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Review: J. Elijah Cho Channels Mickey Rooney in the Delightful, Hilarious and Moving One Man Show, MR. YUNIOSHI, at Urbanite Theatre (and freeFall Sept. 15-18)

Incisive and side-splittingly funny!

Review: J. Elijah Cho Channels Mickey Rooney in the Delightful, Hilarious and Moving One Man Show, MR. YUNIOSHI, at Urbanite Theatre (and freeFall Sept. 15-18)

"The world can always use a little Mickey Rooney..." --Judy Garland in MR. YUNIOSHI

Mickey Rooney holds a special place in my life: He was the very first celebrity I ever saw perform live onstage. It was over fifty years ago when the former Andy Hardy portrayed the title role in George M. at the Shady Grove in Washington, DC, and I was a little boy, seven or eight, watching in awe. Mickey Rooney, I thought, excitedly bouncing in my seat. That's Mickey Rooney up there! I didn't know why I was so thrilled; I didn't even know who Mickey Rooney was at the time, other than that he was famous and my mother used to watch all of the films that he made with Judy Garland. Of the George M. performance itself, I recall only that you could feel Rooney wanting desperately to entertain and, in return, feeling the love of the audience. The key word here is "desperately." You could feel the driving spunk, the aggressive need to feel relevant and adored, pushing himself in a sweaty lovefest about George M. Cohan. Was he good? I don't remember; all I recall was that he was try-hard Mickey Rooney, and I saw my very first star.

That performance was several years after the setting for MR. YUNIOSHI, J. Elijah Cho's delightful, hilarious and quite moving one man show that focuses on a specific moment in Mickey Rooney's life: When, in 1960, Rooney was cast as a Japanese photographer, Mr. Yunioshi, in the Audrey Hepburn film, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Cho wrote the incisive and side-splittingly funny script and also plays all of the parts onstage. The show is at Urbanite Theatre in Sarasota and will move to freeFall in St. Pete next week.

Breakfast at Tiffany's stands as the only classic film that I will watch with one caveat: I must have a remote control in hand to instantly fast-forward through the horrid Rooney-as-Yunioshi scenes. It's such a grotesque caricature, not unlike the World War 2 anti-Asian cartoons featuring Hirohito and Bugs Bunny. With his long buck teeth, forced slanted eyes, bug-eyed glasses, and screaming mispronunciation of words, usually substituting "l"-sounds with "r"-sounds, Rooney's portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi is terrifying and quite sad. For years after Breakfast of Tiffany's, people would tell Rooney that it was their favorite role of his and that "no one complained" about his portrayal. That's what really hit me. This horribly unwatchable stereotype was actually considered normal at the time. "No one complained." Nowadays Rooney's work in Tiffany's is given the hold-your-nose critique that it deserves. I will go so far as to say that it may be the worst performance by a major movie star ever, which is saying something because Rooney also appeared in the queasy Everything's Ducky and was almost equally awful and unfunny in that.

In the show MR. YUNIOSHI, Rooney's nearing forty and stands in his home, posters to his past glory on the walls, including Strike Up the Band, Boys Town, Gril Crazy, and Drive a Crooked Road. He speaks directly to the audience. "How many of you have seen Breakfast at Tiffany's?" he asks. Everyone in the audience raises his or her hands. "You're liars!" Rooney exclaims. "This is 1960; Breakfast at Tiffany's hasn't even been made yet." You feel that Rooney must keep reminding you--anyone on the planet--of who he is, and more importantly who he was, because there's a new world order in Hollywood and he's not part of it. He keeps repeating Laurence Olivier's raves of his childhood performances; he's constantly trying to give away signed headshots. But it's not enough. Fifteen Andy Hardy sequels have led to this moment, where the actor doesn't know that Hollywood, and the world, is beginning its massive social shift; Rooney's playing Mr. Yunioshi is just one more feather in his ignorant cap, a cap of stereotyping and machismo that, with time, will eventually be relegated to the dust bins of history.

How many people under thirty know even who Mickey Rooney is these days? How many under forty?

Rooney basks in his past. "I was cute," he says at one point and then amends the statement: "I'm still cute!" He asks an audience member: "I'm very talented, right?" You would think the hutzpah would be off putting--a person proclaiming his or her own talents is quite obnoxious, but the added word "right," making it a question, is at the heart of MR. YUNIOSHI. Here's a one time Hollywood actor who has to boast of his accomplishments, including sexual conquests with the likes of Ava Gardner and that he was once known as "Smoochie Rooney," in order to feel better about himself. He knows deep down that he's not the best, that the world is passing him by, but he has nothing else to hold on to. So the show is a forced celebration of Rooney, right down to his having to spell out his name cheerleader-style: "M-I-C-K-E-Y!"

