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Stardust Memories

Reviews of Carol Burnett's This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, Mickey Rapkin's Theater Geek, and Bryan Batt's She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother.

Carol Burnett's latest memoir, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection
offers a wealth of hilarious anecdotes from Burnett's decades-long career in show business. Originally intended as a print record of her traveling stage show, in which the audience asks her questions, Burnett uses this book to not only address her most frequently asked questions, but to illuminate aspects of her life that the average audience member would never think to ask.

Most of the chapters are short (under five pages), allowing Burnett to cover a wide variety of subjects. While the early passages focus mostly on her life as a struggling actress in New York, some of the most intriguing chapters concern her relationships with fellow entertainers such as Jimmy Stewart, Joan Crawford, and Laurence Olivier. Particularly interesting is her friendship with another red-haired television comedienne, Lucille Ball, who is presented as something of a mentor to Burnett.

Luckily for the reader, Burnett has also provided a treasure trove of photographs from her years in New York and Hollywood. The picture of a starstruck Burnett upon her first meeting with Cary Grant is particularly priceless. In addition, the photos from The Carol Burnett Show give readers unfamiliar with the show a good idea of what is was about (especially the brilliant costume designs of Bob Mackie) while allowing old fans to remember their favorite sketches.

The brevity of Burnett's writing style not only makes for a quick and enjoyable read, but the result is one feels one really is spending an evening with Burnett and hearing these riotously funny stories in her own distinctly affable voice.

Next Page: Theater Geek
Mickey Rapkin's often ridiculously funny Theater Geek
gives the reader a rare inside view of Stagedoor Manor, America's premiere summer theater camp, which counts Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr., and Mandy Moore among its many numerous, now-famous alums. The author spent the summer of 2009 at Stagedoor, and he chronicles his experience there while providing a selected history of the camp. He focuses on three graduating seniors, Rachel Singer, Harry Katzman, and Brian Muller, each of whom have already been accepted to college for musical theater, but are spending one last summer to take a victory lap at Stagedoor.

While these three young thespians are the stars of their respective camp-produced Sondheim musicals, it is the supporting characters who often steal the show, like the brilliant and intimidating Natalie Walker, who actually played Mrs. Lovett at Stagedoor in 2007. When Singer is struck with a sudden bout of the plague and faced with the prospect of relinquishing her role to Walker, Rapkin plays this backstage drama to the max with page-turning effect.

Equally entertaining is a chapter dedicated to the camp's original artistic director, Jack Romano, who is portrayed as a brilliant yet volatile auteur, prone to fits of rage. He pushes the kids to the limit, cursing and throwing folding chairs in a way that would be suspect in today's overly-litigious age. Still, Rapkin forces us to think whether some the early Stagedoor success stories would have happened without the determination of this fiery Cuban émigré.

Indeed, Rapkin never flinches when writing about the ugly side of this decidedly unusual summer camp; most notably, the brutal competition for starring roles. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm for the place shines through, and Rapkin acknowledges that the administration is extra-vigilant in preserving the camp as a place where awkward theater-loving teens can find a place that feels like home, even if it's just for three weeks in the summer.

Next Page: She's Not Heavy, She's My Mother
Broadway and television star Bryan Batt makes his authorial debut with his charming and hilarious memoir, She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother
. Batt paints a vivid portrait of his childhood home, New Orleans circa the 1960s and 1970s, with his conversational writing style. The openly gay actor, whose origins lean toward the upper-crust of society -- his grandfather was the proprietor of the popular Pontchartrain Beach amusement park -- artfully presents a world of debutante balls and gourmet Cajun cuisine.

Towering above it all, with grace, humor, and elegance (with a little help from young Bryan's fashion sense) is his mother, Gayle. She is portrayed in many ways as the ideal mother, loving and supportive, but a real steel magnolia when need be. Indeed, she is indefatigable in coping with her husband's infidelity and alcoholism.

Gayle is also supportive, without being a stage parent, cheering Batt on through every moment in his career. One chapter details how Gayle flew the whole Batt clan up to New York for Batt's Broadway debut in the Andrew Lloyd Webber train extravaganza Starlight Express. (The actor also later appeared in Webber's Sunset Boulevard and Cats, also gaining fame playing an actor who starred in the latter show in the play and film Jeffrey.)

Moving all the way up to present day, the book takes on a bittersweet tone as Gayle revels in her son's success on the AMC drama Mad Men (in which he played closeted art director Salvatore Romano), even as she struggles with her constantly volatile health. Indeed, Batt's admiration and appreciation for his mother glows off of every page.


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