A review of Allen’s Community Theatre’s production of “Hollywood Arms” by Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnette, directed by Robin Daffinee Coulonge.
Those among us of a certain age will recall the brilliant Blackgama Fur campaign that featured beautifully photographed Hollywood actresses draped in only a Blackgama mink coat (this was before wearing fur become a criminal offense). The ads, in black and white asked the same question, “What becomes a legend most?” Allen’s Community Theatre answers their own version of this with their current production of
Hollywood Arms, by Carrie Hamilton and her mother Carol Burnett, based on Burnette’s memoir, One More Time. Nobody would argue that Carol Burnett is a living legend, a gifted dramatic actress and brilliant comedienne who for eleven seasons hosted the iconic Carol Burnette Show. For those hoping to see a light hearted romp down memory
lane a la her variety show should look elsewhere. This play is a drama with bits of comedic action here and there to break the tension of what was a hard life for Burnette (here named Helen).
The play opens with young Helen abandoned by her mother and living with her Grandmother, called Nanny, in Texas while Helen’s parents are living in Los Angeles. Nanny, as played by Nancy Lamb, is hardly the loving, sweet stereotypical matriarch. She is a pessimistic, doomsday is around the corner type of woman. There were times during the production that I wanted to walk on stage and literally shake this character to her senses. Lamb walks an extremely difficult path, taking the audience up to but not crossing over into melodrama. The audience must feel Nanny’s frustration and anger without coming to loathe her. I intensely disliked this woman and Ms. Lamb plays her like a well tuned violin, never once asking the audience to forgive, but to understand.
Helen’s mother Louise is a dreamer. She wants to be the next Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons and struggles to find her way. Nancy Cecco is wonderful in the role as a mother trying to keep things upbeat and positive in an era just as the Depression is ending and WWII is looming. Cecco conveys the intense guilt she feels for leaving her daughter while attempting to stand up to her overbearing mother. Some of the more emotionally charged scenes she is tasked with could have used some restraint, but overall Ms. Cecco does an admirable job of bringing this character to life and quite frankly she should be seen onstage more often.
Playing young Helen we are graced with the graduation from teen theatre at ACT to the adult stage of Aurea Coral. Ms. Coral shows a range of emotion from giddy schoolgirl wonder to realistic fear to sincere despair. It’s a hard role for any juvenile actress and Ms. Coral is to be applauded for her efforts. As she settles into the character with
audiences present I am convinced she will only become more solid and firm in her choices. I look forward to seeing her in more productions of this type at ACT.
Martin Mussey (so brilliant as the Hermit in the musical Young Frankenstein earlier in the season) plays Louise’s long suffering boyfriend Bill. He is a bit of a sad sack knowing he will always be second fiddle in Louise’s love life. Mussey is superb in the part. As written, it would be easy for a less talented actor to play a one note version of a long faced, undeniably forgettable man. Mussey rises above and brings a real depth of character to the part, staying true to his conviction of love for Louise and never wavering in his devotion. The ultimate resolution of the character is handled quite nicely with Mussey’s attention to detail of Bill’s sad realization.
Two knockout performances are those of Kasey Bush as the adult Helen and Shawn Wade as her pathetic, yet loving father Jody. Mr. Wade takes on the role of absentee alcoholic father with real grace. It would have been easy to dislike this character, but Mr. Wade brings a sweet, sad charm to the role. We truly hope that Jody will succeed and be a better Dad, but in our hearts we know the truth. Wade’s scene when Jody shows up drunk at the dingy apartment building had the audience breathless. Any seasoned playgoer knew it was coming and perfect choices allowed us to see Jody’s pain, anger and ultimate horror at what he has done. Wade plays it pitch perfect. It must be difficult to embody a living legend and we are thankful that Ms. Hamilton and Ms. Burnette had the wise idea to change the name from Carol to Helen. We don’t have the pleasure of fully embracing Ms. Bush until the second act but she comes on with thunder and lightening. Given the almost impossible task of recreating a routine performed by Ms. Burnette, Ms. Bush makes it her own with a breathy innocence combined with a laser like understanding of the material. She never falters in her delivery and after an overwhelmingly serious first act brings much needed levity to the play. The audience was rocking with laughter as Ms. Bush brilliantly delivers the routine. The play-writes would have have been bowed over given the chance to see it.
The supporting cast does a great job with special mention being given to Malina Funes- Kendrick as the upstart younger sister, Alice and Marta K. Jones as the sassy hotel manager, Dixie.
There are some problems with the script, yet Ms. Burnette should be thanked for pursuing the project as it was. Tragically, her daughter Carrie Hamilton after beating a much publicized addiction to narcotics lost her battle with cancer before the play ever opened only seeing it workshopped. Some scenes resolve better than others and the first act is entirely too long with three climactic endings, but I believe Ms. Burnette
wanted to honor her daughters work and keep the play intact. Robin Daffinee Coulonge makes balanced, even choices in her direction. For the most part she heightens the drama without beating it and allows the comedy to arrive naturally without force, although I believe there were missed opportunities on the comedy side. My major concern was the use of the upstage bathroom as an entrance and exit as scenes were
concluding. Whether this was a result of need as no other option was available (although I think the corridor would have sufficed) or choice I do not know as I didn’t sneak around backstage after the show as I have been known to do. This minor detail was probably no issue for anyone else but I kept wondering what all those people were doing in that tiny bathroom, it was like a clown car at the circus. Another minor detail is to be congratulated though. Rather than suffer through the ever present curtain speech by the director reminding us to turn off our cell phones and donate money and so forth, Coulonge brilliantly introduces us to the bedside radio and the talents of one Dylan Mobley. This along with Ms. Bush’s honoring Ms. Burnette’s long time on air greeting to her Nanny charmed me beyond words. The set by Brandi Cooper King is so well designed for acting, save the detail mentioned above and decorated to perfection. Costumes designed by Sarah Eckberg Hearn are fabulous, giving an attention to detail and realism in time period so often overlooked in community theatre. As mentioned, Mobley does a great job with sound design though the volume could have been pumped up a little and lighting was well executed by Natalia Borja.
I thoroughly enjoyed my evening courtesy of Allen’s Community Theatre and the cast and crew of Hollywood Arms. It is not an easy script and the assumption of a laugh filled evening is understandable given the subject matter. Take the risk and avail yourself to Main Street in Allen and see this well crafted play. Hollywood Arms running through March 25, 2018. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit www.allenscommunitytheatre.net