They say confession is good for the soul but should it masquerade as Broadway entertainment?
The question comes to mind because of "The Blonde in the Thunderbird," Suzanne Somers' one-woman show, now on view at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. This inspirational infomercial highlights the triumphs and tragedies of a performer best known as Chrissy on the late '70s television sitcom "Three's Company" and currently a star of the Home Shopping Network.
Infomercials explain but rarely entertain, and the same could be said for "Blonde," which has the feel of an extended therapy session crossed with a tacky Las Vegas revue - minus the other show girls.
Remember the old television program "This Is Your Life"? Host Ralph Edwards would surprise a celebrity guest with old friends and anecdotes from the star's past. "Blonde" is sort of like that, only with more self-analysis and no surprises. The hostess celebrates herself.
"Blonde," written and directed by Mitzie and Ken Welch, is a weird mixture of chutzpah and humility. Based on two of Somers' autobiographies, it has the actress on stage, flanked by large television screens that allow the audience to examine the star close up as she tells her tumultuous life story.
Dressed in an unflattering black jumpsuit that resembles something off the bargain-basement rack at "Star Trek," she plunges into a suds-filled tale of alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, low self-esteem, breast cancer and just plain bad luck.
Born Susie Mahoney, this Irish-Catholic girl lived in what she calls "the little white house with the white picket fence with all the darkness inside." Dad, known as Ducky Mahoney, was an alcoholic, a mean drunk who terrorized his wife and children.
Susie got out, got pregnant and married the wrong guy, Bruce Somers. The marriage didn't last, but it produced a son, Bruce Junior, who became her reason for struggling on, particularly after the boy was seriously injured in an auto accident.
Somers' rocky show-biz climb is related in detail, starting with her early days as a model. The evening's title, by the way, comes from Somers' appearance as the mysterious young woman who silently mouths the words "I love you" in "American Graffiti,'' George Lucas' classic coming-of-age movie released in 1973.
It was "American Graffiti" where the public first noticed Somers, but it was not until "Three's Company," which went on the air in 1977, that she became a household name. The actress doesn't say too much about her costars, John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt, but does get into the salary dispute that eventually got her bounced from the series.
She also talks about her successful marriage to Alan Hamel, her partner for more than 30 years.
Yet everything goes back to Somers' father, and she talks at length about how therapy finally allowed her to break free of his grip.
Interrupting these stories are songs that, more or less, comment on what Somers is talking about. Many of them are Broadway show tunes such as "Take Back Your Mink from "Guys and Dolls" and "Fifty Percent" from "Ballroom." Others are specialty numbers created by the Welchs. Somers delivers these numbers with the hardest of edges, selling them to the balcony wilh a determination that makes them all sound alike.
Yet one has to give the woman a certain amount of credit. At age 58, a number she more than willingly reveals during the opening moments of the show, the actress has managed to survive and even thrive.
Somers also possesses a cheery sense of self-deprecation that earns points, particularly when she wheels out a cart of goodies to sell. It's overstuffed wilh jewelry, health foods, clothing and particularly the endless parade of exercise and self-help books she shamelessly pitches these days on television. "They say the Irish either drink or write. Guess which one I do," she announces.
It says something, though, about "The Girl in the Thunderbird" that one of the biggest rounds of applause occurs when Somers displays a ThighMaster, perhaps the most famous of her many exercise gadgets. Only in a show such as this could a prop upstage the star.
One of the drawbacks to theater criticism as a profession is that it prevents you from keeping up with TV sitcoms.
Thus, I was probably the only person in the audience at Suzanne Somers' "The Blonde in the Thunderbird" who had never seen a single episode of "Three's Company."
Nor have I read her autobiographical books, seen her TV specials, caught her Las Vegas show or bought anything from her on the Home Shopping Network.
In some ways, this was an advantage. Unlike those around me, who have followed Somers' career for nearly 30 years, everything she said was new and fresh to my ears.
