A Star Is Shorn

Photo: Amy Arbus

Chin cocked toward the mezzanine, head tilted to the side, beatific smile frozen in place, Martin Short has mastered the Look. You know this look. It’s the one stars wear while dragging out the pause between their second and third bows, the pleased and modest-seeming expression that doesn’t quite conceal the ego and insecurity raging beneath. If comedy gets a grinning mask and tragedy a frown, the Look is the emblem of self-conscious celebrity.

The Look—and all the lunacy it represents—takes a healthy beating in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. Styled as an autobiographical solo show, it’s actually a send-up of those shows and the people who make them. Short skewers the plays of Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Suzanne Somers, and others for keeping costs low and egos high and having no shame whatsoever about their emotional exhibitionism. It’s about time somebody made fun of these people, and even if it fails to finish the job, Short’s musical makes an impressively funny start.

Accompanied on the piano by Marc Shaiman, who wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with director Scott Wittman, he goes to the dark places that are so crucial to solo success. “I’m going to tell you my story and not be afraid to include some of the pain,” he says early on, “the same way that so many other performers with one-man shows bare their souls and share their innermost secrets with total strangers like yourselves.” Alas, Short didn’t have much trauma, so he makes some up: a flatulent father, a drunken meltdown at the Golden Globes, meeting his wife in a naked-hippie downtown show about Christ’s stepbrother.

The closest thing to reality in Short’s story appears to be the fake people he has played over the years. With co-librettist Daniel Goldfarb, he sneaks in Ed Grimley and the Tin Pan Alley macher Irving Cohen. (In these and other scenes, the supporting cast shows remarkable range.) The most talked-about part of the show is sure to be the visit from the porcine stargazer Jiminy Glick, who interviews a new celebrity guest every night. For the critics, the producers wheeled out a big gun: Nathan Lane.

But when the show loses sight of its honorable intent—to lampoon the star-driven solo play—it gets in trouble fast. Though a ten-foot-tall Tommy Tune can’t help getting laughs, and a song by a “big black lady” (Capathia Jenkins) about how big black ladies stop the show does just that, Short’s attempts to derive comedy for his Broadway musical by making fun of Broadway musicals feels stale, tedious. The same goes for the sense that the entire world of the show consists of, and is bounded by, celebrities. Again and again when he needs a laugh, Short trots out someone to impersonate a star: Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Joan Rivers, Britney Spears. This is the stage equivalent of name-dropping; it’s lower than a pun. I don’t want to overthink a show that leans heavily on horny-baby and fart jokes, but by paying all these Us Weekly personalities the tribute of putting them onstage, Short in some ways bolsters the phenomenon he’s been mocking. Sure, solo plays exist because famous people want to stand downstage center and flaunt the Look, but they thrive only because an audience besotted with celebrities keeps paying to watch.

Nearby, in a less reputable corner of Broadway, liberties are being taken with cabaret that would break Martin Short and his solo-play spoof in two. Loud and rude, inspired and vexing, Kiki & Herb have reached Broadway at last.

For the uninitiated, the lounge act from hell is said to have begun 40 years ago, when “boozy chantoosie” Kiki DuRane linked up with her accompanist Herb, the “gay Jew ’tard.” A send-off concert last year seemed to mark their demise, but clearly it takes more than a sold-out night at Carnegie Hall to kill these two. Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway finds Kiki (Justin Bond) back at the microphone, supported by the piano stylings of Herb (Kenny Mellman) and a bottle and a half of whiskey. Like Short, they perform in a genre to send up that genre—in this case, the hopeless, superannuated cabaret acts who try to stay relevant by playing the kids’ music. But their badness isn’t bad, it’s brilliant. Well, a brilliant mess, anyway.

Bond and Mellman have forgone a director, and it shows. The act is a sprawling, shapeless, two-plus-hour epic. This means it’ll take some fortitude to find all the terrific things in it, like the “folk music” of Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” or their Wagnerian rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Even better is their chatter between the songs, from old favorites (“Time to make mama pretty,” says Kiki, reaching for her glass) to up-to-the-minute commentary (“You don’t want to see Kiki without her sports beverage,” she says of the new airport regulations).

In interviews, Bond and Mellman have offered their politics as a reason for coming to Broadway now, but the overt political stuff is the least satisfying part of the show. The anger is real, and of course the Bush administration deserves it. Still, how much lefty affirmation does a New York crowd need? All the same, to the extent that Broadway retains any claim to being the shop window for the best performers in town, it’s exactly where these two belong.

In a towering wig and what looks like a Pucci dress in shades of avocado salsa, Bond pivots between Mellman and the crowd, keeping up the banter, then bursting into song. Voice pitching between a squeal and a howl, then mellowing in a way that recalls the young Bowie, he gives one of the most mesmerizing performances on Broadway. On his right, Mellman draws booming, kaleidoscopic sound from his baby grand. He’ll play a quiet line under Kiki’s chatter, then, in the midst of some improbable medley (“Make Yourself Comfortable” by Bob Merrill and Radiohead’s “Creep,” for instance), he’ll pound the piano like he wants to bust its rivets. The act may bog down now and then, and certainly isn’t to all tastes, but it never leaves you in doubt that here, finally, is what Broadway says it wants: real originality, in all its untidy glory.

Showing imperfect timing for maybe the first time ever, Meryl Streep makes her return to Central Park just as our Fall Preview issue goes to press. So my review of Mother Courage—translation by Tony Kushner, co-starring Kevin Kline—will appear on Tuesday, August 22, the morning after opening night, on the theater page.

Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway
Helen Hayes Theatre.
Through September 10.

A Star Is Shorn