BWW Review: YOU MAKE ME LAUGH: A LOVE SONG TO GILDA RADNER at Temple Isaiah Ballroom
Variety shows were all the rage during the 1950s and 1960s. One of the first to air on television was the 1949 show Hollywood On Television starring Al Jarvis and Betty White. It was a five and one half hour show that ran six days a week for five years. You read that right. The only person with the stamina for all those hours and days was the unstoppable Betty White. Jarvis left the show in 1951, and Eddie Arnold took over, but quit after a grueling six months. White soldiered on alone until one of the show's sketches produced a 1953 spin-off sitcom called Life With Elizabeth. By then, America had already fallen in love with Lucy Ricardo, aka Lucille Ball. White's show was canceled after two years.
Meanwhile, The Garry Moore Show and Your Show of Shows gave us the comic genius of Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett but in the grand scheme of things, the number of women on sketch shows was just a drop in the bucket compared to the oceans full of (white) men in the medium.
When Saturday Night Live, the mac-daddy of variety and sketch shows, premiered in 1975, it gave us three female cast members: Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, and Gilda Radner. While Newman and more specifically, Curtin had terrific turns on the show, it was Radner who captured the hearts of America. Her characters, Emily Litella, Roseanne Rosanna Danna, Judy Miller and Lisa Loopner were big crowd pleasers. My personal favorite was Judy Miller because she reminded me of myself, a little girl stuck in her room entertaining herself by creating a television show starring...Judy Miller. It was hilarious, creative and joyful. And that joy is the essence of Francesca Amari's You Make Me Laugh: A Love Song to Gilda Radner.
During the two-hour cabaret, Amari talks of being a freshman in high school when Radner took the country by storm. At the time, Amari's wild and curly black hair was cut into a triangular shape, and there was no mistaking the resemblance between her and Roseanne Roseanna Danna. Kids teased her about it, but Amari was in on the joke, and it wasn't long before she too was smitten with Radner, a woman who shared her birth state (Michigan), Jewish heritage, and an uncanny resemblance.
With the exception of her Barbara Walters' (Baba Wawa) character, Radner never did impressions, and neither does Amari. Although she recreates some of Radner's famous characters, she does not take on the persona of Radner herself. Amari's "You Make Me Laugh" is just what it says it is, a love song to Radner.
A product of a collaboration with Andrea Marcovicci, Amari takes us through Radner's early years, her loves, and her ultimate challenge, facing her own death. Amari's storytelling and songs will make you fall in love, not only with Radner, but with Amari and her loving and intimate tribute to one of her heroes.
The songs in the show were either once sung by Radner (yes, she sang and danced, as well as acted) or are reflective of her life and times when she was not on camera. When Amari performs "My Pa", during a segment that's a reflection on Radner's youth, her rendition of Streisand's 1965 song is, as Mike Meyers' Linda Richman would say, "like buttah". The cabaret has a few appropriate and well-place ballads, but mostly it's uptempo and rousing renditions of songs that, with the help of accompanist, Wayne Abravanel, Amari makes her own.
Although Amari will tell you she is not a comedian, she tickles us with a hilarious sing-a-long of Lisa Loopner performing "The Way We Were" which you can see here. She will also tell you she is no dancer, but pulls off a song and dance that has the crowd laughing and cheering for more. Amari's ability to laugh at herself while taking us with her through Radner's life's journey are more than worth the price of admission.
Amari has performed You Make Me Laugh at some of the best cabaret rooms in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Her in-demand show was the opening act at the Joshua Tree International Improvisation festival in 2018 where, with the help of documentarian Lisa D'Apolito (who produced and directed the film Love Gilda) and Radner's estate, she was able to add multimedia to the show.
Since the show's inception, and when a local chapter is available, Amari has donated a portion of the proceeds to Gilda's Club, a non-profit community organization for people with cancer, their families and friends. This particular show was a fundraiser in Palm Springs for Temple Isaiah's Twice Blessed program for it's Jewish LGBT members that raised over $4,000.
Although Radner's life was cut short by ovarian cancer, her spirit lives on in SNL clips, movies, and this wonderful cabaret show. If it comes to a city near you, I highly recommend you go. Amari's cabaret is smart, funny, and a poignant reflection on one of comedy's pioneers.
Amari is not only a gifted vocalist, but her storytelling and willingness to put it all out there is one of the most intimate and delightful cabarets I've had the pleasure of seeing. If you enjoy comedy, stellar vocals, and terrific storytelling, this show will likely be one of the most entertaining, and shortest two hours of your life.