Vilanch: Almost Famous
Forget Mae West --- the dirtiest blond stalking a New York stage right now is Bruce Vilanch, the showbiz ventriloquist whose witty repartee has spilled from the mouths of a starry, and occasionally scary, array of Hollywood names over the course of his long career in the "comedy gulag." Vilanch, who is best known in industry circles as the writer who makes the Oscar telecasts bearable --- well, intermittently bearable, anyway --- is delivering his own material from the stage of the Westbeth Theater Center, and his solo show, modestly subtitled "Almost Famous," is as deliciously funny as you'd expect.
Vilanch, an impish and amiable performer, has a mug that inspires instant affection. As the teenage Donny Osmond, an early collaborator, astutely noted, Vilanch looks uncannily like a Muppet. (His retort to this observation is too priceless, not to mention vulgar, to be repeated here.) He might also be described as looking like one of Santa's elves, grown up, gone blissfully to seed, and possessed of an unfortunate affection for sloganeering T-shirts and brightly colored eyeglass frames.
all odds, this look works, and so does Vilanch's show, which has been directed
with a minimum of fuss by Scott Wittman. Taking the stage to sing a witty ditty
by Wittman and Marc Shaiman, "The Queens Behind the Scenes," that defines
his career in a phrase, Vilanch ambles freely through reminiscences of his odd
path to almost famousness. He was a child model ("charming chub" division),
then a child actor, then a journalist at the Chicago Tribune in the early '70s,
where a funny column about Bette Midler came to the performer's attention. "Ya
got any lines?" she asked, and a career was born.
Vilanch takes a few funny potshots at Michael Jackson and Calista Flockhart, but his long career also allows for peculiar recollections of Tallulah Bankhead (he co-starred with her in summer stock) and Sophie Tucker, whom he recalls shamelessly and tirelessly flogging her autobiography at a Florida casino ("the rarest book in the world is an un-autographed copy of Sophie Tucker's memoirs").
the second act, Vilanch answers questions from the audience, and displays the
fertile, highly caffeinated wit that is his stock in trade; the man tosses off
one-liners copiously, like a Persian cat shedding fur.
Vilanch is now an industry insider, but he retains the outsider's perspective that is essential to comedy, resulting in a show that provides a funhouse-mirror look at Hollywood. His entertainingly skewed perspective is increasingly rare today, when all branches of the media tend to take movie and TV stars as seriously as they take themselves.
director, Dick Gallagher. Set, James Schuette; lighting, Josh Monroe; sound, Gregory
Kostroff; stage manager, Larry Baker. Westbeth producing director , Arnold Engelman.
Opened May 11, 2000. Reviewed May 9. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.