I knew nothing about her alcoholic father, the baby she had as a teenager, his awful accident and recovery or her years of therapy.
Nor had I ever seen a Thigh Master.
Grateful as I was to have learned all of this, I had to question the way this knowledge is imparted.
The style of "Blonde" - a reference to her brief appearance in "American Graffiti," which, in fact, I had seen – is more like a Vegas act or a brassy TV special than a piece of theater.
The stage, for exampie, is dominated by two large screens, which provide closeups of Somers. In a gigantic sports arena or a huge casino showroom, such screens might be useful, but in a relatively small theater they only weaken our focus and diminish any sense of intimacy.
Her voice is heavily amplified, which also dilutes the sense that she's sharing things with us. In effect, she's broadcasting. She breaks up the confessional monologue with musical numbers, also done in a hard-driving way. She sings "50 Percent," from the musical "Ballroom," by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Billy Goldenberg, which can be heartbreaking - but not when it is blared.
There are some nice TV clips, especially of her first appearance on Johnny Carson and a funny one with her father on Phil Donahue. (Donahue asks if his drinking problem had to do with being a Mahoney. He shoots back that his grandmother was a Donahue.)
I came away finding Somers an endearing and courageous woman. But I wished that she was really sharing her story with us rather than turning it into hard-sell showbiz.
Suzanne Somers bounces on with a tomboyish grin, tell ing us that she is 58 years old - well- timed pause for applause because in truth she doesn't look a day over 57 - and informs us that "Tonight, you're going to get to know Suzie, the good, the bad, and, oh yes, the ugly."
The show, called "The Blonde in the Thunderbird," written and directed by Mitzie and Ken Welch, opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre last night and is all about Suzie's uphill struggle against her lack of self-esteem.
Have you ever noticed that people who say they lack self-esteem seem to spend their entire lives overcompensating for it?
She was brought up in a family dominated by the alcoholism -which is a disease, she tells us -her abusive father had.
Then, on her first serious date, she got pregnant and became a divorced single teenage mother. She couldn't pay her bills or keep a job, and even found herself briefly arrested.
In 1973 she landed a tiny, tiny part in George Lucas' "American Graffiti" playing, yes, you've got it, the blonde in the Thunderbird.
Finally, she left her 5-year-old-son to play alone outside, and he was almost killed by a passing car. Luckily, to help him recover from the nightmares this caused, she started to take him to a psychotherapist.
The nightmares ceased, but the therapist insisted that Suzie continue on alone with the therapy, "Because Suzanne, you have the lowest self-esteem of anyone I've ever met." That's telling her!
She became a huge TV star in the show "Three's Company" and, empowered by her therapist and a new sense of self-esteem, she asked ABC for more money after her five seasons of work on the sitcom - and they fired her.
A few years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. But it looks as if she has beaten this as well.
The story is obviously courageous, but its telling is remorseless - with stridently sung Broadway show tunes inserted inside the upbeat, relentlessly perky monologue.
I found the show smug, but she has guts, and I'm sure if you really, truly love Suzanne Somers, you'll like her show. But if you just like Suzanne Somers, maybe you should think about not going.
Billy Crystal she's not.
Life has not always been kind to Suzanne Somers, the ex-sitcom star and perky pitchwoman who has brought her new solo show, "The Blonde in the Thunderbird," to the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway for a limited run.
Dad was a big-time alcoholic, after all, and Joyce DeWitt, her "Three's Company" co-star, really could have been nicer.
But the ThighMaster has certainly been a loyal friend to Ms. Somers. As has the Home Shopping Network, on which she appears for 25 hours a month, flogging everything from waffle irons to cowboy boots. The best-seller lists have been accommodating too, making room for Ms. Somers's many diet and fitness books for extended periods.
Ms. Somers is, in short, probably not short on cash, which is why it seems forgivable to offer her this stern piece of advice: Should you brave Broadway again, dear, bring a sequin or two. Invest in some bugle beads. Hire a chorus boy or girl. Better yet, hire a half-dozen of each, in assorted sizes. (Perhaps they, too, can be acquired on the Home Shopping Network these days.)
