|Reviews of Laughter at Ten O'Clock
Reviving the Lost Art Of TV Comedy
By Michael Toscano
One of the most interesting revelations in American Century Theater's experiment in re-creating television sketch comedy for the stage, "Laughter at Ten O'Clock: Memories of the Carol Burnett Show," is just how broad and larger-than-life this extinct performance discipline was.
Actors who usually perform on stage tend to tone down their performances for the cool and intimate medium of television -- modulating their voices and restricting movements and facial expressions. However, ACT's cast members show that Burnett and company actually performed with more energy than is usual not only for television, but for the stage as well, going way over the top in their pursuit of lunacy.
Directed by Jack Marshall, the cast has carefully calibrated its energy levels to accurately capture the zaniness that Americans were so comfortable with on network television's last variety show, which went off the air in 1978 when Burnett herself pulled the plug after 11 years. Originating in vaudeville and surviving radio, the variety show, relying on music, dance and comedy, was once the mainstay of American television and home to the greatest names in entertainment. Burnett's crew, including Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and, later, Tim Conway, were familiar household guests.
ACT has re-created a tiny corner of CBS Television City to provide a taste of what attending a taping of "The Carol Burnett Show" was like, circa 1973. Using original scripts and showing backstage and technical activity between bits, the cast resurrects some of the show's funnier moments. Oddly, none of the popular recurring sketch characters made the cut.
Fortunately, the Capitol Steps' Nancy Dolliver was available to portray Burnett, and she is able to hold the show together, just as Burnett did. Dolliver even resembles Burnett, much the way community theater stalwart Bill Karukas resembles Harvey Korman, adding to the fun. Mary McGowan seems to radiate more comic talent than Vicki Lawrence ever did. Unfortunately, Bruce Alan Rauscher doesn't even try to channel Tim Conway, either in appearance or performance, and that diminishes his effectiveness. And poor Lyle Waggoner is missing.
But there are visits from Sonny and Cher, with Rauscher as a mediocre Sonny and Kathryn Fuller a spookily accurate Cher, who also makes a solo appearance later in the show. Variety show staples Steve Lawrence and his wife, Edie Gorme, also stop by, portrayed with genuinely fake show-biz charm by Scott Kenison and Karen Hayes. George Chapin's stint as the self-absorbed and eccentric performer Anthony Newley is horribly accurate, while his impersonation of Englebert Humperdinck is a bland time-filler -- much like the original.
A highlight of the show has been the crossover appearances by Brian Childers on Wednesday nights and at Saturday matinees as the great star, Danny Kaye. Childers re-creates his Helen Hayes Award-winning performance as Kaye in "Danny and Sylvia," which ACT is running concurrently through July 28 at Alexandria's MetroStage. Childers's dead-on portrayal of Kaye is a treasure, both in his brief appearance here and in the full show.
An enjoyable part of Burnett's show was watching the regulars crack themselves up, and director Marshall has built in some miscues to spark those "unscripted" responses and make the audience feel they're in on the joke. Of course, the sketch in which nurse Burnett tells surgeon Korman she wants a divorce in mid-operation and they use the patient as a punching bag generates screams of laughter all by itself, as does the famous takeoff of "Gone With the Wind," which contains one of the funniest lines ever uttered anywhere.
Burnett's show aired at 10 p.m. Saturdays. Still, the title for this show would more accurately be "Laughter at 8 O'Clock," because the laughs start coming as soon as the show starts.
