Willy Holtzman, started off writing by writing a biography about the fabulous Judy Holliday and now has turned it into a bio drama called Smart Blonde playing at 59E59. This play with music, stars Andréa Burns (On Your Feet! and In the Heights) as the comedic stage and screen star whose life was cut tragically short at age 43 by breast cancer. Ms Burn’s though terrific is not the typical choice for this role.
During the show Ms. Holliday keeps claiming she was not a singer, but when you hear the lilting Mrs. Holliday in person and look at her history, she was most definitely a phenomenal singer who understood lyric and delivery.
Structured as a memory play, Holliday recalls events from her life during a recording session in 1964, the year before her death. We learn how this highly smart (IQ 175) Jewish girl from Queens, raised by a left-wing uncle went from Greenwich Village alongside Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein, to become the toast of both Broadway and Hollywood. Along the way her romances, friendships, her run in with the McCarthy era blacklisting and House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 are brought into play.
We learn about her relationships with both Yetta Cohn and Katherine Hepburn, as well as her marriage to musician and record executive David Oppenheim, with whom she had a son. Ironically the play spins their divorce into a depression for Ms. Holliday, but fails to state the real reason for this relationship. It also talks about her last relationship with jazz great Gerry Mulligan.
Though Smart Blonde gets into what happened with her run in at the House Un-American Activities Committee, it fails to really get into why she played dumb and who the house really wanted her to expose.
Having been a Judy Holliday fan all my life, these were stories I knew and they barely scratched the surface.
Burns is superb, but fails to really get Ms. Holliday’s singing complexity. Cleverly all the roles in the story are played brilliantly by Mark Lotito, Andrea Bianchi and Jonathan Spivey. Ms. Biachi’s Ruth Gordon, Ethel Barrymore and Marilyn Monroe are standouts.
Director Peter Flynn keeps this show fast-paced, but the material had audience members looking at their phones.
The play is more of a series of sketch comedies that makes you want to know more and one has to think was this a ploy to buy the book? The best moments are when Ms. Holliday has to fight off the advances of Daryl F. Zanuck and her struggle with weight. Both the casting couch and the unhealthy standard of beauty still exists today.
Judy Holliday was a performer that should not be forgotten. Go to youtube and you can see this genius at work.
Smart Blonde: 59E59 Theaters, until April 3rd.