You might even consider a reunion with Tanya the elephant, with whom you shared a friendly professional rapport in Las Vegas some years back, according to "After the Fall" (Crown, 1998), the second of two volumes of autobiography from which this show is adapted. (The first was "Keeping Secrets," Warner Books, 1988.) Perhaps Tanya can be coaxed into co-starring, if she hasn't moved on to that great Vegas showroom in the sky, or signed with Endeavor.
Something is desperately needed, in any case, to dress up "The Blonde in the Thunderbird," a drab and embarrassing display of emotional exhibitionism masquerading as entertainment. Attired in a cruelly clingy black tights-and-tunic ensemble, Ms. Somers re-enacts or describes triumphs and traumas from her personal and professional life for a grinding 95 minutes, on a stage adorned only by a pair of video screens, an armchair, a prop phone and a coat rack. (It is curious, and telling, that Ms. Somers's magnified, two-dimensional presence on the video screens continually draws the focus away from the woman herself.)
Devoted fans may savor this no-frills, quasi-intimate audience with a favorite celebrity and professional dispenser of uplifting advice, but others may find their attention wandering to the coat rack. And resting there.
Ms. Somers is certainly not afraid to tell all. We begin with a visit to her childhood home, a wasteland ruled by her raging alcoholic father, whom the kids could never please ("I just couldn't figure out how to be a good enough little girl to fix him," Ms. Somers recalls wistfully). We hear how, as a single mother, she swooned for her future husband, Alan Hamel, over a dinner of cracked crab. Mr. Hamel, who is also this show's producer, happened to be married at the time.
Cancer strikes, too, and is defeated, while, on a lighter note, Ms. Somers shares the psychological back story of Chrissy Snow, her dizzy character on "Three's Company" (basic recipe: heart, inner child; hair, Afghan hound).
Eventually and unsurprisingly, Ms. Somers emerges bruised but toughened by her battles with adversity. Her firing from "Three's Company," for instance, ultimately set the stage for a busy career marketing all that health, beauty and fitness gadgetry, an avocation of which she is impressively unashamed. At one point, Ms. Somers dashes offstage to return with a trolley stuffed with books and trinkets and costume jewelry, jubilantly detailing some of her favorites ("Like these pajamas? They come in black, blue and peach satin," she chirps).
Some of Ms. Somers's recollections are, regrettably, set to music. A performance of Frank Loesser's "Take Back Your Mink" is spliced into a recitation of a particularly violent encounter with her father. I'm not sure why. The show's writer-directors, Mitzie and Ken Welch, have also provided dreadful new lyrics for some old standards. Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up" is now a song about bouncing checks and seeking solace in shopping. Unfortunately, Ms. Somers's singing voice is thin and often toneless, and the clanging piano chords underscoring the more anguished moments in her history, usually accented by a dramatic clutch at expensively highlighted hair, are giggle-inducing.
Ms. Somers is undoubtedly sincere in her desire to bare her battles with insecurity and shame in order to serve as a model, and perhaps a healer, for those whose therapy cannot be subsidized by the sale of Torso Tracks. And her frankness about her family's destructive legacy of alcoholism, as first related in "Keeping Secrets," was no doubt comforting to many. But in "The Blonde in the Thunderbird" - the title refers to her cameo in "American Graffiti" - Ms. Somers and her collaborators have packaged her journey from damaged child to healthy woman in glib, shrink-wrapped vignettes that have all the emotional grit of an infomercial. Liberally laced with the bland jargon of self-help books, her story proves the peculiar truth that a victory over low self-esteem often comes at the price of a swan-dive into narcissism.
"I believe that everything that happened to me in my life is a blessing," Ms. Somers says in the show's waning moments, offering implicit comfort to those in the audience dogged by ill fortune. This is a simplistic and solipsistic philosophy to espouse, but it comforts me to know that Ms. Somers still believes this bromide, because, as even she would have to admit, the blessing I have hereby administered is unusually well disguised.
