'Smart Blonde': Theater Review

Carol Rosegg
Andrea Burns and Mark Lotito in 'Smart Blonde'
Burns is terrific in this frustratingly sketchy bio-play.
4/13/2019

Andréa Burns of 'On Your Feet!' plays Tony- and Oscar-winning actress Judy Holliday in Willy Holtzman's bio-drama with music.

There might be an ulterior motive behind the new show about the life of Oscar-winning actress Judy Holliday. Its author, Willy Holtzman, has previously written a biography of the subject, and while watching Smart Blonde you begin to think the whole enterprise is designed to drive you to his book for more information. The frustratingly sketchy and episodic play somehow leaves you wanting more and less at the same time.

In the New York City premiere of this play with music, Andréa Burns (a Broadway veteran of On Your Feet! and In the Heights, among others) plays the stage and screen star whose life was cut tragically short at age 43 by breast cancer. The evening is structured as a memory play, with Holliday recalling events from her life during a recording session in 1964, the year before her death. All the other roles, and there are many, are played by Mark Lotito, Andrea Bianchi and Jonathan Spivey, who effortlessly flit from one character to another.

Born Judith Tuvum, Holliday was, as the title suggests, a very smart woman who achieved fame and fortune by playing dumb. As the play would have it, one of her very best performances was before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, when she managed to avoid getting into serious trouble by resorting to her ditzy stage persona and fooling her interrogators.

There's no shortage of interesting incidents in Holliday's life, and Smart Blonde seems determined to include each and every one of them. That she first got noticed in the musical revues she performed at the Village Vanguard with Betty Comden and Adolph Green (with Leonard Bernstein as their occasional pianist). That her career didn't sit well with her very left-wing uncle, who asks her, "Actors are children — what are you going to be when you grow up?" That she deliberately made her voice higher while performing, for comic effect. That she vigorously fought off the advances of Daryl F. Zanuck, who tried to get her on the casting couch. That she got her big breaks courtesy of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, authors of the hit play Born Yesterday. That she struggled with weight issues, with studio head Harry Cohn telling her, "Columbia doesn't make pictures with fat girls." And so on.

We learn about her marriage to musician and record executive David Oppenheim, with whom she had a son, and her later relationship with jazz great Gerry Mulligan. She also apparently had a lesbian affair with her best friend Yetta Cohn, dramatized here as a blink-and-you'll-miss-it kiss. One of the most dramatic episodes of her life, her testimony before the HUAC, is dealt with in similarly cursory fashion.

A plethora of biographical material is dealt with in just 90 minutes, making it more inexplicable that the playwright also felt the need to musicalize the proceedings. The play features Burns performing 10 numbers, including such songs co-written by Holliday and Mulligan as "What's the Rush" and "It Must Be Christmas." She sings them beautifully, but they feel extraneous and have the unintended effect of making the already choppy evening seem longer than it actually is.

Director Peter Flynn deserves credit for smoothly handling the many fast-paced transitions. Burns superbly conveys Holliday's charm, comic gifts and emotional complexity. And the supporting players handle their multiple assignments with protean skill, with Bianchi delivering particularly amusing vocal impressions of Ruth Gordon, Ethel Barrymore and Marilyn Monroe, among others.

In one of the most fiercely competitive years in history, Holliday won the 1951 best actress Oscar for Born Yesterday, famously beating out Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. She also won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical in 1957 for Bells Are Ringing, her estimable competition in that race including Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. While Holliday's fans will certainly appreciate the play for putting a spotlight on a great performer who's not as well remembered as she should be, it's hard not to wish that Smart Blonde were just a little bit smarter.

Venue: 59E59 Theaters, New York
Cast: Andréa Burns, Mark Lotito, Andrea Bianchi, Jonathan Spivey
Playwright: Willy Holtzman
Director: Peter Flynn
Set designer: Tony Ferrieri
Costume designer: Michael McDonald
Lighting designer: Alan Edwards
Sound designer: Joanna Lynne Staub
Presented by MBL Productions, Mary J. Davis, in association with Judith Manocherian