolds turns and walks offstage with a gesture that seems to make it clear that, no matter how personally she hopes to connect to the audience, this is a still a show.

And, as Reynolds demonstrates from start to finish, a damn good one.

Production: Weddington Street Prods. Music Director: Joey Singer. Percussionist: Gerry Genuario. Lighting Designer: Lenny Cowles. Sound Engineer: Kirk Robbins.
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