The Judy Holliday Story
nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
July 14, 2011
Bouncy, bubbly, and bright. Smart, sophisticated, and sweet.
These words describe to a T the latest offering of the New Jersey Repertory Company, The Judy Holliday Story. Not coincidentally, they could all be applied to the eponymous protagonist, the gifted singer and comedienne fondly remembered for her star turns in Bells Are Ringing and Born Yesterday.
Bob Sloan’s witty script lightly, lovingly, sketches in the friends, family, career highlights, and all-too-short life of Judy Holliday. And the appealing Pheonix Vaughn has captured Holliday’s trademark ditzy blonde intonations of slow dawnings, brisk retorts, and blithe bemusement.
The play weaves through Holliday’s life, progressing sequentially with flashbacks and flash forwards, stopping repeatedly at her earliest success at the Village Vanguard with co-performers and future legends in their own right, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Oscar night 1950, arguably the pinnacle of Holliday’s career. We meet Judith Tuvim, high school valedictorian at sixteen and eager to make a difference in the world, follow her to her first job—switchboard operator at the Mercury Theatre, humorously absorbing the larger-than-life personages of John Houseman and Orson Welles—and from there to a stint as a union-extolling summer camp counselor meeting fellow counselor and friend for life Adolph Green as they rhapsodize on the non-anagramability of “Tuvim."
It is a dizzy, giddy, and glorious path to stardom, filled with clever songs and patter at the Vanguard, a short string of eligible bachelors and wolfish producers, and first-rate glittering talents including Peter Lawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson, Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, John Daly, Katharine Hepburn, Leonard Bernstein—a veritable who’s who of the 1940s and ’50s.
The play is well served—no, exquisitely served—by the extremely talented Adam Harrington and Catherine LeFrere, playing with vim, wit, and vigor some dozen notables between them. While it is initially disconcerting to see the pixie-ish Green portrayed by a skinny six-footer, and LeFrere similarly looks not one whit like Comden, these actors quickly eliminate the need to rely on outward resemblances as they build believable and recognizable characters with a few deft strokes. And droll Bonnie Black keeps Judy’s mother Helen from caricature through a deeply displayed mother’s love—cut through with a sharp sense of humor—for a precious only child.
Director SuzAnne Barabas brings a lively, snappy pacing to the clever dialogue, and keeps the transitions flowing clearly and seamlessly through the flash forwards and back in time. Costume designer Patricia E. Doherty has outdone herself with a beautiful and bounteous display of flattering fifties clothes—stylish, elegant, and mood-evoking. Jessica Parks has created a snug, predominantly backstage set that, like the play itself, takes us behind the scenes of the Judy Holliday story. A standout effect of lighting designer Jill Nagle’s is the camera flashbulb that harkens back to an earlier, simpler era with bigger, clumsier technology. And through it all, musical director and pianist Mark T. Evans effortlessly summons the accompanying soundtrack of these more glamorous, more sophisticated times.
Ultimately, that is what The Judy Holliday Story celebrates: a time when wits were sharper, songs sweeter, clothes and manners lovelier, celebrities more celebrated. Whether that was really the case or not, this play makes it seem so. And for a couple hours, it’s nice to go to a time and place when smart, talented kids who passionately loved words and music could thrive, blossom, and prosper.