Judy Holiday ne Tuvim (1921-1965) is best known for playing ditsy blondes. In reality, her IQ was extremely high. The persona served, however, when brought up before the Senate Internal Securities Subcommittee for supposed Communist affiliations. Resistant at first – according to dialogue, Holiday found that acting like Billie Dawn (her Academy Award winning role in Born Yesterday) before the tribunal actually made them believe she hadn’t known what she was doing when fraternizing. A nod to the play’s title and a telling sign of the times.
Smart Blonde takes us through Judy Holiday’s life with dizzying rapidity. Because actors play multiple roles, it’s impossible to know who they are before identifying themselves in each brief scene. Playwright Willy Holtzman works hard at integration, but clumsiness is all but unavoidable. The attempt to feature pivotal junctures includes too many bridging scenes, too many peripheral characters (inclusion of Marilyn Monroe, for example, contributes nothing.) Editing would serve by illuminating better, not more. This doesn’t mean the piece is not entertaining, only that it’s difficult to get involved.
Andrea Bianchi and Andrea Burns
We meet Holiday (Andrea Burns) at a recording studio in 1964, late in the actress’s short life. Chemotherapy has taken a toll. She’s palpably jittery both about singing and an expected call from her doctor with cancer prognosis. Also present are sound engineer, Elliott (Mark Lotito), Pianist/Arranger Bernie (Jonathan Spivey,) and Ruthie (Andrea Bianchi).
From here, we travel back to a glimpse of childhood – her father taking teenage Judy on his date with a chorus girl (a notable example of ditsy), abandoning, this play suggests, an apparently suicidal wife. Next, with friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, she appears at The Village Vanguard in a musical comedy act called The Revuers. They flop until pushing “the cute one” forward. (There seems to be a lot of conjecture.) Judy is picked up by Yetta Cohn with whom she becomes lifelong friends and sometime lovers. (Discretely handled.)
Jonathan Spivey and Andrea Burns
Musical excerpts pepper the piece. Except for a parenthesis of the Act, however, and two numbers written by the artist with her eventual partner Gerry Mulligan, we don’t know whether these songs were recorded by Holiday or are simply meant to further mood.
Comden and Green went on to write On the Town, the first iconic hit of many. Holiday was offered a Hollywood contract. “A star is the vertical axis, a starlet is horizontal,” she’s informed. We watch her fight off Max Gordon. There’s Born Yesterday – whose plot the heroine describes like a true intellectual (well written), her first husband, a son, Bells Are Ringing, the FBI dossier, It Could Happen to You – introducing newbe Jack Lemmon – meeting Mulligan, Bells Are Ringing, Cancer…
Andrea Burns and Mark Lotito
Andrea Burns can act, sing, and has charm. She doesn’t capture Holiday when imitating famous roles. More importantly, and this is not the actress’s fault, we don’t really care about her till the end.
Andrea Bianchi reminds me of Nanette Fabray. Several of her character accents are spot-on and she turns on a dime. Jonathan Spivey morphs fluently, has bright presence, and plays piano. Mark Lotito personifies less demonstrative people, but makes a good, grounded Mulligan.
Tony Ferrier’s Set credibly represents a second or third tier studio as Michael McDonald’s Costumes describe the period.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Andrea Burns, Jonathan Spivey, Mark Lotito, Andrea Bianchi
MBL Productions and Mary J. Davis in association with Judith Manocherian LLC presents
Smart Blonde by Willy Holtzman
Directed by Peter Flynn
Through April 13, 2019