Laughter at Ten O'Clock
The American Century Theater opens a time-capsule tribute to one of the last musical variety shows with Laughter at 10 O'Clock: Memories of The Carol Burnett Show. The audience is incorporated into a fictional TV taping in 1973, complete with applause instructions from the line producer. The sketches are taken from real shows--which, unfortunately, don't hold up. They vary on a few standard comic situations--bringing a wacky finance(e) home to meet the future in-laws, for example, gets two outings, once with a mermaid and once with a guy who thinks he's a cat. Too much comedy has happened over the past 20 years. Even one of Burnett's best-known movie parodies, "Gone With the Breeze," is much less funny than the memory of it: The sight of Scarlett rolling down a staircase just doesn't make it after watching the mermaid falling off a couch, a patient falling off an operating table, and the cat man rolling around on the floor with a ball of yarn. The laugh-out-loud parts of the evening, in fact, aren't the main course--the sketches--but, rather, the side dishes--impersonations of '70s music/variety staple performers. Capitol Steps member Nancy Dolliver channels the versatile rubber-faced comedienne, doing an especially eerie job when pulling the big comic mug or unleashing a trademark growl when reaching the end of her patience. But no performance is funnier than Scott Kenison and Karen Hayes' rendition of second-tier rat-packers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. And put anyone in an Indian headdress and have her sing "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves"--let alone Kathryn Fuller as Cher--and you have to be made of stone (or under 20?) not to laugh. In the end, Laughter at 10 owes as much to generic '70s nostalgia as to The Carol Burnett Show. Jack Marshall's direction captures the look and pace of many shows of the period. Punch lines like "Does Raquel Welch sleep on her back?" take you back to a simpler time, when huge boobs were gifts from God, not a commodity to be bought at any strip mall surgi-center.
American Century Brings Back Burnett Classics
by MATT REVILLE
By the mid-1970s, Carol Burnett was the sole survivor in what had been a long line of witty television variety hours.
Burnett and husband/producer Joe Hamilton assembled a band of talents, from second banana superstars Harvey Korman and Tim Conway to pretty boy Lyle Waggoner to newcomer Vicki Lawrence for a show that, when it wrapped up its run in 1978, marked a true end of an era one that has not returned, with the exception of the recent highly-rated reunion special.
Now, American Century Theater works hard to bring back some of the classic moments from the television show in Laughter at 10 OClock: Memories of the Carol Burnett Show, running through July 20 at Theater on the Run in Shirlington.
As with the recent TV reunion, this theatrical performance ignores Waggoner kind of sad, because he played an underappreciated role in the early years of the show. But Carol, Harvey, Vicki and Tim are back, along with supporting players and musical guests.
The production is a fictional re-creation of a 1973 taping at CBS Television City in Hollywood, with floor producers milling about and breaks between skits for the crew to change scenery. Effective for a while, that trick gets tired by the second act.
As a fan of the Burnett show in my long-lost youth, this was a trip down memory lane that evoked memories not only of the particular sketches, but of the era when you could sit through an hour of television without fidgeting and clicking the remote a hundred times. Try doing that today its impossible. Maybe its because attention spans are shorter, maybe because television has gotten so much worse. Probably both.
Nancy Dolliver bears a certain facial resemblance to Burnett, and she honed her skills at mugging (for the camera) as a member of the Capitol Steps troupe. She is the foundation on which the evening is based, and does not disappoint.
Fan favorite Bill Karukas and Bruce Alan Rauscher are entertaining as Korman and Conway, two classic clowns who can still be found hamming it up at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (the hotel gets a plug even after they told me the real Harvey and Tim didnt have time for an interview). Mary McGowan, quite a versatile actress, is underutilized as Lawrence but is effective when she is on stage.
Allen F. Reed and a band of supporting characters round out the cast.
Director Jack Marshall has done a solid job whipping the cast into shape, and is doing the best he can with the iffy Theater on the Run space.
Id quibble with some of the sketches selected. Despite my appreciation for Burnetts work, only two of the dozen or so were ones I remembered; there was no Mama and no Mrs. Wiggins. But the cast is both having a good time and providing the audience with a lot of humor from the very start.
Some real standout moments come in the musical numbers, which have been cut from the Burnett reruns airing since the late 1970s. The performers will rotate throughout the run, but on opening weekend there was a wild Cher (Kathryn Fuller) and a hilarious Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme (Scott Kenison and Karen Hayes). George Chapin was a hoot and a half as both Anthony Newley and Englebert Humperdink.
The show ends with what is without a doubt the most famous and possibly the funniest sketch in the shows history, a take-off on Gone With the Wind. Though working in cramped conditions, the cast manages to pull this memorable television moment off effectively.
One facet of Burnetts success was fashion designer Bob Mackie, who was responsible for everything worn by everyone on stage. It was an amazing accomplishment, and for this production, Michele Reisch pays homage to his work yet succeeds in putting her own stamp on the costumes.
If you werent around for the original run of The Carol Burnett Show or didnt pay much attention to it at the time, this production may leave you scratching your head. But for the rest of us, it is a trip down memory lane that is quite rewarding.