Los Angeles Theater Review: AN EVENING OF CLASSIC LILY TOMLIN (Valley Performing Arts Center, CSUN)

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by G. Bruce Smith on May 11, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Dear Lily:

I’ve adored you ever since you burst into my consciousness – and the nation’s – way back in 1969 on Laugh-In. Who could forget your Ernestine, the irascible telephone operator? Your Edith Ann, the precocious and deep-voiced 6-year-old? Your weirdly insightful homeless lady? You made me laugh. Oh, how you made me laugh—sometimes the mirth squeezed out of me as I was doubled over, trying to catch my breath, the tears trickling all the way down to my chin.

AN-EVENING-OF-CLASSIC-LILY-TOMLIN ErnestineRight about the time Laugh-In went off the air, I went to college. I stopped watching TV. I didn’t really follow you. But when you came to Denver my freshman year, I somehow scraped together the funds to make sure I didn’t miss your performance. And you made me laugh even harder. It was a LIVE performance, by golly, and you trotted out new and old characters, and I had the time of my life.

Then, I really lost track of you. You did a bunch of movies and television stuff and Broadway, but I was too busy being a college student, starting a career, figuring out my life, living my life. And then in 2003, I caught you at The Ahmanson in your one-woman show, Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. I was enthralled. You were still funny, but touching. Older, wiser, struggling to make sense of life in the same clumsy way I was.

But oh, my dear Lily. What’s happened to us? Have I changed? Have you? Have we drifted apart like high school buddies who swear by the blood on their pinkies that they will be BFFs, only to find their BFF is really just someone that they used to Lily-Tomlin-©-CBSknow?

Don’t get me wrong. When I saw you Friday in the one-night-only An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin at the Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge, you still charmed the pants off of me. Wearing a simple black blouse and pants, moving about the stage a little bit like a schoolgirl eager to impress, you were endearing. And you look amazing; have you aged at all?

And again, you made me laugh out loud. Just not as much. You didn’t move me the way you did in The Search for Intelligent Life. Your “Greatest Hits” format, with a few television clips of you thrown in for good measure, was a bit scattershot, something of a hit and miss.

The hits? Your “I worry” bits:

“I worry about playing to an empty house. I also worry about playing to a full house and leaving the audience empty.”

“I worry about identity theft and why no-one’s targeted me.”

“I worry that if olive oil comes from olives and corn oil comes from corn, where does baby oil come from?”

Another hit: Your update of Ernestine. In the 60s and 70s, your Ernestine was an operator for the monopolistic phone company and could tell callers anything she wanted. She was outrageous: “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.” Now, she works for customer service at a health insurance company and Lily-Tomlin-©-Brett-Pattersontakes great delight in denying coverage for everyone who calls. “Nope. Being boring is not covered.” And your story about your second-grade teacher in Detroit, Miss Sweeney, with the monogrammed sweater, was charming. Not ha-ha funny, but sweet.

The misses? Your sketch of your “Ma and Pa Kettle” parents was not particularly engaging. Your Madam Lupe, the oldest living beauty expert, didn’t do much for me.

But what really disappointed me was finding that some material that had sent me into hysterics in my youth now prompted little more than chuckles. Like Lucille, the rubber freak. The first time I heard how Lucille goes from eating erasers to spatulas (while playing canasta with the girls) to hanging out in elementary school “cloak rooms on rainy days,” I died. Not so much this time.

But don’t take it personally. It’s me, I think, not you. We all change—you said it yourself on stage. I still think you’re a great talent. I still think you have a unique voice. I still think you’re darn funny, just maybe not as much.

Yet even though something has changed, many of your characters are so real to your fans that they will live forever. In the Q-&-A that followed your performance (and you were so good in improvising responses), this one question from the audience says it all:

“Can you call my mother in Iowa as Ernestine and tell her to pay her phone bill?”

That says it all. And that’s the truth.

Your fan,


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poster photo by Greg Gorman

An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin
Valley Performing Arts Center at CSUN
18111 Nordhoff Street in Northridge
played May 9, 2014
for future VPAC events, call (818) 677-3000
or visit www.ValleyPerformingArtsCenter.org

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