Shirley, at 50, is ridin' high, and you'll be right up there with her for most of "Shirley MacLaine on Broadway," 90 minutes of razzle-dazzle that came to the Gershwin last evening for five weeks.
This is what we are accustomed to pigeonholding as Las Vegas-type entertainment - star, backup dancers, big onstage orchestra, flashy costumes, fancy lighting, brassy sound system - but it's something more than that. It's a touch more hip, more New Yorkish, and the star is an enormously engaging performer at the crest of her career. Can it really be 30 years ago that the shapely "gypsy" stepped out at the St. James to replace a lamed Carol Haney in Bob Fosse's spiffy "Steam Heat" number and shortly stepped right off into Hollywood? At most, that was 10 years ago, from the look of her.
After the overture and an innocuous new opening (and closing) number called "Now," she refers to the fact that though she is, indeed, in the Gershwin Theater, there'll be no Gershwin tonight. Instead, she has some Harold Arlen for us ("He's pretty good, too"). But as she lights into "If I Only Had a Brain," "Get Happy" and "I've Got the World on a String," the orchestra (the clever arrangements are by Marvin Hamlisch) keeps slipping into strains from "Rhapsody in Blue," "Lady Be Good," "The Man I Love" and "An American in Paris." Until, with a shrug, she surrenders to the Gershwins and floats a gentle chorus of "'S Wonerful." Nice work.
There follows a "Hooker Medley," a song-and-dance segment built around all the ladies of the evening (nine, I think she said) she's portrayed in movies, and a good portion of it set to music (the lyrics, when used, are those of the late Dorothy Fields) composed by Cy Coleman who, while uncredited, is actually responsible for a major part of the evening's musical material. She follows this by performing scenes from several of her films, leading up to the giddily touching portrayal that won her an Oscar little more than a week back (she proudly displays it) and an indisputable claim to the title of queen of the soaps.
Another essentially New York bit follows when she and her four backup dancers (two men and two women) zip about to "Sweet Georgia Brown" as choreographers Bob Fosse and Michael Kidd might have staged it and then as Alan Johnson, who has directed and choreographed the entire show with finesse, has conceived it in irregular musical phrases - a characteristic of his, as she informs us (I must say I preferred his sprightly mimicking of the highly-stylized and very original other pair).
A lengthy account of her adventures in the Himalayas during one of her familiar mountain-climbing expeditions is used to build up only to a variation on an ancient joke as she concludes with a rendition of "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries." More Coleman and Fields ("Nobody Does It Like Me") is followed by Rodgers and Hammerstein ("A Cockeyed Optimist") and, a few beats later, John Lennon's song, "Imagine," before the finale.
Slick as the show is, the star finds room to interject her own person and feelings (she points with pride to the fact that the 24-piece orchestra behind her, sparked by a first-rate trio in the center, contains five female instrumentalists), to perform with a naturalness that is altogether engaging. She hoofs as well as ever, looks terrific in a variety of costumes and, in effect, exceeds the boundaries of the formula variety entertainment she's chosen for her return to a Broadway stage. Special girl, Shirl.
What is a strawberry blonde? It is one of the things that intrigued my adolescence, disturbed my manhood, and had threatened to plague my senility. Now I know.
It happened gloriously last night at the Gershwin Theater - a strawberry blonde is Shirley MacLaine bouncing up and down like a yo-yo, in a flimsy silver-gray costume - no, perhaps change that, not flimsy, make it skimpy - and grinning. Crazily. While an audience stood.
That is a strawberry blonde. Or perhaps that is a strawberry blonde.
The woman is also quite a performer - an electric, electrified performer. The lady is also quite a phony - which, oddly enough, is an essential part of her appeal. She's gorgeously outrageous, and quite impossibly impossible.
Secret time. Nowadays we critics hardly ever go to first nights - we usually only attend previews. Which, to be hoenst, is usually a sensible way of attending a dramatic event.
But with a performer - and very few of my colleagues were at the actual performance - I do think you miss something of the occasion, something of the air of that occasion.
You miss a moment locked in time - a moment to be described and treasured.
That, conceivably unimportant moment, is when a critic has to act as a reporter - or at least pretend to fill in. I felt that last night. I was glad actually to be there on the moment. It was more difficult, more fun, and, also, more interesting.
MacLaine is a hoot. She comes strong onto Broadway as if she had never left. As if she was some simple little gypsy hoofer who after years of service in this chorus line, that chorus line, any chorus line, finally made it big. No way.
Miss MacLaine is not a Broadway star. Never has been. Until - and no one is perfect - last night.
This is where the divine phony intrudes. She acts a Broadway star like no Broadway star you have ever envisaged. And the first night audience lapped it up. And that audience was so right.
For Miss MacLaine is a legend who has amply become her own myth.
This is a lovely, great, slick, clever show. She wanders into sentimentality once or twice - what on earth would have happened to the text if she hadn't won that damn Oscar she was so certain she deserved? - but most of the time she's honestly sweet and bewilderingly lovable.
Age: She is now 50. It causes her no trouble at all, and the pain, if any, she disguises.
Looks: She has an indestructibly battered radiance that time cannot wither because time never made.
Voice: It is sort of rhythm like a drummer, and it holds a melody with a plaintive, lyric grace.
