George Burns is alive and well and in residence in Latham
Curtain Call Theatre’s 26th season is a refreshing run where six of their seven shows slated for the upcoming season are regional premiers. The first production of the season is Rupert Holmes’s one man show, Say Goodnight Gracie. The multi media production is the reminiscences of George Burns from his struggling childhood, as Nathan Birnbaum, in Manhattan’s Lower East side to the phenomenal success he achieved throughout his 100 years. The show opened on Broadway in 2002 and became one of the longest running one man shows in Broadway history. Productions have traveled the world with a litany of who’s who in the theatrical world to great acclaim and has landed firmly in Latham with a production that can hold its own to any of its predecessors.
The story is simple, the premise; Burns is in heaven’s waiting room, almost purgatory and almost like Buffalo, according to him. God speaks to him and announces before he can determine if George will be welcomed to heaven and be reunited with the love of his life, Gracie Allen, he must recount his life for God. Thus begins Burns’s conversation with God and the audience can settle in and enjoy the ride.
Everyone of a “certain” age, and perhaps even some not old enough to remember him in his heyday has an image of George Burns. A smallish man, round glasses and always with his iconic cigar. Burns, over the years, morphed into the movie roles he played, predominantly God… as he says it was casting that happened as he was the closest thing on earth to fit the age requirements, that a somewhat younger generation may recall.
We learn of Burns’s struggles growing up, the childhood so typical of many of his time, living in the Lower East Side, the Jewish ghetto of the late 19th and early 20th century. Childhood neighbors around the corner included the Marx Brothers, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, and Irving Berlin, to name a few. We are told of his growth in show business from vaudeville to radio where he and Gracie became worldwide sensations for 26 years, to the transition to the small screen, and ultimately his solo career on the big screen after Gracie retired.
The production moves along and absorbs the audience with typical Burns style. Everything is a story, everything moves you from point a to point b smoothly and deftly.
There are over 100 technical cues that you will never notice as they are implemented flawlessly; film clips and photos that appear on a mammoth wall creating a backdrop for the show, music that cuts in and out, interesting lighting and even some very clever routines with the late Gracie Allen that mixes the real Allen with the on-stage persona of Burns.
What pulls the entire production together is the tight direction by Carol Max and Steve Fletcher. The who, in the production however is Capital Region veteran Phil Rice. When you first see Rice on the stage, you think, how is this going to work. He is neither small in stature nor a middle aged Jewish man from New York. It only takes about 5 minutes into the production before you forget about Phil and feel as if you are watching George Burns back on stage. The sign of a truly great performance is when you lose the actor and see only the character. Rice has gotten this down to a science. His stature remains his own, his cadence in speech patterns becomes Burns, and even if he doesn’t smoke the cigar, he does get the basics of how George carried one. While not to ruin the outcome, let’s just say once you hear the story, there is no doubt where he wound up… and it wasn’t Buffalo.
You owe it to yourself to take a trip down memory lane, or a history lesson in show business, if your memory doesn’t go back that far, to see Say Goodnight Gracie. This storybook show runs through October 17. For more information or ticket reservations go to www.curtaincalltheatre.com or call the box office at 518-877-7529. You must show proof of vaccination and wear a mask in the theatre.