In an age when nothing piques popular curiosity quite like a glimpse of Suri Holmes Cruise or a fresh Brangelina development, it’s appropriate that the new Broadway season’s first entries are both concerned with celebrity mythomania. But the two shows couldn’t be more distant in tone. “Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway” ferociously airs the gnarled cabaret duo’s jaded view that we’re all going to die, so bring it on. But in his winsome musical showcase, “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me,” the comic cheekily embraces his own death as an avenue to greater glorification.
Essentially a solo show with sparkling comedic and vocal support from an additional cast of five — including composer and co-conceiver Marc Shaiman, an engaging stage personality, bouncing and squirming with glee at the piano — Short’s wildly embellished self-celebration makes a virtue of the glib smugness that’s almost a prerequisite of the form.
Despite a similar fascination with fame, his faux sincerity is entirely different from, say, Sandra Bernhard’s — the style here is more benign and ingratiating, less sardonic. But that’s not to say it’s a toothless session of ego massage and celeb satire.
Short’s irreverent riffs on stars past and present are matched by a refreshing refusal to take himself too seriously. Given that you can’t switch on an awards show without someone gushing, “I am so-oo blessed,” it’s funny to witness a star conceding upfront that a life of success and happiness is a yawn for everyone else. Hence the need to invent a dysfunctional past and concoct a brush with mortality. “A lot of what I’ll be telling you will be true,” Short offers. “A lot I’ll be making up. See if you can tell the difference.”
Despite some memorable film appearances, Short was arguably at his best on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” That background is apparent in the sketch-based nature of his book for this show, co-written with playwright Daniel Goldfarb (“Modern Orthodox”) and with additional material by vet “SNL” scribe Alan Zweibel, who undertook similar duties on Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays.” As in all skit shows, the material is inconsistent, but here it’s on the mark more often than not.
In the song “Babies,” we get Short’s birth and instant breast fixation; in “Don’t Wanna Be Me,” he escapes his supposedly abusive father (shades of Suzanne Somers’ embarrassing solo show) into the fantasy of TV talkshow stardom. In “Ba-Ba-Ba-Bu-Duh Broadway!” he leaves Canada to conquer the Great White Way; in “Sniff, Sniff,” he succumbs to the coke-fueled hedonism of the Studio 54 era; and in “Twelve Step Pappy,” he emerges from rehab as a showbiz survivor, with an explicit nod to “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”
The outrageous fabrication taking place is exposed when Short’s brother, Michael (Brooks Ashmanskas), objects from one of the theater’s boxes during a family Christmas recollection that father wasn’t an actor, mother never smoked, they didn’t have a sister, and they’re Jewish. “His own meshpucha!” he fumes. (In reality, Short is a Catholic of Irish descent.)
More than revealing anything about Short, these setups often serve to lampoon musicals in “Forbidden Broadway” style or send up celebrities. Short’s alleged triumph in a show called “Step Brother de Jesus” skewers “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair,” complete with mock full-frontal nudity. His abortive auditions are recalled, first for Tommy Tune, then Bob Fosse. Covering both roles, Ashmanskas is especially hilarious as Tune, wearing stilts and white bell-bottoms, affecting a fey Texan drawl as he struggles to cross his elongated legs atop the piano.
Among Short’s star takes, his Elizabeth Taylor is just OK, his shaky Katharine Hepburn is better and his sonorous-voiced Richard Burton is best of all. He frequently and generously allows the spotlight to linger on his co-stars, giving ample space, for instance, to priceless Mary Birdsong’s spot-on Judy Garland in ersatz “Wizard of Oz” pic “The Farmer’s Daughter.”
Birdsong and Nicole Parker score some of the biggest laughs with a roster of impersonations, nailing Jodie Foster, Renee Zellweger, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Ellen DeGeneres and Joan Rivers, among others. Some of these figure in the search for a replacement star when Short ends up in a lightning-induced coma after inviting God to strike him dead.
While the show has been tightened into one act since its first tryout stop in San Francisco, this exploration of Short’s demise and contemplation of the ensuing tributes are stretched a little thin. Despite developing something closer to a narrative, this section marginally deflates the show’s balloon after a buoyant first half. It does, however, serve to accommodate Short’s fawning interviewer Jiminy Glick, who descends on the hospital like a celebrity ambulance chaser. (The audience recruit for this seg at the performance caught was a very sporting Tracey Ullman.) Another of Short’s stock characters, Irving Cohen, appears as a bawdy angel in heaven.
Songs by “Hairspray” team Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who does a tidy job directing) are witty and tuneful, capped by Capathia Jenkins’ “Stop the Show,” which neatly ribs the musical trend of “a big, black lady” bringing down the house with an obligatory 11 o’clock number.
Mirroring the inflated cast, production values also improve on the standard solo-show look. Scott Pask’s sets alternate cartoon backdrops with a Jerry Herman-esque staircase, affording Short an entrance both vainglorious and self-deprecating. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are entertainingly daffy, as is Christopher Gattelli’s pastiche choreography.
If there’s a slight feeling of insubstantiality since the show never really abandons jokiness to expose the man behind the performer centerstage, Short nonetheless delivers a good time. He keeps tongue planted firmly in cheek while offering celebrity self-love and shamelessly insincere soul-searching.