The Blonde in the Thunderbird
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
July 15, 2005
A one-woman show? On Broadway? Based on her memoirs (read: self-help books), produced by her husband, and billed as a “musical joyride”? Does Suzanne Somers know how many strikes she has against her? Who can possibly take her seriously after the stories about Three’s Company, after the diet books, after taking the job on Home Shopping Network? How can this one-person show be anything more than a sorry symptom of the Las Vegasization of Broadway?
For starters, it’s the quickest 95 minutes I’ve experienced in the theatre in a very long time. I’m not convinced that Somers is a rare and important artist—her acting is by turns funny, creepy, and over-the-top; her singing is heartfelt, loud, and pitch-approximate—but I will say this: she knows how many strikes there are against her, and she doesn’t care. She is confident, she is generous, and she is completely for real. And I left the theatre deeply moved in spite of myself.
Her story, spurred by the rather banal question “If you could live your live over again, would you make the same choices?,” is not the most tragic one: she was the child of an alcoholic and physically-abusive father, became a teenage mother and a check-bouncing felon, and was diagnosed with record-breakingly low self-esteem. (There is also the ever-present knowledge that she is a multimillionaire and is in awesome shape for anyone at any age.) But she tells us straight off that she is here to tell her story, because it’s the only story she knows.
Sometimes her methods are disturbing—like when she’s hiding in the upstairs closet, singing “If I Only Had a Brain,” while her father tears through the house in a drunken rage; sometimes she is camp incarnate—like when she dances on-stage wearing what can only be described as a white thunderbird floatie around her waist; and sometimes she is simply crass—like when she arrives on-stage with a cart of her wares which she sells on Home Shopping Network. She takes songs from the classic musical theatre and '60s lite rock and uses them to punctuate moments in very strange ways. Still, I found myself laughing out loud with her, and moved to tears by her story.
Perhaps this is because she is not trying to prove anything. She is not trying to justify her occupying 95 minutes of our time. Nor is she trying to legitimize herself as a stage (or any other kind of) actress. Everything she does onstage is one hundred percent fresh and alive, and that’s so much more than can be said for most of our juke-box and made-from-movie musicals.
Credit is also due to writing-directing team Mitzie and Ken Welch who have made a clean, clear, and sometimes (though not tremendously often) clever structure out of her life. Their lyric-revisions and original songs are competent-to-agreeable, and their staging is proficient with its limited vocabulary. Set and lighting designer Roger Ball has placed two screens on either side of the stage that keep a tight focus on Somers’s upper body, which is wise (her performance medium has been almost exclusively television)—sort of like reading supertitles at the opera as my theatre-going companion put it. Robert Ludwig’s sound design is actually exceptional, providing nuanced aural locations for each external voice, footfall, doorbell, etc.
There is something worth our time in The Blonde in the Thunderbird (named after Somers’s first feature film role in American Graffitti). For performers, this can be a study in being bold; for critics (both professional and lay), a lesson in being humble; and for everyone else, it can be simply a very good time.