Frank Gorshin: a good turn as George Burns

His impression is dead-on in `Say Goodnight Gracie'

Theater Review

February 25, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In the one-man show Say Goodnight Gracie, when actor Frank Gorshin - in the guise of George Burns - talks about breaking into vaudeville at age 14, a slide of an audience in a vaudeville palace appears on a screen behind him.

At the Hippodrome Theatre, Gorshin happens to be facing a live audience in a former vaudeville palace. The verisimilitude continues when he describes various vaudeville acts, from comics to singers to animal acts, many of which probably appeared on this very stage.

But it is Gorshin's performance that lends the most verisimilitude to this Burns biography, written by Rupert Holmes and directed by John Tillinger.

Gorshin makes his entrance through a cloud of smoke. It's not the smoke wafting from Burns' omnipresent cigar, however. It's a cloud in the hereafter where Burns, having died at age 100, is stuck in limbo, waiting to find out if he'll be sent to heaven - and reunited with his beloved wife, Gracie Allen - or to that other place.

The script's conceit is that Burns has to audition to get into heaven - audition before God, whom he conveniently portrayed in three movies. It's a hokey premise, but one that can almost be forgiven since Burns comes across as such a gentle, homespun kind of guy.

And make no mistake about it, when Gorshin - who has spent much of his career as an impressionist - enters through the clouds, he embodies Burns, from the hunched shoulders to the shock of silver hair, owlish eyeglasses and gravelly voice with its carefully timed pauses.

But the best proof comes when clips of Burns himself, from films or his TV show with Gracie, are projected on stage. In those moments, Gorshin shares the stage with the man he's portraying, and he gets away with it quite nicely.

The biography that Gorshin relates begins with Burns' childhood on New York's Lower East Side and progresses through his entry into show business as part of a short-lived boy quartet. He spends 15 undistinguished years in vaudeville before he meets Gracie and turns his fortunes around by discovering that she - not he - is the funny one.

When vaudeville wanes, the pair - now a couple personally as well as professionally - make the transition to radio. When talking pictures come in, Burns and Allen are there, too, and then go on to TV. And though Burns finds a subsequent career in movies more than a decade after Gracie's death in 1964, Say Goodnight Gracie leaves no doubt that his "dizzy" wife, with her "illogical logic," was the center of his life.

References are made at various points to the innovative nature of Burns and Allen's films and TV show. The pair, for example, would break through the screen to address the audience directly, or Burns would watch himself on TV as part of the show.

Say Goodnight Gracie, however, eschews innovation in favor of a fairly straightforward account of Burns' life. Of course, that life was pretty remarkable, not only because of Burns' longevity, but also because he continued to perform almost until the end.

In fact, Burns was booked to appear in Las Vegas on his 100th birthday. A fall in the shower led him to cancel. But now, thanks to Gorshin, Burns is back, playing a welcome return engagement at one of his old vaudeville haunts and, along the way, treating audiences to a history of 20th-century American show business.

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