Cho, the Asian actor who wrote and performs in MR. YUNIOSHI, showcases his genius at the show's very premise: If Mickey Rooney can play an Asian, then what prevents an Asian actor from portraying Mickey Rooney? In some ways, it's a form of theatre as revenge, but it's revenge with a large heart. It can teeter on cruelty, but Cho doesn't go there. He shows empathy for a man who probably doesn't know what the word empathy means. It's blistering, but not unfeeling.

MR. YUNIOSHI is also a laugh-out-loud comedy, and yes, sometimes we're laughing at Rooney's complete ignorance of the world around him. It may have some scathing moments, but it's never mean-spirited. If anything, Cho is generous in an age where it's easy to pass judgement over someone who just doesn't get it. We may feel superior to this obvious "dufus," but that's not Cho. He puts himself in Rooney's shoes, and we see the star trying to figure out where to go with the role. At one point, he even reads lines of Breakfast at Tiffany's dialogue with an audience member, and his subtext plays the part sexily. (It reminded me of the scene in Mulholland Drive when Chad Everett reads with Naomi Watts at an audition, and what was originally going to be an angry yell-fest turns into a seduction scene of sexual whispers.) It's quite good with this interpretation, but the Hollywood producers wanted Rooney to be funny, not sexy (a word never attached to him), and they sadly got their wish.

Cho is so charming as Rooney, so energetic and alive, that you can't help but love him. It's tour de force, a one man whirlwind. The audience--a packed house--loved it so much that they would take Cho home with them, if they could.

And you haven't lived until you've heard Cho try to pronounce "exotic" in a fake Spanish accent.

The actor also plays a variety of other parts, including the great Toshiro Mifune of Kurosawa's samurai pictures ("that means movies," Rooney keeps reminding us) and Judy Garland in a tilted hat a la her "Get Happy" period (she's appearing in Judgment at Nuremburg, a film Rooney also wants to appear in but doesn't). Best of all in these short turns is Cho's performance as Breakfast at Tiffany's author, Truman Capote (constantly and purposely mispronounced as Truman "Capoot" in the show). Although Cho looks more like Andy Warhol in the Mrs. Bates' white wig used here, he captured Capote's specific cadence to a tee.

And when Cho-as-Rooney speaks to a Chinese delivery person and a telegram messenger, his body half way through a doorway so we can't see his face, we really feel like he is talking to another soul. But it's all Cho, all the time.

Rarely have I seen an actor as talented and charismatic, and rarely have I seen an audience so outwardly enthusiastic and enthralled by what is, deep down, a very serious work. The laughter never halted, including with me (I laughed out loud several times), but there was an overwhelming dramatic spine to the show. Two tragedies are presented: 1) Rooney's sad lot in life, despite his boasts, and 2) How many Asian actors have been denied what Rooney was able to obtain simply on the basis of their being Asian?

There are odes to past Asian parts played by white actors mentioned, including Oscar-winner Luise Rainer in The Good Earth. Peter Sellers is even referenced due to his playing Asian caricatures (in Murder by Death and The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Man Chu).

But like some of the best tragedies, you don't feel the pain or anger while watching, just the laughter. Until after. And then you realize the underlining sorrow to the entire situation. We're better as a world about this, but how much?

The key with Cho in MR. YUNIOSHI, aside from his bravura turn as a performer, is that he presents this damaged man, out of touch and closed-minded, as an undeniably likable figure. But there is also something else present: Heart. The show beats with a loving heart, for people who may not know better like Rooney and for all those Asian actors left to the sidelines. Cho could use Rooney as a pin cushion, a voodoo doll; he has every right. The audience would still laugh. Don't get me wrong; he hilariously slices and dices the Hollywood star, surely, but he also rises above it. There's laughter, so much laughter, but the most important thing that we take with us here is the grace that Cho allows his subject. And for the record, in case you didn't know, "grace" is my all-time favorite word.

Although MR. YUNIOSHI ends its run at Urbanite in Sarasota on Sunday, September 11th, Cho's show will be at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg to delight audiences for a limited engagement from September 15-18. It sold out at Urbanite so you better get your tickets at freeFall asap.

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From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in ... (read more about this author)

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