Bea Arthur’s one-woman show, “…And Then There’s Bea,” which began its 26-city tour at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, got off to a shaky start when, on opening night, the 77-year-old star took a wrong step and ended up in the orchestra pit. Things were running smoother the next evening, and Arthur even joked about the wrap around her swollen ankle. “… And Then There’s Bea,” however, may need more serious triage if it’s to find its footing before winding up in New York next year.
Arthur’s performance, a hit-and-miss melange of showtunes and showbiz schtick, is delivered cabaret-style, with co-creator Billy Goldenberg tinkling anonymously on a piano and occasionally serving as straight-man.
Arthur is a statuesque stage presence, insofar as she is stationary for pretty much the entire show. That, combined with her acidic persona, does little to build rapport with the audience; indeed, “…And Then There’s Bea” occasionally feels like Norma Desmond’s farewell tour.
Nevertheless, Arthur hits an early peak with “Pirate Jenny” from “The Threepenny Opera.” Arthur originated the role of Lucy Brown in the U.S. premiere of Brecht and Weill’s play, and the song still suits her; there’s more than a hint of meanness in her demeanor. When Arthur slips into less edgy standards — Irving Berlin, Cy Coleman and the Gershwins all have survived worse — the show begins to feel like something you’d catch at an airport cocktail lounge between flights. The low point, certainly, is Arthur’s version of Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changin’,” which, delivered as a political torch song a la Judy Garland, is simply embarrassing.
Arthur fills the space between songs with anecdotes from her long career — mostly catty swipes at fellow actresses. She reveals, for instance, that Angela Lansbury has a mouth like a sailor, which, though probably not true, is funny to imagine. Arthur scores points for bawdiness (she has a pretty comprehensive sailor’s vocabulary herself), but too often her material feels recycled. Instead of telling her own story, she resorts to second-hand jokes and rambling, pointless bits about famous people she’s known.
Arthur explains during the course of her performance that she means to stay away from autobiography. But that’s also the show’s greatest weakness: Arthur reveals so little of herself that “…And Then There’s Bea” becomes nothing more than an excuse to trot out her showbiz credits. It’s likely to delight fans of “The Golden Girls”; to the rest of the population, it may seem an exercise in vanity.