Nancy Sasso Janis
OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle
A nostalgic and hilarious look back at the early years of the famous husband and wife comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Waterbury, CT - George Burns and Gracie Allen are remembered fondly as one of the most successful comedy teams of all time. Burns, the quintessential straight man, and his wife Gracie, the actress who delighted audience playing a ditzy lady with her own sense of logic, began in vaudeville, then moved on to film, radio and finally to television in the 1950s. Seven Angels’ Artistic Director Semina De Laurentis, has written ‘George and Gracie: The Early Years,’ a lovely homage to the comic duo that opened at the Waterbury theater on Saturday. Performances benefit the Seven Angels educational wing and the high school HALO Awards program.
The fact that this production benefits young performers is fitting, as it introduces our younger generations to this classic comedy team. In the two acts, Ms. De Laurentis and the talented cast remember these comedic idols who influenced them all with their impeccable comic timing and zaniness. I quickly surmised that the play was created with some classic routines found in episodes of the beloved television sitcom, complete with some of the comic devices originally used by the pair. The fact that I was unfamiliar with episodes of the tv show ‘George and Gracie’ mattered little.
The last time that R. Bruce Connelly appeared at 7A, it was as George Burns in a one-man show called 'Say Goodnight Gracie.' So at first glance, I thought that this might be a two-person show. Well before the official opening, I was delighted to read that the leads would be backed up by a cast of characters that inhabited the Burn’s television neighborhood. While the performances of Mr. Connelly and Ms. De Laurentis are strong enough to warrant a theatrical duet, this delightfully funny work is made even better by a wonderful supporting cast. Julia Kiley of West Hartford directs them all with a keen eye to all the necessary details.
The first act opens with ‘The Keebob Card Game,’ which was the name of the very first television show. ‘Dual Meaning’ is the second scene and the third is ‘George Goes to Washington.’ After intermission, the second half begins with ‘Hypnotizing Gracie,’ moves on to a prophetic ‘Brilliant Gracie’ and ends with an iconic ‘Afterpiece’ in front of the curtain.
George Burns understood his wife’s desire to retire from the television show. He said, “She had been working all her life, and her lines were the toughest in the world to do. They didn’t make sense, so she had to memorize every word. It took a real actress.” It follows that any actress who wants to play Gracie must be of similar caliber, and Ms. De Laurentis does not disappoint. In a fabulous wig and meticulous costumes, she embodies the comedienne with a twinkle in her eye and pinpoint comic timing.
Of course, R. Bruce Connelly is just as convincing as a younger version of the George Burns, who went on to live to see his 100th birthday after playing the title role in ‘Oh, God.’ Mr. Connelly’s bio lists a host of characters that he has played throughout his career, which include “the Devil, Adam, Jesus, and the Man who played God, George Burns.” (Oh, and Barkley the dog on Sesame Street.) In this production, he was at his best when acting as a narrator to the action before seamlessly stepping into the scene.
I loved seeing Sarah Knapp (‘Brighton Beach Memoirs,’ ‘Over the Tavern’) again on the 7A stage in the role of Gracie’s neighbor and friend Blanche Morton. John Swanson (‘Teddy and Alice,’ ‘The Mad Bomber’) was a classmate of Mr. Connelly and Ms. De Laurentis at Southern Connecticut State University and returns to this stage to play Blanche’s husband Harry Morton.
Radio host Tom Chute (‘Legally Blonde,’ ‘Showstoppers’) is back at Seven Angels to play announcer Harry Von Zell and took advantage of the role to show off his comic prowess. Mandy Leigh Thompson (‘Next to Normal,’ ‘Spelling Bee’) can do it all, and she does just that as sultry singer Ellen Handley, beautician Madge, a journalist and Carol. Great wigs help her make the transitions along with her wonderful talent.
John Fabiani, who has made an appearance at Earlene’s Diner at 7A, made us laugh as an overwhelmed book salesman, a delivery man, a postman, Professor Clifford and a product rep. Tom Libonate made his debut on this stage as a private detective, another journalist, and a game show host.
Matt Guminski, in his ninth season at 7A, lights the stage well and the set design by Daniel Husvar brings us to the Burn’s home perfectly. Matt Martin works his usual magic as sound design/engineer. Kudos to Janell Berte on a steady stream of fabulous period costumes and Joel Silvestro of Joel’s of Kensington for those excellent wigs.
‘George and Gracie: The Early Years,’ Directed by Julia Kiley. With R. Bruce Connelly, Semina De Laurentis, Sarah Knapp, John Swanson, Tom Chute, Mandy Thompson, John Fabbiani and Tom Libonate. The show runs Thursday through Sunday from Feb. 9 through March 5 and tickets for patrons 25 and younger are only $25.
Nancy Sasso Janis is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and continues to contribute theatre news on local Patch sites. Follow her on Twitter at @nancysjanis417 and at her Facebook page Connecticut Theatre Previews.
Pictured: The cast of 'George and Gracie: The Early Years' Photo courtesy of Seven Angels Theatre