Review: Get Bruce! Vilanch dishes dirt in kicky ‘Almost Famous’

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November 10, 2005
Inside Bay Area

When you settle in for a show at San Francisco’s Empire Plush Room, you expect a few things: cocktails, romance, beautiful music.

When comedy writer Bruce Vilanch takes over, you get one of the above: cocktails. But while most performers offer songs mixed with — if you’re lucky — a few laughs, Vilanch reverses the equation and delivers a whole lot of jokes and, unfortunately, a few songs.

In “Almost Famous,” which opened Tuesday, the 56-year-old Vilanch tells stories from his 30-year career as a writer for hire in Hollywood. He has written 15 Academy Awards shows, not to mention the Grammys, Emmys, Tonys and the Miss USA pageant.

He was the subject of a disarming 1999 documentary called “Get Bruce” that focused on his comedy partnerships with people such as Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Bette Midler.

When those folks need a joke, they call Vilanch, who is only just returning to the world of comedy after a starring stint in the Broadway musical “Hairspray.” Local audiences saw Vilanch shave his famous scruffy beard and don a wig and a dress to play that show’s Edna Turnblad, a role he repeated on Broadway for about a year.

Vilanch is rusty, and it shows. Still without his beard, he remains recognizable as the “gay square,” as he puts it, from the most recent incarnation of “Hollywood Squares,” and he’s extremely funny.

What he doesn’t have, and he’ll be the first to tell you, is a show. “Almost Famous” almost has a structure, but not quite. The opening-night audience was treated to a generous slice of Vilanch’s storytelling comedy with a nearly two-hour show.

When he launches into Hollywood gossip, the time flies. He gets off a true Vilanch gem — well structured, clever, a little shocking — at the top of the show: “The Chicago White Sox topped Bobby Brown’s record. They beat Houston four times in one week.”

There’s no telling what stories Vilanch will tell from night to night, but if you go, hope he tells you about his latest project: “Celebrity Fit Club,” a VH-1 reality show that pits teams of celebrities against one another to see who can lose the most weight. The burly Vilanch is aiming to lose 45 pounds and has already lost 18.

His team captain is Chastity Bono, which brings up the subject of Cher. Vilanch toured around with Cher on her endless “farewell” tour to write jokes, and he says the crew would pool their money before each concert to bet on how many songs Cher would sing live that night.

Another “Celebrity Fit Club” teammate is Gunnar Nelson, son of Ricky Nelson. Looking at Gunnar and Chastity, Vilanch recalls thinking, “I did drugs with your parents. Now I’m losing weight with you.”

Discussing the Academy Awards, Vilanch disses the ABC network censor, Mrs. Futterman, who watches the broadcast holding what Vilanch calls her “Futter button,” the mechanism that causes on-air bleeping.

The best bits of a too-long evening come from the realm of 1970s variety shows when Vilanch was a writer for “Donny & Marie” and, God help us all, “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour.”

Remember that Vilanch is a man with no shame. He loves that he wrote “Wayne Newton at Sea World” or “Cole Porter’s Paris with Connie Stevens.” He cherishes those experiences because they were “just too great a disaster” to resist.

If you’re really lucky, Vilanch will do his Paul Lynde material, which he says is more appropriate to “The Flush Room” than the Plush Room. He’s right, but the dish is divine.

Not so great is Vilanch’s attempt to incorporate music into the show. He mangles “Timeless to Me” from “Hairspray” and butchers “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” from “A Chorus Line.”

But Vilanch shrugs it off: “They told me I should open with a song. They didn’t say I should learn it.” Ba dum bum.