by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
A special treat for Jacksonville theatergoers opened a six-performance run on Wednesday February 29 at the Wilson Center for the Arts. Playwright Rupert Holmes’ tribute to the genius of the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen will run through Sunday March 4 at 2:00 PM.
This show was nominated for a Tony Award in 2003 for Best Play. The late Academy Award winning actor Frank Gorshin played George Burns and received high marks for his performance. Gorshin had appeared at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre just a year or two before his Broadway success. The understudy for the Broadway debut was Joel Rooks who has since done the role all over the country, and is now at the Wilson Center in this marvelous one-person show.
The play opens in a simple setting, with a dining room table and chairs to the far left and two easy chairs to the far right. Mr. Rooks is center stage as he, as Burns, has a short conversation with God, who asks Burns to do a recap of his life before entering the pearly gates.
For the next ninety minutes, Rooks takes us down memory lane, starting with the early life of Burns in New York and his desire to be a performer, at first as a song and dance man, who later moves into comedy. To augment his words, the back of the Wilson Center stage is used as a multi-media screen, and we are treated to photos of early New York, photos of the young Irish actress who became Gracie, at first his on-stage partner, and after a prolonged courtship, his wife, and to many brief videos of their radio and television shows. Actress Didi Conn provided the voice of Gracie Allen as she converses with George and adds observations about their life together. And we hear the famous closing to all their shows which Burns would end by saying “Say Good Night Gracie,” and Gracie would respond with a lighthearted “Goodnight.”
The Dual Critics are old enough to have seen and to remember Burns and Allen, but we both learned many fascinating things about the personal life of this beloved comedy team. For example, did you know that Burns gave up his first job in a candy store at age seven to form a musical quartet called the Pee-Wee Quartet? That Gracie, as a joke, once ran for President against Roosevelt on the ticket of the Common Sense Party and actually received 44,000 votes?
For those of you not old enough to have seen this classic comedy team, it is a fast-paced and entertaining education about the vaudeville, radio and TV world in past years. After Gracie’s death in 1964, Burns went on for another thirty-plus years as a performer, most notably winning an Oscar in 1975 for his performance in “The Sunshine Boys,” and appearing in the prestigious role of God in three later films.
Joel Rooks had all of us almost believing it really was George Burns up on that stage, holding that always present Burn’s cigar, and bearing a remarkable physical resemblance to the esteemed comic who lived to the age of 100. His voice and gestures truly looked like the old master himself. We highly recommend this show for everyone. Young folks who want to learn something about the fine art of comedy should certainly see this comic gem.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see this Broadway quality production. Order tickets at www.artistseriesjax.org or call 904-632-3373.
SAY GOODNIGHT GRACIE
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM