Perhaps Suzanne Somers and husband-producer Alan Hamel had no idea when they scheduled “The Blonde and the Thunderbird” for its limited summer run on Broadway that they’d be following the opening of another solo show, “Primo,” by only a week. Comparisons are unfair but still, there’s nothing quite like a sober, searing reflection on the Holocaust to expose the shallowness in perky celebrity self-validation. Not that this unfortunate, chutzpah-driven vanity production requires much help on that count.
Self-absorption masquerading as self-exploration and self-irony, this so-called “one-woman musical joyride” chronicles Somers’ evolution from zero self-esteem to a level that’s surely off the chart, which might serve as a useful cushion when reading the reviews.
Striding onto the stage in a leotard with a combination of Vegas-style brassiness and 12-step motivational purposefulness, Somers asks, “If you had a chance to live your life all over again, would you live your life the same?” Revealing that this has been an obsession for much of her 58 years (pause for applause), Suzanne then promises, and delivers, the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is the short running time and pre-10 p.m. exit; the bad is everything between first entrance and final bows, except for an occasional climb into mediocrity. And the ugly? Those pants! Let’s just say a certain expression pertaining to dromedary hooves can never be far from the minds of those sitting down front.
Prior to striking sitcom stardom in 1977 as busty blonde Chrissy Snow in “Three’s Company” and then as a diet guru and Home Shopping Network queen, Somers endured a bumpy life — alcoholic father, teen pregnancy, failed marriage, abortive career starts, chronic debt, compulsive retail therapy, falling in love with a married man and, then later, battling breast cancer. But delivered by such a processed personality in TV vet writer-director Mitzie and Ken Welch’s ingratiating dialogue, these revelations summon less emotional involvement than the average “Oprah” couch confession.
It’s hard to invest in a child’s trauma at the hands of a drunken father who convinces her she’s stupid, hopeless and worthless when episodes from “the little white house, with the white picket fence with all the darkness inside” unfold merely as melodramatic preamble to a self-congratulatory account of where Somers is now. Even her infant son’s near-fatal accident and subsequent nightmares feel like minor detours on the road back to me, me, me and all my fascinating conquered neuroses.
In fact, the accounts of most of the major episodes that shaped Somers’ combative self come off as gratingly superficial. Reliving the discovery of breast cancer, she says: “Isn’t it ironic? I became known as the Queen of the Jigglies and that’s where the cancer hit.” Classy.
Solo on a stage dressed as if for a local-access cable talk show, with twin screens and a Barcalounger and coat rack as the only prominently featured items of furniture, Somers interacts less with the audience than with taped voiceovers. Her father and husband sound like Clint Eastwood impersonators, while the community therapist that taught Suzanne to toss away her “numbness cover” and take “self-inventory” has a ring of Sally Jessy Raphael.
Somers’ moment of clarity — that her self-esteem issues can be traced back to her father’s alcoholism and emotional abuse — comes a good hour after the audience has registered this fact. “I suggest you write about it, Suzanne,” intones her therapist. The subsequent long night of literary purging that follows prompts husband Alan to observe with booming solemnity: “Suzanne, this is a book.” We don’t learn who said, “Suzanne, this is a Broadway show,” thus denying the audience the chance to chase down that criminal and bitchslap them to the ground with an old Thighmaster.
There’s perhaps an inherent artificiality in every solo show of this type, and even in Billy Crystal’s far superior “700 Sundays,” slickness chafed against the introspective reflections. But that show was a model of sincerity and freshness — not to mention narrative shape — compared to this bargain-basement Vegas act. Only in a clip of Somers guesting on “The Tonight Show” do we see, via Johnny Carson, any glimpse of spontaneity.
Somers’ fleeting appearance in “American Graffiti” (in the role that lends this show its title) is recounted in mildly amusing style, while the controversial meltdown of relations between the Somers camp and ABC over “Three’s Company” is here pitched as a principled feminist battle for equal footing and salary.
And then there are the songs. These include standards with jaw-dropping reworked lyrics, such as “If You Knew Suzie” (“She loves to giggle/And wag and wiggle/Wo, wo/Holy Moses, she can jiggle”); a kiddie-voiced “If I Only Had a Brain” that aims for pathos and fails; a bizarrely vulgar modeling ditty (“Sling forward/Shoulders back/Think little walnuts in my little butt crack”); and the entirely unearned emotional crescendo of an 11 o’clock number lifted from another show: “Fifty Percent,” from “Ballroom.” Somers can more or less carry a tune but musical producers will hardly be beating down her agent’s door.
Oddly, the moment in the show that feels truest is when, near the final curtain, Somers wheels out a cart laden with her Home Shopping products, from pajamas to self-help tomes, waffle irons to cowboy boots, cover-your-butt T-shirts to lift-your-butt jeans. Hawking these low-rent-Martha Stewart wares (the proceeds of which presumably are bankrolling the show) like a cute but crass market vendor, Somers reveals more of herself than in any of the supposed soul-dredging that’s come before.
In answer to Suzanne’s question, if I had my life to live over, I’d assign this show to another reviewer.