Dance: This, in a way, is how she started. You all know the legend of understudy to Carol Haney in The Pajama Game, a quick replacement, instant notice and movie stardom.
Dance: Yes, this, very much in a way, is how she started. But she left it very soon - even as a gypsy. Gwen Verdon she isn't. Yet, startlingly, here, she dances bewitchingly well.
She can wear black tights and a straw hat with the best of them. And she can laugh on time while flexing her knee joints like a Rockette.
Her program, which has been staged and choreographed by Alan Johnson, has some smart original music and lyrics by Marvin Hamlisch and Christopher Adler, and, I am not quite sure where, some additional material by Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan, is tailor-made for success.
She has the naturally important gift of being able to laugh, not only at herself - and many can do that - but only at her success.
She brings a childlike sense of undeserved wonderment to deserved fame. And it is uncutely cute.
She tells us about her time, trekking with yaks, or was it yakking with treks?, when she met some ultimate guru, who had to tell her the ultimate secret of life.
She built us up to some sickly degree of absolved mysticism - which does seem more sickly than mystic - then she grins her little urchin grin, and declares the guru's secret. "Life," they tell us, "is just a bowl of cherries," and they have the music to match.
But when she sings that happily familiar ditty, there is a special undertow of seriousness that implies to us that this whiz-kid is neither all kid or all whiz.
You see, the lady is a strawberry blonde. And anything can happen to her. Even honesty.
If you loved Shirley MacLaine's Academy Award acceptance speech, chances are that you'll like ''Shirley MacLaine on Broadway,'' the Las Vegas act that the star has brought to the Gershwin for a monthlong stay. To be sure, there's some singing and dancing in this intermissionless, 85-minute show, but Miss MacLaine is at her most sparkling when she's celebrating all the good fortune that has come her way in this, her 30th year in show business. ''Just let me adjust to all that's happening to me lately,'' she requests in her opening remarks. At evening's end, she brings her Oscar statuette on stage, looks it in the eye and confides, ''I guess I did deserve it.''
And so it goes. This is an evening for true-blue MacLaine fans - those who believe that the performer's best role, ''Terms of Endearment'' notwithstanding, has always been herself. That public persona is trotted out, chapter and verse, in the show's autobiographical monologues: the onetime Broadway chorus dancer who still has gypsy in her soul, the independent-minded memoirist who preaches reincarnation, the kooky but tough Hollywood survivor who played ''hookers'' and ''doormats'' on her way to mature roles and now the unabashedly self-congratulatory showbiz queen bee. What's also still here is the energy and the charm. Even those who congenitally recoil from Miss MacLaine's preening may be partially disarmed by her lithe, bubbly countenance and ever-warming rag doll's smile.
What can't be camouflaged is the bland and skimpy nature of the entertainment that the star's vibrant personality and ego must bind together. If this show has a clear celebratory message, it doesn't capitalize on its headliner's biggest talent - as an actress. Miss MacLaine's strongest suit has never been singing, yet she must waste time here delivering songs that are either mediocre or, in the case of a jokey Harold Arlen medley, well outside her range. The dance numbers demonstrate that the star can still perform a high kick or finger- snapping Bob Fosse strut (even as she claims to be ''too old'' to do ''Steam Heat'') - but the busy routines are more rowdy than rousing. It's no help, either, that the black stage is scantily decorated with four vulgarly costumed chorus dancers and a rather glum-looking big band. The band plays loud, mechanical arrangements that are well below the standard set by the Broadway accompanists of Lena Horne and Peggy Lee.
The evening's director and choreographer is Alan Johnson, whose ''Springtime for Hitler'' number in Mel Brooks's ''Producers'' remains a classic of parody. His big set piece on this occasion - an underpopulated tribute to the dance styles of Mr. Fosse and Michael Kidd - is similarly, if unintentionally, parodistic. Mr. Johnson also directed the recent Brooks remake of ''To Be or Not To Be,'' and one misguided sequence in this show recalls that film's running gag about a Polish actor who performs ''Highlights From Hamlet.'' When Miss MacLaine delivers highlights (in the form of monologues) from three of her nonmusical films, she must distort her screen performances by inflating them to fill Broadway's largest house. It's more than a bit disconcerting, in the ''Terms of Endearment'' excerpt, to hear the actress rage at imaginary cancer-clinic nurses through the Gershwin's harsh amplification system.
For some reason, those career highlights are interwoven with a self- pitying song (by Marvin Hamlisch and Christopher Adler) about how miserable it is to be a movie star. The show's other truly jarring note is a discomforting salute to black choreographers that turns out to be more patronizing that appreciative. The chief compensating pleasures arrive when Miss MacLaine connects with not only the expected Cy Coleman- Dorothy Fields songs of ''Sweet Charity'' but also ''Nobody Does It Like Me'' from ''Seesaw.'' The star can also be amusingly self-deprecatory (up to a point) - and is unexpectedly low-key even when discoursing on acting technique, Himalayan mystics or the difference between ''reality and illusion.''
In the closing minutes - shortly before singing ''Cockeyed Optimist'' and ''Imagine'' - Miss MacLaine announces, ''I'm proof positive that if you really believe you can do something, you can do anything!'' While it would be hard to say that anything of great moment happens in ''Shirley MacLaine on Broadway,'' true believers may well find Miss MacLaine's unquenchable positive thinking a show in itself.