BWW Review: MARILU HENNER Makes Memories at 54 Below
When Marilu Henner first appears in the light it is impossible not to ask yourself "How old is she, anyway?" because she looks so damn good. It's not that she hasn't changed since the heyday of the iconic TV show Taxi - it's that she looks better. Striking a sassy pose in the audience, her form-hugging black sequins sparkling in the spotlight, her trademark tresses flowing about her eternally lovely face (upon which is a seriously mischievous grin), and her voice as big and belty as ever, Marilu Henner urges everyone staring at her, moony-eyed and slack-jawed, "Let's Misbehave." And the full house at 54 Below is, immediately, ready for whatever Miss Marilu has in mind. It was the start of one helluva ride on the Henner Express, and we all loved it.
One week ago tonight, an elated Marilu Henner made her Feinstein's/54 Below nightclub debut, declaring that "This has always been a dream of mine, for a very, very long time - and considering my generation, you would think I'd been to Studio 54 many times but I was only here once... it was March 16th, 1979, it was a Friday..." and those in the know (most of the audience) erupted into gales of laughter. Although famous for her acting, singing, dancing, and writing, Henner is also well-known for her memory because Ms. Henner has been profiled several times for having Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, which allows her to remember specific details from every day in her life. This special memory of hers is something she jokes about from the beginning of the show (as well as her three husbands) and becomes a running joke throughout the rest of the evening (as well as her three husbands) and with these jokes, the audience is informed that Marilu Henner is here to share a lot of herself in a little time, and every moment is one that will be laced with an irrepressible humor infectious enough make you want to come back again and again. Marilu Henner simply cannot help it: she is irresistible.
Not every person who creates a club act spends their time on stage telling stories about their lives because, frankly, not everyone has a life that is interesting enough to be shared. It doesn't mean they aren't nice people, or gifted performers, or people whose lives are valued - it only means that their lives haven't been especially prone to be fodder for good storytelling. This cannot be said of Marilu Henner. Even if her Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) were not a part of the equation, Marilu Henner would still be a person who should get up on a stage in the cabaret world, the theater society, the storytelling community, or a living room where people are gathered to dine and chat, and tell her life story; and, fortunately for the people who see her show, she does so in 75 minutes of theater constructed especially for her. While telling the tales of her fascinating family and her upbringing in Chicago, sharing the stories of her careers on stage, on screen, and inside the pages of ten books, and recounting reports of her quest for a life lived in good health, Ms. Henner does more than just pick out songs from the ASCAP catalog that she wants to sing - she has enlisted the assistance of her brother, writer Lorin Henner, who has created Henner-specific lyrics that discuss HSAM, Nutrition, and other Marilu-centric topics. Every tune offered up in her autobiographical show actually IS autobiographical. With unfailing likability, Marilu entertains her audience (one filled with many familiar faces from the business of show) but it is more than her affable nature that makes her so appealing, it is an innate joy that comes with her every word, be it spoken or sung, and it becomes clear that what you are seeing is a woman who is as happy as a person can be. Why not? She's on a stage performing, something the stories she tells indicates has been her first love, sitting ringside is her husband (her third, as she repeatedly reminds), her sons (whom she embarrasses with a moving musical mashup of "Nick of Time" and "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe," after which she declares "They're so mad at me right now," and she has a history that one might easily forget (or genuinely be unaware) is a significant show business story.
One by one, Marilu Henner discusses the projects that have made up her artistic life. The audience is given the roadmap of her career, learning that she was the first person ever to sing a certain song from a famed musical (sorry, no spoilers) even though she did not originate that song on Broadway, hearing the parade of commercials that we have seen her (or parts of her) in, as well as hearing her voice, and seeing documented evidence of the flip-side to doing Dancing With The Stars (careful what you wish for). Always with her puckish humor and intelligent prose, Henner keeps the audience engaged with her willingness to be open, her inescapable good humor, and her emotional commitment to the musical numbers, performed with a voice that appears as ageless as the Lady herself. With a voice this strong, clear, and pretty, it can be no surprise that she has done 7 Broadway plays, the last one in 2018, and those plays provide special moments in the show as she recounts the thrill of landing a coveted role that she really wanted, or the satisfaction of finally getting her own song on an original cast album. It is a winning combination of all of the parts of her that makes Marilu Henner's club act one that is so comfortable to watch and so satisfying to enjoy. Many people forget that she is much more than Elaine from TAXI and this show is a perfect way to be reminded of just that, though Taxi does feature heavily in the evening, as well it should, because the cast of the revered '70s sitcom was a family, and family is what Marilu Henner and her show are all about - her birth family, her immediate family, her families from every show, every film, every play she has ever been in, many of which were represented in last Wednesday's audience. That's it - the key to Marilu Henner's youthful exuberance - her family, and that includes her audience, which is what makes her show so special... well, it's certainly one of many reasons.
"My essence is creating a family wherever I go." -- Marilu Henner, March 4, 2020, New York City.
Photos by Stephen Mosher