No doubt it is Warren Leight's name that's drawing many people to La Mama to see Fame Takes a Holiday, a darling little play about a four-woman comedy troupe. Leight made quite an impression with his last effort, Side Man, but it might be hard to believe this light comic song-and-sketch show came from the same guy. Well, not completely; Leight shares co-authorship with Cassandra Danz and the show's director, Mary Fulham.
Fame Takes a Holiday is a play--or, perhaps more accurately, an "entertainment"--based on a comedy act called The High Heeled Women, for which the trio once wrote; the act played the New York circuit of clubs, concert halls, and dives throughout the '80s. This backstage comedy gives us many of the sketches that were written for that troupe, along with a narrative about how The High Heeled Women struggled amongst each other as they dreamed of success.
Opening with a showy but smartly-written chorus girl number titled "Girls, Girls, Girls," Fame Takes a Holiday almost looks like it might be a frothy '40s comedy about the hustle and bustle of backstage life, where boys and girls fall in love while tapping the night away. Thankfully, it soon proves to be no such thing, but rather a take-off on the comedic stylings of that era. The press release actually states it best, describing the show's style as "a marriage of downtown guile and post-modern Ed Sullivanism." The skits, which are among the best parts of the show, include a soap opera about a pregnant nun and a tale of women sent into combat in World War II, aided by Eleanor Roosevelt and some boogie woogie tunes.
Marc Shaiman, Dick Gallagher, Tracey Berg, and Cliff Korman supply a few simple but sassy tunes, most of them with lyrics by the authors, for the girls to sing in their act. The parodies are clever and fun, but the two most notable numbers are an Edith Piaf homage called "Je ne regrout rien" (sung with hilarious mock melodrama by Abigail Gampel) and the nearly touching torch song "Just Another Jane" (which an embittered Jane aims at her unfaithful Tarzan).
The four women play off each other well. Gampel is Dee Dee, the emotional one who does most of the writing for the troupe. Susan Murphy plays the ambitious Crystal, beloved of Deborah La Coy's sweetly earnest Lavender. Mary Purdy is Polly, the leader of the pack, who's always trying to keep things under control.
The backstage story holding everything together is a bit weak, but works well enough--in the first act, at least. At their peak, the High Heeled Women are playing a gig at The Copa, and we soon learn that Crystal is determined to make it big, stopping at nothing to get herself noticed by an agent in the audience. She then deserts the group, leaving them in angry, heartbroken, and in disarray. The second act opens with the remaining three women at their low point, playing the Perth Amboy Masonic Lodge. Crystal, now a star, returns. More mayhem ensues, but things turn out alright in the end.
Crystal's troublemaking is really not an adequate plot device to begin with, and is particularly ineffective in the way it plays itself out in the second act. Still, the show is ultimately a satisfying experience because it's just plain fun. Fame Takes a Holiday is crafted in the tradition of those flimsy comedies of old; like the best of them, it manages to work not on the strength of its plot, but due to its sharp writing and the charm of a wonderful cast.