BWW Review: DEBBIE...A NIGHT TO REMEMBER a Spectacular Evening at the El Portal
Fans of the unforgettable Debbie Reynolds and members of the Thalians, an organization she helped found, flocked to the El Portal Friday June 30 for a dedication of the mainstage and grand party to celebrate her life and career. It was an SRO event, with celebrity guests, whose proceeds benefited the great charity work of the Thalians - "Hollywood for Mental Health", to which Reynolds devoted tirelessly of herself since its inception in 1955. Debbie had history with the El Portal. It was one of her favorite venues, as she used to ride her bicycle there to go to the movies as a young girl living in Burbank...and she performed there with her fabulous night blub act and the play Love Letters 46 times between 2003 and 2015 So, it is totally apropo to name the mainstage in honor of this great star and humanitarian.
The program began with a pre-party in the lobby where George Pennacchio, entertainment editor of ABC7 Eyewitness News greeted and interviewed Ruta Lee, Judy Tenuta, Joanne Worley, Mary Jo Catlett and Debbie's son Todd Fisher and his lovely wife Catherine Hickland Fisher, among many others. There was food, drink and fun galore just mingling with the many attendees, all of whom had nothing but praise and adulation for both Debbie and her brilliant daughter Carrie Fisher. Both sadly passed from us within days of each other this past December. After the pre-party there was a spectacular two hour show on the mainstage and a ribbon cutting ceremony to rename it the Debbie Reynolds Mainstage.
Kiki Ebsen and Catherine Hickland Fisher sing "Tammy"
NBC's weather man, stand up comic Fritz Coleman was the host of the show, and no one could have done it better. This man is hysterically funny and so down.to.earth like Debbie was. He talked about how the film Singin' in the Rain hooked him to show business as a kid. "I couldn't act, I couldn't sing, I couldn't dance, but... I could talk about the rain", he quipped. Coleman mentioned how he opened for Debbie a few years back at a private function, she received a thunderous ovation and walked over to him, took his face in her hands, looked into his eyes and said "You are much too thin. Eat a sandwich." Motherly instincts that made us cherish her! Highlights of the evening included Jean Louisa Kelly's wonderful rendering of "Good Morning" from Singin' in the Rain; Tony nominee for Fun Home Beth Malone, who has also performed multiple times at the El Portal, did a fabulous medley from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a revised version of which she is about to perform at Muny; ageless tap dancer Arthur Duncan tapped and sang "Lou Lou's Back in Town"; ventriloquist Jay Johnson from TV's Soap did a very funny segment from his Tony-winning show with a puppet monkey; the incomparable Sam Harris perfomed a delightful "You Made Me Love You" from Irene, that Debbie starred in on Broadway, to a photo of Debbie that she had signed to him; Catherine Hickland Fisher and Kiki Ebsen dueted on a lovely "Tammy", Debbie's favorite song.
Actress, Thalian Chairman Emeritus Ruta Lee deserves a paragraph all to herself. This ageless, wonderful, beautiful woman described Debbie, her partner in the Thalians and her close friend, whom she called a 'sister', as "a plain kick ass girl". She talked in depth about the Thalians, how they have treated mentally ill children at Cedar Sinai and just a few years back switched gears to Operation Mend, a program that helps our returning veterans recover physically and mentally from their wounds. She sang a pretty "I'm Glad There Is You" in honor of Debbie. This was an informative and touching segment thanks to the class and elegance of Miss Ruta Lee.
Todd Fisher and El Portal owner Gary Goodgame
Debbie's son Todd Fisher came onstage to accept the award and talked simply and very humanely about his wonderful mother and how she always made him and Carrie a vibrant part of her active life. He also mentioned how much she loved the El Portal and that she preferred performing in live theatre as opposed to filM. Fisher showed a tiny film of Debbie entertaining the troops and talking about how much more she wished she could have done for them. This was not the documentary Bright Lights, but a short film produced just for this event. A ribbon-cutting followed and as the finale quite a large group of LA dancers, clad in those memorable yellow rain slickers, tapped to "Singin' in the Rain".
A big thank you to splendiferous director/musical director Todd Schroeder and to skilled choreographer Cheryl Baxter for their fine work, and to the entire stage crew. The projections throughout of Debbie's personal and professional life added nice touches. Thanks one hundred fold to owner of the El Portal Gary Goodgame and to producers Pegge Forrest and Jay Irwin for presenting this beautiful evening. It was delightfully entertaining and enriching and will stay with me.
(production photo credit: Ed Krieger)