The Blonde in the Thunderbird
David Finkle assesses Suzanne Somers' Las Vegas-style confessional show at the Brooks Atkinson.
Think of the enterprise as a People cover story with music or as an expanded version of those Oprah Winfrey/Dr. Phil segments in which one-time personalities attempt to remain in a dimming spotlight by spilling the facts of a troubled childhood. Somers fans may want to regard the appearance as a musical adaptation of her best-selling memoirs Keeping Secrets and After the Fall. (Considering the latter title, potential customers unfamiliar with Somers' books should be advised not to expect a ditty-festooned take on Arthur Miller's play about a different household name, Marilyn Monroe.)
Billed as "Blonde in T-bird" at the end of the American Graffiti cast credits, the future Three's Company star discovered that her 10-second role in the seminal George Lucas classic was all she needed to launch a mid-level Hollywood career. It also provided her with a handle for The Blonde in the Thunderbird, a show that's a little too grim for its seeming natural habitat -- a splashy, flashy nightclub room -- and a little too tacky for Broadway.
Wearing black tights to draw attention to her ThighMaster-ed thighs and a tight black top that isn't as forgiving of her swell but not perfect 58-year-old figure as she may think it is -- and with a battery-pack sitting just above her bottom like a low-slung papoose -- Somers recalls her early upbringing. In a series of histrionic sequences accompanied by Robert Ludwig's emphatic sound design, she demonstrates how she grew up in a home with a verbally abusive and relentlessly alcoholic father, how she fled that home for an early marriage, how she divorced to go off with her young son and with a propensity for buying designer blouses while running up bills she couldn't pay. Eventually, she lands the American Graffiti part and rehearses her one line -- "I love you" -- only to learn that she has but to mouth the words. On the verge of quitting the business, she's tapped to play Chrissie in Three's Company. The rest, as they say far too often and frequently overestimating it, is history.
Television history, that is; Somers has made very few films. Her private life, which she's presumably recounting in the hope of comforting others who've shared similar tribulations, hasn't been pretty. Indeed, her early years were so damaging that the old Joseph Meyer-Buddy DeSylva "If You Knew Susie" is played in a minor key during the show -- by an on-stage band that's hidden most of the time -- to underline just how disturbing life got to be for her. Her father having drilled into her that she was nothing, Somers battles to overcome low self-esteem with a psychotherapist.
The show also chronicles Somers' 37-year love affair with producer Hamel, who was married when they began going out. Justifying their liaison, Somers sings "Fifty Percent," the Marilyn and Alan Bergman/Billy Goldenberg anthem from Ballroom that's one of the most egregious low-self-esteem songs ever written. Other numbers chosen to underscore her anxieties and the few moments of relief that she has from them include "Take Back Your Mink" (sung as she recalls her father's rage over a prom dress) and "That Face" (sung while photographs of her son Bruce fill the screens behind her).
The original material in The Blonde in the Thunderbird was written by Ken and Mitzi Welch. The multiple Emmy winners also wrote and directed the show, which has an unattractive set by Roger Ball that features two large I-mag screens. (Ball provided the lighting design as well; no costume designer is credited.) Ken Welch wrote Carol Burnett's career-making song "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles." With wife Mitzi, he's done appreciably better for Burnett, another child of an alcoholic, than he does for Somers.
An aspect of Somers' past that she doesn't dwell on is her bout with breast cancer in 2000. Declaring that if she got past the threat, anyone else can do the same, Somers has decided not to be explicit about the treatment that she chose; apparently, it was a homeopathic cure, and if she had ventured into that thorny territory, she'd have introduced a subject so controversial that it might easily have undercut her presentation even further. Her reticence is wise.