We hear a lot these days about Broadway moving to Las Vegas. In response perhaps to trade-deficit anxiety, Vegas also has come to Broadway.
"The Blonde in the Thunderbird," which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is billed on the marquee as a "one-woman musical joyride." In the English translation, that means Suzanne Somers' 95-minute autobiographical psycho-drama, summertime self-help rally and one-woman musical infomercial for the Home Shopping Network. The solo has been produced by her husband, Alan Hamel, who, according to his biography in the is the creator of the Somers Licensing Corp., which includes the diet books, the boots she's wearing and the Thighmaster. And yes, she does roll some of her 600 products onstage for her big finale.
Somers has a likeable, ebullient, up-for-anything quality, which serves her well in another repetition of her oft-told, best-selling saga of her alcoholic father, her teen pregnancy, her arrest for check bouncing, her married boyfriend, her surprise breakthrough as a silent blonde in a Thunderbird in the 1973 movie "American Graffiti" and, of course, her jiggle-TV stardom as Chrissy on "Three's Company." This is the sort of event in which people clap when told how many years she has been free of breast cancer and how many years she has been married to the man who, at first, neglected to tell her about his wife and children.
The show is slickly presented, with live images of Somers on two big screens above her enthusiastic self. The cameras love her. Perhaps, in this case, three does make better company.
This has been written and directed by Mitzie and Ken Welch, Emmy-winning creators of TV specials and concerts for the likes of Dolly Parton and Placido Domingo.
Somers, born Susie Maloney in smalltown, Calif,, still wears her bangs down to her eyeliner and lipstick above her lipline. She still has that toothy, vulnerable smile and, as she first demonstrates in an opening costume, still has her legs. ("Hormones," she says in an odd conspiratorial aside after bragging about being buff at 58, though never mentions her controversial advocacy of the menopause therapy, especially after cancer.)
She has a bright, hyper-amplified singing voice, which she applies with breezy professionalism to standards and a few sappy new numbers by the Welches. A live offstage band plays "Wake Up Little Susie" and "If You Knew Susie," which now has such ill-advised new lyrics as "She loves to giggle and wag and wiggle/Holy Moses, she can jiggle..."
There are reprises of the scarecrow's plea, "If I only had a brain...," a response to her father - in ever-so-tasteful voice-over - calling her stupid, hopeless, worthless, etc. After years of treatment with a beloved psychologist, poor Susie admits "I had so little self esteem I didn't even know I didn't have any." She explains about "putting numbness covers on the pain." When she forgives, she declares herself "Free! Free!"
At the start, she asks us whether we would live our lives differently if we could live them again. Despite all she has unburdened and re-enacted, she concludes - surprise - that "If I could live it again, I'd live it all the same!" And so she will, over and over, through the summer tourist season.
Perhaps Suzanne Somers and husband-producer Alan Hamel had no idea when they scheduled "The Blonde and the Thunderbird" for its limited summer run on Broadway that they'd be following the opening of another solo show, "Primo," by only a week. Comparisons are unfair but still, there's nothing quite like a sober, searing reflection on the Holocaust to expose the shallowness in perky celebrity self-validation. Not that this unfortunate, chutzpah-driven vanity production requires much help on that count.
Self-absorption masquerading as self-exploration and self-irony, this so-called "one-woman musical joyride" chronicles Somers' evolution from zero self-esteem to a level that's surely off the chart, which might serve as a useful cushion when reading the reviews.
Striding onto the stage in a leotard with a combination of Vegas-style brassiness and 12-step motivational purposefulness, Somers asks, "If you had a chance to live your life all over again, would you live your life the same?" Revealing that this has been an obsession for much of her 58 years (pause for applause), Suzanne then promises, and delivers, the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is the short running time and pre-10 p.m. exit; the bad is everything between first entrance and final bows, except for an occasional climb into mediocrity. And the ugly? Those pants! Let's just say a certain expression pertaining to dromedary hooves can never be far from the minds of those sitting down front.
