Say Goodnight Gracie
During the course of the show you will learn that George Burns, born Nathan Birnbaum, was one of fourteen children. He quit school at the age of thirteen to help support his family. He sang in the streets of New York with his group, The PeeWee Quartet, for pennies, eventually working his way into vaudeville. He was not a success until he teamed up with Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen in 1923. Unlike George, Gracie was the daughter of a show business family.
At the very beginning of their career together, George was the comic and Gracie was the straight "man." When Gracie received laughs just by asking George questions, George wisely decided that they should switch roles. By the time they were married in 1926, Burns & Allen had hit the vaudeville big time with their "Lamb Chop" routine. Gorshin's Burns gives a good deal more texture to these years by detailing his plaintive wooing of Gracie, who actually loved another man. Their early relationship gives credence to George's lifetime devotion to Gracie and gives emotional heft to the rest of the show.
Using projection and archival photos to liven up the stagecraft, we are given glimpses of George & Gracie at various times in their lives. They went to Hollywood in the 1930s and starred in fourteen comedy shorts and appeared as comic relief in features as varied as The Big Broadcast (1932), We're Not Dressing (1934), and Damsel in Distress (1937). Their real popularity from 1933 thru 1950 was on radio. The popular Burns & Allen Show moved to TV in 1950 and ran to 1958, when Gracie chose to retire. During this portion of the Broadway show we are treated to a hilarious series of Gracie's ditzy one-liners in the form of voiceovers. Gorshin often sits down in a chair, puffing on his cigar, as we hear the original lines delivered as if they were on the radio (voices by Gorshin as George and Didi Conn as Gracie). This is consistently funny stuff. As Gorshin/George says several times throughout the show, all he had to do was say, "How's your brother?" and Gracie would simply talk and get laughs for twenty minutes.
In addition to Gracie, the show has yet another featured ghost in its cast: Jack Benny. Audiences with a long frame of reference will know that George and Jack were best friends virtually all of their adult lives. It's show business history that the only person who could consistently make Jack Benny laugh was his pal George Burns. It was Jack Benny, before he died, who recommended George to take his place in the film version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. George won an Oscar for his performance in that film, which led to his starring role in the hit movie, Oh, God! The resurrection of George's career, so late in life, was complete. He worked until he was 99, dying a month after his 100th birthday.
Having played God, and having lived so long, obviously led the show's writer Rupert Holmes and its director, John Tillinger, to concoct an entrance from the heavens for Gorshin's Burns. As a concept, it was a good idea. Our Burns arrives on stage out of a misty cloudbank. So far so good. But then he launches into an arch explanation that he's in limbo (or Buffalo) and can't get to heaven without explaining his life to God. (There is the consequent lame joking about having played God himself, and hoping that the Almighty One has a sense of humor). All of this nonsense is unnecessary. Burns, as the show later points out, pioneered the popular concept of breaking the fourth wall. In the Burns and Allen TV show, George was constantly talking to the TV audience while watching Gracie on his own TV within the show. There is absolutely no need to establish a reason for George to talk to us. He always talked to us!
The artificial beginning unfortunately necessitates an equally artificial end. George must return to his one-sided dialogue with God at the finale. Worse, at this point, the writer and director collaborate on a painful montage (in reverse order) of the images of George's life -- as if his whole life is passing before his (and our) eyes. It is, you'll excuse the expression, a God-awful idea.
If the bookends of the show are embarrassingly naïve, the body of the show is simply old-fashioned fun. It relies on tried and true comedy shtick that belonged to Burns & Allen as well as material that George himself used in his latter day life. And at the center of this charming charade is Frank Gorshin, who has the look, the walk, the talk, and every other inimitable mannerism of George Burns down to the ash of his cigar. It isn't until the curtain call that you realize just how good Gorshin is; that's when he flashes his own toothy smile and you see, for the very first time, the Frank Gorshin underneath the impressive impression of George Burns.