Highly Recommended **** I suppose people seeing the name George Wendt on the billboard for a play titled “Funnyman” will enter the theater ready to hear the old familiar “Norm” called out as the lights come up. After all, most people know him for the role he created on “Cheers” all those years ago. Ladies and gentlemen, please be advised that Mr. Wendt is indeed an actor and can play many roles, which he more than proves in this beautiful story about a fading vaudeville comic who many only remember from his signature “Yowzer” ! Could this tight story written by Bruce Graham, now on the stage at Northlight Theatre, in reality be “his own story”?
Graham takes us into the life of this man, who at one time was the biggest draw on Broadway. He grew up in a show-biz world with parents who had a bad act, but with him added to the “company” they enjoyed success, no matter the cost. His character, Chick Sherman, was at one time married and has a daughter, Katherine (solidly played by Amanda Drinkall), who was shipped off to boarding school as a child, and now as an adult wants to learn more about her mother who passed away when she was young. The relationship between father and daughter is one of high emotion as we learn of the secrets that are in the soul of this “funny man”.
The era of this story is one where TV was just getting started and people were seeking comedy. Yet, the “Funnyman” of our story finds himself fading away from his public, making commercials for products and becoming a TV pitchman. His longtime agent “Junior” ( the always reliable Tim Kazurinsky, who plays off Wendt as if they are a team) is attempting to find a new life for his client, by getting involved in an Off-Broadway play that could re-spark his career and his life. A lot of this show’s story is probably based on some of the old stars of yesterday. Bert Lahr is indeed the inspiration of the character Chick. Known for his comic touch in his transfer from vaudeville to film as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz”. After that film, very little worked for him, even as an icon, that kids adored.
When he was coaxed to appear in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, a jump from his comic world, his world changed, and for many of his followers, so did theirs. Graham takes us into the inner mind of this poor soul who has fear of germs, touch of others, and his secrets. Katherine, while searching for answers sees how this avante-garde play he is “starring” in transform this stranger of a father for her. Directed with grace and style by BJ Jones, we watch and learn. The other characters in this production are Michael Perez as Nathan Wise, the love interest for Katherine, whose parents were great fans of Chick, Steve Haggard as the Off Broadway director Matthew Baron, who only seeks Sherman for the role because the playwright finds him to be the perfect actor for the role, and of course the zany playwright Victor LaPlant (deftly handled by Rob Lindley).
Going into this play, try to think about the differences between clown, comedian and comic. While all are on the stage to make us laugh, it is a fine line between what they do. The comedian tells us stories and does bits that have a punchline, the clown does silly things that are out of reality and the comic does more with sight gags and perhaps a trademark. Chick was known for his pants dropping sight gags and his “Yowzer”. Fans loved him (or hated him), but none could get close enough to know that deep down, he was a different persona than they saw on the stage. I was impressed with the set (Jeffrey D Kmiec) that allowed us to go between Chick’s home, Katherine’s workplace, Junior’s office and the small Off Broadway theater swiftly. The sound (Andrew Hansen), Lighting (Jesse Klug), projection design (Stephen Mazurek) and props( Kurtis Boetcher) completed the picture that Jones and Graham placed before us.
I was a bit surprised to see that this production was not recommended by the Jeff Awards committee. It is a beautiful story, well written and directed to perfection with a dynamite cast telling a story that will take your breath away, and possibly bring a tear to your eye. The life of a comic is often taken for granted. People “assume” their lives are wonderful and they laugh all the time. The truth is, they are private and often sad people who have the desire to compensate for their own lives by bringing laughter to others.. I suggest that you put this one on the see list!
“Funnyman” will continue at Northlight Theatre located at 9501 Skokie Blvd., in Skokie (just south of Golf Road), through October 18th with performances as follows:
Wednesdays 1 and 7:30 p.m.
Thursdays 7:30 p.m.
Fridays 8 p.m.
Saturdays 2:30 and 8 p.m.
Sundays 2:30 and 7 p.m.
Post show talk backs will take place after matinees on 9/23 and 27 as well as October 7th and also on October 1st after the evening performance. This is included with your ticket
Tickets range from $25- $79 ( students $15) and can be ordered by calling 847-673-6300, visiting the box office or online at www.northlight.org
Lots of free parking. To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Funnyman”