Prior to striking sitcom stardom in 1977 as busty blonde Chrissy Snow in "Three's Company" and then as a diet guru and Home Shopping Network queen, Somers endured a bumpy life -- alcoholic father, teen pregnancy, failed marriage, abortive career starts, chronic debt, compulsive retail therapy, falling in love with a married man and, then later, battling breast cancer. But delivered by such a processed personality in TV vet writer-director Mitzie and Ken Welch's ingratiating dialogue, these revelations summon less emotional involvement than the average "Oprah" couch confession.
It's hard to invest in a child's trauma at the hands of a drunken father who convinces her she's stupid, hopeless and worthless when episodes from "the little white house, with the white picket fence with all the darkness inside" unfold merely as melodramatic preamble to a self-congratulatory account of where Somers is now. Even her infant son's near-fatal accident and subsequent nightmares feel like minor detours on the road back to me, me, me and all my fascinating conquered neuroses.
In fact, the accounts of most of the major episodes that shaped Somers' combative self come off as gratingly superficial. Reliving the discovery of breast cancer, she says: "Isn't it ironic? I became known as the Queen of the Jigglies and that's where the cancer hit." Classy.
Solo on a stage dressed as if for a local-access cable talk show, with twin screens and a Barcalounger and coat rack as the only prominently featured items of furniture, Somers interacts less with the audience than with taped voiceovers. Her father and husband sound like Clint Eastwood impersonators, while the community therapist that taught Suzanne to toss away her "numbness cover" and take "self-inventory" has a ring of Sally Jessy Raphael.
Somers' moment of clarity -- that her self-esteem issues can be traced back to her father's alcoholism and emotional abuse -- comes a good hour after the audience has registered this fact. "I suggest you write about it, Suzanne," intones her therapist. The subsequent long night of literary purging that follows prompts husband Alan to observe with booming solemnity: "Suzanne, this is a book." We don't learn who said, "Suzanne, this is a Broadway show," thus denying the audience the chance to chase down that criminal and bitchslap them to the ground with an old Thighmaster.
There's perhaps an inherent artificiality in every solo show of this type, and even in Billy Crystal's far superior "700 Sundays," slickness chafed against the introspective reflections. But that show was a model of sincerity and freshness -- not to mention narrative shape -- compared to this bargain-basement Vegas act. Only in a clip of Somers guesting on "The Tonight Show" do we see, via Johnny Carson, any glimpse of spontaneity.
Somers' fleeting appearance in "American Graffiti" (in the role that lends this show its title) is recounted in mildly amusing style, while the controversial meltdown of relations between the Somers camp and ABC over "Three's Company" is here pitched as a principled feminist battle for equal footing and salary.
And then there are the songs. These include standards with jaw-dropping reworked lyrics, such as "If You Knew Suzie" ("She loves to giggle/And wag and wiggle/Wo, wo/Holy Moses, she can jiggle"); a kiddie-voiced "If I Only Had a Brain" that aims for pathos and fails; a bizarrely vulgar modeling ditty ("Sling forward/Shoulders back/Think little walnuts in my little butt crack"); and the entirely unearned emotional crescendo of an 11 o'clock number lifted from another show: "Fifty Percent," from "Ballroom." Somers can more or less carry a tune but musical producers will hardly be beating down her agent's door.
Oddly, the moment in the show that feels truest is when, near the final curtain, Somers wheels out a cart laden with her Home Shopping products, from pajamas to self-help tomes, waffle irons to cowboy boots, cover-your-butt T-shirts to lift-your-butt jeans. Hawking these low-rent-Martha Stewart wares (the proceeds of which presumably are bankrolling the show) like a cute but crass market vendor, Somers reveals more of herself than in any of the supposed soul-dredging that's come before.
In answer to Suzanne's question, if I had my life to live over, I'd assign this show to another reviewer.