Review: City Theatre’s ‘Smart Blonde’ offers a smart look at a smart actress
For the slot leading up to Christmas, City Theatre has given us a Holliday story of a different sort.
This is a drama about a Holliday with two L’s — actress Judy Holliday — who is best known for her roles as the seemingly dumb blonde who outwits scheming politicians and businessmen.
You may have seen her in films such as “Born Yesterday,” “The Solid Gold Cadillac” or the musical “Bells Are Ringing.”
But, as she died in 1965, before Wikipedia, cable television and Twitter made details about everyone’s private life easily accessible, you may be less familiar with this smart, dynamic woman.
Out to change that are playwright Willy Holtzman, director Peter Flynn and City Theatre, which commissioned the play “Smart Blonde.”
The world-premiere production now playing in City Theatre’s intimate Hamburg Studio Theatre offers a short recap of some of her struggles via a drama interspersed with 10 songs.
Set designer Tony Ferrieri has created an authentic-looking 1964 Manhattan recording studio where Holliday is preparing to record an album. Costume designer Robert T. Steele helps anchor us in that period from the moment Holliday enters in a period-perfect white coat.
As she warms up for the recording, the song list sparks memories.
Her career began with a comedy troupe that included young unknowns who also became famous — songwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden and Leonard Bernstein, who was the troupe’s pianist.
It focuses on the conflict between her fictional persona as a dumb blonde and real-life identity as a very smart woman when she was called to appear before a Senate subcommittee investigating show-business people with ties to the Communist party.
Holtzman once wrote a biography of Holliday, and he knows his material. He has crafted an appealing and informative portrait of her and filled the show with songs that are associated with Holliday, but not well-known. Included are “What’s the Rush?” and “It Must Be Christmas,” both of which she wrote with Jerry Mulligan, but not “The Party’s Over” from “Bells Are Ringing.”
It’s important to emphasize this is not a musical revue, but a drama with music. Andrea Burns is just about perfect in portraying Holliday and in making seamless shifts between her two identities.
The show’s biggest hurdle is an economic one.
This is a multicharacter show with only two additional performers — Jonathan Brody and Adam Heller, who play the studio pianist and sound engineer, and all the other roles, both male and female.
Both Brody and Heller are fine actors who work overtime to contribute reality and nuance to a multiplicity of characters.
But, while this cross-gender role-playing may add to the fun of comedies such as “Murder for Two” or “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” it works less well in a drama where people are dealing with real-life issues.
“Smart Blonde” reportedly has ambitions for a life after City Theatre — as most new works do. Holtzman is clearly up to the task to polishing this new work to make that happen.
For now, it’s an enjoyable entree into the world of a woman you may be familiar with, but never really knew.
It’s also a pleasant escape from all the one-L holiday entertainments.