Off-Broadway Review: SMART BLONDE (59E59)

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by Anna Hulkower on March 26, 2019

in Theater-New York


It’s tempting, if unfair, to compare Willy Holtzman’s Smart Blonde to the 1963 Broadway musical Funny Girl: both use flashback to frame the biographies of young Jewish girls from New York City who defy expectations and become superstars, with all the highs and lows that accompany it. However, Funny Girl’s tale of Fanny Brice has an iconic Jule Styne & Bob Merrill score, usually accompanied by sumptuous production design, to buoy it past any bumps in the book. Smart Blonde’s treatment of Judy Holliday has none of those advantages, though it does have its share of music — a dozen standards such as “What’ll I Do” and “Let’s Fall in Love” — performed in an impressively realistic recording studio set by Tony Ferrieri. Unfortunately, the play’s approach to Holliday’s story is disappointingly uninspired.

It’s a shame, too, since her life story is fascinating. As the title implies, Holliday was a brilliant woman best known for playing dumb, most notably in her Academy Award-winning role as Emma “Billie” Dawn in Born Yesterday, which she first originated onstage. Along the way, she picked up famous friends like Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green; had serious relationships with both women and men; faced constant pressure from Hollywood studio executives to lose weight; and died tragically from breast cancer weeks before her 44th birthday. Most significantly, she successfully avoided naming names while being interrogated by the HUAC during McCarthyism by channeling “Billie.”

Holtzman sets the story in 1964, a year before Holliday’s death, recording an unnamed album which would prove to be her last (presumably Holliday with Mulligan, unreleased until 1980), and peppered with flashbacks of Holliday from age fifteen on. The story hits all the expected beats, but the vignettes themselves rarely rise above basic exposition of biographical details, with little room for genuine dramatic expansion. The combination of Peter Flynn’s direction and Alan C. Edward’s lighting generally keeps the movements through time and space clear.

As Holliday, Andréa Burns has an almost insurmountable task in attempting to channel someone so singularly iconic. Burns, an extremely talented and funny actress in her own right, falls short of completely embodying her, but through no fault of her own. She still gives a charming and grounded performance, and is particularly moving in the FBI interrogation scene, as well as in the play’s final moments in which she grapples with the recurrence of her cancer. Watching Burns perform snippets of Born Yesterday as “Billie,” a role she played in a 2017 regional production, made me wish I had seen her full take on that role instead, allowing her to give a nod to Holliday without weighing her performance down with forced mimicry. The rest of the cast is ably rounded out by Andrea Bianchi, Mark Lotito, and Jonathan Spivey, playing more than a dozen characters between them. Bianchi in particular comes dangerously close to stealing the show, portraying everyone from Betty Comden to Marilyn Monroe.

Judy Holliday is, without a doubt, a figure worthy of pop-culture canonization, but Smart Blonde falls short of what she deserves. Holtzman is currently adapting the play into a film vehicle for Annaleigh Ashford, whose effortlessly daffy charisma seems like a better match for Holliday’s energy. Hopefully, the transition to film will lead to a more fitting tribute for a one-of-a-kind performer.

photos by Carol Rosegg

Smart Blonde
MBL Productions and Mary J. Davis
in association with Judith Manocherian LLC
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St
Tues-Sat at 7:15; Sun at 2:15
ends on April 13, 2019
for tickets, call 646.892.7999 or visit 59e59

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